“Poetry Is Not Old-Fashioned”
Ireland’s Nick Laird on verse, fiction, marriage, and the tin whistle
Despite rumors to the contrary, poetry is not only alive and well, but constantly revitalizing the world around us, says Nick Laird.
“It rejuvenates not just the language, but challenges our received notions and preconceptions,” says the 32-year-old Irish scribe.
Laird represents a new crop of British poets gaining notice in the American literary community. He was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and attended the University of Cambridge, where he won the Quiller-Couch Award for creative writing and where he met Zadie Smith, a fellow aspiring writer who would become a celebrated novelist and his wife.
Laird has worked as a lawyer and has lived in Warsaw, London, Rome, and Boston, where he was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. In 2005, his debut poetry collection, To a Fault, won the Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Ireland Chair of Poetry award. His second collection, On Purpose (2007), won a 2008 Somerset Maugham Award. Laird is also a novelist, with one title, Utterly Monkey, under his belt and another in the works.
Laird cites Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney as a primary influence and has sometimes been compared to Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Publishers Weekly wrote of On Purpose: “Compact, careful, thoughtful and even wary, the second book of verse from Laird gives the U.S. a fine representative of what younger mainstream British poets are doing right now. Like his peers, Laird writes shapely stanzas organized by description and sometimes by half-rhymes; he owes much to Glyn Maxwell [GRS’88] or Paul Muldoon, though less so compared to his debut To a Fault.”
Laird will read his poetry on Saturday, November 8, at the College of General Studies Jacob Sleeper Auditorium as part of the 2008 meeting of the New England Region of the American Conference for Irish Studies and Boston University’s Poetry Reading Series. BU Today asked him whether the literary competition between him and Smith ever gets fierce and how difficult it is to write both fiction and poetry.
BU Today: In this age of hyperfast technology, multimedia, and instantaneous information, where does poetry fit in? It almost seems an arcane pursuit for a young person today.
Laird: Yeah, I sometimes think people half expect it to have gone the way of clog dancing and badger baiting. Poetry, though, is not old-fashioned. It rejuvenates not just the language, but challenges our received notions and preconceptions. Using any means at its disposal, poetry aims at creating something equal to the moment, and in that to salvage something real. It tries to bring back the extravagant strangeness of existence, to recover, in the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase, the sensation of life. But what does this actually mean? Take a scenario familiar from a thousand TV medical dramas — patient in hospital bed — and watch poetry defamiliarize it. This is the second stanza of “Tulips” by Sylvia Plath:
They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.
The first jolt is the simile, with its overtones of cruelty, of being forced to look — at others and at one’s self. The “stupid pupil” — both the imagined eye and her — hints at self-hate. In her ambition she “has to take everything in,” notice, manage, succeed at everything.
The phrase “they are no trouble” has echoes of the nurses’ speech. Is the speaker — deliriously? sarcastically? — repeating the phrase back to them? The repetitions of “pass” evoke the nurses swishing continually by. Plath deliberately mixes up the simile of the gulls, jumping back to the nurses after mentioning the birds — and we get the vague, confused impression of gulls with hands. I could go on and on. And we haven’t even touched on how the whole thing sounds. Some of the effects happen at the level of consciousness and some below it, but all make the stanza immediate and astonishing, and exist in a kind of 3-D. How long would it take to achieve something similar in prose? It couldn’t be done at all on TV.
Can you comment on shuttling between poetry and fiction: how do the genres influence one another in your work?
I find it hard to move between them. It’s rare, for example, for me to write both in one day. Poetry is more about one’s relation to the world. Prose tends to be more social, about people’s relations to each other. I once started a poem with the (pretty bad) couplet, Poets sit by the window while / novelists choose the aisle, and I think there’s still something in that thought.
I’m not sure how the two genres influence each other in my work. I’d hope that being a poet lends a precision to the fiction and helps with imagery, and I’d hope that being a novelist has nothing at all to do with poetry. I do fear that one will infect the other, to the detriment of both, but so far, I think I’m okay.
What lessons from your law career have you been able to apply to writing?
Lots of them actually. Make your case persuasive, focus, persevere, use the right words, and put in the long hours. It’s always a slog, for everyone.
Have you observed differences in the ways Irish and American audiences respond to poetry?
I haven’t really noticed any.
Is it difficult being married to another successful writer? Is there any competition between you?
It’s difficult being married, period, but I don’t think my wife being a writer has anything to do with that. We’ve read and edited each other’s work since we were 18, so there’s no competition between us in terms of writing — though when we play Scrabble, it can get pretty bloody. I don’t think I really influence her at all, but she has certainly had an effect on my fiction — not because of her own writing, but because she’s a fairly harsh judge and her criticisms have got me to raise my game.
How do you keep celebrity from affecting artistic growth?
I’m not a celebrity, so I don’t know.
What will you read from on Saturday?
Poems, I think, as I’m on the airplane as I type this, and I’ve just realized I’ve brought no fiction with me.
Your reading will be capped off with traditional Irish music. Do you play an instrument, as well?
I’m afraid that decision was nothing to do with me, though I’m looking forward to hearing it. I play the tin whistle very, very poorly when I’m by myself.
Nick Laird will read on Saturday, November 8, at 5:30 p.m. at CGS’s Jacob Sleeper Auditorium, Room 129, 871 Commonwealth Ave. The reading is part of the 2008 meeting of the New England Region of the American Conference for Irish Studies, a multidisciplinary scholarly organization with approximately 1,500 members in the United States, Ireland, Canada, and other countries, taking place this year at Boston University. It is also part of BU’s Poetry Reading Series, cosponsored by the University Professors Program and the Humanities Foundation. The event is free and open to the public.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at email@example.com Comments