Episode 29

The Parting Glass by Ian Duhig

 

Ian Duhig reads ‘The Parting Glass’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

New and Selected Poems by Ian Duhig 

New and Selected Poems book cover

Available from:

New and Selected Poems is available from:

The publisher: Picador

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US 

 

The Parting Glass

by Ian Duhig

i.m. Brian/Bernard Davey

Builder without cards, sweet-voiced sharp dealer,
‘Carrickfergus’ Bernard I’d heard him called first,
though not born Bernard, or from Carrickfergus,
but a refugee from pogroms in sixties West Belfast.

Here, relabelled bipolar, his house of no cards fell:
he couldn’t leave his civil war as easily as names:
too long the handsome boatman under bare poles,
he needn’t tap the glass to know about the storms.

I remember him fixing our front room windows,
shuffling decks of glass, from struts taking panes.
I remember how utterly cold invaded my home
until he made it just a picture in its frame again.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Ian, where did this poem come from?

Ian: It was very personal, Mark. I knew Bernard, as I called him in the poem, although his name to his family was Brian. He was a singer, very talented, very popular. He has other problems. As the poem indicates, he was bipolar, suffered from mental health problems. He also, as many traditional musicians do, drank a fair amount when he was at work. And then I knew his widow as well. And there was an event organized in his memory to raise funds for a scholarship for the folk music option at Leeds College of Music. So I wrote it for that. And it was with Irish musicians, so I was reading with Irish musicians, so it had a very specific context in terms of Irish music.

Mark: So this would be kind of a performance piece?

Ian: Yes, very much so, and it makes reference to particular tunes that were important to Bernard, for example, ‘The Parting Glass’, That was one of his songs. It was sung at his funeral. ‘Carrickfergus’ is another Irish folk song, very, very well-known all over the world. I think it was actually used at Kennedy’s funeral, and that was his party piece, big strong voice. And within that, it was taking into account a particular audience, and I modified it since, hopefully, to make it more straightforward to a larger audience, but I still wanted to do something to remember him by.

Mark: And you’ve kindly shared with me a recording of Brian singing ‘Carrickfergus,’ so I’ll make sure we link to that in the show notes. He had quite an extraordinary voice, didn’t he?

Ian: Yes, yes. Very, very powerful. A wonderful way of bending notes.

Mark: Yeah.

Ian: And he’s a big lad, big-chested, so there was a lot of power. A remarkable feature of him was that he never sang in Ireland.

Mark: Really?

Ian: Yeah. It was only after he moved to England that he began singing. It’s a strange thing. It’s not the first time. I mean, I can think of other people in Irish music, like Joe Heaney. Great Sean-nós singer. He never sang till he was about 17 or 18. He went to a Feis, sang there, and then became one of the most famous Sean-nós singers of his generation. Brian never sang in Ireland. I think in a way, Ireland came to be a song. When he left and he was thinking back to Ireland thinking what he’d left, a song was a way of registering that, and then, amazing, he had a very, very good voice, and would sing. When I saw him, he would usually sing unaccompanied in the many Irish music pubs in Leeds. A very good Irish music scene in Leeds. But he also would sing with bands. He had a voice that would dominate any band. But as I say, from his childhood, nothing. This was entirely his voice and his singing was entirely the gift of exile. That was something from having to leave where he came from. That was a good thing.

Mark: And it’s very much the theme of a lot of the old ballads and songs, and I guess a lot of poetry per se is just loss and distance and lament and nostalgia. You know, it’s our stock-in-trade.

Ian: It is indeed, yes. Well, you try, and like for Bernard, hopefully, leave something when everything else is gone. There’s a great poem. I can’t remember the name of the person who wrote it, but he talks about when breath becomes air. It’s probably when breath when you’re moving air and it stops and it’s just air. But in Ireland, of course, or folk music, an air is a song. So you leave the air and the air is left.

