On Valentine’s Day, five great love poems by Irish writers

A post about Seamus Heaney’s favourite love poem a couple of Valentine’s Days ago (before Heaney’s all too untimely passing) received a bit of interest at the time, and a steady flow of visitors to the blog ever since.

I forwarded the belief then that Irish writers might not be perfectly disposed to the art of the love poem, an art form which requires perhaps a loss of inhibition more straightforwardly associated with the English Romantics.

With the Irish writer (to risk accusations of grand generalisation) so much an outsider already – in themes or in actuality – would any have dared to write the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” except as a parody? Letting go of all inhibitions and declaring such undying love is to risk ridicule and excommunication from whatever small parish has not already disowned you.

But how naive and wrong could I have been? Irish poets do, of course, write love poems. They just do it in ways markedly different to summer’s days or red, red roses.

For the purposes of this post, I preferred to look to a couple of poets for whom worldwide acclaim might not be overly forthcoming. Yes, Yeats’s “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is rightly regarded as one of the great love poems, but everyone already knows that and there’s little to be gained from adding those particular verses here. No, instead let me take a look at a handful of poems that might not be recited easily from memory by people all over the world, and which deserve some sunshine on their shade.

On Raglan Road, by Patrick Kavanagh

On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.

On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.

I gave her gifts of the mind I gave her the secret sign that’s known
To the artists who have known the true gods of sound and stone
And word and tint. I did not stint for I gave her poems to say.
With her own name there and her own dark hair like clouds over fields of May

On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had wooed not as I should a creature made of clay –
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.

This is perhaps the best known of the quintet reproduced here, most likely because it was later famously put to song by the iconic Luke Kelly.

Having worked close to Raglan Road for a spell in recent years, I can attest that Kavanagh’s poem underlines his recurring theme of the blurred boundaries between the brilliant and the banal: Raglan Road is a fairly nondescript residential stretch in leafy Dublin 4, but to Kavanagh it transcended everything else as the place he first saw his love.

One suspects this is true in all love, and especially in love that has run its course and leaves one party pining for the past: the bridge where you shared a kiss, or the grey lecture theatre made colourful by the presence of your besotted, take on a significance after the fact that one might not fully appreciate at the time.

“The ledge of a deep ravine”: where the high is nothing without the low and the low nothing without the high.  If there is a better rendition of the first flush of youthful love in all literature than that, let me know in the comments. (Honestly. I’d love to hear it.)

Austin Clarke. (Picture via PoetryIreland.ie)

Austin Clarke. (Picture via PoetryIreland.ie)

The Planter’s Daughter, by Austin Clarke

When night stirred at sea
And the fire brought a crowd in,
They say that her beauty
Was music in mouth
And few in the candlelight
Thought her too proud,
For the house of the planter
Is known by the trees.

Men that had seen her
Drank deep and were silent,
The women were speaking
Wherever she went –
As a bell that is rung
Or a wonder told shyly,
And O she was the Sunday
In every week.

Within these 16 short lines is an entire world.

The turn of phrase stops you in your tracks. (Well, it stops me in my tracks, anyway.)

Her beauty “was music in mouth”, the men “drank deep and were silent”, she was “a wonder told shyly” or “the Sunday/In every week.”

Clarke both contributed to and benefited from the Irish school syllabus, having had a number of poems in the Soundings collection which served as the breeding ground for generations of young students. This is by far my favourite of those.

Paul Durcan (Picture via cultureireland.ie)

Paul Durcan (Picture via cultureireland.ie)

The Man with a Bit of Jizz in Him, by Paul Durcan

My husband is a man –
With a bit of jizz in him.
On Monday night in Sligo I said to him:
“Let’s go someplace for a week,
Before the winter is on top of us.”
He said: “Where would you like to go?”
I said: “Down south – west Cork or Kerry.”
He said: “Too much hassle.”
I said: “Where would you like to go?”
He said: “Dublin Airport early tomorrow morning.
I’ll drive halfway, you drive halfway.”
We caught the Aer Lingus Dublin-Nice direct flight:
180 Euro return.
Driving to Dublin he phoned his niece in Hertz.
He said: “I want a car in Nice.”
Hertz gave us a brand-new Peugeot.
Only thirty miles on the clock.
(If you’re over forty-five, they give you a big car.
If you’re a young fellow, they give you a small car
That you can go and crash.)
There’s only two ways out of Nice Airport –
West or East: simple.
At the first filling-station he stopped
And asked the way to St-Paul-de-Vence.
“St-Paul-de-Vence? Exit 48
And do not come on to the motorway again
Until you want to go back to Ireland.”
An hour later I was lying on a duvet
In a three-star hotel in St-Paul-de-Vence.
It was spotless. Spotless!
I was that pleased with him I shook his hand
And pulled him under the duvet with me.
An attractive middle-aged housewife I may be but
There is nothing to beat a man with a bit of jizz in him.

