Nick Laird is one of a new generation of poets – including Leontia Flynn, Alan Gillis, Sineád Morrissey, and others – who are redefining Northern Irish poetry for the post-Troubles era, while drawing on a raft of influences including Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Donaghy, Louis MacNeice and others.
Laird's poems are elegant, economical, concerned with language and form, and utterly unsentimental – but never afraid of real feeling. They explore with forensic precision the difficulty of relations between men and women, between political factions, among generations, within families, between the individual and the world.
Nick Laird was born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1975 and read English literature at Cambridge University. He worked as a lawyer at the international firm of Allen and Overy before leaving to write poetry and fiction full-time. His first poetry collection, To a Fault, was published in 2005, in the same year as his first novel, Utterly Monkey. A second poetry collection, On Purpose, followed in 2007, and the novel Glover's Mistake in 2009.
From the first his poetry was assured and formally authoritative; To a Fault features sophisticated and highly lyrical descriptions of terrorist attacks, bar-room brawls, family lore, and meditations on the vulnerability of just about everything. Simply describing things with a quotidian immediacy works to great effect in both his love poems and the stark description, in 'The Signpost', of a kneecapping "on the second Tuesday of the month":
The pistol jammed and they kicked him over.
They could break his legs, they offered,
but he waited, and another gun was brought.
His images are startling, almost in the manner of what used to be called 'Martian' poetry – seeing with an angle that makes the familiar seem strange. References to "acned bark" of a tree, "a country station in the bleach of dawn" occur in 'Oświęciem', in which an escape of bees from a hive becomes – by sleight of hand – the Shoah. In 'The Present Writer' (featured here), we see, "like the ghost of a lighthouse // in Atlantic mist, / a full glass of skimmed milk."
'On Beauty', a quietly understated pantoum, begins:
of sins they can't forgive us.
The beautiful don't lack the wound.
It is always beginning to snow.
It's not a poetry of ease. But it is a poetry about being alive to experience.
Laird's love poems are grounded (like MacNeice's) in the same very immediate, recognisable world, and find tenderness in cold light and small actions. A sequence in On Purpose, dealing with issues around marriage and getting along, is based on the warcraft of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. From 'Use of Spies':
Just before dinner I woke in mid-air,
opened the shutter and saw the sun rising.
Light swung over the clouds like a boom.
. . .
I thought I'll have to try to tell you that.
Laird's poems are concerned with language, some primarily so. 'Manoeuvring' traces an etymology of it's title through the Gaelic: "man meaning animal, and oeuvre meaning works, / thus the workings of the beast –" The poem moves through bombings to murderers and policemen and then to love. The understandings of the beast.
In 'The Riddles of the Ardcumber Book' – which calls to mind Michael Donaghy's cod-medieval poems, as well as Tom Stoppard's Arcadia:
But it was here in the margins that I found my passion:
twenty-five riddles in a rustic Latin.
Nearly every other scholar overlooked them.
The rest misread them.
But these are the things that came to mean love.
(the fish is a quiet guest)
Beauty is a sin inflicted by those who don't understand; we become animals when we most need to be human; love rises from ruins even while it creates them.
The poem 'Done' is about the end of a relationship, but might also sum up Nick Laird's 'purpose': "We've come to bag the evidence".
Laird has won many awards for his work including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Betty Trask Prize and a Somerset Maugham award. He teaches at Barnard College and Princeton University, and writes and reviews for many newspapers and journals.
His new book of poems, Go Giants, will be published by Faber (in the UK) and Norton (in the US) in 2013.