My family were Irish, so my poetry heritage is really Irish. Big fan of lots of other poetrys as well, but that’s where it came to me from. And the link between song and poetry in Ireland is very strong. Up until very recently, I’m thinking about people like Padraic Colum, obviously, ’She Moved Through the Fair,’ but also Patrick Kavanagh, ‘On Raglan Road,’ using traditional songs to carry their poetry. That hasn’t happened in England so much for a while.

But I grew up hearing poems put to music. And I suppose my sense of a poem and the trajectory possible with a poem was about the trajectory possible with a song. The ground that you covered in a poem was kind of the ground that you covered in a song. In traditional music records, and I got this from English music, big ballads, people just cut. If they didn’t see the point of a verse, they would just cut it. So you had this almost a filmic jumpcut affair in the big ballads. And that moved me, I suppose, towards understanding a link between the technique, you know.

But the voice when you… I mean, I know lots of poetry isn’t designed to be read. But for me, you sort of go from the pace of silence through to the speaking of it, and you’re on the verge of song at that point. You’re attending to the musicality available in language and that there’s lots of different songs, lots of different music, but I think that on the edge of it always was poetry.

Mark: And that’s quite a different tradition, isn’t it, than the… I think there’s a lot of modern poetry that’s really written to be read on a page with the eye.

Ian: Sure, yeah. Yeah, a lot of my poetry, I never read at readings. Auden had that division. Poems he would never read it out at any kind of a public event. And that’s certainly the case for me too. I try and respond in the range of responses, not in a sort of sterile exercise way. But there are certain things… I mean, I have written purely visual poetry for an exhibition at Shandy Hall, which is just for the eye. Literally, nobody could ever read it. It’s just shapes on a page and things like that.

But I suppose I like the idea that in some poems too you can invoke music. And music is closely linked to me too with the white space on the page. Something is going on in the white space. If you think about W.S. Graham and the way the right margin for him could be to see coming into the show. He uses line breaks to carry forward the sense of the poem, and, harnessing silence, which is not nothingness. You know, it’s like tension.

I work a lot with musicians of all kinds. And the silence before a song happens and the silence after it finishes are not the same thing. Before the song happens, there is a thrill. It’s a thrilling silence. When the song finishes, it’s an echoing silence. Not that there is necessarily echoes in the room, but there are echoes in your mind. There is a different quality of silence. And the silence and poetry and song, it’s like a three-ring circus. You know, for me, I tend to each of those.

Mark: Well, I love that, Ian. Silence, poetry, and song, the three-ring circus. And is there a different process for you? You say that some of the poems you generally don’t read out loud and others you do. Do they come from a different place? Is there a different writing process?

Ian: Not necessarily. They sort of end up. When I think about the things I’m doing at the moment, some of them might end up readable. One of them will. One of them certainly won’t. Another one I think will be. One of the things that I’m involved with is the David Oluwale Memorial Association. It’s a tragic case. If you look up David Oluwale online, you’ll get the terrible story. Harrassed, tortured by Leeds police. But I’ve been involved with them. And then I write poems for events.

Now, I did write a poem for the installation of the David Oluwale plaque on Leeds Bridge. It’s the city recognizing it’s wrong, big, big important event. And then that plaque was torn down within hours, and its replacement was torn down almost as fast, which sounds like a bad thing, but it was actually a sort of publicity bonanza. Everybody wanted to respond. They got onto local, national news. The local authority put images of David’s plaque everywhere. A company volunteered to make stickers, representations of the purpose, they gave out three. I was talking to a woman at The Guardian about it. There’s a film being offered in each film festival, which will include that too. So I’ve written a poem about the paradox.

The poet AE, Irish poet, said, ‘You become like what you hate.’ And it’s, like, there is a deep truth in that, and the racists who attempted to erase completely David’s memory, turned out to be his greatest publicists. Anyway, this is… I suppose what I’m saying is this is a public poem. It takes part as a public debate and that will always be the case. Other poems may end up there, or there may end up only making sense on the page. So I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t know where a poem is going to end up when I start it, so I see as I go along, if that makes sense.