Durcan has one of the shortlisted entries in the current “A Poem for Ireland” contest, Making Love Outside Aras an Uachtarain, originally written in the 1970s.

I prefer this poem, published in one of his more recent collections, The Art of Life (2004), outlining the kind of tryst that is rarely documented in literature: that comfortable love between middle-aged married man and woman. As the novelist Tony Parsons wrote in Man and Wife, a story about an extramarital affair, the rueful narrator at one stage says (paraphrasing), “If I was going to have an affair with anyone, I really wanted it to be with my wife.”

“The Man with a Bit of Jizz in Him” is typical of Durcan: a snapshot of everyday moments, captured with precision and verisimilitude, scraping away the apparently banal to reveal its beauty.

Such mundanities -“I’ll drive halfway, you drive halfway” – might prompt the faithless to stray, but not here. Desire, so often of negative consequence, astutely drawn.

Love, by Eavan Boland

Dark falls on this mid-western town
where we once lived when myths collided.
Dusk has hidden the bridge in the river
which slides and deepens
to become the water
the hero crossed on his way to hell.Not far from here is our old apartment.
We had a kitchen and an Amish table.
We had a view. And we discovered there
love had the feather and muscle of wings
and had come to live with us,
a brother of fire and air.We had two infant children one of whom
was touched by death in this town
and spared: and when the hero
was hailed by his comrades in hell
their mouths opened and their voices failed and
there is no knowing what they would have asked
about a life they had shared and lost.I am your wife.
It was years ago.
Our child was healed. We love each other still.
Across our day-to-day and ordinary distances
we speak plainly. We hear each other clearly.And yet I want to return to you
on the bridge of the Iowa river as you were,
with snow on the shoulders of your coat
and a car passing with its headlights on:I see you as a hero in a text —
the image blazing and the edges gilded —
and I long to cry out the epic question
my dear companion:
Will we ever live so intensely again?
Will love come to us again and be
so formidable at rest it offered us ascension
even to look at him?

But the words are shadows and you cannot hear me.
You walk away and I cannot follow

Published more than 20 years ago now, “Love” received some welcome attention in recent years since being one of a number of Eavan Boland poems to be added to Ireland’s school Leaving Cert syllabus. (That’s always, always, always a good thing; some of my favourite pieces of writing – Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, Michael McLaverty’s “The Poitin Maker”, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – were first brought to me by the great Richie Ball at St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan. Indeed, literature’s potential as a joyous thing first became apparent within those walls. I owe it much.)

The poem references Virgil’s Aeneid and the poet’s husband is seen as “a hero in a text”. It reflects on a moment of blazing intensity – when love was young, the future was filled with uncertainty, a child was sick – and on love’s changing course through a life. Is one type of love less or more than another? Is it all part of a whole?

As Boland herself says (quoted on the school revision website Skoool.ie):

So much of European love poetry is court poetry, coming out of the glamorous traditions of the court…There’s little about the ordinariness of love.

“Love” examines both the ordinariness and extraordinariness, both of which are probably essential to real love.

Scaffolding, by Seamus Heaney

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

I could not finish without a poem from Heaney. I first heard this, as I first experienced so many Heaney poems, through the soothing lilt of his own voice, during (I believe) John Kelly’s soaring radio RTE Radio 1 documentary series Professor Heaney, first broadcast last year.

Read it aloud. Listen to Heaney’s rendition. Read it to your loved one this Valentine’s Day, or any day. Spectacular.

So many of these poems have first made themselves known to me in recent months and weeks. I am no poetry expert. Far from it. I am ashamed to admit that I’ve read so little, and there is so much phenomenal poetry that goes unheralded. Now is a good time for poetry, with Rick O’Shea’s The Poetry Programme and the A Poem for Ireland initiative bringing poetry back into the spotlight.

If you have your own favourite Irish love poems, please let me know in the comments. 

Shane

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One thought on “On Valentine’s Day, five great love poems by Irish writers

  1. I featured both the Clarke and Durcan poems on my Irish Poem of the Month page in the past – love them both! Your blog looks great – hoping to peruse a bit further, time permitting, in the meantime, please keep on going. 🙂

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