Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Tom Duddy – another great Irish writer?

Hello friends and visitors. I'm going to write about someone else's poetry book again. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I'll begin...

You might have noticed that I only write about books of other people's poetry occasionally – mainly because I'm not a poetry critic and the whole subject of poetry lit crit is not one of my favourites really. I quite enjoy writing about novels, films, music, comedy, even visual art sometimes these days...but when it comes to poetry I definitely prefer writing it to writing about it. I think it's partly that I tend to have fairly strong (and odd) feelings about how I want to write poetry (the whats and hows and whys) and I'm never sure how to fit that in with talking about someone else's work. I can tell you if I like something (and I think there's a chance you might like it too) but beyond that...poetry criticism can get so dry and academic (and totally not my kind of thing). It can make me quite uncomfortable...physically and mentally...look, here I am positively shifting about in my seat as I type!

I had a flick through my archives and whilst I do mention other poets' work fairly regularly all I have done on this blog even remotely review-wise has been something about an anthology (here) as well as two posts about chapbooks by JoAnne McKay (here) and Anna Dickie (here). Today however I have an urge to write about another poet again. So come on down Irishman Tom Duddy, you are the lucky subject. You are also the author of a book of poems called 'The Small Hours' that looks like this:

So let's get did I come across the work of Tom Duddy? Oh yes...

Now and again I take a look at the HappenStance blog kept by publisher and poet Helena Nelson. Many of you will know (but some of you won't) that HappenStance publishes poetry chapbooks (pamphlets) and other related thin and papery items and that the whole enterprise is based in Fife in Scotland. I own quite a few of their publications already (all bought with real money!) and probably my favourite HappenStance product so far is Helena Nelson's own 'Unsuitable Poems' (with its fine mix of style and humour and the slightly unexpected). Hell, I even included Nelson in my list of '25 writers that have influenced me' (back here – she's number 24).

I am interested in Nelson's opinion (even if I often disagree with it...and I do...sometimes we come at poetry from VERY different directions) so I was intrigued by a post on the blog (here) where she wrote this about one of HappenStance's chapbooks (Tom Duddy's 'The Small Hours' 2006):

“Tom’s (The Small Hours, one of my favourites) isn’t (sold out) – and that is partly because the poet is not a natural self-promoter. His poems are quiet. They sneak up on you sideways. But the deep, quiet excitement I felt when I first read him is with me yet.

Poetry World, alas, has entered celebrity culture. Sometimes I like the fun of that. However, I also lament the pressure it brings for poets to have to be glitzy and out there, blogging, slogging, hogging the limelight.

Some of them should be doing that stuff, no question. It’s what they’re born for (though celebrity should not be equated with genius).

Others should be doing it their own way, skulking between the pages. Let them be hard to find, verschmuggelt. Let them be a well-kennt secret . . .”

That is the kind of thing that draws me in, I suppose, (even if Poetry World and celebrity culture have been pals before...Lord Byron, anyone?). In the post Nelson also linked to another piece online (see here) and this all made me very curious about Irishman Duddy and his wee book of poems (I've read a lot of good poems and stories by Irish writers off and online recently – are you having a golden age over there or what?). So I sent off my £3 to buy 'The Small Hours' (you can buy it here) and when it came I did what you do with a poetry book (why, I read it!). And Nelson was so, so right (she first read him and fell for his work in the poetry magazine 'Magma')...Duddy's poems are irresistible, wonderful, well worth investing in.

Never mind all this effusive behaviour, you say, let's be more precise - what kind of wonderful are these poems exactly? Oh...this is the bit I hate but let's about they are gentle-and-thoughtful would that do for a start? They're also that kind of make-you-want-to-find-Duddy-and-throw-your-arms-round-him wonderful (or maybe that's just me...I am a bit of a hugger...I said a 'I'm a bit of a hugger'). Nelson is quite right about them being quiet poems too...they are so quiet that at times they are almost whispered (but how powerful the right whisper can be). The subject matter is varied - everyday life, conversations in pubs, everyday death, getting old, everyday love, Ireland, everyday sleep and being in bed, social interaction, everyday days out, tiny happenings, everyday poets (like Robert Frost), family relationships, everyday history and progress. They are finely crafted (even I can see that...) and they all make you want to sit still and just think for a while - no disturbances, no modern nonsense (and Duddy's workday subject is philosophy so I suppose that's not really a huge surprise). Duddy teaches philosophy at the University of Ireland, Galway and has written a book called 'A History of Irish Thought' (there's a little bit of author biography here, if you like that kind of thing).

