In his new book, There Now (Graywolf Press), contributor Eamon Grennan gives us a collection of single sentence poems that examine, in intricate cadence and syntax, landscapes as various as a sea cliff in Connemara, a Manhattan street, post-Katrina New Orleans, a Middle East marketplace, and the poet’s back garden. The eye that observes these scenes finds their common shapes while allowing the reader to discern the emotional tenor that unites or divides them. The result is a poetry that reminds us of both the joys and responsibilities of looking, as in “winter city food market,” where we gorge on the sight of “Croakers snappers silver trout striped bass” while, in the same glance, taking in the “homeless / huddle of rags (astride the steam vent on the corner” outside the shop. In between, a woman checks “her own /thereness in…the market’s window.” The poems in the collection lead us to this interstice between beauty and need with a sureness that is both unerring and kind, as we confront where we are in time, space, and self.
Grennan, a Dubliner, taught for many years at Vassar College. He has also taught in Graduate Writing programs of Columbia and NYU. Recent collections are Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf), and But the Body (Gallery, Ireland). His volume, Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf) won the Lenore Marshall Prize. He has translated the poems of Leopardi (winner of the PEN award in translation) and co-translated (with his partner, Rachel Kitzinger) Oedipus at Colonus (Oxford). He has also written a book of critical essays: Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century. His latest volume is There Now (published in Ireland in summer 2015, and by Graywolf in Autumn 2016). In the past few years, he has been writing and directing “plays for voices” for a small Irish theatre group—Curlew Theatre Company. He lives in Poughkeepsie and in Connemara.
I’ll start with the obvious by observing that this is a book composed entirely of single-sentence poems. You’ve used this form before for individual poems, of course, and to great effect, but an entire collection of them is a prodigious feat. I found that I needed to read the poems aloud in order to make sure that I caught all of the syntactical twists and turns. For me, the single sentence emphasized temporality—the moment-by-moment-ness of each poem, but also each moment’s place in a much larger and longer chronology, like beads on an invisible string. I’m wondering how the collection came into being, and what you were hoping to evoke with its form.
I can’t really recall the “how” of choosing the single sentence structure, nor “how” the book came into being. I suppose it grew in part out of my interest in speeding up the sense in a reader of so much data in any single observation and/or thought. I have another book in which all the poems are ten-liners, and formally I guess this was in my mind, and I tried or intended to give myself a bit more of a challenge, or a slightly different one this time. As you probably remember, I was always, in teaching, interested in the relationship of sentence to line, and the dance between the two. Cutting out punctuation almost entirely was to increase in a small way the speed, maybe the intensity of presentation. In ways too I guess I was just trying to do something a little differently. Since my range of “subjects” is quite small, I seek variety in shifting a bit the formal energy, the nerve-sense of the poem. And as you note, there’s an interest in the shaping of syntax, which is something I find in so many poets I admire. And I like your image of “beads on an invisible string.” Nice.
Continuing in a similar vein, I noticed very few, if any, commas in the book. (This reminded me of a moment years ago in workshop in which you declared that semicolons really were “disgusting,” weren’t they, and that we should all try to avoid using them. I’ve long treasured this advice!) Beyond affecting the speed at which we read the poems, the lack of pauses distills the action in each, as if everything in the poem is happening at once. Can you talk about your use of tempo within the poems and how it connects to your subjects?
I think your question sort of answers itself, doesn’t it? Fact is, I think (in a certain mood) that punctuation can be a bit artificial at times (though of course it can be a lovely presence too—think Henry James, John Donne). Yeats famously hadn’t a clue about punctuation. But he knew rhythm absolutely, and so his editors worked it out—or that’s the story. And I always think a semi-colon in a poem is—what?—well not necessarily disgusting (did I say that, lord!), but it suggests too much calculation, or something. And as you justly say, the speed and notion of simultaneity are affected by the absence of those pauses created by punctuation. Back, so, to rhythm. And I used, far as I could without creating blur, only colons (here and there) or dashes—both of which (to me) suggest an on-going, not a halt.
The landscape of Renvyle and elsewhere, and the flora and fauna within each landscape, feel central to the book—the poems often take an image of a bird or plant as a focal point. However, I kept coming across almost antiphonal moments between animals and humans in the poems, suggesting a narrative, or at least connection. For instance, in “sand martins departing,” we see the birds disappearing into the “chambering vacancies in the cliff-face,” and then the poem on the facing page, “gone,” opens with the line “the little house grows quiet now she’s gone from it.” What is the relationship, as you see it, between the natural world and the human in the poems?
