Ben Howard: This is Ben Howard,
and I'm speaking this morning with Eamon
Grennan, the distinguished Irish poet, here
in my home in Alfred, New York, where Eamon has come
for a residency at Alfred University. Eamon
Grennan has been described by his fellow poet
John Montague as a "Celtic amphibian," at
home both in Ireland and America. Born in Dublin in
1941, he is an Irish citizen who has lived for 30
years in the United States. He was educated at
University College, Dublin, and Harvard University,
and teaches English at Vassar College. His poems
appear frequently in the New Yorker and in
literary journals here and abroad. His four
collections of poems, most recently, Relations: New and Selected
(Graywolf Press, l998), have been published in both
Ireland and America.
Good morning, Eamon. I
wonder if we might begin with your reading "Wing
Eamon Grennan: Okay, I'll
head right into it.
Grennan reads "Wing
poem seems to be very characteristic of your work.
Would you agree with that?
EG: Yes. I think it has a few
things that recur in me, things I'm kind of doing
or ways I'm dealing with something. For one
thing, I'm at a window, and, you know, a lot of
the time I'm sort of at a window. I've often
wondered why: why the window? One, it's the sense
of being apart from an experience but part of
it at the same time, you know. It's a kind of
border between things: it's just the voyeur in me
in some ways. For another thingI taught
this yesterday actuallyit's a sort of
framing device. The window is a frame; it contains,
so the act of choosing and selecting and
excluding have all been taken care of.
BH: By the
EG: Yes, by the window, by
the frame. So I think it's there, and, then,
other characteristic things are probably there.
It's a very ordinary object, you know. It's one
of the few poems, probably, about the bin men;
right, I don't suppose there are too many garbage
wanted to ask about that. Of course, Wing Road is
where you live.
EG: That's right.
BH: This is
a street in Poughkeepsie, New York, but
"dustbin" is an Irish word.
EG: That's right.
wonder if you use that word intentionally. I was
thinking of Seamus Heaney's remark that you should
stay close to the energies of generation.
EG: Right. That's right.
was speaking of one of his poems where he used the
word "flax-dam." He said originally it
would have been called a "lint-hole," but
later he had to explain "flax-dam" anyway,
so maybe he should have stayed close to the energies
of generation and used the original term. I wondered
about that with your usage.
EG: Yes. I mean I'm sure
there is something like that. I wouldn't have
formulated it so elegantly or eloquently, of
course, but I think I used "dustbin"
there because in another book, in
"Incident," for example, I say
"garbage can." In part, I think every
choice you make has a whole set of tentacles
attached to it. Right? When you're writing a
poem, you don't know about them until after the
When I look at the tentacles attached to
"dustbin," I would say: One, it's a
word that would come naturally to me. "Empty
the dustbin" is what I would say.
"Garbage can" is still a foreign word
to me and "garbage collection," too. I
mean, I think of them as the dustbin men because
that was what I thought of them as a kid in
Ireland. And then, I'm sure I'm using
"dustbin" here because when I hear the
line "young man who empties our
dustbin," I'm hearing the sound of
"young" and "dustbin," so
that is a bit of assonance at play. I'm sure I
used it because "young man who empties our
garbage can" would not have pleased my ear,
so the other came more naturally.
BH: You use
assonance quite frequently.
EG: Yes. It's the old and
probably Irish kind of nerve beating inside the
verse, for me anyway. So I used
"dustbin" for that, and then somebody
decided I used it because "dustbin" has
a slightly more eschatological, last-judgment
kind of thing, and this is the last judgment,
right; the thing is about the last judgment in
some way as is the garbage collection, so
"dust to dust" is evoked by dustbin
[laughter]. So, in fact,"
dustbin" is a more interesting word than
"garbage can" in a certain sense,
because of its connotations.
also suggests, perhaps, a religious context...
EG: That's what I mean.
...which I notice elsewhere in the poem, particularly
in the line "he takes the morning to his puffed
chest," which is almost an echo of the line
"takes the day to heart," in
"Sunshine, Salvation, Drying Shirt."
