Friday, September 19, 2014

Culture Night 2014 in Loughrea Library

BAFFLE Poetry Celebrate Culture Night Friday, 19th September from 8.00 pm – 10.00 pm in Loughrea Library, Church Street, Loughrea.

Archive and published works of BAFFLE will be on display on the night. Johnny Kelly, Local Historian and Chairperson of BAFFLE will give the History of BAFFLE. There will be music by Tony Callanan, Singer Songwriter and Author. Veronica Creaven, Local Razzle Dazzle Short Story Writer will give a reading and there will be poetry by BAFFLE Poets. Food and Drink provided by the BAFFLE Committee.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Desmond O'Grady: The influence of Libraries on his writing

 The late Desmond O’Grady’s account of the influence of Limerick City Library,
(and its librarian, Bob Herbert,) on his writing life.

Once I settled into the routine of boarding school life at Cistercian College Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, during my Intermediate Examination year of 1951-52, when I turned sixteen years of age, I apprehended and began to appreciate and enjoy reading the required poems on my English course. 
That in turn bloomed out to the stimulation and getting of personal satisfaction from writing such pieces as regular class assignments and short essays of appreciation on poetic content and form, along with the personal effect on me of individual poems.  With time all this would extend into my study of Gaelic poems in my Irish classes.  Both epiphanical illuminations were unknowingly due to my lay teachers in a monastery school communicating and connecting with a still ignorant sixteen year old me.  The resulting experiences gave life to the poem that was in part myself, so it decided my personal identity, my choice of life and my future.  That induced me to try to write poems for myself during our long study hall hours.

During the 1952-53 school year my English teacher who would also teach me physiology, chemistry and art was Mr. Thomas Cole, whose own son was a day pupil with us boarders.  In class when introducing a new poet we were going to study that day he would be glancing out the high windows towards the tall trees and undulating fields of the monastery, pensively making some vague comments about the life and times and friends of the poet whose poem we were going to read, analyse and appreciate.  That's when I first heard the then unfamiliar names such as, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas.  The more recognisably commonplace James Joyce was obviously an Irish name.  And then we focused on dissecting and analysing the poem on the page in the book before us.  On some occasions he dropped foreign names like Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Leopardi.  He also mentioned painters and sculptors with foreign names.  Of course I had never heard of these poets and artists not to say read or seen their work.
Because I was surrounded by our school library during study hours, I first asked the monk who looked after the books if we had these poets and writers.  No, we did not.  When I went home to Limerick City for my holidays I went to the Public Library on  Perry Square .  Never having been in a public library before, I spoke to a man behind a low counter with books on it and a desk and filing cabinets behind it.  Yes, he was the librarian.  When I asked him if he had books by the writers on my list he seemed surprised that a young schoolboy would be looking for such names.  He asked me whom I wanted them for.  When I answered that I wanted to read them myself he looked cautiously doubtful.  So I added that my English teacher often mentioned these names in class and I had made the list, but we did not have their books in my school library.  He accepted that as plausible and half smiling approvingly at me directed me towards the shelves and numbers where I would find books of poets he had in the public library.  Now, for the first time, I saw the holy rosary of the modern, the twentieth century poets.  Of course W. B. Yeats was there and John M Synge and Austin Clarke but no Patrick Kavanagh because, as I was told later, he was banned by the Catholic Church in Ireland .  There was also some W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis, Dylan Thomas and George Barker.  T. S. Eliot was there but no Ezra Pound.  Then I moved to the Irish novelists to look for James Joyce and found what I was looking for by him.
Book in hand I returned to the librarian, Mr. Herbert, at his counter.  He was stamping the books other readers ahead of me were taking out and chatting amicably to one or two he obviously knew well.  When my turn came I asked him what I must do next to join the library and take books home to read.  Congratulating me on discovering the public library system and finding the writers that interested me he explained the payment system for membership and the time limit for borrowing the books.  The payment for children up to the age of sixteen was one penny, for grownups over the age of sixteen the payment was one shilling.  As an embarrassed schoolboy of seventeen I told him I would have to wait until I got my Sunday pocket money.  He went silent, looked serious.  Then he smiled, said he understood and then, after a brief pause added that because I wanted to read the modern poets and writers he trusted me and made me a free member while I was on school holidays and allowed me to take home one book at a time. When he saw my grateful delight at his decision he asked me which of the books I had seen would be my first book to take home to read.  Because at school I had secretly begun to write my own poems and because my English teacher Mr. Cole had casually said to us in class that we might find the book interesting, my reply to my Limerick librarian was James Joyce, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. 

