Greg Delanty is one of the most important lyric poets of Southern Ireland. Although the themes of his work – family and exile, politics and marriage – may seem predictable in the Irish context, his voice is unique and highly developed. Born in Cork city in 1958, Delanty was the son of a master-printer. He was an athletic youth and won many swimming awards, later becoming a summer lifeguard on the dangerous Atlantic beaches of West Kerry. After attending University College, Cork (then a haven for new poets), where he obtained his degree and post-graduate teaching diploma, he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for his first collection, Cast in the Fire.
He went on to win the prestigious Dowling Fellowship that allowed him to travel to America where he subsequently became a Professor of English at St. Michael’s College, Vermont. He is currently Artist-in-Residence at the same College. He has recently edited The Word Exchange, a magnificent book of translations from the Anglo-Saxon, published by W.W. Norton, New York. He has also written and published translations of the iconic Irish-language poet Seán O Ríordáin, as well as a splendid edition of the poems of the post-War Irish poet, Patrick Galvin.
Delanty’s poetry is lyrical, intense, colloquial and deeply rooted in family and friendship. In the poem ‘The Compositer’ from The Hellbox (1998) he writes of his father’s world:
Perhaps it’s the smell of printing ink
sets me off out of memory’s jumbled font
or maybe it’s the printer’s lingo
as he relates how phrases came about.
How for instance: mind your p’s & q’s
has as much to do with pints and quarts
and the printer’s renown for drink
as it has with those descenders.
Delanty combines “the printers’ lingo” with a familiar Irish drinking knowledge. His insights are camouflaged within carefully constructed demotic utterances. This has been the hallmark of all his work – a localisation of worldly ideas where insights are dropped casually within a distracting lyrical dance. In ‘Setting the Type’, he recreates the environment of the type-setting room, invoking the names of his father’s workmates with a Roethke-like energy and precision: “The names Dan Hannigan, Owen Lane, Donnie Conroy –/ I could go on forever invoking the dead –/ were set deep in a boy // impressed by the common raised type on the 3rd floor/ of Eagle Printing Company”. Here is a poet, a rare bird in the modern era, secure in his imaginative territory.
Delanty’s exile, or cultural commuting, has become another powerful strand within the broad cloth of his narrative. In American Wake (1995), he creates a particular place of exile, a fifth province of Ireland: “It is this island where all exiles naturally land.” Here, in ‘The Fat Yank’s Lament’, ‘Economic Pressure’, ‘Vermont Aisling’ and ‘The Shrinking World’, he finds an entire Irish narrative wanting. He interrogates accepted modes of Irish lament, resists the sentimentality of a Victorian tradition, and inserts, instead, a new tone into the Irish-American exile-poem:
you’ve been taken
with this place,
to that other one
The birth of his son, Daniel, led to a marvellous suite of parenting poems, a bustling domesticity that was brilliantly captured in his 2003 collection The Ship of Birth. Here, in poem after poem, is fatherhood in all its private glory, from the expectant father tying the mother-to-be’s shoes to the baby’s head settling into “the pelvic butterfly” of the mother to that moment of birth with “the whole show agape in the pause before the applause”, and all of it blossoming into the discovery of a new, primitive language – the printer’s ink of a baby crying: “Christ child, such a caterwaul’s parent-petrifying,/ hardly a put on, you’re no shammer./ To hear you now you’d think you were dying.”
It is one of the unique achievements of Delanty that he seems to find a precise language for each phase in his life, as if life experiences presented themselves in a toolbox containing new words and letters. Few Irish poets have his instinctive grasp of shrewd and appropriate words. It is difficult to exaggerate what a supreme technical achievement his individuality really is: his tone is precisely his own and owes nothing to any other poetic voice in Ireland. Such personal style, such individuation and sheering-away from accepted modes of Irish writing and well-trodden forms of political Irish discourse, has left Delanty critically isolated throughout his career. He is a Cork Elizabethan, sometimes primitive (or primal) in outlook, but learned and classical in his carefully orchestrated grasp of dark materials. For a Southern writer with similar imaginative resources, one would have to go to the Irish-language contemporary, Líam O Muirthile, or back nearly two hundred years to the complex playful classicism of Francis Sylvester Mahony (‘Father Prout’) and his Fraser’s Magazine essays. Indeed, Delanty’s newest poetic project, a roman-fleuve of poems called The Greek Anthology, is a tour de force of imagination, history and humour:
The lights are like those of countless fans at a concert
holding up candles to their gods, the group Homo sapiens,
fleeting as any. Yet gods nonetheless,
bearing mayhem on the one hand and marvels
on the other, as is the way of any regular band of gods.
– Gregory of Corkus
The above lines were presented as a kind of personal Preface to his Collected Poems 1986–2006, published in the Oxford Poets Series by Carcanet Press. This book marked a point of arrival for Delanty, “a pure poet” as Christopher Ricks has said, or a poet whose work is, in the words of Peter Reading, “wordily appealing in the way that Hopkins and late Auden appeal”. His Collected contained an entire suite of previously unpublished poems, Aceldama: after birth, here was a complete meditation upon death, written in deceptively colloquial Cork English, yet shimmering with hard-won knowledge. Here was a dying parent and death described as a childhood flashback. Here was nature, field and compost, and “our/ gourd whispering we’re all the same/ beneath the rind”. And the sequence ends with ‘Aceldama’ itself, a superb poem in which the mother explains an un-consecrated burial ground as being a place where they bury “those whose lives somehow went wrong”. This poem is a great achievement in the art of the Irish poem, but behind it resonates the pure energy of an individualistic and difficult poet; one of the finest of the maturing Southern Irish generation:
The crepuscular loneliness of the field
shrouded our bright time. Our world,
the city below, shimmered like the silver pieces
scattered on the dark floor of the temple.
Collected Poems 1986–2006, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2006
The Ship of Birth, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 2003
The Hellbox, Carcanet Press, Manchester, 1998
American Wake, Blackstaff, Belfast, 1995
Southward, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1992
Cast in the Fire, The Dolmen Press, Dublin, 1986
Selected Poems by Kyriakos Charalambides, Southword Editions, Cork, 2005
The Selected Poems of Seán Ó Ríordáin in Translation, New Island Books, Dublin, 2008
Jumping Off Shadows: Selected Contemporary Irish Poetry (with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill), Cork University Press, 1995
The Selected Poems of Patrick Galvin (with Robert Welsh), Cork Univerity Press, 1995
The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (with Michael Matto) WW. Norton New York, 2010
Delanty at St. Michael’s College, Vermont
Audio recording of Delanty reading his translation of ‘The Wanderer’
Youtube video of a poetry reading by Delanty