EG: It's great to have a
good reader. Yes, and I think the very fact that
I use angel is the point here. And the whole
thing became for me, as I looked out the window,
a ritual act, and the ritual involved was
collecting the souls, collecting the aftereffects
of life in this kind of general judgment. Then I
use words like "passage" and
"blurred earth/and heaven." I
tried to charge the language of the description
with something not overtly in it, not factually
in it, and, therefore, kind of amplify it in some
way. I think that's a characteristic of doing it,
and then just calling the poem "Wing
Road" was that, you know, was happy
coincidence, and of course I live on One Wing
Road, and I think, well, that's a definition of
BH: If we
talk about the form of the poem, you've elsewhere
said there is a phantom of blank verse in your poems.
Do you think that's true in this one also?
EG: I absolutely do. Yes. It
is free verse, obviously, but I really am using a
strong, solid beat. I could metricise it if you
like, and it is roughly blank verse lines, most
of them are probably. So I suspect I'm using
that. What I love about blank verse, Milton's and
Frost's in particular, and Wordsworth's and
Coleridge's in particular, is the kind of supple
way it orchestrates the sentence, the way the
lines move down a page into a sentence. I really
worked hard at that; that was one of the
technical things I was very interested in,
orchestrating a sentence across the line and down
the page. I think of the sentence and the
lineyou probably do yourselfin this
way: the sentence is the purveyor of meaning and
the line is the purveyor of pleasure, and you
move between pleasure and meaning, the forward
movement of the sentence towards meaning and the
retarding movement of the line towards pleasure,
towards music. So it's very sexual, too.
BH: It's a
very sensuous medium, blank verse is.
EG: Yes, that's what I like,
what I want it to be. Plus, if you think of it
purely in, you know, politically incorrect terms,
the sentence is male and the line is female, and
it is the play between the two of them that leads
break-up, or something. Do you see any precedents in
this poem in American poetry? One that occurs to me
might be Elizabeth Bishop and her poem, "Filling
Station," or other poems where she deals with
something considered beneath the poetic...
EG: Absolutely. I think the
whole American tradition, probably since Emerson,
has dealt with the actual with the tinge of the
mysterious, the other, the tinge of the
spiritual, with all sorts of quotation marks
around all those words, particularly in the case
of Bishop, and I would have said James Wright was
one of my first tutors in that, with "A
Blessing," perhaps, as the obvious example.
BH: Or the
EG: Or the late poems. I love
those poems very much, and they left their mark
on me, and it's something I find a lot in
Williams, in Bishop, Wright (Charles Wright); you
find it in our contemporaries: Robert Hass, Mary
Oliver, who is James Wright's adoptive daughter,
you might say, in terms of the lineal poetic
This sort of attitude I probably learned from
two places: from going to school in a monastery,
because, there, it was a kind of sacramental
twitch built into your ways of seeing, and from
American poetry, which I love.
there be a third influence in Patrick Kavanagh, who
saw "a strange beautiful light on the
EG: Absolutely. Kavanagh is
the Irish locus of that particular impulse. The
impulse that charges the stuff with electrical
energies of the spirit but, at the same time,
leaves them alone as, themselves, they have to
be... what is it? "we must celebrate love's
mystery without claptrap," "snatch out
of time the passionate transitory,"
"this is what love does to things, the
Rialto Bridge, the main gate was bent by a heavy
lorry," all those things are charged.
"Charged" is the word I like to use.
BH: So even
though this poem is partly about judgment or the last
day of judgment, it is also about celebration of the
energies in things.
EG: I agree. That is nicely
put. I don't want to erase the fact that these
are guys on a lorry, a very heavy lorry, coming
around at seven o'clock in the morning doing
their work. I have a few poems about workers. The
poem "Men Roofing" is another
celebratory acknowledgement of a certain kind of
work. I don't know if it sentimentalizes it, but
it certainly tries to celebrate it by turning it
into art, not so much deliberately, but charging
the language used to describe it with a kind of
I think of Elizabeth Bishop at the end of "The
EG: Absolutely. Or in a heap
of other poems: at "The Bight," for
example, the whole sense of active energies at
work in the working world, like the guys at the
fish houses, the fishermen, the glint off the
turn now to "Kitchen Vision."
Grennan reads "Kitchen Vision"
poem, like many of yours, seems very much to be
centered in the present moment and to be bringing the
mind and the body to the present moment, and I'm
reminded of meditation, Buddhist meditation in
particular. Your epigraph is "now I am
here," and in another poem, you speak of the
"dread here and now." Often your poems seem
to have that quality. In Buddhist meditation it is
referred to as shamatha and vipashyana
or "stopping and looking."
