Peter Sirr


Life
1960- ; b. Waterford; ed. TCD; invited Michael Hartnett to read at Eigse na Tríonoide; lived in Italy and Holland; issued Ways of Falling (1991); issued The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1996), of which the second part is “A Journal” of a love affair; issued Bring Everything (2000); fnd. ed. of Graph, 1995-; suffered the death of his father from undiagnosed multiple sclerosis a [aetat. 50] and himself suffered from grand mal epilepsy; freq. poetry reviewer for The Irish Times under literary editorship of John Banville; ed. Poetry Ireland Review [Eigse]; appt. Director of Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin, 1991-2002; winner of O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award of Univ. of St Thomas, Minnesota, 1999 ($5,000);
 
appt. as member of Culture Ireland agency; ed. Poetry Ireland, 2003-07; issued Selected Poems (2004); Nonetheless (2004), conversational pieces and reworkings of Old & Middle Irish and Latin poems; Metre (April 2005) is devoted to him in part; contrib. an introduction to the 15-disc set of Seamus Heaney’s poems read by himself (2009)l issued The Thing Is (2009), winner of £6,500 Michael Hartnett award. Feb. 2011; incls. poems after Catullus; spoke of his personal experience of the condition at Epilepsy 2013, Tullamore; describes himself as a writer and translator; m. to  Enda Wyley with a dg. Freya; member of Aosdána. OCIL

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Works
Collections
  • Marginal Zones (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1984), 45pp.;
  • Talk, Talk (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1987), 68pp.;
  • Ways of Falling (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1991), 86pp.;
  • The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 1995), 93pp.;
  • Bring Everything (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2000), 79pp.;
  • Selected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2004), 94pp.;
  • Nonetheless (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2004), 80pp. [2 pts];
  • The Thing Is (Oldcastle: Gallery Press 2009), 80pp. [incls. trans. of Catullus; winner of Michael Harnett Award, 2011].
 
Miscellaneous
  • ‘Beyond Dancehalls and Farmyard Intrigues’, in Irish Literary Supplement, 12 (Fall 1993), pp.6-7 [on Denis Devlin];
  • ‘China’, a poem, to Write Now ’, in The Irish Times, 9 Dec. 2000, Weekend, p.11 [with others by Biddy Jenkinson, George Siztes, Lorna Goodison & Dag Andersson];
  • ‘Always travelling, meeting, parting’, review of Agenda, 40, 1-3 [“Irish Issue”] (2004), in The Irish Times (17 Aug. 2004), Weekend, p.10 [see copy in RICORSO Library, attached];
  • Heaney at Seventy - Heaney Reads his Collected Poems (2009), 15 CDs and booklet [Introduction: Peter Sirr, ‘“In Step With What Escaped Me”: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’, pp.5-46 [online; see details under Heaney, Criticism, supra].
 

Also ed. Graph, No. 1 (Sept. 1995) & No. 2 (March 1996).

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Criticism
  • Colin Graham, review of Bring Everything, in The Irish Times (20 Jan. 2000) [extract];
  • Brian Lynch, review of Ledger [ ... &c.], Irish Times (24 Feb.1996);
  • Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Selected Poems and Nonetheless, in The Irish Times (23 May 2005), Weekend [extract];
  • review of Michael Smith’s Collected Poems, in The Irish Times (22 Aug. 2009), Weekend, p.12.
See also The Irish Times notice of Metre, 17 (April 2005) [extract].

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Commentary
Fred Johnson
, review Ledger [ ... &c.], in Books Ireland (April 1996), p.93 [‘a satisfying notion of understatement in many of these well-wrought and intelligent poems, supporting the notion that Sirr is one of our most watchable younger poets’].

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Peter Denman, review of The Ledger of Fruitful Exchange (1996 [sic]), with Gerald Dawe, Heart of Hearts (1995); quotes “Cures” [‘for hatred a doe for silence the sea for pride / alabaster, oak, lepoard, the wrecked sun / creeping to its hut, the night hugging and hoarding / its secret alphabets’], “A Dream of Habitation”, with the comment that “Cures” is [one] of the few stand-alone pieces … he prefers to arrange his poems in groups that are not quite sequences but which gather together a number of poems under a general title in order to work around a subject’; notes also that he uses ‘the device of projecting emotion outwards on to the circumstantial and material of the world’, thus ‘investigating the architecture of surroundings as defined by the feelings we invest in them.’ (Irish Literary Supplement, [q.d.], p.10.)

