Paul Durcan: A poet intent on mischief

by John Boland

‘Making Love Outside Áras an Uachtaráin’ was the mis­chievous title Paul Durcan gave to a poem that’s currently on the shortlist for RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland promotion and that, in a contest to be decided by public voting, could well end up as the nation’s favourite – Durcan really is that popular, even (or, perhaps, especially) among people who otherwise don’t care much for poetry.

And now, almost 40 years after those cheeky lines were written, the 70-year-old Durcan is still intent on mischief, poems in his new book bearing such titles as ‘The WB Yeats Shopping Centre’, ‘The Last Great Achill Island Volkswagen Beetle Protestant’ and ‘Irish Bankers Shoot Dead Fifty-Seven Homeless Children’.

That last is the most savage poem to be encountered in The Days of Surprise, and if the reader is only too aware that its targets are sitting ducks, the exuberance with which they’re blown out of the water is exhilarating, even if derision has replaced the anger that you’ll find in earlier Durcan responses to the venality, skulduggery and murderous inclinations of a country in which great hatred and little room can become all-too-easy companions.

Maybe he’s mellowing. Certainly some of the opening poems in this collection are touchingly elegiac as he looks back on the Dartmouth Square environs of his childhood, a terrain very familiar to this reviewer, who grew up on the other side of the Ranelagh Road and haunted the same streets and lanes.

But even here mischief breaks in: in ‘Other Boys’ Mothers’, he teases the reader with the notion of a priapic pre-teen unable to “keep myself out of the beds/Of the young mothers of my schoolmates”. Or could it be that he was really so precocious?

Elsewhere in these opening poems the mood is less playful. Down through the years, Durcan had already bared his soul, psychological difficulties and much else, both in poems and in the frequent radio slot with Pat Kenny that made him famous to a huge audience of which fellow poets, indeed even Seamus Heaney, could only dream (if our Nobel laureate ever indulged in such reveries of fame). And that urge towards self-revelation finds further expression in some of these new poems about early family memories.

In ‘First Mixed Party’, the young Durcan is confronted, the morning after, by his spluttering lawyer father, who doesn’t give him “an unmerciful thrashing,/Which would be his normal course of action” but instead is appalled that his son wore a black shirt to the shindig.

The father reappears no less ominously in ‘The Poet and the Judge’, in which his son invites fellow poet Michael Harnett back to the family home for a post-pub session only for the judge to confront the intruder and demand if he should not “be at home in your own bed”. The inebriated Harnett promptly scarpers.

Less fatherly figures can fare badly in these poems as well. In ‘St Peter’s Square, Sunday Morning, 27 April 2014’, the poet encounters a Benedictine monk whose “sadistic superciliousness takes me by surprise”, even though his “cynical arrogance, his omniscient vanity,/His amused misogyny, his bully-boy abuse” are recognisable traits of the “power-sated cleric of the twenty-first century”.

Nor is he any kinder when faced with a medical eminence in ‘Meeting the Great Consultant’ whose purpose is “to cause the patient maximum humiliation and stress” because “after all/He is a consultant and consultants do not consult,/Certainly not with a patient”. Indeed, like the Benedictine monk, he’s a “boorish, contemptuous, conceited bully boy” who has “just done me for 600 euro”.

There’s celebration here too, though, not least in ‘The Azores High’, a deliberately and amusingly over-the-top tribute to the allure of RTÉ’s female weather presenters, especially the eyelash-batting Jean Byrne’s talent for “revealing to you – and you alone – the state of the cosmos/Its innermost secrets, its most intimate details”.

There’s mischief, too, in the notion of President Higgins and wife Sabine “reading poetry to one another in order to stay sane”, while in ‘Breaking News’ he has the ghost of Seamus Heaney calling down the chimney to him: “Are you all right down there, Poet Durcan?”

All of this is great fun and in the public performances that have won for Durcan such a rapturous following, these new poems are bound to go down a treat.

Some readers, though, may wonder about his eschewal of rhyme and the other traditional metric formalities that they associate with the most memorable of verse. Indeed, you could retype many of Durcan’s stanzas into prose paragraphs without feeling that anything essential has been lost.

Does that mean he’s not a major poet? Well, he’s certainly a poet to be heeded in the Ireland of our age, unerringly alert to its foibles, venalities and pretensions and always on the side of decency. For such qualities, he deserves our gratitude.

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