Mark: Yeah, absolutely. So where did you start with this one? Was it a commission? Was it…you knew that…

Ian: No. It was not a commission in the sense that there was any money. I was asked to do it. So it was commissioned simply because they wanted a poem as well as the music. Bernard was very much liked and respected in the music world. But in Leeds, the Irish community also respect poetry. I’ve worked on poetry projects with them as well. I did another poem called ‘Róisín Bán’ which means white rose. There’s actually a song called ‘Róisín Dubh,’ which means my dark rose, which is about Ireland. ‘Róisín Bán’ white rose for Yorkshire. And that was about a great Sean-nós singer called Darach Ó Catháin, who… Ciaran Carson, big fan of his, David Wheatley. And David Wheatley has got a new novel out, called Stretto. And Darach Ó Catháin puts in an appearance there. So I wrote a poem about him, which was popular, was made in sort of musical settings. So as part of the range of responses, and part of the range of expressing grief on Bernard’s passing, they wanted to part him. So it was for that, very specifically for that, an event where I was reading the poem with musicians on a day. You know, I didn’t have…I couldn’t muck about with the time. I had to have them ready for a particular day. There was no me saying, ‘I haven’t finished it yet.’ You know, and you just…

And then I’m always worried at times like that. People always say that commissions are bad. People always say that if you had to write for a purpose, it’s not as good as the poems where you just dander along country lanes like Wordsworth, and see what happens. I don’t really believe that. I think very often, commissions can be bad, but sometimes commissions can lead you to write okay poetry. And I think this was okay, despite the fact that it had to fulfill very specific requirements and a very specific time.

Mark: Do you know that’s an interesting point. So when I did my master’s, I looked into research on creativity and what works and what doesn’t, and they said that one of the big findings is if you’re writing from intrinsic motivation, aka for the love of it, or for the hell of it, that is generally you’re going to be more creative and original than an extrinsic motivation like money, or you’ve been commissioned, or whatever. So they said as a general rule, generally commissions are not as good as you know. Wordsworth wondering about on his own. But, apparently, there was an interesting subset of commissions that were aligned with the artist’s own inclination, or it was already a meaningful subject to them and then they were asked and they said that could even go further than pure intrinsic motivation on its own. And clearly, this is a commission that meant a lot to you.

Ian: Yeah. That’s really interesting to know that that research exists, because it’s very true. And when I advise people about commissions is make it important for you. Make the commission important for you. Put yourself into it. Find something in you that it responds to. A quote I really like, which I’m forever coming out with, is from Johnson, Rasselas, and he says, ‘Nothing can be useless to the poet,’ you know. And one of the many things I like about is, I mean, I tend to work with people who don’t have a lot of money to be perfectly honest, but it’s look at things in your life in a different way. The skills of the poet will allow you to enrich your environment by considering the implications of ordinary things. And that sort of approach, I think, could work in certain commissions. I’m not saying that every commission I’ve ever written was successful, because they weren’t. Going through choosing for New and Selected, some commissioned poems just, I mean, they will never make any of my books.

But sometimes, they give you permission to write about something that you might feel awkward doing. And this time, with Bernard’s poem, I mean, it’s not… Because I was asked, it’s different from me shuffling up at the event and saying to his widow, ‘I wrote this poem about him,’ you know, ‘What do you think?’ I mean, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that at all. But responding to a direct request, that gave me permission to write to the best of my ability.

Mark: And so, maybe focusing a bit on Bernard’s story here, so, again, maybe for some listeners outside of the UK, so ‘Carrickfergus’ is the traditional song?