The librarian, Mr Herbert nodded his approval with a hum and made out my official library ticket.  Then he stamped the date on the first most important book I would read in my life.  After I tucked it under my arm to leave, he said that after I read the book and brought it back he would like to hear what I thought of it.  
Read and absorbed with fascinated absorption I returned my first James Joyce book read to the public library one evening as it was closing.  Mr. Herbert the librarian was tidying his papers but seemed pleased to see me.  He told me to get my next book quickly because he had to leave.  My next choice was the poems of T. S. Eliot because I had heard his poem ‘The Waste Land’ mentioned by my English Teacher Mr. Cole as the most important modern poem to read. 
Again the librarian was surprised yet approving as he stamped the date on it and catalogued my card.  Handing it to me he said he was going out close by for his regular late afternoon aperitif, (adding in case I did not understand his French, appetiser) before his evening meal and invited me to join him as his guest for a chat about reading.  Complimented and delighted at the promise of the reality of experience I thanked him and accepted his invitation. Library doors locked, off we strode across Perry Square .  He led us to his pub around the corner from Tates tall public clock ticking time high in the sky.
His local pub, as he called it, was almost unnoticeable on Upper Catherine Street but as we walked towards it I could not help noticing its name.  This was the first time in my life going in to a pub for a drink and ironically this one was called ‘The Desmond’.  Making no comment I followed my librarian into this small, and at that hour of the late afternoon, almost empty hide-away.  He asked me what I would have to drink.  Never having been in a pub and therefore not knowing what to answer, but my mind immediately asking itself what Stephen Dedalus would answer, I said I would have whatever he was having himself.  He said no, he would not get me what he was having, always had at this hour.  He was having ‘uisce beatha’, the Irish words for water of life in English or whiskey as the English pronounced ‘uisce’, water in Irish.  No, he would not give me that because it would not be good for my brain.  I may have Twoomey's lemonade or, if I preferred, a glass of Guinness stout which, he added would be good for me in moderation to build me up to play better rugby at school.  Thinking of Stephen Dedalus writing in his diary at the end of ‘A Portrait of the Artist’ that, as a young poet, he must "encounter the reality of experience" if he was going to write poems about human life, I politely told Mr. Herbert I would have a glass of stout.  When our drinks arrived he toasted literature in general and I added poetry in particular.  He told me I could now call him Bob.  Thus I was initiated into the public temple of the Irish pub and its various holy waters of life that priests and acolytes drink ceremoniously by a librarian
He asked me if I knew about the Limerick Poetry Circle .  No, I did not.  He explained that it was a group of Limerick people mostly adult women and a few men who used the Library and who met one evening every week to talk about a chosen poet and to read the poems aloud to each other.  Arthur O'Leary, who was manager of ‘O'Mahony's’, the only bookshop in Limerick city, used his home opposite St. Joseph's church as their meeting place and sometimes they used the flat of Kitty Bredin who was also involved in theatre in her spare time.  He added that he occasionally went to their meetings and said I should ask Arthur O'Leary about it in the morning when I was in the shop.  Excited at this I took his advice and became the youngest member of the Poetry Circle and from there the Classical Music Circle .  However Robert's mention of the morning reminded him that it was time for him to go home for his evening meal, adding that I should do so too, and then I could read my new library book for the rest of the evening.  We would meet again.
The next time we met was as I walked in the door of the Library to change my book.  He was just going from the library entrance hall upstairs to his home on the next and top floor and he invited me along with him.  I went, thinking this would be an extra and new dimension to the library and museum on the ground floor.  And it certainly was.  This was where he and his wife lived and he introduced me to her saying I was the schoolboy he had told her about who played rugby by day and read and wrote modern poetry by night.  She welcomed me.  Robert had come upstairs for some practical purpose so he waved his personal library at me and vanished.  His home looked a lovely place in a grand setting.  Here was a broad and long apartment that stretched the length and width of the whole Library - Museum two storey building.  On one side it overlooked the large and quietly un-peopled, (because professionally residential with medical doctors,) Perry Square and on the other side the grandly large and queenly lovely People's Park.  A boyish imagination like mine could easily imagine great writers living and writing their great books in a building and home like this.  I went straight to the bookshelves to see who he had and found all the poets and novelists who were not downstairs in the Public Library.  Some of the names I had heard mentioned in passing by my English teacher but had never seen in libraries or our Limerick bookshop.  For example an Irish poet called Patrick Kavanagh who had written a long poem called ‘The Great Hunger’ published by Yeats --? Press Dublin , in 1942 as well as his first book ‘A Soul for Sale ’ published in London in 1947, both banned in Ireland by the Catholic Church’s Archbishop McQuaid and his friend Prime Minister Eamon de Valera’s censorship.  There were several French writers in English translation and many other foreign names I had never heard of.