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Colin Graham, reviewing of Peter Sirr, Bring Everything [with collections by David Wheatley and Rita Kelly], in The Irish Times (20 Jan. 2000), writes: ‘Peter Sirr’s desire to know his city [Dublin] means that it features in almost all the poems in Bring Everything, and becomes a character in its own right. Yet Sirr’s city is usually inscrutable. When it offers itself as a poetic image the city seems to be deliberately avoiding taking on substance. […] Sirr becomes a flâneur of the new economy, traversing a place in which street names seem to have lost their resonance and where individual human stroies of others are out of reach.’

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Anon., [newstory] in The Irish Times (9 April 2005), Weekend: “Sirr speaks his mind”: ‘The hell of bureaucracy when it hits the arts world is well described by poet Peter Sirr, director of the Irish Writers’ Centre from 1991 to 2003, In the latest edition of literary journal Metre, which has a lengthy essay on Sirr’s poetry by Aingeal Clare and an interview with him by Justin Quinn. During his time at the centre there was, he tells Quinn, a perceptible shift to bean-counting in both arts council North and South and what seemed to him had essential distrust of artists and art. “The language of the arts became the instrumentalist managerial gobbledygook, the same sort of language that’s peddled in universities and other third-level institutions,” he says, describing graphically tearing his hair out filling out forms which wanted to know how many telephone calls per year he received from Laois or Tipperary South Riding or what percentage of the centre’s target audience was gay or transgendered or just plain confused. He confesses that he used to cut out examples of it all in what he calls a sort of hate book which alas he has now junked. Pity; it sounds like it might have made good reading. “I actually think despite the improvements of recent years there’s a very strong vein of philistinism and indifference to anything but the fate of money running through the culture,” he adds rather depressingly.’

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Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Selected Poems and Nonetheless, in The Irish Times (23 May 2005), Weekend: ‘Sirr might be called a mystic of the ordinary. The ordinary makes this poetry sympathetic and appealing - even familiar - but the mystical makes it challenging. Occasionally indeed Sirr can sound like Muldoon for instance in the last line of “The Nth Draft” from Talk, Talk which remembers an amorous encounter in the fog “that stayed for days, or lifted that night, I forget”. However, the elusive allegories they both favour are put to very different purposes. Muldoon’s focus is on language which he makes you scrutinise; Sirr has you reaching out to find a statable significance. / If this makes his poetry sound abstract or clinical, it must be stressed that Sirr is a wonderfully affecting, personal writer, especially in the elegies for his father. […] The poem that the new book will come to be remembered for, and which will join the group of Sirr’s indispensable items, is the title poem which ends the book’s main body. It again begins with a Muldoon echo (of Incantata ) but ends again with with the triumphantly persistent “nonetheless”, despite all the terrible things the verbs have to be learned for: “feeling low in a new place”, “waking in a panic of lost / three February mornings / in a row”, “living / in the endless promise / of language” (a promise, it is implied, ofter unfulfilled). This major poem is a distillation of Sirr’s strengths, which are tc seek with dedication what poetry can do distinctively. Nobody keeps to this central pursuit more persuasively than Peter Sirr, in spite of everything. Everyone who takes poetry seriously should read him attentively.’ [For full text, see infra.]

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Quotations

On hearing of the plan to cut down the trees of O’Connell, Street

May the train snag on ghost roots and come out
late, blackened and shaking into the light;
may the passengers find leaves in their pockets,
buds in their hair; may their briefcases be full of earth,
and their documents drowned; may their laptops sicken;
may the trees of planners crash in their gardens
in distant suburbs, their hedges fail; may sea spill on them;
may their dreams be heavy with the weight of fifty trees
and may this street never forgive them but stay always
a haunt of dippers, a haven of hamburgers, may it sell
junk and bad music, may revellers riot in the plaza;
may its air rot and its statues resign; may the Pillar return
and sad Anna Livia in her bath, may it be
continually disappointing; may horses roam in it
and prams from the banished markets; may it smell of fish;
may the movie titles stick and the tape break in the sweetshop clock
and the woman who dances in the street to her own tune
be joined by a legion more, dancing like trees, and these
magnificent plane trees that have stood so long and injured no-one
may they refuse to go away, may they float down from the sky
and erupt from the pavement, may they hide like the promised trains
and then pursue us, one every five minutes for all time.

