“Eventually simplicity is all, but life becomes more complex, demanding and disturbingly engaging the more fully we live it.” So Macdara Woods concludes his preface to his Collected Poems (Dedalus Press 2012), a book that gathers together almost fifty years of poems that explore the hard, hilarious, complex business of being alive in a world of savage wonder and glimpsed consolations. Rimbaud, John Jordan, and Patrick Kavanagh hover around the edges of this work, poet ghosts who are both invoked and honoured, and whose spirit of dedication and defiance colour the chords of Woods’s poetic voice. No other Irish poet blends so seamlessly a passionate love for other languages and cultures (Italy, Russia, Spain, Greece) and an acute observation of daily life at home (in Ranelagh, Dublin, Achill), giving us poems like ‘The Aspect of the Russian Verb’ where the shooting of John Carthy in Abbeylara, Co Longford in 2000 is juxtaposed with a lesson in Russian grammar.
Born in Dublin, Macdara Woods spent some of his childhood on his grandmother’s farm in Co Meath and credits this, and his mother Áine’s love of Irish and sean-nós singing, as formative influences. One of the four founding editors of the literary magazine Cyphers, Woods was a vital presence in Irish poetry even before the publication of his first collection, Decimel D. Sec Drinks in a Bar in Marrakesh, in 1970. The powerful mix of surrealism and jaded self-doubting reality in those early poems anticipates later styles and themes: a controlled gift for rhyme and an ability to sustain both long, meditative verse and shorter lyric pieces, a sometimes acerbic humour that can look aslant at love and hope, women and men, and the sometimes whole doomed kit and caboodle.
Always formally adventurous, Woods is one of a small group that Eva Bourke has termed “The Dublin Bay Poets”: with Pearse Hutchinson, Paul Durcan, and Leland Bardwell he brought news and noise of the larger world ringing into the pages and pubs of 1960s and 1970s Dublin, and shaped his own style that can look with equal ease to the glory of Gaelic poetry, the best of the Beats, and a few centuries of European poetry. The ten collections following his debut publication include Early Morning Matins (1973), Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh (1987), The Hanged Man Was Not Surrendering (1990), The Nightingale Water (2001), Artichoke Wine (2006) and The Cotard Dimension (2011). Linguistic, political and personal landscapes, individual struggle and survival are explored in poems by turns tender, angry, and always insightful, finding moments of enduring consolation in nature, in walks with his son, Niall. Nature mirrors man and poet and maybe consoles:
despite good sense
still holding on
maintaining flesh and feather
all downhill from here
but downhill we can walk forever
Macdara Woods’s poems have been praised by Sebastian Barry as ‘especially valuable for their resolved humanity’ while Bernard O’Donoghue has pointed to an essential balance in his work between an internationalising tendency to push the boundaries of poetry outwards and a rooted use of Irish language and tradition. Woods also balances the past and the imagined with gritty social and political issues (the treatment of immigrants in ‘Blessed Thomas of Prague’) and celebrates the occasional glory of being alive in a moment of light: “At Kabatas Pier/He steps ashore from Asia/Carrying lilies” (Istanbul Arrival).
Woods has worked with the composer Benjamin Dwyer, poems and music by both artists on the cd In the Ranelagh Garden. His poem ‘Fire And Snow And Carnevale’ was adapted by Brendan Graham as the song ‘Winter, Fire and Snow ’and is regularly performed by choirs in Ireland and the U.S.A.
Woods is married to the poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and lives in Dublin and, when he can, in Umbria. He is a member of Aosdána.
Decimal D. Sec Drinks in a Bar in Marrakesh, New Writers’ Press, Dublin, 1970
Early Morning Matins, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, 1973
Stopping the Lights in Ranelagh, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1987
Notes from the Countries of Blood-Red Flowers, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 1994
The Nightingale Water, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2001
Artichoke Wine, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2006
The Cotard Dimension, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2011
Collected Poems, Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2012
Woods's page at the Dedalus Press
Video of Woods reading three poems
Artist Rhona Byrne responds to Woods's poem ‘Overview’
Profile of Macdara Woods on Irish radio