Reviewed by Tom Hubbard, Poetry Ireland Review 98, 2009
Sweet, Chancy and Transient
'Irish-America' was once a simple phenomenon - though painful for those forced by economics to be part of it. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Irish and American literatures intersected on the manner (and outcomes) of a westward exodus. The novella Maggie: a Girl of the Streets
(1893) by Stephen Crane, better known for The Red Badge of Courage
, depicted Irish immigrant life in the slums of New York. Ten years later, George Moore's story, 'Home Sickness' (in The Untilled Field
) has in common with Maggie a character who is a Bowery bartender, though in this case he is one who makes an ill-fated return journey to the old country. When in America, he years for Ireland; when in Ireland, he yearns for America. Wherever he is, he'll suffer from home-sickness.
In that sense, then, perhaps it wasn't so simple after all. Nonetheless, literature was concerned with the Irish in America, and hardly at all with Americans in Ireland. By the 1930s, with James T Farrell's Studs Lonigan
trilogy, the fictional locus moved from New York to Chicago. If Americans did venture transatlantically east, it wasn't for long: Stephen Crane produced a series of 'Irish Notes', essentially journalistic reports to himself, as if he were a collective folks-back-home. Perceptive as they were, they were the work of an outsider, interpreting the West Cork village pub in terms of his own geocultural frame of reference: 'On an old mahogany dresser rows of plates face the distant range, and reflect the red shine of the peat. Smoke which has in it the odour of an American forest fire eddies through the air.'
Then, in 1963, JFK visited Ireland and the special relationship acquired new dimensions. Kennedy joked that if the travel arrangements of their respective forebears had been different, de Valera might have become President of the US, and he (JFK) would have been President of Ireland. It has been suggested that as Ireland became less oppressive for intellectuals and the US became more so, there followed a mini-exodus in the direction opposite to the traditional one. Better for an American poet to find himself among the culchies than among the hicks - especially if the former weren't really culchies after all, but in fact proved supportive of readings or festivals, and with an enthusiasm to rival that of the metropolis, Hibernian or otherwise. It's all a long way from Stephen Crane contemplating the degraded populace of Ballydehob. US-born poets such as Christ Agee, Ivy Bannister, Knute Skinner and Richard Tillinghast are integral to Irish cultural life. The last-named recently produced a full-length collection of essays on his adopted country, Finding Ireland
(2008). The scale of the new relationship is reflected in UCD's development of its Clinton Institute of American Studies, and of course we should take into account the special impetus of America in the peace process of the North.
For a long time Knute Skinner (b.1929) was in the fortunate - for him - position of having home/work bases in both countries. As a Professor of Western Washington University, he could draw on the superb seascape visible from his window: it's 'like any perfectly ordinary morning', on which the anything-but-ordinary Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands can be celebrated in a poem. 'At Coney Island' is an American counterpart to Rilke's 'Das Karussell', but with added uneasiness about childhood and its passing:
But I see them today on their runaway merry-go-round,
inhaling the beach and the buildings, the sea and the sky,
while their mothers are helplessly standing behind on the ground
and wringing their hearts in their hands till they've twisted them dry.
On a similar note, 'Our Water Supply' ends with the eminently quotable lines: 'How good the spring water was when we had it - / like life itself, sweet, chancy and transient.' Another grimly grinning conclusion belongs to a much-cited Skinner poem, 'The Cold Irish Earth', set by the Cliffs of Moher near his Irish home (and from where he can look in the direction of his other homeland): 'but down at Healy's cross / the Killaspuglonane graveyard / is wet to the bone.' A bizarre ossuary in Rome - is there an ossuary that isn't
bizarre? - prompts observations on the contrast between the stacked remains and the nervous tourists ('contractile fibres and sinewy tissues intact') heading for the exit to buy their postcards.
By now there should be enough evidence to support the contention that if there's a spectrum of American poetry with the likes of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost at one end, and with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg at the other, Knute Skinner veers in the direction of the first pair. In the past I've called this the 'laconic-expansive spectrum'. A 'laconic' such as Skinner, as per Dickinson and Frost, works a seemingly homespun Gothicity which is yet quietly artful in the way it jolts the reader out of the even tenor of pleasant expectations. For example, in 'The Custom of Queens', we might think we're in for a piece of cosily comic verse deploying the stanza form of John Godfrey Saxe's 'The Blind Men and the Elephant' or Lewis Carroll's 'Mad Gardener's Song' ('He thought he saw an elephant'). It's an extended ballad form, i.e. you have an extra two lines over the standard ballad quatrain, with a rhyme scheme abcbdb.
Skinner's poem, however, has 'down' rhyming with itself, or even and unsettingly (in stanza 3) with its plural form:
This tickled her but one may reign
the other way around.
No principle applies to queens
when it comes to going down.
Queens move in a mysterious way
and have their ups and downs.
