John F. Deane is one of the most gifted and influential poets in Ireland, not only from his formidable corpus of more than a dozen poetry books and essays and prose, but also because of what he has founded and organised in the Irish poetry world. His talent as a writer and commitment to poetry have been recognised not just in Ireland – by, for example, membership of Aosdána – but across Europe with awards from, among others, France (Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des letters), Serbia (The Golden Key of Smederevo) and Italy (Laudomia Bonanni International Award).
Deane’s tenacity to express a spiritual vision in what many might suppose is rapidly becoming a post-Catholic, and even post-Christian, Ireland marks him out as a voice crying in the wilderness, but a cry softened by the cadences of otherworldly music. At the heart of his holistic vision of things is a conviction that the divine manifests itself materially as an echo of the Incarnation; mountains, sea, rivers, birds, the rugged landscape of his native Co. Mayo – all are exempla of a divine handiwork threaded with a luminosity that Deane reveals in his lines.
Like all profound poets, Deane writes a single poem, but its variations reach out to embrace all of human life, from affecting elegies to celebrations of the grandeur of God. Ever glimmering in the background of his poems is the presence of Christ, as a mystery, a figure of ineffable love, as Meister Eckhart’s “ground of the soul” – a touchstone against which Deane is always testing his probing imagination. Yet Deane is never narrowly pious or blinkered in his religiosity, always reaching out towards creation with an open heart and mind, offering it his singular gift of verbal fluency.
Deane was born on Achill Island in Co. Mayo in 1943 and nearly found his way into the priesthood. Instead, he took the cloth of secular society and began to work out his destiny in the cloisters of the imagination. In 1979 he founded Poetry Ireland – the national poetry society – and Poetry Ireland Review (of which he became editor in 2011), twin establishments that have nourished generations of Irish poets. In 1985 he founded Dedalus Press, another seedbed of Irish poetry, and one that from the start looked out towards Europe and the translation of continental poets. Indeed, Deane, though rooted in the soil of his motherland, has always looked beyond his native horizons to the literary traditions of other countries. Raised by a father who taught himself Russian and German to appreciate better the words of Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Goethe, Deane has been an enthusiast of continental poetics, from Elisabeth Borchers to Tomas Tranströmer. Equally, he has absorbed the work of his Irish forebears as well as English religious and nature poets of the metaphysical and post-Romantic eras, including George Herbert, John Clare and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
He has published many collections of poetry and some fiction. In the new millennium Deane began an association with the UK’s Carcanet Press that has led to five substantial and important additions to his oeuvre: Toccata and Fugue: New and Selected Poems (2000), Manhandling the Deity (2003), The Instruments of Art (2005), A Little Book of Hours (2008) and The Eye of the Hare (2011).
He has won the O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry, the Marten Toonder Award for Literature, the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and poetry prizes from Italy and Romania. He was elected Secretary-General of the European Academy of Poetry in 1996. He has been shortlisted for both the T.S. Eliot prize and The Irish Times Poetry Now Award and has been granted residencies in Bavaria, Monaco and Paris.
The six poems presented here for Poetry International illuminate some of the labyrinthine trails of Deane’s psyche as well as his method: the beautifully relaxed, alertly casual flow of images; the sense of a thought springing to life, like the sudden appearance of birdsong, in an air of inspired improvisation; the informal tone, crafted by an innate sense of musical phrasing and manifested in an instinctive feel for line lengths and enjambment; the deft yoking of words (“water-wisdom”) and the creation of neologisms (“afterscent”, “otherwhere”); the confidence in a clarity that creates a luminous atmosphere and otherworldly mystery and which are constants in Deane’s work.
In the details of the poems can be seen some of Deane’s symbols and themes. ‘Blueberries’ shows the openness and tenderness typical of Deane’s private poems, as well as the omnipresence of the natural world, the lyrical substratum from which Deane operates. In ‘Late in the Season’ the moon again appears, the white goddess that persistently objectifies Deane’s sense of the feminine divine, this time to create a liminal realm of ghostly “cloudshadows” where rabbits and a fox – a totemic creature for Deane – are the companions of a spectral self roaming the frontiers of the soul with his pockets full of linguistic treasure. ‘The Rose Window’ and ‘The Pride of Life’ draw on his days as a trainee priest. The sparrow in the first poem is one of the many natural signs and omens that populate Deane’s work, spirit guides who remind him, and us, of the great interlinking of life. The sparrow, stunned by crashing into a window, receives grace from the poet-as-saviour, but at the same time confers grace by a transference of its vulnerability, “a small heart hammering against my caring hands”. In ‘The Pride of Life’ Deane faces up to the priestly destiny he never pursued, a time of his life that in its very intensity remains an area of charged, poetically fruitful, memory. By contrast, ‘In the Margins’ and ‘November’ conjure up a personal, domestic world in which love flows through the channels of relationship – including that between the living and the dead – rooting Deane in a familial time and place.
Deane’s forthcoming Snow Falling on Chestnut Hill in 2012 will present an updated new and selected volume. It promises to be a verbal and spiritual harvest of swaying light, a Heraclitean vision where panda rhei, “everything flows”, from line to line, like water from a layered fountain, gathering into a well of deep wisdom and healing.
Toccata and Fugue, Carcanet, Manchester, 2000
Manhandling the Deity, Carcanet, Manchester, 2003
The Instruments of Art, Carcanet, Manchester, 2005
A Little Book of Hours, Carcanet, Manchester, 2008
Eye of the Hare, Carcanet, Manchester, 2011
In the Name of the Wolf, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1999
The Coffin Master, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2000
Undertow, Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 2002
The Heather Fields, Blackstaff Press, Belfast 2005
John F. Deane’s homepage
John F. Deane’s author page at Carcanet
Text and video of Deane’s prizewinning poem ‘Shoemaker’