Your lovely observations here (“almost antiphonal moments” and others) is likely enough. I can’t add much really. I like such things to be discovered and held up for inspection about what’s going on a poem. You notice what I suppose is there, but maybe as much by happy accident as anything else. Though, yes, at the centre of what I do is something about our ways of relating to the natural world. And I live out here in Renvyle where the natural world of weather, landscape of mountains, rocks, fields, sea is always pressing. I suppose there’s a sort of philosophic tendency, or meditative anyway, in the poems, their habits. That’s a way to enlarge and deepen the descriptive tendency. It’s why I love certain painters.
I found myself paying attention to your pronouns as I read. Many of the poems employ a “you” that feels quite intimate—the poet speaking to himself—perhaps more intimate than the “I,” which is more declarative: “I’m thinking of…” or “What I’m hearing is…” (from “flower” and “body,” respectively). There are also many poems in the third person that describe a “he” and “she,” and in places the book shifts from “you” to “he/she” to “I” in the space of as many poems. Why did you employ these differing perspectives?
It is a funny thing, isn’t it, the way the pronouns adjust somehow the reader’s response to the material, to what’s being said. I find sometimes I use an “I” then change it to a “you” or a “he”—and they’ll all be rooted in the same observing and thing or source. But the use of one or other pronoun shifts our sense of what’s being seen and said. Sometimes things seem too subjective, so then I distance it a bit. Nothing very profound about that. Again it’s trying to get at a right sense of “how will this work” when received by another. That imagined dialogue between reader and writer.
There are other memorable figures in the book, namely the many artists—Gauguin, Giacometti, Serra, Manet, Bonnard, others—to whom you respond. This creates a mirroring, and perhaps distancing, effect, as you observe another artist observing. What is your sense of how these ekphrastic poems correspond with the rest of the book?
Another good, testing question! Well first the ekphrastic poems are just my little hommages to the artists. Also they are attempts to capture some of their flavour and feel in the way I respond, and to get something of that into the language. Or more simply the painting has triggered something in me, in me as responder, that I want in some way to (sort of) dramatise in the poem. Sometimes it’s just that the emotional content of a painting or piece of art strikes a recognisable chord in me, in my feelings—I feel something for what’s going on in the paintings. As you can see, most of my painters are in one way or another to a greater or lesser degree representational. But I also love paintings where the abstract and the representational hover about each other. But I’m not sure how one would get that into a poem.
The title of the collection, there now, strikes me as particularly apt, both in the sense of pointing to something—a moment, an image—and as an expression of comfort. Are you hoping to comfort us in some way with this book?
No, I don’t think I’m really trying to “comfort.” I think poems are going about some other business—maybe coaxing toward realisation, or something like that. But as for the phrase, yes. I think of it as hovering between an assertion of what’s there (space) now (time). Suggesting fleetingness, but affirming presence too. And then the comfort thing, yes. And it’s a common enough phrase in Ireland—meaning, among other things, “well, just look at that will you…”) It’s also, as Billy Collins reminded me, what a bar-man may say as he plants down your pint on the counter, “There now.” And I like titles, especially book titles, to look in more than one direction.
We have a tradition in this interview series of asking our interviewees for their poetic lineages. In your poem in memoriam to Seamus Heaney, “sudden dark,” you write, of his loss, that you “still have to take the pressing heft and ponder of it to heart.” How did Heaney influence you, and who else is in your poetry family tree?
Of course I admire and have always admired Heaney’s work. Its generosity of spirit, depth of responsiveness, tactility of engagement with the world of nature and things, its responsible and courageous way with vexed political matter. And of course I’d find myself attached to poets like Kavanagh, Mahon, Longley, Montague, Ni Chuilleanáin and lots of others in the Irish context, whom I wouldn’t think I am in any sort of line with, of course. Similarly my admiration for, and feeling of having learnt from poets like Bishop, Kinnell, Plath, Hass, and others in recent American context. But then there’s the mighty ones way back—Yeats, Stevens, Williams, Berryman and so on and so on. Aside from that there are the forefathers—Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Keats, Wordsworth—the usual nourishers. Lineage is hard to determine, that’s all. One is nourished, and one is grateful.
Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.
For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.