PAUL DURCAN: THE
REVEALING ART OF CONCEALMENT
blurb on the cover of Durcan's 1985 collection The Berlin Wall Cafe, is
this unattributed remark:
“…poems about the break-up of a marriage so intense they would hurt if they
weren't also possessed of the healing gifts of truthfulness and humour."
truthfulness be considered a bulwark against hurt? I would have thought the
opposite. As for the humour, what kind of humour is it that can be used to laugh
off the pain of divorce? What kind of mind is it that wants to find a way of
laughing at, or laughing off, the pain of divorce? Isn't there a species of
nervous laughing-off characteristic of inner emptiness and a desperate need to
fill it? What the anonymous writer of this type has perceived is Durcan's
difficulty in addressing himself or the world beyond himself except through
self-deprecation, itself a defence against the very emptiness it tries to
conceal. Durcan's characteristic stance is the persistent self-deprecation of
the man with an over-blown idea of himself. He is constantly undermining himself
because, on the one hand, he finds it hard to take anything truly seriously or
to find meaning in the world beyond himself, and on the other hand, to conceal
both from himself and the reader his essential self-absorption.
Superficially, Durcan's technique is amusing, like the patter of the hopeless
bar-room soak who disarms everyone with his self-deprecatory charm. His
popularity is easy. He doesn't task his readers, he charms them, disarms them,
flatters them, cajoles them so that they don't notice that he is insulting them
by refusing to acknowledge the existence of any reality but himself. His poems
appear to be revelations: this is how divorce was for me. But they conceal.
Their very form, open and clear, is a means of concealment. It is the language
of a man who wishes to control. To be more experimental might risk dangerous
suggestions and allusions . The prose-like style is a way of keeping in check
those deeper feelings which might subvert the cheap humour. The tragedy at the
heart of Durcan's work is that it cannot accept tragedy. If Durcan were to write
a poem about Hiroshima it would have to be humorously self-deprecatory, it would
have to be about Paul Durcan. Finally, Paul Durcan is the subject of almost
every poem he has written.
Durcan's poetry is typical. It expresses intelligently the self-absorption of
the age. In The Day My Wife Purchased Herself A Handgun, for example
Durcan is exploring the murderous war into which modern marriage has descended.
As the battle of each against all permeates the most intimate relationships, as
the barriers between public and private break down, so personal life collapses
as people no longer find an oasis of love and kindness in the harsh society of
go-getting and image-making. It is important not to be mistaken about the
subject-matter of this poem. Its jokey surface cannot hide that it is about the
descent of a would-be loving relationship into violent hatred. Why then does
Durcan make a joke of it? Somehow, the resources to face its seriousness are
missing. Here is a selfhood withdrawn into a corner where every tragedy can be
treated as a narcissistic joke. The Joke does not redeem the tragedy. It
trivializes it. It does not accept tragedy, it denies it. it proposes a
defensive relation to the world in which adolescent jokiness keeps at bay those
events and forces which threaten to awaken feelings so intense they will swamp a
diminished sense of selfhood.
There is a telling line in this poem:
“But when I looked in the mirror I was not there."
the mirror gazer. He sees himself but does not know it is himself he sees. He
makes no distinction between himself and the world and so drowns in the illusion
of symbiosis. This is Durcan. He looks in the mirror to see himself but he
can't. He can't see himself because he can see only himself. The physical image
may be reproduced by the laws of physics, but the inner self does not exist
because it refuses boundaries. As his relationship with his wife plummets and
the hand gun lies around in the bedroom with her underwear (sex, love and murder
blending into one another) he turns to the mirror to find reassurance. But there
is nothing there. The suggestion that his marriage is failing because of his
emotional inadequacy is clear and is picked up in other poems where morbid
self-accusation masks a refusal to fight through to greater maturity.
"If it's one thing a wife must not do, it's to grow up."
