Emon Grennan interview, with John HoppenthalerThanks for agreeing to do this interview, Eamon.
In On Poesy or Art, Coleridge calls art, “ the mediatress between, and reconciler of nature and man.” Your poems are most often set in nature, or they are contemplating nature and the speaker is working through his perception of what’s before him. There is often distance; as you say elsewhere, your speaker is often seeing these things through a window. As you put it in that interview with Ben Howard, “it's the sense of being apart from an experience but part of it at the same time, you know. It's a kind of border between things: it's just the voyeur in me in some ways.” We certainly see this represented in this installment of A Poetry Congeries in the poem “Natural Turns.” My question then is, in the literary sense, are you a “Romantic” poet?
Happy to share a few ideas, John. And thanks for asking. So, “Romantic poet.” Not really, though the Romantic poets have been in my bloodstream since I was quite young, at boarding school in a monastery in the middle of Ireland. But the high afflatus of the Romantics wouldn’t be my way, of course, as far as a use of language is concerned. And yet, with Wordsworth on the one hand—with his feelings of the natural world imbued with some sort of deeply spiritual(for want of a better word) force, energy, implication, vibration--and maybe Keats on the other—his exquisite sense of the purely natural and his discovering a language of sensuous immediacy, as well as his ability to see it all through a darkened glass of the merely mortal—I would feel, if not kinship at least a sense that what they did, how they wrote, what they saw and felt was always for me some sort of necessary nourishment, a kind of indispensable food for the journey. But as for my own work—in the little poem you mention, for example—I think I have a “natural” tendency towards meditation, a kind of quiet emptying into simple observation: “such quiet seeps in,” I say, and “the simple green settle of it”—and these phrases, I guess, suggest maybe something like Wordsworth’s wise passiveness or Keats’s wish to vanish into the sheer natural fruitfulness of Autumn, or maybe even Coleridge’s notion of “reconciliation.” But of course, I found some of that in Patrick Kavanagh’s verse too, and Seamus Heaney’s as well, and some of Bishop’s—and I wouldn’t want to call any of them simply Romantic. And of course Stevens—all the Keatsian notes in Sunday Morning and elsewhere. Maybe it’s something in my Irish Catholic inheritance too—one of the better leftovers….Bishop too—her pace of description, her patience, hesitations and certainties, all those were and are important.
In that same interview with Howard ( The Cortland Review, 2000), you say perhaps the smartest thing I’ve ever heard about the negotiation between lines and sentences: “I think of the sentence and the line . . . in this way: the sentence is the purveyor of meaning and the line is the purveyor of pleasure, and you move between pleasure and meaning, the forward movement of the sentence towards meaning and the retarding movement of the line towards pleasure, towards music. So it's very sexual, too.” I can’t wait to discuss this quote with my students! One way you tend to accomplish the “pleasure”—the withholding and the giving as we move from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, the buoyant ride down the page—is through your brilliant use of enjambment. One hardly—if at all—notices how long so many of your sentences are as they twine along the lines. In fact, each of the poems here are one sentence long! Why this choice, to privilege enjambment? What may be lost—if anything—by denying the end-stopped line equal time?
I like your own language in the question—“withholding and giving,” “buoyant ride down,”—very nice and very true. I’ve always loved the sense of the turn in any poem: it’s like a little syncopating shrug you might do dancing (though of course I can’t dance) or the slight hesitation you hear in a good drummer’s performance (no, I’m not a drummer!). It gives that sense of pause and ongoing at the same time. It’s almost tonal, somehow. And of course it’s got so much to do with breath. Long line, short line, mixed lines: no matter, the line’s our unit and the enjambment is how we keep it pliable, I suppose. And yes, I’ve always talked to my own students about sentence/ line association, and using the sexual (erotic?) metaphor seemed likely to tweak their interest (and, indeed, when I found it, my own). My formulation is probably too absolute in the distinction I draw, but it’s still useful, and it makes me look at a poem in a sort of bifocal way—seeing line and sentence conjoined in some enterprise, some action.