EG: Very good, yes.
often when you stop to look, you also see the flux of
things, and I see in many of these poems a sense of
incipience, or something that is just about to
happen, an edging toward something.
EG: Yes, I use that phrase a
few times for something on the verge of
Something "edging into shape, about to
EG: This is a lovely reading
of something that I'd love to have people find in
the poem. That's the nice thing there. Whatever I
think about the meditation side, there is a kind
ofas I think poetry is, art probably
isa paying of attention. You know, God only
wants our attention, somebody says this. I
believe that, and, well, the world wants our
attention. That is the way we speak back to it,
and it speaks to us. I think artists are
listeners and perceivers, rather than just
speakers. The speech, in this case, is a form of
listening for what is there, or what you think is
really there. So I think this poem is
characteristic in that way. It also is domestic;
it localizes that particular site of meditation
not in the big world, but in the very small
BH: I think
it integrates meditative practice with the actual
world, living in the world.
EG: I think that's true. A
poem is a little space, alwaysa little
meditative space, isn't it? That is what I
imagined it to be anyway. When I look at the
poem, particularly by the light of what you've
just said, I think the first three lines are the
defining of it: "Here, in the kitchen making
breakfast, doing something. I find
"Find" is one of those lovely verbs,
almost transitive and intransitive at the same
time, because it suggests "accident,"
and it suggests "act." It is the act of
finding, but "I find" means also
"this happens to me," so I suspect that
that verbI used it instinctively, but I
think it doesactually characterizes
something very specific in what I'm about, which
is that mixture of stumbling over and
acknowledging at the same time as shaping; then,
"come to light" is one of those cliché
phrases, used probably too much, but "come
to light" means revelation, but it's the use
of the ordinary locution.
it reminds me here and in "Wing Road" of
Thomas Traherne and his Centuries of
EG: Oh that's lovely,
Godalmighty, I'd love to be reminded of Thomas
Traherne. I love Traherne deeply. I wish I could
quote a stanza right now. The other stanza you
mention was Herbert, and Herbert, I probably know
better than I know Traherene: "Now I am
here, what thou wilt do with me/None of my books
can show...I weep and cry." He talks about
becoming a tree, so some bird could "trust
her household to me, and I would be just."
But it begins "now I am here;" that
really is a kind of tuning fork for me.
would be called, in Buddhist teachings, a bell of
mindfulness. It's the bell that calls you back to the
EG: The bell that calls you
back, yes. Like poor old Keats's bell which is
only the word "forlorn," tolling.
Speaking more of Irish influences, "the daily
ineluctable clutter of our lives" reminds me of
EG: [laughter] Right.
like the word "ceremony" and you think of
EG: Exactly. It's funny isn't
it? He used it, and a word is taken out of
circulation by a great artist. You cannot use it
unless it has a tiny shimmer, acknowledged, that
that is there. And I thought, Yes, that is what
Joyce is all about: the ineluctable clutter. I
mean the ineluctable modality of the visible. I
liked to use that big Latin word, with its
Joycean kind of connection, for the likes of
yourself and others like you. I like to use it
with something like "clutter of our
lives," with clutter"ineluctable
clutter." I like the sound of that.
the assonance again.
EG: That's it. And I might
have found the phrase right off, or I might have
worked to find it, but certainly the Joyce is
there. I suspect, too, I'm talking about other
poems, other poets. Again, Bishop who makes out
of the ordinary the shaped in some way, and in
this case not a window; I don't have a window, I
have this kettleI was going to call the
poem "Self-portrait in a convex
make a kind of allusion here to Dutch interior art. A
couple things I might ask about that. One is it seems
to me unusual that you do allude, because very often
you seem to avoid allusion or you use it very
sparingly. And the other is that you allude to the
visual arts as opposed to the literary arts. And I'm
wondering about your use of allusion or non-use of
it. Do you want to comment on that?