Ian: It is. There is a tune in the back of my mind. We might come onto this when we talk about how it developed, but ‘Carrickfergus’ is a traditional song to a certain extent. It was the tune which is so magnificent and is kind of almost operatic in its sweep, was written by Seán Ó Riada, who was the great figure of the Irish music, traditional music revival, but also in Irish music generally post-war. He wrote it, again, for a particular event, talking about commissions. It was a concert in the Gaiety in the sixties. So he also wrote music for a film called ‘Mise Éire,’ which means ‘I am Ireland.’ And that’s a poem by Patrick Pearse. So, Ó Riada very much took on board himself as the idea of Ireland’s national composer.

Then, of course, what’s happening in the sixties, is the north explodes. Bernard lived in West Belfast and a lot of Catholics, in particular, streets were burned out by Protestant rioters, very often with police standing by and letting them get on with it. You know, ‘glass’ has many meanings in the poem, as we’ll probably discuss more in a minute. But the first glass was all the broken glass in the streets in the Catholic areas, all the windows broke through, very often with petrol bottles following after. And Bernard’s family had to move. This was to clear areas between the Catholic and Protestant areas. So Catholics who were getting out of the Protestant areas. Or if the street was mixed, if there was some Catholics and some Protestants in the streets, the Catholics in that street were driven out, and that’s what happened to Bernard’s family, as it happened to a lot of people. And the situation deteriorated dramatically, very quickly.

The IRA, who had become not exactly dormant, but there was a split. The official IRA were non-violent, a Marxist organization. But in the riots, then you’d see, ‘IRA, I ran away,’ painted on the walls. And it was like, ‘Where are you to defend us?’ Some people were saying this. And that was the atmosphere that brought the Provisional IRA into being, violence, bombs, guns, and they were well supplied with these.

I remember talking to someone… And Bernard’s decision, although he was kind of nationalist with his sympathies, I remember somebody saying in West Belfast at the time, it was almost more dangerous to not be in the Provies than it was to be in it. It was really very, very hard indeed to stand apart from this. And Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast recently talked about some of those pressures on the main character, but they were considerably more for other people. And Bernard lived in this atmosphere of a society disintegrating. There’s a phrase from the Nobel speech by Trimble, David Trimble, and that was also in the back of my mind in composing this, where he said that the North…he admitted the North was ‘a cold house for Catholics’.

And I was thinking about the ‘cold house’, in the end of the poem, and it was a very, very cold house indeed. If you look at Derry, there’s a coat of arms in Derry. It was all gerrymandered just for votes, but also for housing, was the big issue. And on the Derry coat of arms, there’s a skeleton, and as you see, that’s a Catholic waiting for a council house. It was, just being inside, just having a house was an incredible achievement. And very often, it didn’t happen at all. So if you were driven out of your home, you weren’t going to, very quickly in Northern Ireland at the time, get back into another one, because council housing tended to go to Protestants. And in one notorious occasion, a council house went to the mistress of one of the Unionist councillors.

So there were dramatically rapid changes in society. The housing executive came in, did wonderful things. I’m going on a bit here, I know, but housing was my thing. I worked in homelessness for a long time, and that’s what Bernard came from. Lost his home, came over here, lost his grip sometimes, sometimes ended up in the street himself. So the inside and the outside world, all of that means having a home in a country, all of that was something that was never clear for him.

Mark: And in the poem, he is the one who comes to fix the house, isn’t he?

Ian: Yeah.

Mark: He fixes your house.

Ian: It’s our house. I’m looking at his windows now. We had problems with our windows. The literal occasion. I want you to choose something that was not grandiose or sentimental. I want you to use some…choose something, and this was what I mean about poetry drawing out the implications of something. He put in a new window for us. And I was with him, and we were talking when he was doing it. I was watching him. We always used to chat. But the shock of when you take out like not just a window pane, but when you take out the whole window in your house in not the warmest part of the year, it’s exposed to the Leeds wind.

Mark: Right.

