An Interview with Moya Cannon

Moya Cannon

I found Carrying the Songs a great introduction to your poetry. It displays the elegance of your poems, your strong, sensual connection to nature, and your musicality in both subject matter and technique. There is tremendous musicality in your poems and music is often a subject or symbol. It is obvious that you have a deep personal relationship with rhythm and sound. In “Violin,” you use musical instruments as a metaphor for people: “which welds dark and light into one deep tone, / which plays us, reluctant, into music.”  Other than the concertina, which instruments do you play, and when did you begin playing? How has your musical background influenced your poetry?


I can’t remember who said that every poet is a failed musician, and I do not know how true it is for others, but it is certainly true for me. I played a little piano as a child, a little guitar as a teenager, as so many people do.


I took up the concertina at the age of twenty-two, I think, and at the same time that I decided to try to write poetry. It is not so much, I think, that music influenced my writing as that they both answered the same hunger for beauty and meaning and also my need to make things. I had always read a great deal, and during my college years, although I had studied history and politics, I had begun to read a lot of poetry in translation. My mother had imbued me with a sense of the importance of and the pleasure of poetry. Also, during my college years, I had listened to a great deal of traditional Irish music, in addition to the folk music of the sixties and seventies. I think of the mid-seventies as a golden age for music, but in fact it was probably I who was at that golden age when you are completely receptive to, completely pervious to music, when the music you hear literally informs you – forms your inner spirit. I went through a couple of glum years when I left college, coping with a demanding teaching position and the gradual falling away of the student community of which I had been a part. I think that those post-college years can be quite tough for a lot of people. I remember asking myself, ‘Is there anything which you really enjoy?’ Poetry and music were high on the list so I decided to take music lessons and to go along to a poetry workshop in the Grapevine Arts Centre in Dublin. In many ways I think of music and poetry as different facets of the same art, the constituents of song. I continued to play the concertina for about twenty years. However, at that stage life became very busy, and I realized that I had limited talent as a musician. I had such fun, though, during those years and heard some amazing traditional musicians. I still listen to a great deal of music, mostly traditional Irish and classical. I think, I hope, that the years of learning to play has turned me into a good listener. Although it is, as Rilke says, ‘the language where language ends’, I cannot resist trying again and again to write about music, to try to divine how it succeeds in affecting us, in tracing our inner heart-paths, in plumbing our depths, in giving us solace.


Music is such an enormous mystery. It can appear so useless and yet it is so essential to our humanity. I love the fact that archaeologists have found a bone flute from 40,000 BC in the Hohle Fels cave in the south of Germany, an area where some of our earliest sculptures have also been found. It is as if our need to make something beautiful, to make beautiful sounds and to share them, is a central constituent of our humanity. Music was so important to us all as teenagers in finding direction as we emerged from that adolescent chrysalis. It is one of the most refined expressions of our  human culture and also one of the most primal.


In several of your poems, you describe the more remote locations in Ireland that few people ever see. You seem to have a particular appreciation for the wildest aspects of nature—those untamed by man. In “Thirst in the Burren,” you have a great image of the rocks that dominate the landscape: “Porous as skin, / limestone resounds sea-deep, time-deep, / yet, in places, rainwater has worn it thin / as a fish’s fin.” When and how did you develop this affinity for nature?


I grew up in a small village by the sea in north-west Donegal and was surrounded by natural grandeur. It was always there. My father had a great interest in the lore of place, the legends and folklore – in Irish, the dinnseanachas, – associated with place names.


My mother was interested in nature study and, although she had very little leisure as the mother of six children, she liked to tell us the names of wildflowers as we walked along. As a child and as a grumpy adolescent I spent hours beach-combing on Killehoey and the Silver Strand, the beaches beside our house, and I always came home with my humour restored. In many ways I think of beach-combing as my apprenticeship to poetry. Games were not my forte, I could never catch a ball, but in my early twenties I started hill-walking, and I am never happier than on the side of a mountain.


When I started to write, I wanted to write sharp, urbane poetry, but the images which came to me related to landscape and seascape. I fell in love with the Burren when I came to live in Galway. Much of my first collection came from long walks through the Burren and Donegal. I also owe a great deal to Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, where I spent a lot of time in my twenties. Inish Oirr and Tim Robinson’s lovingly researched maps were my gateways to the Burren.


