The poetry of Thomas McCarthy is distinctive, and its qualities work not only in complement but synergistically.
No other poet comes to mind, living or dead, who has succeeded in engaging the political as poetic subject matter as McCarthy manages in his poems about the Fianna Fail Party. His knowledge and closeness to the material would be one likely reason, but other poets who have written on the subject have been equivalently involved, while the result, more often than not, has been shrill, jingoistic or bombastic: certainly less subtle and telling than poems like ‘The Talker’, ‘The President’s Men’, ‘The Chairmen’s Widow’, ‘To A Political Leader’ and ‘The Expelled Deputy’, the last two especially remarkable for the economy and the amount of information conveyed or suggested. McCarthy, it would seem, has been able to internalize the subject matter and given it the time to cool down and clarify, until his art can give it a shape. But there’s something in his approach, the focus on the extreme local-ness of the political subject matter, its particulars, personal and otherwise, that allows him to succeed where so many others have faltered.
There is a larger quality, or group of qualities, behind McCarthy’s success in the realm of political poetry that extends to his other poetry, especially the elegiac poetry about his parents and the love poetry, both charged and commonly mishandled subject matter, usually through overwrought treatment.
It has something to do with restraint in voice and tone. There are formal choices at work here. The diction and syntax are, if not plain, relatively unembellished and do not call attention to themselves. The treatment of subject matter is, usually, direct. We know where we’re going or being led. The emotional atmosphere is customarily established at or near the beginning in any given poem. McCarthy seemed to have decided early on that a flexible, often loose sort of syllabics suited his voice. Syllabics, as famously as politcal poetry, tends not to work very well in English but McCarthy, as he does with his political poetry, turns this notion on its head. He would have local models for this sort of syllabics. Derek Mahon might well be one, at least in poems like ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. In fact, such is McCarthy’s skill with syllabic constraint that the reader – this reader, at least – finds himself continually returning to any number of poems to look for a rhyme scheme at work or to scan it for the meter. This, I believe, has to do with an unusual degree of compositional balance, in part achieved through expert deployment of rhymes: half-rhymes, cross-rhymes, assonance, all manner of chiming, and, for emphasis, resounding end-rhymes, usually at the end or toward the end of any given poem.
This sense of balance and proportion seems something the poet was born with. One can call it touch. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, quality to teach. McCarthy artfully mixes end-stopped and enjambed lines, the latter often at idiosyncratic junctures that sometimes initially seem curious but, quickly thereafter, inevitable. Likewise, his caesurae, coming in often surprising position but, in the scheme of things, deftly placed to break the flow of breathing or breathed attention.
As regards this quality of restraint, which heightens the effect of poems like ‘Ellen Tobin McCarthy’, ‘My Father Reading’, and ‘The Musician’s Love-Nest’ and a score of others, a clue might be found in an early poem from McCarthy’s 1978 collection The First Convention, entitled ‘Daedalus, The Maker’:
Learning to keep silent is a difficult
task. To place art anonymously at
the Earth’s altar, then to scurry away
like a wounded animal, is the most cruel
test piece . . .
. . . the wisdom of Dactylos:
that words make the strangest labyrinth,
with circular passages and minotaurs
lurking in the most innocent lines . . .
. . . Words, I have found, are
captured, not made: opinion alone is
a kind of retreat. I shall become like
Dactylos, a quiet maker; moving between
poet and priest, keeping my pride secret.
The poem itself, quoted piecemeal here and thereby unfairly treated, is, regardless,
not a very good poem, rather heroic in the way such poems by male poets in their early 20’s tend to be. And McCarthy, in a later autobiographical essay even discounts the notion or sentiment of the poem himself. But as we often do in our youth, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes awkwardly or baldly, the young poet stakes out an aesthetic stance, a way of going about things, that the mature poet lays claim to – the quiet maker – with lovely and memorable result.