Interview de Harry Clifton

Michèle DUCLOS

(Université de Bordeaux III)

Au printemps 1996, le poète Harry Clifton (avec sa femme, la romancière Deidre Madden) a été l’invité, comme << poet in residence ››, du Centre régional des lettres d’Aquitaine et de l’université de Bordeaux III. Un choix de ses poèmes, traduit par le collectif de traduction littéraire du Groupes d’études et de recherche britannique (GERB) de cette même université, a donné lieu à une publication – bilingue – par les Presses universitaires de Bordeaux (1), sous le titre Le Canto d’Ulysse.

Harry Clifton a accepté de répondre aux questions suivantes :

Can yon give some information on yourself and your work ?

The principal point of information in relation to my work is that, althoug born and reared in Ireland and with a strong nationalistic background on my father”s side of the family, I have spent at least half my adult life elsewhere, perhaps because of South American ancestry and the need to complete a personality only part of wich is reflected in Irish society. So in my poems there is a constant bipolarity, between Ireland and elsewhere, North and South, id and consciousness etcetera, Which I have perhaps cultivated in preference to the more traditional “rootedness” usually associated With Irish poetry.

Do you write other types of work than poems ?

The extreme subjectivity of poetry means that, at a certain point in life, most poets _ and I am no exception – will Wish to stand outside themselves, to see themselves objectively, in the context of their times, so to speak. That is why I, like others, have turned temporarily to fiction, though always as a secondary mode. Again, the solitude of the poetic life needs to be diversified by the gregariousness of entering into contemporary debates, or debates with the Whole poetic tradition – hence criticism, which I also write. For a poet, though, both fiction and criticism are really a kind of ground-clearing, a clearing of space in which new poetiy may happen.

You do not seem intent on translating other poets, as Eliot did with Saint john Perse, or Derek Mahon from the French or Irish poets from the Gaelic. ..

To travel and change countries as much as I have means, in the end, to consider oneself a citizen of one`s own language rather than any particular place. Therefore, wherever I am, immersion in my own language is a way of protecting my identity. Immersion in other languages, through translating activity for instance, would threaten that identity.

The bilingual volume of your poems is entitled Le Canto d°Ulysse. This most likely alludes to your protracted stays in Africa, Asia, Europe, but probably also to Pound and joyce ?

The title of my bilingual volume The Canto d ‘Ulysse was chosen because it seemed to unite two principal strands in the poems collected in that book, namely love and travel, or the search for experience, which are Ulyssean motifs _- and also perhaps because the Ulysses theme, through Joyce, has a specially Irish resonance. The title poem of the volume is an attempt to celebrate the consequences, and to an extent the risks, of an “Ulyssean” life.

Have you been contemplating writing a long poem like Pound, Montague, William Carlos Williams or Kenneth White ?

The dynamics of a long poem are nearer to fiction than to lyric poetry. As a lyric poet, I prefer concentration to extension. If I wished to introduce elements of character, plot or psychology into a text, I would probably choose fiction rather than a long poem. A long poem today is usually an assemblage of lyric fragments anyway.

Your verse is both free and rhymed. You insist on the importance of form. Do you consider yourself experimental, traditional, romantic ?

Although I grew up in a culture where the formal poem was paramount, I was excited to discover at university the whole spectrum of twentieth-century American poetry, from the absolutely free to the classically formal, and made it my ideal to the able to move freely between the two, in the manner of, say, Elizabeth Bishop or Theodore Roethke, though always, I hope, maintaining the tension of the original experience.

The East has influenced contemporary Irish poetry, either in content or in form. What about you ?

Although I lived in the Far East for two years, and wrote a number of poems about The East, in no way could I say that Eastern elements, either of poetic technique or of spirituality, have influenced my work. I have remained, wherever I travelled, an essentially “Western” poet – for better or worse. My poem “Death of Thomas Merton” in the bilingual book most nearly exemplifies what I mean about being Western in an Eastern context.

Do you understand Gaelic and how do you stand concerning Irish culture ?

I grew up in a recently-independent Irish state which forcefed Gaelic to its schoolchildren in the (government-inspired) hope of consolidating national identity. For me and for many others, this led only to a resistance to the language and a distancing from Gaelic culture as a whole. On the other hand, Irish writers in English have been important to me at various times, notably Joyce and Kavanagh for their sense of place, and Beckett for his placelessness.

Who are the poets (Irish, English, French…) you willingly acknowledge a debt to ?

There are two types of indebtedness in poetry, technique and vision. When I was first trying to write poems (made objects) rather than poetry (subjective adolescent gush), the work of Thomas Kinsella helped me toward a right relation between word and object, a simplicity I could build upon ever afterwards. At the same time the celebratory vision of poets as different as Patrick Kavanagh and René Char is something I have worked towards all my life, with far greater difficulty.

Both Ted Hughes and Kenneth White consider the poet to-day should assume a shamanic function in his society. How do you stand by this form of commitment ?

I don”t believe that poets, either as shamans or otherwise, have a “function in societyl. They do, however, stand between what is social and what is non-social, pointing to the latter, and in this sense they are shamans, if by shaman is meant an intermediary between the human and the non-human. In this sense Ted Hughes and Kenneth White, pointing as they do to animal or geophysical forces beyond human society, are shamans. But poets, like shamans, are only intermediaries, never leaders. As soon as leadership enters the picture, you have corruption.

Etudes urlandaises – Printemps 1998 n°23-1