EG: Well, in this poem I
allude carefully because it seemed that what I
was finally doing was trying to compose my own
wee still life of a domestic kind, and I thought,
well, I'd better allow for the fact that I know
what I'm doing here, that, in fact, I'm doing
that. And secondly, I love the degree to which
Jan Steen and Vermeer and de Hooch, in
particular, offer themselves up as great models
of the way art handles the ordinary, and that, to
me, is, of course, the sort of ground, the base
of most of the stuff I do. That sounds fancy, but
what I really mean is that's the kind of stuff
that attracts and moves me, and, in them, I find
the most elaborate and the most convincing and
the most complete version of that particular
activity, namely the taking of the ordinary and
the finding something in it.
BH: So the
allusion here is a kind of scrupulosity.
EG: I think that's true.
Also, I liked the notion that I was going to
remind people that that is what I was doing, in
case they didn't get it, as it were, and also to
invoke great names, particularly the name of
Vermeer, because I was trying to say something
there about what art does, fixed in place and
"luminous in ordinary light," the two
uses of light there. Painters like Steen and
Vermeer are the locus classicus of it
for me, yet they are painters, not literary. I
don't have all that many literary allusions,
though "ineluctable" was one.
the other part of my question would be that this is
an allusion to the visual arts as opposed to the
literary arts, and I wondered if in Irish or American
or English poetry you see a precedent for this kind
of poem which focuses on the ordinary and illuminates
EG: Yes, I would say Kavanagh
right away, and I would say Bishop and Wright
right away; those would be my three
they do it, no question. I think
somebody like Creeley does it too, somebody like
Snyder, and Williams, but Kavanagh in the Irish
tradition, absolutely. But the way you deal with
influenceit's nourishment, of a kind most
of the time you're digesting, and it's turning
into the fibers of your own body. That's what one
wants to have happen with one's literary
also thinking of the monastic poems, the early
monastic poems of Irish literature, and the immediacy
and directness of those, sometimes dealing, you know,
with a cat who happens to be nearby.
EG: Yes, absolutely. I'd want
to feel somehow that, in my own blood, there's
some sort of tiny piece of DNA going all the way
back; plus, the fact that I was educated in a
monastery probably doesn't go amiss. I mean, you
don't want to make too much of this because it's
kind of sentimental to make too much of such
connections, self-aggrandizing, but I love what
the monks are doing, in part because...do you
know where they wrote their poems? In the
margins, you know, literally, in the margins of
the great books. So, on the one hand, you have
this angelic stuff and, on the other, you have a
man saying "my hand is weary," or
"sunlight falls on my hand," or
"what a gorgeous day it is. Do you hear the
blackbird?" in Irish, so you get the
conjunction of the ceremonial Latin and the Irish
domestic in an almost physical sense.
Speaking of monks, we might turn to "Sunshine,
Salvation, and the Drying Shirt," because you
have a monk in that poem.
EG: There is. Yes, I give the
game away in there.I'd be interested in what you
have going on when you read that poem.
poem reminded me of a description you made of
yourself as having a post-Catholic sensibility? Is
that applicable here?
EG: Well, here I am in this
kind of meditative pose, and I'm trying to marry
Hopkins, the modern Jesuit, the 8th-century
or 9th-century Irish monk,
anguished as he is, and Basho the Zen
practitioner, and I'm trying to bring these
together in little me, sitting outside in the
sunshine having a kind of rest. So I suppose
there is something "post-Catholic"
about the eclectic nature of what I'm trying to
do there. By "post-Catholic" I mean
somebody who is conscious of absence in a way,
and it's an absence with a halo around it. That's
what "post-Catholic" means to me. I
used the phrase first in an essay on McGahern. I
find it in Heaney and in Kavanagh. I feel that's
my version of something that I find in American
poetry, that is, poems about the tinge of the
spiritual at the edge of the ordinary. That's how
I bring these things together in my own kind of
consciousness, and I think this poem, which grew
gradually and is just a meditation, I started to
see as an attempt to actually write the ars
poetica of that condition. This is a poem in
which I would be more or less straight out about
things that, in other poems, are absorbed or
distributed in a covert or non-explicit way.
BH: Well, I
notice one phrase, "making a holy show of
itself." It reminded me of Philip Larkin and his
"Church Going": "up at the holy
end." The tone of it is somewhat ironic,
somewhat secular, but respectful or reverential at
the same time.
