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“Durcan’s poetry can be at once gloomy and bright.”

 I decided to set myself a challenge  and read Durcans Poetry  and  partially answer one of daughters Leaving Cert Questions.


I thoroughly agree with the assessment of Durcan’s poetry as being simultaneously gloomy and bright. Though much of Durcan’s poetry deals with many dark, intense issues such as mental illness, institutional abuse and difficult relationships, his frequent use of sharp wit, black humour and contrastingly light hearted tones seems to alleviate the sense of darkness one might expect from such heavy themes. While such a contrast between theme and tone seems like an obvious dichotomy, Durcan manages not to have the two oppose each other rather to complement and add a deeper meaning to each of his poems. The elements of humour and self deprecation that appear in Durcan’s work bring with them a sense of brightness in the midst of his struggle. The poems I have studied in which we can see this clearly are; “Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail”, “Parents” and “Sport”.


“Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail” is written in a pseudo-journalistic style and the title itself calls to mind ludicrous sensationalist headlines which often appear in tabloids. The surreal exaggeration shown in the title is indicative of what is to come in the rest of the poem. On the surface this poem tells the story of an apparently volatile and dysfunctional wife and mother who “..put her boot through the screen” in an erratic fit of rage. Durcan’s choice to tell the story through her husband’s court testimony as he uses verbs such as “marched” and “declared” leads to the vilification of the woman in the eyes of the court.


However, the real questions Durcan raises throughout this poem are questions of Women’s role in society, evolving family dynamics, the systemic mistreatment of women in Irish society and the impact of an unfair justice system on its citizens. The woman in Durcan’s poem acts as a zeitgeist for Irish women during this period. Interestingly, in society at the time of this poem’s publication the second wave of Irish feminism and the fight for women’s liberation was at its height and many incredible Irish women were fighting to enact change in all aspects of life.


While the subject matter of this poem might seem objectively gloomy and enraging there are still minor elements of humour to be found within it. The source of much of this humour stems from the disproportionate and frankly absurd reaction of Justice O’Brádaigh. The Judge makes many completely illogical statements such as “the television itself could be said to be a basic unit of the family”, that we as the readers cannot help but find humour in the almost incomprehensible lack of logic he’s applying to the situation. It is clear from our reading of the poem that Justice O’Brádaigh is a symbol of the patriarchal Irish society and his evident lack of logical thinking is indicative of the unfair and unjust system which he continues to uphold. Though the issues dealt with within this poem are deeply important and heavy, Durcan manages to alleviate the weight this poem could carry by using ludicrous, illogical reactions of the men in the poem to bring an element of humour to it while also simultaneously highlighting the ridiculousness of the patriarchy as a whole.


The gloomy emotional intensity felt in “Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail” is even more evident in “Parents”. In this poem, Durcan displays the deep apprehension and anxiety that is felt so intensely by new parents. Throughout this poem we see a severe disconnect between the parents and their child. Durcan uses imaginative sea-like imagery as a metaphor to illustrate the isolation felt by the parents, “estranged from her by a sea: She is under the sea”. Durcan’s intense emotional fragility and honesty is clearly displayed in this poem as he describes the parents as having “Their foreheads furrowed”.


The poem has a haunting, ghostly air to it as the child cries out “Father, Father/ Mother, Mother”. The poet’s use of the word “stranded” further cements the feelings of fear and isolation felt in this poem. The poem’s final line “At the drowned, drowned face of their child”, shows us that the parents feel as though they are metaphorically lost at sea and all of their efforts are beginning to appear futile. While on the surface “Parents” may appear to be an immensely gloomy and depressing poem, upon further reflection one can see that the worry and angst that permeates this poem so deeply stems from an insatiable desire to care and protect for their child.


It is clear to us that the source of brightness in this poem lies in the fact that at its very core this is a poem about deep unconditional love for your child. Though the tone of the poem is rather dark and gloomy there is an air of brightness present as it is clear that there is a deep sense of infinite love and while this may manifest itself in the form of fear and worry the love is still unwavering. 


In “Sport” we see some of Durcan’s clearest examples of his use of humour and self deprecation in spite of the dark issues he tells. In this poem Durcan provides us with an unflinching insight into his psyche during this period of his life. The poem opens on a profoundly sad note, “There were not many fields/ In which you had hopes for me/ But sport was one of them.”. This is Durcan’s rather frank acceptance of his father’s disappointment and the little hope his father has for him. The poet goes to express the gratitude he felt when his father “.. drove all the way down,/ Fifty miles,” in order to watch him play for “Grangegorman Mental Hospital”.


As the poem progresses, Durcan’s choice of verbs becomes more clinical and detached, this makes it clear to us that Durcan’s relationship with his father is equally as cold and distant as the verbs would suggest. The line “On the sidelines and observe me.” suggests that there is a divide between him and his father and he feels his father is there to scrutinise and judge him rather than to support him. His use of such clinical language to describe his relationship with his father also informs the reader that Durcan considers his father to be in the same group as his doctors and psychiatrists, though these people may be obliged to care for him there is a distinct lack of love present.


Durcan uses imaginative and almost animalistic imagery to describe the players of the opposing team, “Men with gapped teeth, red faces,/ Oily, frizzy hair, bushy eyebrows.”. This can be viewed as comedic hyperbole used by Durcan to add a more humorous tone to the poem and provide a moment of brightness. However, it could also be read as Durcan’s way of illustrating society’s toward mental health and how it is viewed as something that is insidious, monstrous and not fully understood by many. The  nonchalant and almost matter of fact way in which the poet speaks of a rumour surrounding one of the opposing team’s players adds a light hearted, humour to the poem despite the grotesque subject matter, “Had castrated his best friend/ But that he had no memory of it./ He had meant well – it was said.”


The evident lack of communication between Durcan and his father can also be seen in the line “Sniffing your approval, you shook hands with me./ ‘Well played son.’”, this is the closest either comes to expressing their true thoughts and feelings throughout the duration of the poem. The poem ends just as it began, on a gloomy note of sadness and disappointment, “Seldom if ever again in your eyes/ was I to rise to these heights.”. While it is immensely clear to us as the reader that this poem deals with the immensely harsh realities of his life such as his struggle with mental illness and the lack of communication with his father, there is also a very distinct air of humour throughout the poem. Durcan chooses not to exploit his sentimentality or self-pity within this poem rather he uses humour and hyperbole to disarm and charm the reader. 


It is clear through the poems I have studied that Durcan has a unique and unparalleled ability to find moments of humour and brightness in even the darkest and gloomiest of situations. Thanks to his sharp wit and inventive imagery, Durcan finds a way to perfectly represent the emotions he wishes to convey in a manner which is distinctly unique. The narrative driven style in which Durcan writes allows him to bear his soul and explore even the darkest depths of human emotion all the while allowing moments of brightness to slip into his work. I think this is suggestive of the complexities and realities of life in general as even though it might not seem like it, moments of brightness and joy can be found in even the gloomiest of situations. 

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