Harry Clifton was born in Dublin in 1952. He studied at Blackrock College and later at University College Dublin. He was also an International Fellow at the University of Iowa. In 1981, he won the Patrick Kavanagh award. He has published seven books of poems and two books of prose. Le Canto d’Ulysse, his Selected Poems in French, was published in 1996. Secular Eden, his most recent collection, won the Poetry Now/ Irish Times award in 2008. He teaches at University College Dublin and is Ireland Professor of Poetry. The poems included here are from his new collection, The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, which will be published by Bloodaxe in May 2012.
The journey of the self, soul-making, is at the heart of Harry Clifton’s poetic enterprise. The ‘I’ of his early work, published between the years 1977 to 1992 and culminating in The Desert Route, is intensely private, watchful and wary. Night Train Through the Brenner, published in 1994, signals a radical change of direction. Love enters his life – he married Deirdre Madden – and the austere ascetic of the earlier books begins to try on new personae, begins to break out of his shell.
A deliberate decision to travel, to absorb and be absorbed in the various worlds (he lived for long periods in Africa, in Asia and on the European mainland) begins to pay handsome dividends. The diffident self-absorbed mask of the younger Clifton begins to fall away. He begins to forge a soul (yes, there are Joycean overtones).
In his introduction to The Desert Route, Derek Mahon described Clifton as being “among the poets who matter”, before going on to note that “there must be three things in combination before the poetry can happen, soul, song and formal necessity”. The “formal necessity” of Clifton’s recent poetry mirrors the shift in his own personality. His recent output witnesses a looser, more conversational diction, a mellowing of the rigour that defined the earlier work. His recent books are fine-tuned to the quotidian, “the music of what happens”. The much-lauded Secular Eden, for instance, published in 2007, is based on five notebooks of diary and observation. Keith Taylor, writing in Poetry Ireland Review 79, describes how in that book Clifton uses the form of the poetic sequence to “highlight contrasts between individual poems” rather than as an overly willed or programmatic unifying force.
There is a sense of inevitability about “poets who matter”, the sense of a journey that simply had to be taken, of a self that simply had to unfold, albeit through time and effort. Clifton is one of the few Irish poets who has deliberately put himself out there. He has ‘surrendered’ to the physical rigours of travel. He has adopted a variety of personae to chart the major social, cultural and political tides of the modern era, for example Kierkegaard, Montale, de Chardin, Martin Bormann, Hart Crane and Samuel Beckett.
Yet such personae are more than a stylistic tic. They allow him the scope and flexibility to test the his own speculations about and against accepted ideologies. He is especially scathing of forms of nihilistic secularism, the last of the holy cows and an ideology that arrogantly regards itself as absolute. For Clifton, such secularism is a divesture, a pilgrimage towards what he describes in ‘The Whaling Station’ as “the pole of pure unknowing”. Ascetic, if not austere by nature, he brings a traditional (some might say Anchorite) sensibility to his ruminations on modern Europe, that secular Eden, and dares to question belief systems that have come to be regarded as gospel.
The Desert Route: Selected Poems, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1992
Night Train Through the Brenner, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1994
Secular Eden: Paris Notebooks 1994-2004, Wake Forest University Press, North Carolina, 2007
The Winter Sleep of Captain Lemass, Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2012
On the Spine of Italy, Macmillan, London, 1999
Berkeley’s Telephone and Other Fictions, Lilliput Press, Dublin, 2000
Clifton at the Ireland Chair of Poetry
Clifton at the Bolldaxe Website
Clifton at Wake Forest University Press