EG: Well, anybody who is
writing is eager to find the play of language,
the play in language, and one of the
things I like to do is to revive the cliché,
make love to the dead metaphor. And "holy
show" is a real Irish phrase, a real
colloquial phrase about someone making a
spectacle of himself, but it has that
niceit's just accidentalthat nice
element in the language which offers me something
that is applicable and, at the same time,
EG: Yes. First, there is the
phrase, "so I could spot/when the bird
crucifix/the poet must have seen, a sign bringing
Christ/into the picture, causing the creature to
buckle and/give off blood and fire, making a holy
show of itself." I have Hopkins's windhover
in mind, obviously, and I'd seen what I thought
was a great discovery for me: Why does he
dedicate this poem to Christ our Lord when it's a
poem about this hawk? And then I was watching a windhover, and I saw what Hopkins saw. I'm
convinced that when the bird tilted, it made a
cross, a crucifix, and that's where Christ got
into the picture. "Making a holy show of
itself" is my memory of what the bird is
doing, where, for Hopkins, it's literally making
a "holy show" of itself. For me, this
phrase is much more dismissive, not as full of
faith; there is no way I could dedicate this poem
to Christ our Lord. There is no sense in which
that believer's posture or condition is part of
this poem. It is a poem that recognizes process;
it sees that what Hopkins saw and took account of
but couldn't deal with was the fact that what we
are in the presence of here is Darwinian
violence: the hawk takes whatever it is going to
take. And I've written another poem about a hawk
which is about that, about the killing aspect of
it, so the "holy show" is a way of
acknowledging the violence in my idiom, which is
not the idiom of rapture and belief, as it is in
element in this is the drying shirt and the laundry.
And if there is another poem lurking behind this,
beyond "The Windhover," it might be Richard
Wilbur's "Love Calls Us..."
EG: I agree. One of my holy
poemsone does have these...what Arnold
would call touchstones"Love Calls Us
to the Things of this World" is the great
laundry poem, and I've a heap of laundry stuff.
What's that poem called? "Soul Music: The
Derry Air." That poem has a whole heap of
laundry in it, and laundry, for me, always has a
slightly religious connotation, you know, in the
sense that we find the outer garment hung out to
dry in a way that is, once again, as distinct
from the Wing Road dustbin men, another version
of the judgment, but the more purified version.
sounds like you also might have Carlyle and Swift in
EG: [laughter] Well, you
better go on. You explain that one.
BH: Well, I
was thinking of Sartor
going back to Swift's view of the exterior and the
interior in "Digression Concerning Madness"
and the way he plays with that.
EG: There is an element of
that and, again, I think I'm playing with it, but
drying laundry always goes back to two things: it
has the eschatological aspect for me; it's just
an image that seems to resonate with some stuff
that I got in my blood from being a Catholic, but
it also goes back to a deep need to write a poem
about laundry for my mother because one of my
earliest memoriesone of those little
childhood epiphaniesis standing underneath
her, and she's tall and I'm small and I'm handing
her up the clothes for her to hang on the washing
line in Clareville Road, in that home in Dublin.
So I think that's a kind of ur-moment for all the
laundry allusions that I have in any poems.
"Laundromat," of course, is about the
break-up of a relationship in some way, but it is
also about the drying of the clothes, but in a
spoke about listening. I'm wondering how much your
poems listen to each other across time. For instance,
you have a line in the last stanza here "my
white shirt is all puffed up," which is almost
the phrase you use to describe the garbage man.
EG: Yes, that's very good. I
use that white shirt in another poem called
"Wet Morning, Clareville Road," and
there, it's the white shirt flying "beyond
its own ambition," I think, is the phrase I
use. Anyway, it's the shirt being flung off, as
if one is about to make love. The shirt becomes
airborne, as a kind of image of the body. So, on
the one hand, it's kind of erotic, but, here, it
is all puffed up. It is that sense of playful, I
suppose, excess that I'm interested in as a
connection with the religious in some way.
erotic element of your poems seem to be overlooked,
often, by readers of your work.
EG: Well, thank God for that.
