Selected Poems

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1901

Austin Clarke is not well-known in America; few Irish poets after William Butler Yeats are. Perhaps Yeats casts too long a shadow in Irish verse, or perhaps the peculiarly local characteristics of much Irish poetry create too much distance between most American readers and the poets. At least in the case of Austin Clarke, this may be a major reason for relative anonymity in this country. Thomas Kinsella observes in his introduction to Clarke’s Selected Poems, “it is as though Clarke courted obscurity. For a considerable part of his publishing life, it was his custom to issue tiny pamphlet editions of his work from a private press, making no attempt to distribute them beyond a few book shops in Dublin.” Definitely Clarke’s range of interests is narrow, which implies a sense of limited audience. Consequently, even his best poems are likely to prove unappealing to many readers, who might find the work antique in places. But Clarke’s poems vividly present a sense of modern Ireland, with a detailed locality far more realistic on the whole than the romantic image depicted by Yeats. For this reason, if for no other, Clarke deserves greater attention from a wider reading public.

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Liam Miller, at the Dolman press in Dublin, has sought to gain that wider audience for Clarke, publishing the poet’s work through an extended program. Shortly after Clarke’s death in 1974, his Collected Poems appeared, a book of close to six-hundred pages, subsequently printed in three paperback volumes. Now, with the Selected Poems, a more manageable grouping of the poet’s better poems may receive attention, especially from readers interested in the Irish poetic tradition as it emerges after Yeats.

At times one is delighted with this book. When a wealth of details sheathes keen and lucid satire or reveals a ribald narrative, it is with pleasure that readers will follow Clarke’s rambling lines of thought. At other times, however, details and ramblings are distractions leading to frustration, a sense that something is missing or, worse, that too much has been included. While this volume is an attempt to present Clarke’s work at its best, even the best must be judged as uneven, with flawed poems alongside strong and entertaining poems. When Clarke becomes the satirist, he is penetrating. When he investigates sexuality, his poems are dynamic, full of vigorous humor that transport the reader to mythopoetic realms where humanity is measured by its passionate embrace of carnal love. These are not constant traits in his poetry, however, and his development to poetic power is slow in coming.

Certainly the early Clarke was mired in tradition and the Irish locale. Poems from Pilgrimage and Other Poems (1929) have historical and legendary bases. Irish place names are abundant, and references to particular events give the reader cause to refer to notes, both Clarke’s and Kinsella’s. As with the early Yeats, Clarke shrouds his early poems in romantic mystery and the mist of old Ireland, being driven by indomitable urges to recapture what twentieth century Ireland sees slipping away. Characteristic of these poems is “The Young Woman of Beare” which creates a legendary figure, though Clarke tells us in a note that “the episodes of this allegory are fanciful.” She is the wanton temptress, the woman disdained by decent Irish folk:

I am the dark temptationMen know—and shining ordersOf clergy have condemned me.I fear, alone, that lordsOf diocese are copedWith gold, their staven handsUpraised again to saveAll those I have corrupted:I fear, lost and too lateThe prelates of the church.

Strikingly sensual passages evoke the image of a woman envied by others as she enjoys sexual pleasure and reaps monetary reward from the likes of a “big booted captain.” She can enjoy “what is allowed in Marriage,” but hear the murmurs of men and women as they return from devotions. Ever-present piety remains a dim backdrop that colors her speculation. Clarke’s juxtaposition of sexual liberty and righteous behavior is not unique to this poem.

Throughout his early work there is frequent reference to the dominance Catholicism exerts in Ireland; conflict between strict dicta and libertine urges frequently pushes the voices in these poems to rebellion. It is clear that Clarke prefers the chance of possible damnation to celibacy. Furthermore, he recognizes and abhors the pain the church judgmentally inflicts, the anguish in those who violate moral codes but still feel their pressures. Poingnantly, “Her Voice Could Not Be Softer” registers this pain:

Suddenly in the dark woodShe turned from my arms and criedAs if her soul were lost,And O too late I knew,Although the blame was mine,Her voice could not be softerWhen she told it in confession.

Other poems from Night and Morning (1938) are particularly heavy with dissatisfaction and wrestling to find freedom. Some satirize the deadening effect of religion as a replacement for life. Some glimpse a release from all this.

Such conflicts hampered Clarke, as did too-close allegiance to historical modes. Dissatisfaction with his work may have caused him to avoid poetry for a time; other concerns also interfered to draw him away. In any case, it was not until 1955 that he published another volume of verse. Significantly, with Ancient Lights the religious grappling in the poetry is lessened, indicating that questioning on matters of conscience was resolved to a great extent. A satirical tone with outright antagonism toward Church influence results. “St. Christopher,” a poem from Too Great A Vine (1957), ends with the penetrating question:

Fabulist, can an ill stateLike ours, carry so greatA Church upon its back?

Clarke’s answer, a defiant no, resounds.