In this, the
penultimate line, Durcan expresses his desire for a wife who is a little girl,
or more accurately from a psychological point of view, a substitute mother. What
she must not become is other, She must not stand as a separate individual for in
so doing she reminds Durcan of his hopeless dependence. The poem ends with a
piece of typical self-deprecation: an attack on the poet's own masculinity. This
sycophantic, craven and essentially inauthentic capitulation before ideological
feminism, according to which men are all worthless, inadequate and never the
equals of women, recurs in Durcan's work. Ostensibly it is the defence of women
against the depredations of insensitive, importunate, spoilt-child men. In fact
it is self-hatred trying to pass itself off as principle.
plays a significant role in Durcan's poetry, especially in the poems which deal
with the breakdown of personal relations. Exaggerated self-accusation, beneath
which surges, of course, a fantasy of omnipotence and perfection is a substitute
for an attempt to understand what forces might have made these relationships
fail, an effort to relate the tragedies of his personal life to the wider
tragedy of our cultural malaise. Over and over these poems say: of course I'm to
blame, I'm inadequate, I can't be relied upon, you are a much better person than
me, I could never rise to your level, I'm a wretched, hopeless case, I have
"swastika eyes" a "gestapo voice", I'm really a psychopath. And beneath all this
is the unheard voice which claims for itself the right not to grow up, not to be
reliable, to be able to behave selfishly and insensitively. Durcan's persistent
self-accusation is really a wallowing in self-regarding self-pity.
Falling In Love With A Salesman in a Shoeshop, Durcan begins with a
depiction of his reduced way of life: a room with no windows, three inches of
water on the kitchen floor (this from a highly successful poet). He goes out to
buy shoes and in his diminished condition falls for the first person to show any
interest in him (this from a poet published and read all over the world). But
the poem ends, hardly unexpectedly:
if the shoe salesman were to marry me,
I suppose that he would also probably leave me.
Anyone would leave Durcan for his demands are unreasonable. The attention of the
entire world couldn't satisfy such raging egotism. Nor is this, as some
supporters of Durcan would claim, clever ironisation. Durcan is not, like
Flaubert in Madame Bovary or Joe Orton in Loot, rising above what
he depicts and valorising its opposite through irony. The poem refuses to create
sufficient distance for that, (both Flaubert and Orton insisted on the necessity
of distance for successful ironization, the former in his doctrine of
impassibilite the latter in his recognition that it was the objectivity
which he achieved while in prison which allowed his writing to work). Durcan
refuses this distantiation. His characteristic posture is wallowing. Were he
ironizing the postures he depicts, spiking their immaturity and inwardness,
there would need to be, built into the poem, a sharper sense of rejection. No
intelligent reader could imagine Flaubert on the side of Homais or Orton
defending Fay McMahon. Search all you like for the discrepancy between Durcan's
poetic persona and the organizing consciousness behind the poems but you won't
find it. Ironization is one thing, self-deprecation another and it is the latter
at which Durcan is adept. It is a clever and charming means of drawing attention
to himself and it is present throughout his work.
Durcan's strategy. He wants to seduce his readers. This explains, at least
partly, his extraordinary popularity at readings. Poetry readings are at their
best when people are listening to work they know well. Often though, people come
along with only a passing familiarity with the writer they are going to hear.
The poem of immediate effect works well on such audiences. They like to be
entertained, charmed. It is no accident that poetry has been assimilated, by
some, to stand-up comedy or pop music. At readings, a vexing or difficult poetry
tends not to go down well.
Durcan tries to deal with tragic subject-matter. He has written, of course,
about terror in Northern Ireland. Yet he virtually never ceases to write about
himself nor to try to charm his readers. His poem about the execution of Ken
Saro-Wiwa, for example, contains, in thirty-eight lines, six uses of the first
person pronoun. A reference to himself in every half-dozen lines, on average. It
is a poem more about Durcan's rage than Saro-Wiwa's death or life so that the
latter never comas into focus as an individual apart from, and important apart
from, his place in Durcan's emotional and intellectual landscape. The poem can't
overcome either Durcan's characteristic defensive jokiness: the joke of the poem
in its entirety is the impotence of his arrival in protest at the Nigerian
Embassy. This impotence is identical to that discovered in so many of his poems
- his emotional blundering, his incompetence in love - here it becomes his
incompetence in rage and protest but its function is to draw attention to
himself and his own emotional condition, rather than to stress the tragedy and
horror of the death of Saro-Wiwa. Similarly, in The Bloomsday Murders,
16th June 1997, Durcan appears at the centre of the poem and though he
successfully spikes hypocrisy over the deaths, the fact that he can't leave
himself out, that everything he writes of must be personalised, betrays a sense
that he can't genuinely appreciate the importance of anything beyond his own
appreciation, that he has, in short, a diminished sense of objectivity.