Ian: You know, blowing in unobstructed from Siberia. I used the phrase ‘the cold invaded my home,’ and clearly that has got political association for the British in Ireland and all the rest of it, but it was really…it really did invade. All of a sudden, when the window comes out as a piece, all of the heat is sucked out of the house. And then when he put it back in again, it becomes almost like art. This is also what glass… It’s like the glass on the picture. The outside, it’s just a picture, it’s not real. And ‘the parting glass’ is a pun, because obviously it’s the song and it’s when you say goodbye to someone, but it’s also glass that separates you from the reality. And Bernard, being separated… You know, the singer, the handsome boatman… I should explain. I knew I knew ‘Carrickfergus’ from The Dubliners version where they say ‘the handsome boatman.’ In Bernard’s version, it was ‘the handy boatman.’ So if you hear him sing online, which is worth doing, slight different two words there. He was the wild Irish rover kind of a person, but a very, very cold world to really be like that.

So it’s an ordinary… I chose the windows thing because it was an ordinary thing. But the more I thought about glass and all its meanings and what he was doing, the implications of it allowed me to register the important things that I wanted to say for him and about him.

Mark: It also made me wonder if there’s an echo of ‘Through a Glass Darkly.’

Ian: Yeah, yeah, that’s always there. That really haunts me, that phrase. I have to say, if you went through my New and Selected Poems, you’ll probably find quite a lot of…where that phrase comes up. I used to have a poem called ‘Darkly.’ I can’t remember if I put it into New and Selected. But exactly. It’s what you think you see but you don’t quite. You know, it’s a bit like Plato’s Cave. You know, you get some kind of an image of something.

When I worked in the north of England, I was really fascinated with the glass museum in Sunderland. I’ve got a new poem coming out in Poetry Wales. This is not just a plug, but it is relevant. And when I was a kid, we went to the Isle of Wight, and on the beach, it had been struck by lightning. And the lightning churned the beach to glass, that section of beach. It’s called fulgurite, which is how you make glass. you use sand to make glass. I had never seen as a kid, and it’s stayed with me all my life. Such a dramatic change in the nature of something. And it was a bit like obsidian, very, very cracked and all the rest of it. I never forgot that.

And once again, it was the idea of glass kind of reflecting what’s going on, but also being different. It’s a bit like, in Celtic myth, water does that. Water seems to be like your world, but it’s another world. And you go through water, and you’re in a different place. Glass seems to me like that. It doesn’t just separate, it changes relationships. A great local poet called John Riley, who used to live just up the road from me, murdered in 1978, terrible loss, but he has lots of poems standing at the window, one about an insect hitting the pane. So I don’t think it’s just me. I think poets generally their relationship to glass and windows is significant.

Mark: Well, there’s Louis MacNeice, the ‘Snow’ poem.

Ian: Yeah, that’s exactly, yeah. Yeah. I passed the house where he wrote that.

Mark: Oh, really?

Ian: Yes, And there’s also of course Muldoon’s poem about that poem.

Mark: Oh, yes, that’s right.

Ian: There he says, where MacNeice… passing the house where MacNeice wrote ‘Snow,’ or where they say he wrote ‘Snow’.

Mark: Right, right. It’s very Muldoonian.

Ian: It is, absolutely.

Mark: Okay. And then, in terms of the form, Ian, how did that evolve? Let me see. You’ve got this…it’s a very four-square poem. You’ve got three quatrains, which make a square on the page, but like a pane of glass. Was that there from the beginning or what…?

Ian: I’ve got a bit of a thing about quatrains frankly, and the boxiness of it. And ‘Pandorama,’ it runs through the whole thing. Partly it comes from something that Derek Walcott said. He talked about the basic cube of the poem, and that’s what say a sonnet is. Basically, it’s a box. My old editor, Don Paterson said that. And, I mean, I’m not a great one for sort of spreading words around on the page. You know, it’s, like, I want the poem to be just looked at almost like a piece of prose. Timothy Donnelly, I like his verses, the American poet. He does that as well.