But even as conflict is resolved, new problems, evident in poems from Flight to Africa, enter the poet’s work. Tangled wording, too-frequent rambling to record details, numerous and often obscure allusions to Irish literary and political history—all confront the reader with difficulties, sometimes insurmountable. Often, with new energy, a force not apparent in earlier poems, Clarke experiments with subject matter and technique. At time rhyme is too conscious, but at other times, especially in the shorter poems, rhyme lends joviality to content and creates an air reminiscent of Yeats in the “Crazy Jane” poems. “Our Dumb Friends” presents a hilarious image of canine sex-life, with the hilarity heightened by the use of rhyme. Almost avoiding rhyme, an experiment with technique produces quite a different mood and image in “Japanese Print” where the reader recognizes an intense visual experience; quiet embedded in Oriental aesthetics is created by sparse detail, an effect Clarke rarely attempts. In contrast, poems such as “Son of the Books” are catalogs where rhyme only emphasizes plodding details. In another vein, “Cypress Grove” exhibits Clarke’s penchant for description, providing more details than the reader can possibly encompass as he follows the flight of a raven only to find the poet commenting on the loss of an elegant past through ravages of urban development. Rambling as he does, Clarke never fails to provide vivid images, though connections between these images are occasionally difficult to fathom, and rhyme may prove distracting.

Positive applications for Clarke’s rambling, rhyming, and meticulous attention to detail are most readily seen in “Mnemosyne Lay in Dust” (1966), a sustained narrative of an amnesiac’s sojourn in St. Patrick’s Hospital, an institution for the insane. Maurice Devane is the central character to whom the inhabitants and administrators of this lunatic asylum were revealed. Clarke varies structure and tone with delightful results as Maurice observes his fellow inmates at their imbecilic occupations; hints of satire and ribald humor are woven throughout the narrative.

“Mnemosyne Lay in Dust” is Clarke at his best to this point in his career. What precedes the narrative in the Selected Poems lacks the sustaining force and usually lacks the ease of movement with which the reader is carried toward Devane’s sudden release from St. Patrick’s and the loss of memory. In “Mnemosyne Lay in Dust” there is cause for meticulous detail, and rhyme fits easily into the absurd context without the sense of strain evident in earlier poems. What follows “Mnemosyne Lay in Dust” shows a continued sense of ease, though there are occasional signs of earlier troubles reappearing.

The outstanding features of the later poetry are Clarke’s ribald treatment of sex as he recasts tales from Greek and Irish mythology, and his clear wish that poetry be entertaining. Satire is still a vital element in some poems, Irish social comment still has its place, and Clarke cannot refrain from rambling, but all these aspects are subsumed by a definite lightheartedness missing from the earlier work. Even where wordplay is a bit strained, as with “In the Rocky Glen,” the poem’s vivid impact is heightened by such rhymes:

How could I have guessedI would be the guestOf the god, that his missile would glowOnce more in the country of WicklowAs I lay in bed,Bow-twanged, ready,That soon with Molly besideMe, ache would be mollified?

Two other explicity sexual poems, “Phallomeda” and “Amor Augustus Domi,” show the sharply contrasting methods with which Clarke treats this subject.

But of poems treating sex, “Tiresias” is, without a doubt, Clarke’s finest achievement. In the poem, based on a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the seer is asked by Jove to:

speak now and be fearless.Did you enjoy in the consummatory moments of lovemakingGreater bliss as woman or man?

Tiresias, after prompting, recounts his experiences, his affairs with women and men as man and woman, but the initial question is never answered. What is revealed is the complex bounty of human relationships, the entwining affairs of the heart and history as perceived by Tiresias. Clarke captures the flavors of past and present, exploring the strange mythological event with a modern perspective, giving the old tale new meaning in an emotional and sensual revision of ancient symbols. Vivid images, lucid diction, and occasional satiric turns energize the poem, creating a lasting impression of the seer’s humanity.

This devotion to man’s humanity is, finally, what makes Clarke’s later work succeed. Men seek entertainment, and in the current era sexuality plays an increasingly large role in men’s entertainments. Clarke’s resolution of early conflict with the Church depended on bursting ingrained, repressive attitudes toward sexuality that he saw limiting him and his society. The result of that bursting is entertainment able to represent sexuality as a natural by-product of humanity, poetry that explores the jovial aspects of life, that presents the creative urge at its purest level but in contexts of ancient origins and modes.

If at times Clarke’s modes seem anachronistic to current readers, if at times he seems to be “a garrulous rambling old Irishman,” he will certainly, at other times, provide enjoyment in the Swiftian vein where ribald humor and essential detail excite the imaginative fancy. Though the Selected Poems will frustrate and disappoint some readers, particularly in its early selections, it will surely provide ample opportunity for readers to laugh at the jest of life once Clarke takes up the representation of that jest as his major concern. To be sure, there are many shadows in this work, places where light is blocked by rough edges protruding in the poetry, but where Clarke successfully follows the beam of laughter, his illuminations will show the bright landscape into which Irish poetic tradition has emerged.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12

New York Times Book Review. September 19, 1976, p. 6.

Saturday Review. IV, October 2, 1976, p. 36.

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