Today's Imperative: John McAuliffe
I’ve had the pleasure this spring of having as a colleague the Irish poet John McAuliffe. He’s occupying a visiting chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, where I’m currently teaching. The fact that I didn’t know McAuliffe’s poetry before doesn’t mean other Americans also don’t know it. As August Kleinzahler says on the back of McAuliffe’s first book, The Better Life, he’s “got the gift. Mark the name…This guy’s the total package, as we say over here about our young, star athletes.” But though McAuliffe’s published by Ireland’s excellent Gallery Press, he doesn’t yet have an American publisher, so it’s safe to say that he’s not as well-known in the U.S. as he ought to be.
McAuliffe’s poems have a lyricism not often found in American poetry; also an edge not always found in the work of contemporary Anglo-Irish writers, and pleasing to the American ear. I admire his tones and syntactical surprises, his images and skill, his shapeliness which doesn’t exclude the human and the unpredictable. In his poem “Today’s Imperative,” inspired by Horace, McAuliffe sees a social role of sorts for poetry—but not, perhaps, the usual dreary High Moral one:
after Horace, Ode 1:7
Others have herblife, bogland, the bird sanctuary.
Or manmade canals and urban decay.
And they have international flights of fancy too:
But wherever they go,
It all looks and sounds the same to me,
Mountains, some work, a nice sunrise that none of the other tourists sees
Or an epiphany that signals a deeper
Engagement with the local patois/native literature.
Then there are the argonauts
Who labour in the interstices of a language, or two at most;
And that crowd whose ambition is to introduce gender
To the reader who hasn’t got one on her:
Long warm-ups, agreed movements from a to b, and put up the shutters
With a lyrical turn or various little-known fabrics and figures,
Such as you often find in those who use family detail as glitter
To stud the rough black rock of their fictions.
And I like all this, but
It doesn’t live in me, it doesn’t wake me up in my skin at night.
I’d rather sing to you about what’s imperative,
So, listen. Take your mind off the stresses and anxiety of life
And whether you’re in a southern town
Like Cork or Montpellier, or even Washington or Rome—
Go pour yourself a glass of wine.
Now. Imagine the kind of man who trusts himself to fortune
And says: ‘Let us go wherever it takes us.
We’ve heard that a better life awaits us and we’ve seen worse.
Today, banish worry, exile it, the night’s young now
And soon we’ll be back to the grind, in fact, maybe tomorrow…’
I like very much the insistence, in perfectly lovely language, that poetry is an everyday thing. Also McAuliffe’s satirical smarts, his idiomatic literariness, and this poem’s attractive mixture of reticence and aggression. McAuliffe’s Gallery Press books are The Better Life and Next Door, and a new chapbook, The Midgie, from Smith/Doorstop Books. I really couldn’t recommend them more highly. His regular teaching gig is at the University of Manchester in England; he’s editor of The Manchester Review, an online journal, and of the poetry links site The Page. Writing as good as John McAuliffe’s demands more readers—on both sides of the Atlantic.
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.