It was on inis Oirr that I was introduced to the wonders of limestone karst. I had not read W.H. Auden’s ‘In Praise of Limestone’ at that time but felt the magic which he expressed in it:


“If it form the one landscape which we, the inconstant ones
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
because it dissolves in water…
…when I try to imagine a faultless love,
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of  underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.”


I really enjoy the poems that include Gaelic words. To me, it indicates that the language is a part of your heritage. As a native Irish speaker, why do you choose to write primarily in English? Have you written poems in Gaelic?


When I started to write, I did try to write in Irish but with no success. I think that my Irish simply is not good, not rich or deep enough to allow for evocation. The power of poetry lies not in what is said explicitly but in what is evoked. You need to have a deep knowledge of the undertones and overtones of words and phrases. I spoke Irish as a small child and am most grateful for the doorways which it has opened to me, the access it has given me, not only to the rich trove of poetry in Irish but also to today’s Irish-speaking world. I spent a lot of time in my twenties and early thirties in Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, and I had really happy times there. I understood what people were saying on the surface, but not always what they were implying. For poetry to have resonance, you have to know what harmonic you are releasing. For that, I think that you need to use the language every day, or at least to have used it every day during a major part of your adult life.


There is a second consideration in that I feel, and I may be wrong about this, that many of the great cultural and intellectual shifts of the last five hundred years did not really happen in Irish. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, did not really, I think, enter the Irish language in the sense of being part of the sinew of it. Over the years I have been asked, on occasion, to translate eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish songs for album notes. It is an activity which I enjoy greatly; I think of it as emotional history. I have translated songs for album covers for Mairead and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and also for Kathleen Loughnane. Occasionally I have come across a word which is particularly difficult to translate because the major historical shifts mentioned above were experienced in Ireland largely through the medium of English. For instance, the adjective Uasal in Gaelic is translated as ‘Noble’ in English. In one sense the translation is perfectly straightforward. However, since the French revolution, perhaps even since the English revolution, possible negative undertones are associated with the English term – associations related to an exploitative aristocracy. These connotations are almost absent in Gaelic.


One poem that uses a Gaelic term that has been modified into an English variation is “Banny.” Your grandmother is explaining to the child you what “banny” means, and she correlates it to beannaigh, which is Gaelic for to bless, to greet. You feature very few people in your poems, including yourself. When or why did you decide to minimize the use of friends, family, lovers, and the narrative “I”?


That was actually my mother, talking to me when she was quite old, and reminiscing about her childhood. I was quoting her – I am not at all sure that her etymology was correct. She was very interested in language and in the derivations of words. She frequently mused and speculated about the connections between words in Irish, French, Latin and English, particularly the colloquial English which she had encountered growing up in Tyrone. It differed just a little from the colloquial English spoken in the area of Donegal where she spent her married life, so her ear was constantly alerted.


If you grow up in the countryside in Ireland – in the countryside anywhere, perhaps – you are always negotiating between colloquial language and standard grammatical structures, standard pronunciation, constantly weighing the possible impact of words. I find the whole area fascinating. Of course, Joyce played with this all the time in Ulysses.


As regards the fact that so many of my poems were ‘unpeopled’, this was not a decision at all. The images available to me happened to relate to natural phenomena. I do not think that any poet chooses his or her images. The basic palette is given. And there are plenty of people in the poems, too, or at least plenty of interpersonal experience. In his beautiful ‘How to read a poem’, Edward Hirsch quotes Robert Frost’s phrase ‘the pleasures of ulteriority’.


In Oar, which won the Brendan Behar Memorial Prize in 1990, the title poem stood out to me. It is brief, but resonated on so many levels. The object of the poem, an oar, is a simple implement on the surface, yet it represents so much more when taken out of context by moving it inland until it becomes unknown. Much of your work uses simple objects to teach a deeper message. Can you speak to how you interpret objects, nature, and music into themes, metaphors, etc for your poetry?


The oar in question came from Homer’s Odyssey. The image of a man walking inland, until he is so far from the sea that no one recognizes an oar for what it is, is powerfully enigmatic. I wrote the poem to explore the enigma. It might have something to do with having to walk away from one’s own culture – family culture, class culture, national culture, to get a perspective on it.  Our native cultures can be like wallpaper – we do not notice them. It is important, I think to see them clearly, with the eye of a stranger, almost, so that we can decide what we want to retain of them and what should be let go.