A lot of people talk about the domestic and the
natural in the work I do, those that do talk
about it. And that is fine, I mean that is
clearly there. But you can't have poems, you
can't have art, without the erotic, it seems to
me, and the nerve that is often pushing the
narrative, whether covert or overt, is an erotic
nerve. In my case, even. I liked when Ruth Stone
came to give a reading and said, "Oh, I just
saw a poem of yours I loved. Will you read
it?" It was actually "Men
Roofing," and then she stood back from me
and she said, "God, that's so sexy." I
was just delighted that she felt that, because it
is the erotic nerve running through
thingsthe sexual nerve running through
thingsthat, of course, is the life force.
that connection we might talk about one more poem,
Grennan reads "Oasis"
EG: That is the last poem in
the book, and I think it was deliberately the
last poem of the book because I wanted the last
word in the book to be "the one good
word." I knew ultimately, you know the way
you are shaping a book, you want closure of a
certain kind, and all my books attempt that
anyway, and this I wanted as the end of that
whole trajectory from the very beginning.
because of that very resonant ending, and the book's
ending with the word word, I thought of this
poem initially in more of a spiritual context.
EG: I can see why, as I read
it, absolutely, I know what's inside of it which
I clearly didn't want to make explicit.
have read it and seen much more of a sexual metaphor.
EG: Yes, and that is what I
mean by not wanting to make that explicit. The
fact of the matter is, and this is
biographically that is my own
the poem actually comes from a
photograph, a scene of a North African oasis. It
was a set of photographs, a show of photographs I
saw, and I connected with someone and connected
with a certain condition, which is a state of
love, and "oasis" became metaphorical
for a good many things. I'm talking in circles,
but you know what I'm talking about, basically,
of a love that has its own particular
containment. An oasis seemed the metaphor for
that. And I saw the photograph and the photograph
was connected in many ways and that struck me and
I started to write, and this poem was quite
narrative. It had a lot about another person in
there in terms of a narrative, again, a fiction,
and linear stuff. But in the end I thought, No,
that what this poem is about is the experience of
spirit and of the erotic in one image, and it is
the image of water, the way that water is both
physical and symbolic and a kind of spiritual
source. I was trying to get all of that stuff in
at the same time, making it as sensuous as
BH: Is it
also about the inadequacy of language, or the
limitations of language.
EG: Very good, yes. It is,
yes, and it is also about the limitations on
love, I suspect. "As if" seems to me to
be the important phrase, in the last [stanza],
and the subjunctive mood or whatever mood that
speak of the "saturated radiance/we came
from" at the end, and elsewhere you speak
of your work itself as being both "saturated and
buoyant." Is there a connection there?
EG: That is interesting.
"Saturated and buoyant," is that what
I'm saying? Yes, I think so, but I love the
phrase. I don't know how I found the phrase
"saturated radiance." It is a nice
phrase in that sense that it occupies the self in
a totally double way. "Saturated" is a
real sense of heaviness, and "radiance"
is, of course, things letting off, breaking free.
And I guess that is, in the end, what I wanted to
say about the body in love and about the
condition of the spirit in the body, too. I mean
I wanted to make that connection as best I could
without being too heavy about it. The saturated
radiance we came fromI have another poem
called "At the Falls" in which I
meditate on water again, so you were talking
about poems speaking to one another, and I think
they do. You don't intend that, but I think
you're one psyche out of which comes an enormous
amount of scattered stuff, but it has its locus
and its source in you so
and I talked about
water as our source in a poem in a much more
biological sense. In this case I'm tingeing it
with something else, with the spirit, you know.
if we can make a full circle here as we come to an
end, you do also refer to "the last gasp of
home" here. Of course the first poem you talked
about, "Wing Road," was an image of home,
at least your home here in America. Do these poems
speak across to each other?
EG: I suspect they do. In the
first poem, I'm rooted in that spot looking out
at something that happens, and I name it
"Wing Road," and that is a kind of home
place. And I have a poem called "Wet
Morning, Clareville Road" I like to
name places as Kavanagh doesand "the
last gasp of home," I didn't know what I
meant there, I mean, something about an oasis as
a stopping place, enroute from, or enroute to,
but, in this case, it was the last gasp of home,
as if something in this stopping place was,
itself, a provisional home and, therefore, the
last gasp of home, reminiscent of, but
Ben Howard's latest book is
Midcentury (Salmon, 1997). The Holy
Alls: Poems 1994-1997 will be published by
Salmon later this year. Howard's poems have been
published in Poetry, Chelsea, Shenandoah, Sewanee
Review, and Seneca Review. An
essay entitled "Humane Letters" appears in
the Iowa Review.