Maire MacEntee Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

An Irish Voice of Poetry: Conversation with Maire MacEntee, poet; 4/4/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Being a Poet

Why poetry? How did you come to be a poet?

You've got to think your way back into Europe, and indeed, America, and the intelligentsia in the twentieth century: everyone could write verse. My father had written very good poetry in his youth. My uncle was a very, very distinguished poet. And we lived for a great part of every year in the Irish-speaking area where everyone could write -- not poetry, but verse. And did. I mean, we went to school there, and one of the pastimes of the children constantly was writing satires on the master, which of course one had to be very careful that the master didn't hear, because the master was very ready with his hand in those days. But it made life very exciting.

What does it take to be a poet?

I suppose genes. I would imagine genes and, of course in my case, a climate in which poetry was regarded as normal. No particular importance was attached to it, it was as young ladies learned to play the piano even if they were never going to be very competent. People were able to write verse, and did in those days.

Is it hard work, or is it primarily inspiration?

Entirely, in my case, inspiration; but one of my regrets now, in my old age, is that I didn't in fact cultivate a gift which I think is very real, but I just never cultivated it. I never cultivated it because I'm, by nature, rather lazy. My almost unique knowledge of Irish from both the spoken background and the academic background; I am very sorry now that I didn't in fact set my mind to writing prose in Irish, which I can also do but didn't.

When you write poetry, you write it in your native tongue and I'm hearing you say that it was natural that you would do that.

Yes. Everyone did in the parish where I grew up, in West Kerry. Everyone -- my uncle's housekeeper, her daughter who grew up with us, we were all able to do it. It wasn't poetry but it was verse. It was like limericks, that kind of writing, and mostly satirical.

What are the themes that you pursue as a poet? Are there common themes are in your writing?

I, myself, would say that the common theme is refusal. It's rather odd: my early poetry, which was written by a young woman who was really too young to know very much about love, is all love poetry. And it is now being taught to classes of young women who are also too young to know anything about love, with the odd consequence that most of them think I'm dead. I must be dead if I'm on the syllabus.

I see. Were you able to write this poetry about love because you were younger and you were naïve?

Yes, absolutely. I mean they're dramatic lyrics, they grow out of abortive love affairs of my own. But they're never spoken. "I" is not me. They are dramatic lyrics.

Now you say, looking at your whole career, your main theme is refusal. Explain that for us.

Well, I actually almost did when I said abortive love affairs. I would go to the very edge and pull out, and the lyric would result from the pulling out. And that has happened to me all my life. In most of my poetry you can see that drawing back, bringing the poem right up to the crisis and pulling back. Elegantly, of course.

And the crisis is what? Being unable to deal with the situation?

I think being very self centered, being unable to make the next step.

Commitment?

Yes, I think so. Being very afraid of commitment.

Next page: A Poem: Shoah

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