2013 Winner: Leontia Flynn
Tonight, the friends of the Center for Irish Studies gather for the seventeenth time to be warmed by the traditions of the O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award and to remember the rewards of the poetry that our Irish visitors have brought to us.
On this chill Spring evening, we honor the work and wit of the Belfast poet Leontia Flynn. Her distinctive melding of contemporary speech and literary allusion recalls the art of other poets from the North: Louis MacNeice and Derek Mahon, to name two. Her three notable collections from Jonathan Cape Poetry-- These Days (2004), Drives (2008), and Profit and Loss (2011)—each display her sound, her inventiveness, and her ear for individual and human irony.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, and in Belfast, as elsewhere, the art and accomplishment of poetry renews itself—though the lines of descent are frequently a tangle. Flynn has found her own way not by speaking ofher generation but by speaking to it. She often does so indirectly by speaking to herself, and usually disconcertingly, in order to pose the plight of the poet. After all, the poet is a person as well, and that person might well be caught in frightening circumstance--like the helpless woman the poet remembers on the ferry in These Days: “a woman in a wheelchair /was carried back and forth by the boat’s rocking / for the length between two glass doors.”
From that striking image we can feel a truth when Flynn asserts that “These days I am serious.” Rehearsing the address book of her life, Flynn helps us sense suddenly the mutability of our own lives: “…These days, I’m bowled over / hearing myself say, ten years ago… ten years ago such and such….” The habitations we accept, the addresses of our flats and homes matter much, even though we move on from them. No fewer than five poems in These Days carry the title “Without Me.” These poems speak of Flynn’s perception of everyday transience, as when she notes a romantic break-up as “three and half years spent / --like fifteen minutes at a bus stop.”
Flynn rarely fails to hear the ambiguity in ordinary words. The “without” in her titles suggests also a world beyond the boundaries of the self and the familiar. The world that lies “without” preoccupies her second collection Drives, which gathers short poems about persons—often artists or writers like Virginia Woolf or Proust—and cities like Barcelona and Berlin. Her title comes, however, from “Drive,” an affectingly direct postcard of her mother’s car and of her mother. The poem ends with a faithful lift of double meanings: “…she tells this offspring she’s nearing the end of the road / a clock ticks softly … the low pulse of some drive… ? / My mother watches. She’s waiting for a sign…”
Tonight we celebrate in particular Leontia Flynn’s third collection, Profit and Loss— her most ambitious collection, her most technically accomplished book, but also her most plain-spoken. Yes, the poems that open this book do speak of her unsettledness. But this is also a book about finding one’s way. Portentously, the first poem of the book concerns house-shopping, with middle-aged shoppers realizing that the previous owners had been old and infirm: one generation makes way for another. Later poems speak of the anchoring claims of motherhood and marriage. Others, like “My Father’s Language,” describe her parents’ failing health: “… the near shore of my father’s life / licked by small waves, starts to grow faint and vague.”
At the center of Profit and Loss is a virtuoso performance, “Letter to Friends,” a thirty-two stanza verse letter. Writing to us at the edge of the 2008 financial mess, Flynn finds that so much of what only recently seemed important has been stripped of meaning. Listen to how the melody of her lines carries the wit:
And strange too, how much of it is obsolete
already (though these days we’re classed as youth
till 44). In here, among receipts
for gifts long given and lost, I’ve found such proof
of history’s incessant forward schlep
picking up speed of late, as artefacts
that now seem relics from some ancient bureau.
There’s (exhibit A) a 90-minute tape
filled with sad songs; a battered filofax
and some notes for countries long since using Euro.
As “Letter to Friends” continues, Flynn wonders aloud about such global concerns as climate change and the failure of the banks; about the cynical, commercial turn in poetry; and about the amnesiac shallowness of Belfast after the “Troubles.”
In a recent article, Leontia Flynn wrote, “Rather than figuring the endless textual networks with which we have all become so familiar, I want to stop clicking, scrolling and speed-reading and shuffling on to the next song, and instead focus on poetry which stays still and feels something.” It is that centering poetic impulse that we honor tonight.
We praise her wit, her willingness to risk irony, and her skepticism toward the posturing of the too-earnest. We appreciate the scrupulousness with which she has continued to survey “these days” and the hard truths that her poetry asks of us, and asks her generation; and especially, we honor her for the poems themselves, and the music of her lines. We have pleasure now in presenting the 17th Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry to Leontia Flynn of Belfast.