Poetry works well with detail. It has the ability to sharpen the focus on minute things, without the restless momentum of a novel or a song, which impels the reader forward. Poetry is more patient with us. It allows us to wait.
David Butler’s poem “Glassblower” is a perfect example. It’s a process poem which bathes itself in a rich pool of detail. And yet, it serves as a character sketch by proxy. Anyone who takes such care with his/her work, exercising judgement and skill to create something, can surely be considered an artist of sorts. Butler’s own art is breathed into shape via elegant imagery. Its metaphors are drawn from the natural world, sending our imagination to a beehive, a red sun and a sense of the mathematical (geometry). It creates a sense of awe, what the Romantic poets would call “the sublime”.
Of course, poetry can do much more than this. Although a recent article in the Irish Times erected arbitrary borders around it (read it here), poetry also has other functions. It can be political, personal, confessional. It can satirise, glorify or lament. Basically, poetry can be anything, restricted only by the poet’s own skill and imagination. David Butler’s poem shows us that it can also simply watch and describe quiet moments.
It is as though an incandescent swarm
has clustered, on a spindle of his breath,
to fabricate a hive
in the hot globe of amber.
The air is given hands,
cupping the molten bubble thrown out
by his steady lung, crafting
the dull red sun until it sets,
like a premonition of Winter,
into the fragile geometry of glass.
I've been writing poetry that I'm no longer embarrassed by since 2000, when Poetry Ireland Review published 'Swallows', which went on to win the Ted McNulty Award that year. Several other poems landed prizes over the next couple of years: 'Glassblower' won the LUAS/Tallaght Prize and 'Chartes Cathedral' the lucrative Feile Filiochta. It's a slow craft.
A decade passed before my inaugural collection, Via Crucis, was published by the now defunct Doghouse Press in 2011, another six before my second collection, All the Barbaric Glass, came out this March, courtesy of Doire Press (http://doirepress.com/writers/a_f/david_butler/). Again it includes some prizewinners: 'Solstice' won the Baileborough 2016, 'Depredation' the Ballyroan Library Award and 'Raithin an Chloig, Bray' the 2014 Phizzfest. I've also been immensely lucky to land a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission to produce a poetry sequence based around the Blackrock coastline, Dublin, a work in progress.
Outside of poetry I've had three novels published, the most recent of which, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year. A collection of stories, No Greater Love, was published in London by Ward Wood in 2013. But writing can be a solitary pursuit. To stay sane I've been acting, directing and (attempting to) write for theatre since 2010. Last year, my one-act Blue Love won a Cork Arts Theatre Writers Award, took 5 awards at the Bray One Act festival and was a winner of the British Theatre Challenge. RTE, meanwhile, are about to record my radio play Jealousy for their Drama on One spot. And a film group, NoWiFi, have just finished filming a short I wrote.
Does poetry have any special ability or importance in terms of simply describing, rather than commenting on or analysing, things?
Does poetry, or any art for that matter, ever simply describe? Poetry, I would say, has much in common with painting during the heroic era of early modernism, the era in which the materiality of the medium and partiality of the painter were brought to the fore. Language, the medium in which the poet paints or sculpts, is never neutral. As much as it denotes, it connotes. It is acoustically alive. It subsists in an echo-chamber of quotation and etymology. That’s why, as Frost famously put it, poetry is that quality which is lost in translation. In Glassblower, the various meanings of the verb ‘to set’ which concludes the piece are unavailable in any other language that I’m aware of. Again, the coherence of a poem depends on sound in the way a painting’s depends on colour. Alliteration and assonance are not, or are not merely, mimetic. Thus the ‘u’ sound running through cupping, bubble, lung, dull, sun has less to do with onomatopoeia than with what might be called the internal economy of the image. It’s a technique very much to the fore in the work of Sylvia Plath.
Your poem is very much one of a process. It’s a process that involves several steps. Are step-by-step processes important in poetry?
Absolutely! Poetry is a craft. And a slow craft. Ginsberg’s injunction ‘first thought, best thought’ has given license to a lot of sloppy posturing calling itself poetry. This is not to downplay the importance of spontaneity or the aleatory – what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘happy accident’. Found poems are as valid in their own right as the objet trouvé – in fact, that’s what Joyce intended by his term 'epiphanies'. That said, I often think of poetry as a distillation of language – a slow and repeated process of boiling and condensation until such time as the purity acquires a certain ‘proof’. Conversely, I’d be suspicious of a poem that doesn’t require slow and repeated reading.
I sense a touch of Heaney here, maybe because of his poem “The Forge”, which describes the work of a blacksmith (http://cropcirclers.blogspot.ie/2006/03/forge-by-seamus-heaney-all-i-know-is.html). Would you say there’s an influence here and/or on your work in general? What do you think poets can learn from him?
As an adolescent I read much Heaney. He was one of the Fab Four to whom I constantly returned, along with Hughes, Plath and Larkin. Particularly the Heaney of North, which remains for me one of the key texts in later 20th century Irish writing. Heaney has a fantastic ear, together with a lively interest in etymology. There is an obvious relish of unusual or local vocabulary. And his imagery has the clarity of Dutch genre painting that calls to mind Robert Lowell’s lines: ‘Pray for the grace of accuracy / Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination / stealing like the tide across a map.’ Later, although my German remains rudimentary, I found the same qualities in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Neue Gedichte. I think, if you trust in the image, in the care given to its representation, the meaning will look after itself.
Specialist skills – is the poet’s skill as specialist as that of a glassblower, or is it a lot more accessible to anyone willing to put in the time and effort?
Poetry is far more various than glassblowing. There are as many types of poetry as there are poets. Not all are to my taste, nor should they be. At the heart of the question I detect the old chestnut as to whether poetry, or any creative writing, can be taught. Appreciation can be taught, and appreciation is central to creativity. So, too, technique. Observation is critical. Also, patience. Talent, on the other hand, is largely innate. On the question of accessibility, poetry is often seen as elitist. Some of it is. The unholy marriage of poets living through academia and small university presses is nefarious in the extreme. On the other hand, the sung poetry of artists such as Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits has reached into millions of bedrooms…
Why do you write?
Without meaning to sound trite, because I have to. I do have other creative passions. I love painting and acting. I love cooking (honest!). I used to love lecturing, and still love tutoring. Where these remain pastimes, writing is a compulsion. When a week or more goes by without writing I feel nagging guilt, as though it’s a duty I’m scanting. That I’ve been lucky enough to have had much of my work published is one hell of a gift.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Read. Then read more. Reread. Read both widely and deeply. Read critically. Read out loud. Above all, reread your own work. Become (difficult, this!) an objective reader of your own work. Become, if at all possible, the most critical reader of your own work. Oh, and persevere. No glassblower ever produced a piece of glass by giving up!