All the books he bought were for our Limerick Public Library but he did not put all of them on the shelves on the ground floor shelves of the library.  Many special books were here, upstairs, on his own library shelves at home.  Now that I knew this I too could read them.  Who did I wish to begin with?  For now, to follow up on Stephen Dedalus and ‘The Portrait of the Artist as Young Man’, I chose the selected poems of Arthur Rimbaud translated into English with an account of his life by Enid Starkie.  He gave it to me. After that I borrowed from both his public and private libraries for the rest of my school holidays, and during all my school holidays every year after that until I went to Dublin and then left for Paris and the wide world outside that he had helped me read about.  The one book I did not attempt to read was Joyce's Ulysses.  That book I put on a promise to myself until I had decided to create a life for myself in Paris , and George Whitman handed it to me again to read in his private library there, which was his public bookstore now called ‘Shakespeare and Company’.
Of the Irish poets before Yeats that I borrowed from Bob's public library I began with James Clarence Mangan because we had read him a little in school.  Now I could read an account of Mangan's life, which introduced his collected poems and translations.  His life fascinated me as much as Arthur Rimbaud's did and the real or imagined poems he had translated from far away obscure languages like Persian and Arabic, corresponded shortly after with what I would read of Ezra Pound's life, poems and translations from Bob's private library. Because Mangan had translated some Irish poems I compared them with the originals, which I could read.  That, because Irish was the only other language I could speak and read with confidence at school level, encouraged me to begin making my own translation of the Irish Gaelic poems I had learned by heart as a younger boy and was now studying and would continue to study for Intermediate and Leaving Certificate examinations to get into University.  Entranced by Mangan's and Pound's translations of poems as far apart as Chinese and Gaelic, my own efforts at translating Irish Gaelic poems helped me find the beginnings of a personal rhythm in the English language and crafted my sense of rhyme for the better.  In that way both poets revealed an inspiringly new and satisfying discipline of the poet to me.  Ever since that summer my left hand has been translating the poems of other poets past and present, while my right hand makes my own poems.  Both creative activities are balancing creative disciplines that compliment, teach and improve each other like the strophe and antistrophe of music and dance.
Now when I joined Bob Herbert to continue learning how to read along with the pleasure of drinking Irish stout in the Desmond Hotel pub he would ask me how my reading and my writing of poems was progressing, and would encourage my efforts with his praise.  We also talked of our pastimes outside the library and my boarding school study hall.  Mine were obviously sports but he surprised me when he said he liked to go fishing along the Shannon River in Limerick city and when he could get out of town he fished the streams in the countryside.  Knowing nothing of the pleasure and satisfaction of fishing I preferred to tell him of my fascination with the life and writing of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his friends.  Yes, I assured him, I enjoyed my evenings at the Limerick Poetry Circle and was learning to read poems aloud there.  The classical music circle evenings I also went to, organised by a priest, were good too because I did not have expensive records of that kind of music at home and I was learning to like and enjoy it.  At the same time however I wanted to find out more about the real lives of the poets and the composers I liked such as Ezra Pound, Beethoven, Rimbaud and Mozart.  He assured me he had the books about all of them and would let me have them one at a time.
In that way over the next few years Bob Herbert, the only librarian I knew, nurtured my personal holiday reading of the modern great poets and writers, both Irish and international, who would shape my life with my required school reading, for examinations, for my pleasure and, to my advantage as I slowly educated myself.  That, together with my own poems appearing regularly in my school magazine and the Poets' Corner in the ‘Limerick Weekly Echo’ Newspaper and once, while still a senior school boy in the University Literary Magazine, helped me keep my faith in my teenage vocation to be a poet in Paris when I left school rather than enter our Cistercian monastery to become a monk writing poems in Tipperary.  And the day did come when I took my final exams, left school and went to Paris to teach as James Joyce did in the Berlitz School of Languages, to write poems and to assemble the best of them into a structured collection that would be my first published book.  ‘Chords and Orchestrations’ was published for Christmas 1956 in Limerick and took its place on the shelves of Limerick City and Limerick County Libraries.  It is kept company today by all the other books I have published since that year.
After I left Limerick and Ireland in 1955 to teach, live and write abroad in Europe , Egypt and America I kept in touch with him and when I occasionally got back to Limerick I went to see him.  Ironically when he died (?in a drowning accident while fishing in 1973?) I was living as a teacher in Rome and doing personal research in the Vatican library.  That was not an easy one for a layman to get Vatican permission to work in the library, but then, being an old Jesuit boy from Limerick city, Ireland , helped open Roman doors.  One of my poems of 2001 might get Bob's approval.  It is called The Library and it ends:

'To evaluate people, look at their libraries.'