Desmond Egan Poet



































Hugh Kenner Reviews Poetry of Desmond Egan

Hugh Kenner Reviews the Poetry of Desmond Egan.

Kenner starts by raising the interesting case of a poet who has been acclaimed everywhere but in Ireland. He raises the interesting question of why Irish readers find it so difficult to see Desmond Egan as a major Irish poet.

I will spend just a few minutes on the interesting case of a poet who has been acclaimed everywhere but in Ireland, and whom I know pretty well - I indicate that amount of bias and raise the interesting question of why Irish readers find it so difficult to see him as a major Irish poet - I'm thinking of Desmond Egan. If you've never heard of him, that is part of my theme. Desmond was born in 1936. I think what he actually ilustrates is that we have gotten to the point where it is possible to be an authentic Irish poet without every raising the question: what consitutes Irish identity?I think that is what Irish readers miss in him. They feel that he is not adressing the main issue which is what does it mean to be Irish. Montague obviously does address this issue. Heaney obviously does address it. Egan is curiously indifferent to it. To my way of thinking, this is an enormous advance. It's a move forward of almost another generation. Let me be particular. This is a man who grew up bilingual in Ireland and whose Irish scholarship is sufficient to correct those who write in to the Irish Times on question of Irish language. Of course, he also has various un-irish things like a love of greek, latin and music and he sees absolutely nothing wrong with learning things about the poet's craft from the likes of Ezra Pound. Yeats learned some things from Pound but only having to do with the omission of openness and adjectives. Let me give you a sample: there's a suite of poems called Three Songs from the Story of Ossian - Fionn's Song . This could be mistaken for Pound though it would have been impossible without him. Simply in the care taken with what vowel follows what other vowel.

Horse, horse in the window
Ashes of a dawn
Whisper to the ceiling

Someone's gone

If I did not tell you it was Fionn's Song , you wouldn't make any particular Irish connection because there is no effort to lay on local colour of any sort. May as well read Niamh's Song - it's the third one:

Niamh's Song


talk with me Love one last time
down that river of old dreams
turn and smile your tragic smile
goodbye Oisin goodbye me what turned wrong: I know and don't
- you used make this new world real
love what will we do alone?
goodby Oisin goodby me now you'll turn inot the songs that you sang?
now our summer fall in leaves:
kiss and break but don't look back
goodbye Oisin goodbye me all the place that are you in my thoughts
fade! like hawthorn afte spring
no two loved as much - and lost
goodbye Oisin goodbye me

Those have the limitations of love poems written to be set to music but I know of nothing quite like them. Way back of them is Pound and also way back of them is Irish mythologicla material handled perfectly straight without any effort to make it quiant or to insert fal de das, little sprigs of archaic language. I'll read two more and then rest my case. Here is the second part of a two part poem, called Clare - The Burren. I chose it because it locates its subject in a speifici place out in the West, in a clearly recognizable landscape which looks like the top of the moon.

Clare: The Burren

1.worn cloud has torn from
turfbank hills which
razor the horizonabove Ballyvaughan on currach
the blue space filing overflowing themand throygh the draped shadows
a turlough of leaked sunlight
discovering mooncolouringsa dog's bark
fades from nowhere someone
following three insect cows
criies like its soundwhile everything a January moment
breath11.the redhead schoolboy (farmer's son)
shyly led the way across
a livid wilderness of limestone
striated with the ogham of ages
and there it stood
the great dolmen!tipping out from supporting flags
one massive lintel tons
of jagged uncorroded rock
balanced so austerely it hardly touched
those gnarled flangeslimstone rising upward
lifting itself - rough parthenon -
beyond itself
pointing away from
the Burren the restless seasand from the corpses it covered
(Claremen's bones?)
their lint of flesh filtered
like sea stiffened into that stone
bevelled anbove them thousands of years ago
yesterday111.a pub in Kilfenora
some bigassed lass from Ennis
is singing her tailend off tonight
(mascaraed eyes a little apop)
... I often think of home
Dee ool ee ay!
smiling at her audience as she batters it out
pointing towards heaven like one of Leonardo's women
on the high note which should but
shatter her glassyet the locals (who know their music) listen
not speaking not even drinking
concentrating on the floor
while that voice goes stalking every nook
Another song from the lady!
townies grin-away such courtesybut outside down the field of moonlight
later they pass by that
ancient cross

The 'yesterday' is the familiar collapse of history in which everything in ireland is yesterday. I once heard a man outside Trinity College develop a passionate argument. He seemed he might burst a blood vessel. The man was talking aobut Oliver Cromwell - you'd think cromwell had raped his mother.But the other interesting detail in that poem he uses the phrase 'rough Parthenon'. I cannot think of another Irish poet who would not have thought the Parthenon would have ruined the Irish ambiance. But it never bothers Egan at all. European culture is one. Synge, oddly enough, would have liked that detail. The next poem I am going to read is a very short one: Thucydides and Lough Owel . Some of these poems have to be seen as well as heard.

Thucydides and Lough Owel

poised on ice
above the lake's throbthis blue translucence
flexing across rocks frozen sprays of fern- remind me of your History
for if the stretched town is become
part of nature so
are your sentenceslike gulls they cry
down the cold shores

The interesting thing here is that it is half way through the poem before you realise the poet is speaking to Thucydides. Thucydides's sentences acquire the same kind of concreteness as those birds crying down these cold shores, to about as much comprehension, I suppose.One last poem brings the Kavanagh heritage very much to the fore. This is one of a series of poems published by Egan in 1983 called Seeing Double . Not all but most of the Seeing Double Poems use the following format - as the lay-out is unusual. Along side the main poem there is a kind of marginalia, another poem entirely, about one work per line, in an entirely different voice. The poem is called Hitchhiker - it is very interesting. This poem, by the way, is based on a true anecdote and you'll pick up its topical relevance quickly.


This is perfectly easy to follow. A political anecdote, a man, a refugee from the North who has lost his wife, scared for his lfe, left his daughter behind. Down the right hand margin, in italics, in the marginalia is this;Hitchhiker - marginalia That's where the Kavanagh legacy comes in. That's the wisdom of the elders. That's the famous Irish gift of the gab 'grand, grand, grand'.I hope I have piqued your curiosity about one poet. The qeustion why nobody ever seems to mention him in Irealnd is very interesteing and as I say I think it is simply because the qustion of national identity has ceased to matter for him. It leaves people looking around for clues. It makes me think we have moved a generation beyond - even the accomplishment of Heaney. Draft of Lecture delivered by Professor Hugh Kenner at the New England Regional Conference of the ACIS (unpublished)

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Desmond Egan Bibliography

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Hugh Kenner reviews Desmond Egan poetry

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