—Published in The Irish Times (9 Nov. 2002), Weekend [q.p.].

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Legacies
You so love company
an engine has attached itself to your body,
taking up the night and feeding it back
as a spill of laughter
and confusion.
It takes half of what you say
and chews it up, the rest it overlays
with heavy rock, with old films,
the roar of other voices, glasses
clinking and a till slamming,
someone arguing and someone
starting to sing.
But you don’t mind,
it comes with the grammar
in this dialect of intimacy,
it’s how you like to live at night.
It’s where your father lived
and his father before him;
it has poured down the generations,
loud and smoke-filled,
a background roar where the soul
grins; it is the city
refusing to sleep, talking to itself,
drinking too much.
What happens here would die in quiet,
melts at dawn, is absent from
the sensible rooms our friends
have retired to. They’ve gone
to sleep or talk, to use the language rationally,
to distinguish one sound from another:
the purr of far-off traffic, the hum
of heating and the gravity of early news.
We’re listening in the nth bar
to your great great grandfather
blurt his song, to his son urge him on,
then his son comes shambling in
to wave your hands and shout for more
in your voice: more talk,
more drink, more noise
till neither they nor you nor I can tell
whose head is starting to spin,
whose voice is telling the story,
whose life it happens in.
—Given in Carol Rumens, “Poem of the Week”, in The Guardian (16 July 2012)

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Quiet

A legion of dogs has passed the window
unregarded, unhowled at
and cats come swaggering
into the noiseless garden.

Is there no watchfulness left
in the ruined couch, the stained glass?
And where did all this quiet come from?
Secretly the house collected it
and releases it now like a slap.

I bite on an apple and nothing happens.
Silence bounds into the kitchen
and lifts its black eyes.
How is it possible
the popped-up toast can sit in the toaster
and not rouse you, the stairs
not explode at the scrape of butter?
Undisputed, unaccompanied
the slices wait.

Where are your ten imploring years?
From foot to foot I shift
while south of here
in unfamiliar territory
your curious hungry ashes scatter,
scour the woodland and the wind
and snatch this quiet from my hands.

—“The Tuesday Poem”, in Irish Examiner (11 Nov. 2014) - online.

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Critical criteria: ‘[I]t shouldn’t be necessary to praise everything simply because the work fits into a particular political perspective, or to create the kind of critical atmosphere around the work where to question any aspect of it is to be consigned to a doghouse for the unreconstructed.’ (“The Figures in the Tablecloth”, review of Irish University Review, 23, 1 [“Eavan Boland Special Issue”], Spring/Summer 1993; in The Irish Times, 26 June 1993; cited in Catriona Clutterbuck, ‘Gender and Representation in Irish Poetry’, in Bullán: An Irish Studies Journal, Autumn 1998, p.46.)

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‘“In Step With What Escaped Me”: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’, Introduction to Seamus Heaney: Collected Poems (RTÉ 2009) - CD Boxset & Pamphlet.
 