But the song came in that framed it, and it wasn’t ‘Carrickfergus.’ It was a song called ‘Do You Love an Apple?’ which you can hear online, very well covered by Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill in The Bothy Band. And it’s about still loving a man for all his faults. And the rhythms of that to a certain extent, the cadences of that, appear in my poem. And then, that was really, between that shape, trying to suggest windows, and then the cadences of ‘Do You Love an Apple?’ And Bernard’s story, and thinking about glass and its implications, that pretty much got me there really.

Mark: Well, I think you’ve got us to… I kind of… It’s delightful but it’s also heartbreaking as well. And I think, as I said to you earlier, the more I know about the background to this poem, it really feels like there’s a lot of hinterland to it. The more I hear about it and then go back and reread it, it’s like, ‘Oh, right.’ And also words like ‘invaded’ or ‘utterly’. Apparently, in Milton when he talks about ‘utter darkness’, I was reading the other day, he’s aware of the etymology with ‘outer’ darkness. And so that outerness, when you want to be in your home and it’s utterly, you’re outside.

Ian: It is. And of course, ‘utter’ has that sense of ‘to speak’.

Mark: Yes, yes.

Ian: You know, that secondary meaning, which I like. As you say, there is hinterland, but it’s a bit like optional hinterland, there’s not things happening in the hinterland that you absolutely need to know to get the poem. But if you do know it, I think I hope that when people listen to what I’ve said they might also listen to Bernard’s singing. Maybe listen to ‘Do You Love an Apple?’ Because I think they will understand something from the phrasing from that.

Mark: Yeah. I’ll make sure we have a link, not only to Bernard, but I’ll see if I can get a legal link to ‘Do You Love an Apple?’ And I’ll put that in the show notes if I can. And I love what you said about the hinterland thing, that it’s not… you don’t need to know this stuff in order to appreciate the poem or get a lot from it, but a lot of my favorite poems are…you know, you can go back years later and find something else in them. It’s like a box that you keep opening and there’s always something else in it.

Ian: The box, exactly.

Mark: That’s it.

Ian: The magic box.

Mark: Yeah. Wonderful. Wonderful. So maybe we can listen to it again and savor it one more time.

Ian: Okay.

Mark: Thank you, Ian.

Ian: Thank you.


 

The Parting Glass

by Ian Duhig

i.m. Brian/Bernard Davey

Builder without cards, sweet-voiced sharp dealer,
‘Carrickfergus’ Bernard I’d heard him called first,
though not born Bernard, or from Carrickfergus,
but a refugee from pogroms in sixties West Belfast.

Here, relabelled bipolar, his house of no cards fell:
he couldn’t leave his civil war as easily as names:
too long the handsome boatman under bare poles,
he needn’t tap the glass to know about the storms.

I remember him fixing our front room windows,
shuffling decks of glass, from struts taking panes.
I remember how utterly cold invaded my home
until he made it just a picture in its frame again.


‘The Parting Glass’, copyright Ian Duhig 2021, reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

 

New and Selected Poems

‘The Parting Glass’ by Ian Duhig is from New and Selected Poems published by Picador.

New and Selected Poems book cover

Available from:

New and Selected Poems is available from:

The publisher: Picador

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: UK | US

 

Ian Duhig

Ian Duhig portrait photo

Ian Duhig FRSL worked with homeless people for fifteen years before becoming a writer and still works on projects for marginalised groups. He has published seven books of poetry, won the Forward Best Poem Prize once, the National Poetry Competition twice and received a Cholmondeley Award. His New and Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation, an Irish Times Poetry and a Guardian Poetry Book of the Year, and an Observer Book of the Year for 2021. He co-edited Dovetailing, Gathered Notes, the book of a project with artists and Refugee Action Bradford, to be published in June 2022.

Photo: Paul Maddern

A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

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The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

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