As line 5 suggests, the familiar form is further subverted by weird echoes of familiar poetry: William Cowper ('God moves...'), Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
('They were dying, Egypt, dying') and W S Landor's 'Rose Aylmer' ('Ah what avails the sceptred race'). At this point, if I were more of an academic than I am, I'd be chuntering on about intertextuality. As it is, Skinner's 'The Customs of Queens' serves as a playfully compressed anthology of Great Lines, offering us a mordant take on female regality. And not a cute elephant in sight.
Many of the poems in this retrospective volume are praise-poems to Killaspuglonane, where Skinner has lived (when off-campus) since 1964. Darker tones are never going to be far away in any Skinner poem, but he clearly identifies with the place and its people, enjoys both the rhythms and the quirks of rural Irish life. Two of his most remarkable poems, from the 1960s, juxtapose unassuming Killaspuglonane with the wider world-theatre: LBJ and Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Twenty years on, one of the poet's American personae muses curtly: 'old Ronnie addressed the nation / He wanted more of my money for the Contras' ('Friday Evening').
'The Sorcerors: a Laotian Tale' leaves one pleading for poetry to recover more of that narrative function which it has lost to prose; similarly it needs to reclaim from drama its deployment of personae. Isn't poetry, after all, a form of theatre? We're not talking, necessarily, of specific 'performance' pieces. It's odd that we often refer to a poet's 'voice' in the singular, as if there weren't a multiplicity of voices potentially available to his or her imagination. Knute Skinner has a whole section where, as he says, 'the characters, including the narrators, are all fictitious.'
Anyone who has taught at an American university will smile wryly at Skinner's references to conveyor-belt courses ('Humanities 309... Humanities 108'), his irreverence towards po-faced academic bureaucracy. I recalled the remark of a Connecticut English Dept colleague, after we'd attended a performance of Mahler's 9th: 'That was worth far more than any number of MLA conferences.' Brian Arkins's admirable introduction, interestingly, claims Knute Skinner as a 'Southern poet' in the Irish sense; usually, when we hear that phrase, we think of Carolina rather than Clare. It's a measure of Skinner's shrewd adoptions and adaptations. To keep it fresh, Irish craziness requires an infusion of American craziness. Knute Skinner duly obliges. Read more about this book >>
Review by Maggie Kelly
One of our WPA members, Knute Skinner, lives in Ireland. I emailed him
to learn, among other things, what he might say about the importance of
place in his writing. This request coincided with the debut of his
This book, a retrospective collection titled, Fifty Years: Poems
1957-2007, begins with his first published poem, "Stars." The poems are
labeled as "Early," "Later," "Fictions," and "Recent." Most of the
poems were taken from 13 books that were published at two-to-three-year
intervals from 1965 to 2005. The bulk of the Early poems were written
whileSkinner was still in the United States; the majority of the rest
were written in Ireland.
Skinner's attachment to Ireland began in 1958, when his father died.
With a small inheritance, Skinner traveled to Ireland. "... I fell in
wrote me, "with the people and the countryside. In a curious way, even
though everything seemed strange, I felt at home." So two years after
his first visit, he bought a small cottage, and has lived there ever
since. By that time he had earned his PhD, but chose to raise a huge
garden and "worked in a bog cutting turf to heat the cottage and feed
the kitchen range."
Although his permanent home was in Ireland, Skinner taught at Western
Washington in Bellingham, where he founded the Bellingham Review, and
taught "for periods ranging from one to three months a year."
Regardless of which side of the Atlantic he was on, Skinner's work
consistently demonstrates several qualities. One of them is his ability
to tell a story through detail. Such is the case in "A Small
Construction Site in County Monaghan," in which a young worker, like an
eager horse in traces, wants to complete a job, but must wait while we
watch his supervisor clean, fill, and successfully light his pipe.
Suspense builds as the older man talks and tamps and finally can attend
to the job.
The reader automatically assumes that the most important thing for the
younger man was to learn his trade, but we learn in the last lines that
it is patience that he really must learn. That sort of wit, that twist,
is another device Skinner has skillfully mastered. The ordinary becomes
extraordinary, and life caught in a small moment is not what it had at
first seemed to be.
Also pervasive in his poems is Skinner's sense of place. In answer to a
question I had asked him, he wrote, "Place has had a very strong
influence, as my neighours pop up in my poems and a number of poems are
set in the country side ...I live just two miles from Liscannor Bay,
five from the Atlantic, where the Cliffs of Moher rise dramatically to
about 700 feet from the water. But it's probably the hillside meadows
and the ancient stone walls enclosing cows and sheep that appeal most
strongly to me."
Reading through this collection, one meets Skinner's neighbors and
family, learns things such as how long it takes to draw a pint of ale,
and contemplates with the poet what it is like to suddenly catch
oneself getting older.