This was an early poem, and I had no idea when writing it that many other people had written about the same subject. This happened on many occasions during my first years of writing. I found it annoying at first and then decided to look on it less as a lack of originality and more as drinking at an old, deep well.


One of the deeply mysterious aspects of writing is the way in which images present themselves to us when we place ourselves in an attitude of attention. Sometimes, as any writer knows, nothing at all comes to mind. One of the circumstances which jolted me into becoming a writer of poetry as well as a reader of poetry was encountering Haiku and becoming intensely aware of the fact that what is being communicated is far more than is being said. I was shown a beautiful collection of  translations of Haiku by an Australian friend when I was about twenty-one. It was called A Net of Fireflies and the Haiku had been rendered into couplets. I used to try to figure out how two small lines could release such a flood of emotion. They reminded me of translations of early Irish poetry which I had come across in John Montague’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry – tiny, bright images, like hammered gold, which had survived centuries. The same can be said of a Sappho fragment. I looked and looked at them and tried to figure out how the alchemy worked. Ezra Pound was also very important to me – his translations from the Chinese and his essays on poetry. I loved the simplicity and vigour of the former.


Is there a poet who you think is under-appreciated and whose work you frequently return to?


There are many poets whom I regard as being under-appreciated and there are many poets whose work I frequently return to. One poet whose work I have always loved but who is not particularly well-known is the Irish poet, Francis Harvey. One of my earliest loves was Machado, and I never tire of him.


If I had to choose an absolute favourite, it would probably be Rilke. But we do not have to choose and there are so many wonderful poets available to us today, in this age of translation. I am very drawn to the great Polish writers, Milosz, Herbert, Symborska and now Zagajewski. Tomas Transtromer has the same mysterious quiet power that Machado had.


This is also a great age for poetry in the U.S. Denise Levertov was a very important voice for me. Also, in recent years, Mary Oliver and Jane Hirshfield. But the list is very long – I was fortunate to come along at a time when there was a great flowering of poetry in Ireland. Fortunate to have come to Galway at a time, in the early eighties, when a vibrant literary community was coming together. When I started to write, I was greatly influenced by John Montague and Francis Harvey. But there have been many others since whose work I love – the list is too long. I was fortunate, yet again, in coming in the wake of an extraordinary generation of women poets – Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill, and to have had such fine Irish women poets as contemporaries – Paula Meehan, Kerry Hardie, Eva Bourke, Rita-Anne Higgins…but these are only a few, there are so many more. I am even a little uneasy about the term ‘woman poet’. We all write out of our humanity. We are so aware of the great poetry of the Northern Irish writers, of Heaney, Longley, Mahon, and of the generation who followed them. People like Michael Hartnett, whose poetry is as true as birdsong, Michael Coady, who writes with such compassion of his community, are very important too. Again there are just so many – but I have wandered very far from your original question. When you start to think of people whose work has influenced your own it is less a list than a tree – and it has many branches.


I am having a difficult time defining “Lyric” poetry and what it means to me, so I am asking several of my mentors what “lyric” poetry means to you? How would you define “lyric” or “lyrical” when referring to poetry?


I think the best explication of the lyric impulse which I have come across is by Orpingalik, the Netsilik Shaman –


“Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices. A person is moved like an ice-floe which drifts with the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can surge in on him, causing him to gasp for breath, and making his heart beat faster. Something like a softening of the weather will keep him thawed. And then it will happen that we, who always think of ourselves as small, will feel even smaller. And we will hesitate before using words. But it will happen that the words that we need will come of themselves – when the words that we need shoot up of themselves – we have a new song.”


It is akin to what is called in the tradition of Irish music ‘The Pure Drop’, distilled spirit. The best poems, like the best tunes, are given – usually when you have been hacking away at something else for ages. The Irish word for poem is dán which is, I am told, a cognate of the latin donatus, a gift.


I also like what Federico Garcia Lorca says, ‘As for me, I can explain nothing, but stammer with the fire that burns inside me, and the life that has been bestowed on me’.


Moya Cannon’s latest book Hands is also available at Carcanet Press or on Amazon, as is Carrying the Songs.


More Moya Cannon:

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