In another interview ( Kenyon Review, 2006), you speak of the distance you tend to try and maintain from contemporary culture, both here in the US and in Ireland. You say that you have not directly dealt with the troubles or any other political issues. But you also say, “We are responsible for language. That is our political responsibility, to do what we are doing carefully enough and try to register the world as we know it.” I guess I want to ask you that question with which we’ve all had to grapple, at one point or another; that is, as Mr. Gioia put it: can poetry matter? Are we indeed, in some sense, Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world? That word, “unacknowledged,” always having been the rub, of course. We can “register the world” all we want, but to what end? Art for art’s sake or something more?
I don’t think any strong good art is ever art for art’s sake. There’s always a connection with the world, a connection that moves us towards depth, understanding, appreciation, realization, even towards an awakening. But poetry, while it can have direct bearing on the contemporary (lord, you only have to think of Yeats and “Easter 1916”, Heaney too, and lots of Americans from Whitman on, and so many modern and contemporary women poets ), is, for me anyway, an indirect art. The “contemporary world” has to affect me the way it affects anybody. But the poems tell that fact, if they engage at all, “slant”. It was Brodsky who basically gave me the formulation you mention there—responsibility to the language. Which was his simple, swift answer to the simple question, “what is the poet’s political responsibility?” When Auden said “Poetry makes nothing happen,” a much tossed about chestnut, he followed it with “It survives: a way of happening, a mouth.”” I like “a way of happening.” And while I haven’t engaged directly with the “Troubles” in Ireland, or with much of American political fact and consequence, there are still a few poems in there from early and beyond that do connect, somehow with such forces. I always feel/ think it’s some sort of question of “authority.” And not feeling much authority in those areas I remain cautious of going in swinging, as ‘twere. Oddly enough in the past few years I’ve been writing short “plays for voices” for a (very) little theatre I am part of in Ireland(it’s called Curlew Theatre Company, based where I live in Connemara), and the subject of some them is Irish history (Famine, Emigration, 1916). Sort of documentaries, but with a bit of attitude. So material I could never make poems out of has found its way into such pieces. As for poetry mattering. It matters to us who try to make it, teach it, think about it, and at often unannounced times in their lives it matters to lots of people, for one good reason or another.
I think—when we speak of Irish poets—perhaps any poets—we want to turn to landscape and its embodiment in a poet’s work. Of course, you’ve commented on this matter in various places and in various ways before; however, I find it fascinating to think about you as—as John Montague has dubbed you—a “Celtic amphibian” and your work’s relationship to landscape, so I’d still like to hear you talk a bit about it. And I guess, back of my mind, is Paul Muldoon, himself an Irish poet who, at this point, has lived in the US roughly half of his life. Maybe, in some ways, he seems to have taken more of the “American” into his poetry; he certainly has taken in more of the culture. I think, also, of what Bonnie Costello argues in Shifting Ground: Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry, that American poets, “Imagining and moving through the various landscapes . . . configure spaces that feature the sense of flux. Their poetics of adjustment teaches us to dwell on shifting ground.” In any case, can we think of this maybe in terms of terroir? That is, if Eamon Grennan were a fine wine, which characteristics seem to you “Irish,” which “American?” In what ways do these things even matter, if they do?
I feel (and I use the word deliberately, since I’m speaking now in a very instinctive, not necessarily very well thought out way) that my feeling of the Irish landscape, the one I live in when I’m there, the west coast (though I’m a Dubliner), has a different kind of vibration for me. It seems to have a greater degree of vertical depth, is more palpably “mine” I guess, than any American landscape would be. I suppose it reverberates with notions of “home.” That said, I’ve lived in this country for fifty years now (considerably more than half my life), and have lived in Poughkeepsie since 1974, and that is also, no question, “home,”—Rachel’s and my home, where we’ve had a family, and now grandkids. In the poems…I can hardly tell, would rather leave it to readers to figure it out. Truth is, I write about similar things, birds, trees, what I see around me in either place. (It could be a seasonal thing too—for the most part my return visits to Ireland while I was teaching were in summer holidays, for a month, two months, whatever, whereas I was here for autumn and winter and mostly spring.. Now that I’ve retired I manage to divide the time more equally between both places. Probably the most obvious thing to note is how different the actual “landscapes” in both places are. Here I live by the college in a town. There I live by a village by the sea and among mountains and rocky fields. A different kind of permanence, maybe. But I believe both places, when looked at through a particular lens, could be felt as “shifting ground.”