I have to confess that one of my problems with poetry reviews is the way they give you lots of snippets of poems all over the place (to illustrate their argument and so on). Is it just me or does anyone else often find that feature of a review more confusing than elucidating? It works with novels but with poetry...isn't it better to just show a whole poem or two to illustrate the style and content (unless the poems are all ten pages long of course)? I prefer that route so here (with permission from the publisher) is one of Duddy's poems in its entirety. I could've picked several favourites ('The Language of Visitors', 'Harvesters', 'The Life of Robert Frost', 'The Elderberry Tree') but I asked for this one instead. It's a great piece of painting...and a sad song...and a poem too. Clever, eh?

High Grass

This time last year we joked about the state
of her front gate, while she, down on one knee,
chucked drooling brushfuls of Brilliant White
into flaking weals of rust. We were ironic too

about signs of summer in this neck of the woods -
the wrappers and cans as bright as mushrooms
across the newly mowed green; the back wall
of the community centre running red again

with young love's equations; and OF COURSE
the thrill of lying awake all night again to hear
the best of Chopin from the ghetto blasters!
A sudden sobering of mood then as she left

the paint brush across the tin, straightened (stiffly,
in stages, like a weight-lifter), and came to stand
before me, pulling herself together, pushing
her gold-rims up and back before laying a hand

on the wall between our lives. Your children,
she said, have grown SO tall, SO tall. Do you EVER
feel the time! And both of us stood in awe then
for a moment, prayerfully shaking our heads

as if to misdirect a god, divert some evil eye.
This summer her own tall sons go in and out,
hardly seeing us, hardly speaking. The scrolls
of iron weep with rust, the high grass leans

everywhichway in the garden, and the sycamore -
which the boys SWORE they'd trim back last winter -
scrapes its leaves against an upstairs window where
the curtains have stayed drawn since early June.

by Tom Duddy
from 'The Small Hours' (HappenStance 2006)
Copies are still available. Go buy.



Totalfeckineejit said...

That's a nice poem, I likes it, good review (type thing) and a little bargain of a book. Huzzah!

Totalfeckineejit said...

Ps. I wonder if Tom has a brother called Fuddy?

The Solitary Walker said...

Oh yes, I like this. Very much. Wonderful. Quiet is good. Such a welcome change from all those 'Look at me, aren't I clever?' type of poets.

Rachel Fox said...

Had you heard of him before TFE?

And I should think he's heard that one before...

SW - I think you will love this book. Get yourself an early xmas present.


Rachel Fenton said...

I really like it.

TFE - you crack me up! I laughed like a five year old farting in assembly!

Rachel, I don't like academic poetry dissections either - hated writing them, and reading them's like chewing my elbow.

Rachel Fox said...

I just tried to chew my elbow. Couldn't do that either.


Titus said...

Well, if poetry reviews are meant to inform, interest and intrigue, you've done your job!
The well-chosen quotes;

"His poems are quiet. They sneak up on you sideways."
"Others should be doing it their own way, skulking between the pages. Let them be hard to find,.."

combined with your own take on the poet and poems:

"they are so quiet that at times they are almost whispered (but how powerful the right whisper can be)."

make me want a copy of "The Small Hours" right now!
Love "High Grass" too, so I guess that helped!
I shall go buy.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Titus, we'll have him in the bestsellers list yet.

I know some people complain that the general newspapers and magazines don't include more poetry reviews but I don't think the media should take all the blame for that. When I read the poetry reviews that do make it to the national papers they can be so bitty and disjointed (and making no attempt whatsoever to draw in a general reader) that I'm not surprised editors keep away from them. Of course the editors could come up with new ways to make pieces more interesting...and sometimes they do...but for me the typical dry poetry book review is a dead end really. The not-so-walking dead. I like my poetry out there and dirty.


Titus said...

So true! I often think the best poetry review has got to be:
I liked this poem: (full text)
and this one: (full text)
and this one's great: (full text).

Well, maybe a little exaggerated there, but you get the picture. So often they're too much reviewer, too little reviewed.

Totalfeckineejit said...

The name seemed so familiar, i was certain I had.I looked through some mags but he only featured in one The SHOp from winter 2004 a slightly disturbing poem called 'The Callers'I racked my brains then I remembered the organist at our wedding was Tom Duddy.(Not the same one -presumably)
Seems you do have to shout a lot to become well known in the poetry circus these days.

