Famous poet on her 80th birthday – The Irish Times


Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s remarkable career will be celebrated twice this week, ahead of his upcoming 80th birthday later this month. In a ceremony on Thursday, President Michael D Higgins will present the Golden Torc, marking his election as Saoi of Aosdána. On Saturday, a symposium at Trinity College Dublin will explore his work.

Ní Chuilleanáin’s contribution to the life of Trinity, where she taught English school for many years, was considerable. His fellowship includes pioneering research on a fascinating range of topics, from John Donne’s sermons to Maria Edgeworth’s fiction to Joseph Campbell’s Civil War prison diary. After the publication last year of his collected poems, however, the one-day event at Trinity will focus primarily on his poetry.

Through nine collections, starting with the publication of Acts and Monuments in 1972, an authoritarian and visionary poetic voice unfolded. Ní Chuilleanáin’s work undoubtedly poses challenges to its readers. These are rooted not only in the breadth and depth of his interests, but also in his poetry’s distinctive combination of the concrete and the mysterious.

In The Bend in the Road, from the 2001 collection The Girl Who Married the Reindeer, we seem at first to be in a simple memory of experience: “This is the place where the child / Felt sick in the car”. But then the poem shifts to the unsettling intimations of folklore and fairy tale, becoming a kind of condensed parable: ‘and they stood / And waited in the shade of a house. / A tall tree like a cat’s tail was also waiting. It is a poetic world of narrative words, of stories already begun and to be finished. Mysterious journeys and sequestered spaces always suggest that something is expressed in terms of something else.

Winner of numerous awards, from the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 1973 to the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2020, the significance of Ní Chuilleanáin’s work has in recent years become more visible to a growing readership in Ireland and abroad. ‘foreign. This has been accompanied by a subtle opening towards a more tangible sense of memory, history and place in its three most recent collections, The sunfish (2009), The Bluehill Boys (2015), and The parent company (2020). His energetic tenure as Irish Professor of Poetry from 2016 to 2019 was also engaging.

Published as Instead of a shrine (2019), the three lectures that Ní Chuilleanáin gave in this office shed much light on the ideas about poetry that underlie his work. The first focuses on the poetry of Pearse Hutchinson (alongside whom she co-edited the long-running poetry magazine figures for many years), her intense interest in the practice of translation is evident – a reflection which not only informed her vast activity as a translator (of Irish, Italian, French and Romanian poetry), but which is also at the heart of his own work.

A witty exploration of the slights to poetry in fiction in the following lecture turns into a far-sighted assertion that “poetry can reach its reader across cultural, temporal and national gaps”. Her broad poetic engagement with the rituals of religious life is also highlighted by the closing lesson’s sense of poetry as a fabricated ritual whose “greatest resource is negation, the ability to recognize yeses and non-contradictory of our experience, recording all that is missing”.

The event at Trinity will expand on some of the paths to his poetry opened up by these wonderful lectures. It will include speakers considering Ní Chuilleanáin’s engagement with readers and audiences, and with language and translation issues. Other contributors will delve into the influences that informed his work, such as his engagements with Renaissance literature and Catholicism. The event will also include a reading by the poet, as well as a panel of contemporary poets expanding on their answers below to the question of why the poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has meant so much to them for so long.

Cannon Moya

The poems of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin are characterized by what one might call “a pleasant unfathomability”, like a bottomless pit. There is an indestructible core to each of them. It leaves the reader feeling that, temptingly, there is always something more to discover or that may never be discovered.

Yet his poems have nothing of obscurantism. They are as down to earth as a folk tale and, from the first line, immerse us in a different but very recognizable world. They place us in an emotional space and take us on a journey. Allegory, myth, dream and euphemism are tools she uses with immense skill.

Key to its ability to capture its readers is the quiet sensuality of its language and imagery. When, in her first collection, she rests her head against the “vibrating crowns” of a small bridge in County Cork or, in her most recent collection, she rests her cheek against a limestone pillar, a remnant of the huge Morandi bridge collapsed in Genova, it triggers an emotional tuning fork. His varied and startling images draw us deeper into the precious tangibility, music and mystery of life. They remind me of what Denise Levertov said a poem should be: “direct as the birds say, hard as the ground, sonorous as a bench, mysterious as silence”.

Gerald Dawe

It was in the early 1970s that I first encountered Eilean poetry. Living then in Belfast while the city was torn apart, his poems seduced me. There was something otherworldly about them, but that went hand in hand with the poems of family life, his glorious sense of European culture and a fascination with the landscape: it was balm for a period. hard.

In all the decades since, the Eilean books have opened many doors to unforeseen insights with utterly unique and insightful storytelling. You can be transported through time and space as an image passes by, a momentary voice, a hypnotic song-like narrative that is indeed double sighted, as Seamus Heaney aptly described the verse. mighty of Eilean. It’s just to say that I have been seduced since.

Vincent Bois

Eilean is unique – there is no voice like his; there is an element of mystery in much of his poetry, the enigmatic woven through an almost simple clarity. We don’t always understand everything, but it’s a bit like life or a large painting or a piece of music. She creates in each poem complete worlds, autonomous and porous spheres, anchored and free.

There is a cinematographic sense of detail, precision of detail, image and language – languages. His translations from Irish are brilliant, his own poems in Irish are expansive and tender. I can’t speak for her translations from Romanian, except that the English poems are compelling and I’m convinced they honor and echo Ileana Malancioiu’s originals. Convincing and true, too, are his translations from Italian and French.

Eilean carries her erudition with lightness, she also carries it with strength and conviction – bad poems exist and are published, good poems can collapse.

We see his dedication and work ethic in the continued production and publication of figures, which continues to release the unexpected, the edgy, the voices and insights we may not get anywhere else. She is a generous supporter of other poets, a figure of integrity and a source of inspiration.

It’s a troupe: file fíor agus réalta geal.

Enda Wyley

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a spellbinding poet. She draws us into peculiar and particular imaginative settings of her own exquisite creation with such skill, such inventiveness, that she demands of us as readers a new way of seeing our world. For me, the best poems have an intrinsic mystery. They can affect us deeply in indefinable and memorable ways. His poems can often be read as unsolved enigmas – I am thinking for example of his enigmatic poem Swineherd. But it is a poetry that, for all its inscrutability, has never ceased to cast a strange spell over me, so that I feel endlessly inspired and imaginatively transformed.

She is a poet eager to go elsewhere – a spirited poet who courageously moves wherever her imagination chooses to go. Moreover, his work is vigorously supported by an expansive use of language, is alive with a surreal dynamism, a strikingly unexpected imagery, as in the poem Street, from his 1989 collection The Sermon of the Magdalen:

He fell in love with the butcher’s daughter

when he saw her pass in her white pants

swinging a knife on a ring on his belt.

He looked at the dark, shiny drops on the cobblestones.

His poems also oscillate between stillness and movement, and I love the artisanal shifts, both imaginative and cerebral, that take place in his work. As a staunch admirer of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry, I have always been more than happy to see time stretch and crumble, boundaries artfully dissolve, in her poems of a magnificence and of great mystery.

Tom Walker is Associate Professor at the School of English at Trinity College Dublin and one of the organizers of The Poetry of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin: A Celebration, a symposium to be held at the Trinity Long Room Hub on Saturday 19 November.

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