This might be
defended on the grounds that it's a common technique of literature. The point,
however, is emotional tone. In Durcan it is usually regressive. In the poems
which tell of personal relationships this is obvious. How is it, for example, in
“Windfall” 8 Parnell Hill Cork, the celebration of domesticity
anticipates the inevitable:
But then with good reason
I was put out of my home?
the ordinary unhappiness of which Freud speaks as the alternative to crippling
emotional conflict, will not do. He prefers to cling to the conflict, so failure
of loving, easy-going domesticity are unavoidable. Notice that he readily admits
he was expelled "with good reason". Here is the refusal to strive to be worthy
which speaks of an underlying conviction of unworthiness. Yet this is not an
honest appraisal of his shortcomings, it is a self-serving posture. It is a
manipulation. The cry of "How unworthy I am!" demands the response "Of course
you aren't!" The assertion that I am nothing conceals the desire to be
everything. Thus, in his acts of revelation, Durcan conceals.
written several poems which call attention to his association with power and
fame, with people who are, by implication, more gifted or feted than himself.
Even in the poems which are encomiums to Kavanagh there is an uncomfortable
undercurrent of name-dropping and greatness by association which suggests a
compensatory need for a grandiose conception of self. In The Mary Robinson
Years he portrays himself as a reduced beggar for a morsel of the great
woman's attention. He cannot catch her eye across the dinner table at a swanky
banquet in Copacabana. She is a huge figure and he small. When finally she
speaks to him it is to ask about his black eye, which he tries to pass off as a
birthmark. She, that is, is respectable, worthy, great. He is a man with a black
eye, diminished, unworthy, as ever. It is hard not to feel in this poem a
pathetic plea for acceptance as it is hard not to see Robinson as a mother
figure, a source of the unending love and praise for which the poet longs. Even
worse though is his poem about the death of Diana Spencer. This is sycophancy
trying to pass itself off as compassion. The death of a young mother is
appalling, in any circumstances, but what died in the car in Paris was not only
a real person but an icon. It was the loss of the icon which evoked so much
factitious grief. The same people who wept over her death were those who had
bought newspapers in the hope of pictures which flouted her privacy and in so
doing denied her the respect every real person deserves. Icons aren't respected.
They are worshipped, adored, bowed down to and vilified when they disappoint, as
they are bound to.
of the Princess is a poor
poem. It begins with two stanzas in which a woman speaks of domestic experience.
Her husband slamming the door and going off to "cringe on his mistress's breast"
is, presumably, supposed to remind us of Diana Spencer’s failed and mortifying
marriage. But these stanzas connect weekly with what follows. Spencer is evoked
in her teenage manifestation as a modest nanny, a "skivvy". Skivvy she may have
been, but she was a rich, aristocratic skivvy. Durcan's assimilation of her to
ordinariness participates in the collective fantasy. She was rich and indulgent.
What she might spend on clothes in a week would have kept most families for a
year. When Durcan goes on to write of her being:
In the arms of her Pharaoh
In the back seat of his car
After dinner at the Ritz
simultaneously elides ordinariness as he slips into luxury, and confirms the
infantile view of her as a fairy-tale figure onto whom people can project their
grandiose fantasies of wealth, luxury, fame and a soppy, sanitized conception of
happiness. The poem ends weakly in whimpering word-play. Its use of the familiar
first name of Al Fayed suggests that he like her was a figure with whom we could
identify, as if the antics of a spoilt playboy are worthy of serious attention.
immaturity that is the impulse behind this poem finds its formal expression
throughout Durcan's work in its inchoate quality. His poems are all incipient.
They bring to mind Wordsworth's famous remark about the "degrading thirst after
outrageous stimulation." Durcan's poems aren't worked through and over to full
realization. They stop short for the sake of spontaneity. To read a large number
of his poems one after another is to become uncomfortable with their glib
exhibitionism. They remind you of those people whose excessive presence speaks
of their underlying absence. Durcan's is a borderline poetry. It is realized
sufficiently to reach the reader in the work rather than through it, but only
just. Time after time their is an arrestation which prevents the poems touching
deeper sources of feeling. It is a kind of poetic teasing which evokes but then
disappoints the promise of fulfilment. What is principally on offer is
titillation and this because in his constant revelation of himself Durcan is
always hiding. He demands to be noticed because of that underlying fear of
looking in the mirror and seeing nothing. In his pursuit of attention and
spontaneity he has made himself the poet of surfaces. In this he is thoroughly
in keeping with his time. Always an inadequate stance for poetry.