Oh and tangxz ye Rachel Fenton (That seems like an Irish name?)

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Titus, though for balance I suppose sometimes it could be:
I thought this one was preposterous: (full text)
and this one was trying really hard to be something it could never be in a months of Mondays: (full text)
and this one put me to sleep three times (which was handy as I needed to catch up on some zs): (full text).

That should about do it.
Flippancy alert.

No, TFE, I love the idea of our poet moonlighting as a wedding organist.


Titus said...

You forgot
I feel like I've read this ten times before: (full text)
I don't know if I'd call this a poem: (full text)
Please! Not another mushroom as metaphor job: (full text).

The negative review. So much to debate.

Rachel Fox said...

Mushroom? I have missed the mushroom poems somehow I think. It seems I am the dark about them.



Titus said...

It was Sylvia what started it.

Rachel Fox said...

That'll be why I've missed them. She's just too light-hearted and frothy for me. No depth.

Rachel Fox said...

Went and looked it up and I lied...I have read that mushroom number before. As often happens for me with her poems it reads a bit like a spoof...or in the case of this one more like a group of kids at a drama workshop. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. I almost feel like it wants a tune (sort of Peter and the Wolf-mushroom).

Anyway, back to Tom Duddy...


Anonymous said...

It's a good collection. I don't know if you've read Helena Nelson's 'Mr and Mrs Philpott on Holiday at Auchterawe'. Poignant, thoughtful poems. But I love the Unsuitable ones too.

Rachel Fox said...

No, the Unsuitables is the only book of hers I've read so far. Though I've seen her in an anthology too I think. A Scottish one..?

Dick said...

I really like the voice of this, the conversational tone that so effectively cloaks the real power of the language. Quite a find.

Rachel Fox said...

Thought you might like this book, Dick.

apprentice said...

It's a lovely poem, it says so much about present day neighbourhoods. I love the lines about the sons, having only yesterday noticed how my gangly man/boy now looms over me.

I agree with HN about the promotion business too, and with you about reviews. I know what I like, but please don't ask to explain it.

Rachel Fox said...

I wish you were one of my neighbours, A! It's lonely in the suburbs sometimes.

Do you have Duddy's book? I think you would really like it. I think he would like yours too probably. Has Helena sent him the link? Is he reading? If so here is a message 'hello Tom, hope you're enjoying your visit. I think you should read Apprentice's book. Her name is Anna Dickie - link on the main post. You won't regret it. Oh and look... we all love your book. Thank-you. Bye.'



Tom Duddy said...

Tom Duddy here. Yes, Helena sent me the link. A great gift to get, this side of Xmas. Thanks, Rachel, for having those strong and good feelings about those poems. And thanks also to your positive commenters. These pages will keep me going for a long time.

Rachel Fox said...

Got to rush for child from school. But hello and hello again.
Nice to almost meet you.

Rachel Fox said...

And I'm glad I chose this poem to post because the more I read it the more I love it. I feel like I can really see the scenes, the faces, the paint. And I love 'do you EVER feel the time?' Because I do. All the time.

Rachel Fenton said...

How cool is that!? Right at the end, when everyone else has gone home! Mr T Duddy!

I came back for a second read and I still like the poem, a lot. Good choice, Rachel, and good poem, Tom.

If TFE returns, tell him I'm not Irish, at least not for a few generations.

Rachel Fox said...

I know. I have another post ready but I didn't want to take the spotlight off this one just yet. You never know how many latecomers are going to show up at the weekend.

annie said...

Some latecomers have their own way of getting here, and are quite glad when they manage it.

This one did sneak up on me sideways and gets better in subsequent readings as I don't have to sound out each word and phrase.

Thanks for posting it! Overseas postage be damned, I think that chapbook may be my reward at the end of today's writing rainbow.

Rachel Fox said...

Hello again Annie.
I'm sure you'll love 'The Small Hours'. I don't see how anyone could not love it.
It's such a great title too.

Rob said...

Tom's book is one of my favourite books that HappenStance have published (and I have quite a number). He's a terrific writer and a fine person.

I think reviews should be engaging, interesting, thoughtful, fun, and represent the book in all its strengths and flaws. I don't mind quotes from poems at all as long as they do contribute something - at times, they can look only like decoration.

But you know my line on this, I guess - I think criticism is as much an art as poetry and can be done just as badly or well. When it's done well, it's great to read. When it's done badly...

Rachel Fox said...

Duddy is a very good poet. Is this something we are all agreeing on? Goodness gracious! Peace on earth!