Cappoquin, Ireland between 1890 and 1900. Photograph via Library of Congress.
I once felt quite famous as a poet. Indeed, now that I think of it, I have felt famous twice. These two periods of really unsettling fame came back to me recently as I dealt with a young poet at the lending desk of the public library where I’ve worked for over thirty years. The young poet had been coming into my city-center branch for over a year, dropping grease-stained envelopes stuffed with five or six poems and then returning a few days later to listen to my responses to his raw and energetic work. But there was this one morning when we’d had a very strenuous, useful exchange of ideas around his improving technique. In that pause when a conversation just ends and an older poet adroitly excuses himself, the young man suddenly said to me: “You know so much about poetry; you read it so closely. Have you ever thought of writing anything yourself?” At first, I didn’t know what to say. Should I recite the titles of my eleven published books, including eight collections of poems? Should I be angry with this world that doesn’t know who I am? What the hell was he doing, handing me these regular tasks in poetry, if he didn’t know that I was already an old codger in the world of Southern Irish letters? But I did ask him why he chose me and he explained that one of my library colleagues told him that I was interested in poetry, that he should show me his work. He turned away and left. Soon after, I was transferred to another branch library in a faraway suburb — my last posting before I retired early to write full time — so we never met again. And he didn’t seek me out, so he must have quickly found another helpful, anonymous reader.
But his lack of recognition, or, rather, my umbrage at not being recognized, has made me think of the way our names ebb and flow, in and out of “fame,” over a lifetime. What does it feel like to be recognized, to be made famous by persistent attention? Yes, I do remember very clearly the first time that I felt carried away, catapulted onward by a force larger than my own life. I was just sixteen years old at the time. It was in the spring of 1970 and I’d had my first poems published in the local high school magazine. I received a letter, sent to me through my English teacher, from a mysterious Anglo-Irish aristocrat who lived in a grand mansion just three miles from my school. The letter praised my poems and invited me to take tea in this gentleman’s library. A chauffeur-driven Mercedes was dispatched to the school gate and I was driven off to my first encounter with the aristocracy, chauffeured by Tommy, who was once a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber. “The master thinks yer poems are grand,” Tommy said to me, “he’s mighty interested in meetin’ a fellow writer from the neighborhood.” I can see now that he was trying not to burst out laughing. I was met at the door of the eighteenth-century mansion by a formally-attired butler and led into a magnificent library that contained twenty thousand volumes of mainly Slavic texts. The literary gentleman was W.E.D. Allen, a former British diplomat and spy-catcher, former Unionist-Conservative Member for West Belfast in the Imperial Parliament of the twenties, former editor of the thirties Fascist magazine The Blackshirt, author of the best history of the Georgian people published in the English language (according to Laurens van der Post in his autobiography, Yet Being Someone Other), author of Caucasian Battlefields, The Ukraine, and Problems of Turkish Power in the Sixteenth Century. This seventy-year-old aristocratic scholar climbed down from the gallery of his two-story high bookshelves and introduced me to his fourth wife, a quiet Australian nurse who’d come to take care of his dying third wife, Natasha Maximovna, who had been the ikon-restorer daughter of a Moscow surgeon. Mr. Allen’s first wife had been the debutante daughter of the Earl of Lovelace, a woman who’d probably been the basis for the globe-trotting character Amber, the love interest in Allen’s pseudonymously published 1936 spy novel, Strange Coast. These details I discovered later.
Though the penniless son of a country postman, I wasn’t in the least intimidated or impressed by this ménage. After all I was a poet from a small town that was famous for its poets — “Ah, Cappoquin of the poets,” was how the venerable Máire Mhac an tSaoí addressed me when we were first introduced. I assumed instinctively all the social status that the title “poet” confers in Ireland.