The Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust was set up in 1998 and is jointly held between Queen's University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.
Every three years a poet of honour and distinction is chosen to represent the Chair as Ireland's Professor of Poetry. During their tenure the holder spends a year attached to each of the three universities and resides for a period of approximately eight weeks at each. While in residence, the poet gives informal workshops or readings, spends time working with students and performing outreach work and makes one formal presentation a year, usually in the form of a lecture.
On Wednesday 30 June, An Taoiseach Brian Cowen, T.D. announced Harry Clifton as the Ireland Professor of Poetry 2010. In November 2012, as the poet was about to enter the final year of his term, the Arts Council's Head of Literature Sarah Bannan sat down with Harry Clifton and asked a few questions about poetry and writing.
What excited you most about your appointment to the Chair of Poetry?
The chance to give the lectures, express what I thought hadn’t been said enough in the Irish discourse - that ‘Ireland’ is an ever-widening spiritual and critical entity, that it exists, now and always, at a fertile interface with other force-fields around it - Britain, Europe, America - in ways I wanted the lectures to explore.
Plus, the joy of connecting with a younger (student) generation, coming into the whole thing with their own freshness and newness.
You’ve spent so much time outside of Ireland - Nigeria, Thailand, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, England, France - but you’ve been back in Ireland since 2004. Do you see yourself as an ‘Irish’ poet? Or is there even such a thing?
I less and less believe in the concept of the ‘Irish poet’. For me a poet has always been first and foremost a citizen of a language, only afterwards of place and nation. I see myself as a poet of the English language who happens to have been born in Ireland.
You’ve written memoir and fiction and critical essays, as well as poetry. How do the forms inform one another?
Every poet, in his or her bubble of subjectivity, wishes to stand outside himself at least once in a lifetime - Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn, Pasternak’s Zhivago - and see himself as a character in society at large. Also, in the expanded verbal field of prose, to be released from the huge (though they look tiny) formal constraints of making a poem.
What is it that drew you to poetry? That draws you in again and again
The concentrated-ness - the fewness of the words and the maximising of the suggestive silence that lies between them. The whole thing is less about words than bringing silence into focus.
What do you hope you will have achieved as Ireland Professor of Poetry at the end of your tenure?
To have said a few words on behalf of that side of Irish poetry that faces outwards not inwards, that inhabits an open not a closed endlessly self-consolidating introversion.
Who are the poets you are most excited about now?
The seventeenth-century English poets - their devotional, marital, metaphysical preoccupations are those of middle age, which is where I am. Love as endurance over time, the imminence of death on the horizon.
What books of poetry should every person own?
A good anthology going all the way back, and a couple of half-decent contemporary ones, as a way in to the traditional, timeless preoccupations in the first case, and the newest idioms/forms in which they are being handled in the second.
Publishing and bookselling are facing challenging times - physical book sales are down, e-reading is on the rise. Do you have a view on how poetry will survive in the next ten or fifteen years? Do you worry for its future?
No worries (unlike, say, for extended fiction). A poem, if fully achieved, is like a micro-organism, virtually un-killable, migrating through systems, print or electronic or any other, going to sleep for a thousand years (Sappho, the old Chinese or Japanese poets for example) and waking again, or being rediscovered, as real and alive as at the moment of writing.