The rock-poet Paul Durcan packs out the Dark Horse - Fionola Meredith never looks at her watch once
What other poet can make you laugh and cry all in the space of the one reading? All too often, poetry readings mean hard-backed chairs, wandering attention and sneaky peeks at your watch. It’s rare indeed to find a poet who can keep you so thoroughly entertained, captivated and moved that the minutes fly by. Paul Durcan is one of those poets.
Appearing at the Dark Horse as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts festival, Durcan is decked out in a voluminous bright mustard-yellow sweater (Colman’s, not Dijon). He begins with a rollicking, ear-splitting mockery of the braying upper classes - 'who ever said the English nation was dead? .........Don’t look but that’s Edwin de Vere Todd ..... a smear of black caviar on a cheese stick wouldn’t be a bad idea' – which had the audience giggling deliciously.
It’s the perfect antidote to stuffy hubris and hushed pretentiousness. Durcan realises that a poetry reading should be entertainment – but that doesn’t mean he abandons himself to cheap populism either. In an ecstatic poem about meeting Brian Friel in Waterstone’s he describes how 'my little bull of affection begins to bellow .... and crashes through my thicket of etiquette' – which manages to be smart and sharp, while remaining likeably self-deprecating.
'The Kilfenora Teaboy', meanwhile, is poignant in its simplicity, and delivered equally simply, without sententiousness or sentiment.
Whether they’re about the death by heroin of Sid Vicious, the sexual proclivities of cucumbers, or making hay in Mayo, Durcan’s poems are like spoken songs, in the way they scoop you up and carry you along in their own rhythms.
They’re full of soothing, incantatory repetitions which makes them sound almost liturgical: 'I am the centre of the universe .... it does not matter that I am a jilted lover .... I am the centre of the universe,' he croons, loving the words. And his voice! Alternately sharp, biting, satirical, then soft, weary and tender, Durcan’s voice weaves a spell of its own. His habit of lingering over sibilants, drawing them out – 'handssss' ..... 'stonessss' ..... 'darknessss' - is like a lonely, yearning whisper in the night.
Durcan’s poems tell of the surprising richness of the everyday: pushing a trolley in a supermarket, travelling on a bus with a bunch of irises. There’s a pleasing economy to them, a lack of wordiness. For instance, a happy marriage is invoked as 'a pot of phlox on the windowsill / a cruet of lamb’s tails'. He startles you, though, with sudden questions. 'Can you conceive of a life without stairs?', 'You can have sex with anyone, but with whom can you sleep?'
Hearing Durcan read, I am reminded of the late John McGahern, whose own genius came wrapped up in humour, modesty and deceptive simplicity – and yet his writing touched the sublime. That’s the way with the very best ones – they don’t have to huff and puff, and strut and preen. And you never look at your watch when you’re in their company.