[...]
  What is it about this poetry that appeals to so many and that has, from the outset, earned itself critical acceptance and admiration of a kind rarely seen, establishing a consensus perhaps best summarised by Christopher Ricks when he called Heaney ‘the most trusted poet of our islands’? Part of the appeal, certainly, lies in the subject matter. Heaney’s consistent imaginative attention to his rural County Derry upbringing affords many readers the sense, perhaps, that the life he expresses is part of a collective life of the spirit, the life of an Ireland that belongs to our sense of the past. The verbal gifts that he brings to bear on his subjects give the work a sensual presence and an appeal to what Eliot has called ‘the auditory [7] imagination’ that is hard to resist, in the way that Wordsworth, Hardy or Ted Hughes are hard to resist. There is the rich variety of the work: the poems of nature, the love poems, the poetry of memory, the translations, the essays. And yet, from the very beginning, a current of unease runs through the work, a sense that poetry, for all its aesthetic compensations, may not be enough, that the poet is poised, uncomfortably, between ‘politics and transcendence’, between realism and celebration or between ‘the atrocious’ and the counterlife of imaginative faith.
[...]
 Heaney’s career at this stage seems to vacillate between freedom and constraint. There’s a sense of the poet setting aside some of the burdens of expectation in, for instance, Sweeney Astray (1982) his version of the medieval Irish poem “Suibhne Gealt”. His choice of Sweeney comes partly from the fact that the maddened birdman who flees from the battlefield and takes to the trees offers a parallel for his own situation: ‘insofar as Sweeney is also a figure of the artist, displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance, it is possible to read the work as an aspect of the quarrel between free creative imagination and the constraints of religious political and domestic obligation.’ The freedoms won in Field Work and in the gleeful reinvention of Sweeney come under the interrogative glare of “Station Island”, which is structured as a visit to the penitential island of Lough Derg with its stations of the cross, black tea and wakefulness. The pilgrimage to the lake is a central locus of the Catholic experience in Ireland, a microcosm of the journey through experience to repentance and spiritual salvation. Lough Derg is also a much visited literary site, which is itself part of Heaney’s subject – William Carleton, Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin wrote significant work inspired by it or, in Carleton’s case reacting against it. Of all of them, Heaney’s is the least concerned with the religious significance.
[...]
 The central struggle in Heaney’s work has been ‘to make space in [his] reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous’. We see this struggle again and again. Seeing Things (1991) offers a double vision, the things that are seen, witnessed, materially present, including the finiteness of life itself, and seeing things in the sense of the glimpsed, imagined, hoped for. [Discusses the title poem at some length.] / Seeing Things also contains “Squarings”, a set of forty-eight twelve-line poems in four sections, one of the freest, most adventurous and unpinnable down of his poems. The poems here are happy to remove themselves from the provable, the concrete, and dwell in the realm of the spirit, in ‘anglings, aimings, feints and squints’ or in one meaning of the word ‘lightening’: ‘A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares / With pure exhilaration before death ...’ The poems work in a fast, instinctual procession of image and action, a series of ‘shifting brilliancies’, poem leading to poem by association. The looseness of the form and organisational principle allows Heaney’s instinctive gifts of ‘perfected vision’ to shine through. There is [35] in this later Heaney a conscious movement to ‘Omnipresence, equilibrium, brim’, an attempt to balance the earnest apprehension of the real and the visible with a kind of artistic floating or walking on air. Heaney’s poetry is never simply one or the other; there is a constant dialectic between them. The push to the airy clarity and brilliancies of “Squarings” depends on the earth-bound mud visions, it’s the acknowledgement of the earthbound that prompts the desire for a transcendent exultation.
[...]
 Everyone will go back to their own poems for their own reasons; there is an astonishing richness of work to choose from. Again and again the poetry of Seamus Heaney discovers the release into pleasure that is one of the truest sources of all poetry, and if we attend to it we might learn, like the poet, to be in step with what escapes us. (p.40; end.)

 
For full-text version, go to RICORSO Library, “Criticism”, via index or direct.

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References
Patrick Crotty, ed., Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology (Belfast: Blackstaff Press 1995), selects “A Few Helpful Hints” [414].

“The Cat Flap” is Peter Sirr’s blogspot - online.
See also Peter Sirr reading "Peter Street" at UCD Readings - online,
and his address at Epilepsy Ireland, 2013 at Youtube - online.

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Notes
Graph
, 2nd ser., ed. Peter Sirr; relaunch of controversial journal; Issue, 1 incl. contribs. by Seán Dunne, Seamus Heaney, Robert Fisk, and interview with Murray Gell-Mann; Issue, 2 (March 1996), incl. interview with Ciaron Carson, article by Louis de Paor; Michael Cronin, Ruth Riddick, and Lionel Pilkington. [Notice, Irish Literary Supplement, Spring 1996.]

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