Beautiful Lofty Things
Interview with Cahal Dallat
Cahal Dallat is one of Ireland’s best known poets. He lives in Bedford Park with Anne-Marie Fyfe, former chair of the national Poetry Society, also a poet; together they are cultural powerhouse, writing, broadcasting, organising poetry readings and events.
His new book of poetry Beautiful Lofty Things is a look at his life seen through the objects which are dear to him. Like novelists Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes and Annie Proulx in Accordion Crimes, he uses a collection of things to pull focus on experiences, places and relationships that have meant something to him.
I asked him how long it took him to write a poem. The answer was, in some cases, about 30 years. This is a life’s work, an anthology of poems written over decades.
The objects are as diverse as a tiny spy camera belonging to his father, a Swiss army knife, a perfume bottle, an accordion and a Fedora hat – 39 in all, taking us from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland where he grew up, the son of a school master, to Queen’s University in Belfast, to London, to continental Europe, to India where he spent a couple of years working as an IT consultant, and to America, which he has toured as poet in residence at American universities.
Clearing his father’s house in 2008 started him thinking about the micro camera – why did his father have it?
‘- why would a mag
as banal as my father’s monthly Practical
Householder with hints for picket-fencing
and bearded plywood-Santa templates
even advertise such KGB gizmos?’
The anthology introduces us to people who Cahal has known: Chris in the poem Giant, who he worked with in IT, who at seven foot six and three quarter inches tall,
‘ – even when he sat
right down on our low-profile sofa
he couldn’t avoid talking down to us.’
Giant won the Keats Shelley prize in 2017 and goes some way to undoing the scary stereotype instilled in us by fairy tales.
‘Our children found out giants today
far from overbearing could be wry,
awkward and funny.’
We meet one of Cahal’s aunts – the slightly racy one depicted by the perfume bottle.
The aunt who
‘whistled, despite its much-quoted tearjerk effect on Our Lady.’
Having just watched the last season of Derry Girls I now understand why whistling might be thought to have a tearjerk effect on the Virgin Mary.
Images above: Beautiful Lofty Things by Cahal Dallat
“A moderately friendly conversation with the reader”
It was with some trepidation that I went to interview Cahal. I tend to approach poetry with a degree of anxiety that I will not ‘get’ it, I won’t understand the meaning the poet is driving at or recognise the cultural and literary references.
Poetry, more than any other form of writing, is crafted to a very fine degree. Every word has weight. It has been mulled over and played around with, considered against alternatives to bring the fullest expression of the poet’s intention to the audience. It must be painful to have to explain it.
The aim, says Cahal, is to write something where “every word has value and sounds like you’re having a moderately friendly conversation with the reader.
“If you lose the natural rhythm you lose something people respond to naturally.”
Cahal has spent many years as a critic and commentator on arts programmes. Poetry became more obscure with TS Elliot, he says. An elitism crept in and in the 1960s the sense of trying to do something new and different left many people behind.
Poets he admires such as Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Seamus Heaney “may have some subtle allusions you might miss but mostly their poems are accessible.”
One of Cahal’s poems mentions the song The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo – apparently one of James Joyce’s favourites. James Joyce carried around a suitcase full of sheet music, it seems. If you know that, you will appreciate the reference. If not, it doesn’t matter, it will not diminish your appreciation of the poem.
Cahal’s poetry is personal, intimate. It is erudite, laden with cultural references but it is also accessible and hits that friendly tone he’s aiming for, engaging the reader with humour, emotion, wisdom and colour from a full life.
Cahal will be reading from Beautiful Lofty Things on Monday 13 June at the annual poetry event at the Bedford Park Festival, The Poetry of Things, hosted by Anne-Marie Fyfe.
You can buy the book from publishers Salmon Poetry.
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