When I teach poetry writing—insomuch as such a thing is possible—I always make the case that poetry writing has more in common with painting or film-making than it does with prose—the show and don’t tell “Pounded” into those of my generation in our formative years, and I make the case that the sounds and rhythms of a poem—the music—are foundational. When I read your poems I find a poet who agrees with me. I assume, in your revision process, that you make it a point to revise toward these things. How much of the lovely music in your poems is the gift of a “good ear” and how much is the work of a craftsman? How do you fine-tune the “visual” aspects of a poem? What else do you revise toward in your revision process?
Well I love all sorts of music but in a purely non-professional way, and not in any educated way at all. And, yes, sounds and rhythms are what we’re about a lot of the time. Especially in revisions, as you imply too. So I don’t really feel I have any sort of “good ear,” in anything except a fairly rudimentary way—part instinct, I suppose, and part just banging away, nodding, listening. I should say, though I’m not sure it’s related, that when a poem might start for me (walking about in the morning or whatever, or in any situation), the start has to be some sort of speakable phrase, if you know what I mean. I mean I can have, like everyone, lots of “visionary” or “epiphanal” moments in a day or a night. But they don’t reach language until something that’s sayable responds to them. Just a line or something, a phrase. But something that sounds spoken. That’s probably a bit vague. And it’s true too that the opening that might happen in such a phrase doesn’t even have to be in the poem in the end. But it’s the trigger, the little lift. And it’s into language.
Thanks for the questions. They had me thinking.
Place Again (Renvyle)
Rain overnight so grass on its keen blades
shows off diamond after diamond and the
robin hidden in the fuchsia sings out the
same tiktiktik measuring my hour here as
when I first came to know this small
mountain-surrounded space and knew it
was for life that now is nothing but low
grey skies and lush green silences and
black handfuls of crows slow-flapping
over chestnut trees and purple masses of
bee-pleasing buddleia and everywhere
green disheveled fields raucous with
yellow ragwort and sunlight slicing
hill-slopes into green swathes of bracken
and rust-red zones where heather is
withering and every so often a cream-
white rock moves and is a sheep while
lark and wheatear complete the picture
except for how sky changes and conducts to
its own good tempo its cast of operatic clouds.
Daughter among Trees
Road traveled drink taken night slept away
you find yourself again walking between
the still-green hackberry and golden larch
and find her wake-walking towards you
by the red-bellied woodpecker trying to
hide itself in a dark hickory and she's slim
as a paper birch that’s learning to lean
into the breeze and so feel how far in this
one given growing body it can bend right
twist left and like any upright dancer
(for whom the music matters) sway.
Body Mass (after Pontormo)
Blank heads arms torsos faces
and all those ghost-white shapes
that turn Pontormo’s Certaldo
frescoes into allegories of absence
exposing what goes on in time
and how all living colour line
and texture of bodies (swish
of a wrist or the gleam off
rouged lips or the gravitas
in a calf flexing) endures
time’s airbrush so we are
in the end and after-effect
translated to white-out
phantom shapes through which
you may hear again breath
quickening then the interval
of silence to ache in then again
that amorous clamour as if
in the instant of pleasure pain
had married it and left nothing
but the sound of everything
making its own flesh-sense and
world changing for the better
though your body will be
hollowed to this white breathing
space this absence that only
memory may in time flesh out
the way Pontormo gave his bodies
vibrant bouyant melancholy life
till time took them turned them
into shapes of absence: white . . .
What’s scribbled in cursive Arabic on
the ice margin fashioned overnight
by frost at the drained lake’s edge is a
message that sends a great wavering
of geese wailing across this seamless
grey comfortless four o’clock sky
under which two reservoir swans are
a brightness not expected of the day
with their wakeful shining as beacons
each to each against December weather
as any couple might be when caught
out in a mist of misunderstanding and
mute as the swans who may only float
in silence and be aware each of other
leaning into the weathery edges of
the season and again feeling their own
known way (it's happened before)
breast-first through its frigid passage.
Where does it put all the bread it swallows—
this young blackbird that squats a rock
not far from the tiptoeing brindle-cat and
drives the garden mad with bird Morse
until (after a spattery rain-shower has
asperged the grass the ash leaves and the
shining skylight) such quiet seeps in
that you turn to keep an eye on things
beyond the rain-glazed window where
grass takes over the gravel path and
the birds seem easy with this natural turn
all has taken--the simple green settle of it—
while the young blackbird deftly swallows.