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Poet Reflects on the Troubles of Northern Island


Joining us now is poet Nigel McLoughlin. Born in 1968, McLoughlin grew up in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles. McLoughlin is now head of creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire in England.

He joins us from the studios of BBC Radio Gloucestershire. Welcome to the show.


Professor NIGEL McLOUGHLIN (Head of Creative Writing, University of Gloucestershire): Nice to be here.

NEARY: Let me ask you: when you were growing up in the north, were the troubles sort of just part of life there at the time?

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Well, my generation didn't know any different. I was born, as you said, in '68, and the trouble started '69. So I was always used to them. I didn't know different.

NEARY: You know, in one of your poems, "News," I find it striking because it has these very visceral images of violent death and yet at the same time it manages to capture the personal tragedy of that death. And I wondered first if you could read the poem and then I wanted to ask you about it.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Sure. (Reading) Today the leaves cry 3,000 green tears for the bleached-eyed sky(ph). Weekly the sun burns at a breathless fog that winds itself until it becomes a shroud around the trunk of a dead man. Seeps and pools, spools like blood in the hollows of his wounds. They found him early and half buried, hooded and tied, dispatched with five freshly scabbed over gunshot wounds - one in the head, one in each limb of the joint.


Constable Hughes met her fierce at the front door, removed his hat, brushed away the sweat. She wept. Out in the garden the young boy swung at the end of a rope, his shorts hung on branches and in the house prying, heart sore, ripped bare, sighs, words swept away by the wind.

NEARY: You know, when I read that poem I thought that idea somehow had to have been influenced by your childhood in Northern Ireland. That whole idea of violent death of being both news and personal tragedy at the same time.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Well, that's exactly right. I mean, there must have been so many doorsteps where a policeman has turned up to tell someone that someone they loved is dead that people would have to come to terms with the manner of their death and what happened possibly beforehand. Because some of the victims were also tortured before they were killed.

NEARY: You know, and I think also it gets at that idea that for those of us who are not personally involved in the violence, the news somehow makes it a little unreal or we don't quite get what it really means.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: No. I think that's right. I think you get a sanitized version of it and you don't really get a sense of the personal effect of these tragedies.

NEARY: I should say that all of your poetry, of course, is not about violent acts or about violence. You have wonderful poetry about your children, beautiful images of nature in your poetry. When did you know you wanted to be a poet, first of all?

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Oh, I'm not sure I ever sort of could point to one point where I made a decision to become a poet. I think that love of language, just words and how they felt in the mouth and the sound of them and what they were capable of.

NEARY: And I understand that you actually compose your poems out loud.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Yes. I don't use pen and paper until the very sort of last part of the process. I think it's important that poetry retain its connection with sound, with music. The book has been a convenient way of transmitting poetry. But even if you were to write in phonetics you never capture the real music of the poem anywhere else except by speaking it aloud and listening to it aloud.

NEARY: There's another poem I wanted you to read and I dare not say the name. It's written in Gaelic and you tried to tell me how to say it but I'm going to let you say it.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: The name of the poem is "Seanduine."

NEARY: And what does that mean?

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Seanduine literally means old person, and it's a protective term. There was a superstition that the fairies would abduct precocious children and leave a changeling in their place. And in order to avoid that they'd called them old person in order to throw the fairies off the scent, as it were.

NEARY: Well, let's hear that poem now.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Okay. (Reading) Seanduine. I soften for you. Your toddle and how you do short-legging it along the path, conniving to be last in line, hands clenched behind your back or relaxed into a wrist(ph) and kidney strut. You come with a reverse kiss - the dada, dada syntax, urgent with no words. Your head and heart are full of all the things you can't say yet.

You contrive, you mean like hell and so do I, and so do I.

NEARY: Is that written about your son?

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Yes. It's written about my younger son.

NEARY: Your children are having a different kind of childhood than the childhood you had in Northern Ireland.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Oh absolutely. I mean, there are always dangers but they won't have to face the same type of dangers that my generation did in Northern Ireland.

NEARY: Nigel, thanks so much joining us.

Prof. McLOUGHLIN: Thank you very much for having me.

NEARY: Nigel McLoughlin. His latest collection of poetry, "Dissonances," is available from Blue Chrome Press.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.