Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Memories of Brian Doyle

Written for Eureka Street in May 2018, on the first anniversary of the death of Brian Doyle.

Some poets submit their work carefully presented, bio-lines attached, picture perfect. Other poets send a cache of new expressions with commentaries, back stories, a dozen bytes of miscellanea, sometimes regardless of the submission guidelines. A handful treat the submission email address as an opportunity to mailbox every new poem that fits the bill.

The late, great Brian Doyle was one of the latter. Unlike some other poets of the compose-dispose school, however, Brian’s poetry was anything but a matter of diminishing returns. No sooner had all the components of his latest composition clicked than it landed in the editor’s Inbox with some remark in the Subject line like “this one might tickle your fancy.” Frequently it was the one word, ‘and’. The poetry just kept on coming. 

The evidence, from line one onwards, was unmistakeable Doyle. Imitation was impossible, self-parody ditto. Gore Vidal loved to say that Tennessee Williams knew how to do only one thing, but he did that thing better than anyone else. Brian Doyle’s poetry was a bit like that. So many poems, so many ideas, but nearly all of them written in a trained story-telling voice that subtly divulged meaning through asides, exclamations, double takes, and other canny tricks. His skill at getting your attention (“It was in second grade that I discovered I could not see” is the opening line of ‘Sister Anne Marie’) and holding it is of a piece with his seemingly effortless digressions, wacky objective correlatives, and witty cultural insights. His confidence with this thing meant he could travel widely for subject matter.

I ponder the consistent squareness of his poems, square-shaped, on-the-level square talk, a square meal. They must imitate in some way his spoken voice as the phrases link and change, build and undercut, a confiding voice wishing to say as much as possible as clearly as possible effectively. Brian himself was no square. He was many-sided and apt to think right outside the box. Poetry was where he discovered the fullness of surprise. An editor, a reader, you and me, had to be on the alert. Part of his charm was unpredictability.

His belief in direct speech is indirectly explained in his various forays into poetics, as in ‘Demerit points for bad poetry’, published in Eureka Street in 2009:

“Anyone who has endured brief infatuations with folks who thought they were poets has, ipso facto, suffered through poetry readings during which small quiet poets gripped lecterns like the steering wheels of great ships, explained at incredible length the circumstances under which they committed their poems like raving sins, whispered their elephantine incoherent epic, and then, incredibly, explained at herculean length how the birds in the poem are actually symbols of revenge.

“At which point many members of the audience are contemplating the latter, and imagining a world where poets actually do have to get poetic licenses that require them to swear they will not suddenly use French phrases in their poems, personify favourite body parts of lovers, or write poems in which birds represent anything but birds.”

Brian himself probably broke the rules often enough (we note he is happy to suddenly use the Latin adverb ipso facto in his essay), enough to be a multiple offender who would have his license revoked, but he obviously does not wish to be remembered as someone who gripped a lectern like a steering wheel, whether symbolic or not. He never talks at you, always to you. And he continues:

“For poetry at its very best is the greatest of literary arts (not the greatest of arts, mind you - that would be music, or brewing beer), the one with the most power and passion in the least amount of space, the one that tries most gracefully to find the music in words, that delves deepest into the wild genius of language, that takes the sounds we make with our mouths and use them as keys to the deepest recesses of the heart and head.”

His themes range widely but an abiding motive of his writing is his great love of others. He writes about his family (the objective correlative may be an objectionable relative), politicians and dropouts, football barrackers and born theatricals, priests and nuns, next door neighbours and the faithful departed. His poetry is peopled with the humanity he was learning from all the time, themselves dealing with the limitations of being human. 

At the centre of this is Brian himself, the autobiographer who would be a poet, shifting from deep reflection on his own failings through to self-certain self-mockery, as in his poem ‘On the difficulty of translating the American writer Brian Doyle’, in which the exasperated translator concludes:

                                                        And a guy who says
He laughed so hard he passed a weasel, how am I to translate that,
I ask you? That kind of deliberately ridiculous and illogical image
Is what he trafficks in as the normal course of affairs, and it seems
To me that he savours this, that language for him is a vast wild toy,
Something to play with, something to start like a journey and then
See where it goes, something he walks into rather than commands,
Something that will reveal more of himself than he knew he knew.
Something that here and there is a wriggle or shiver for all readers,
And I have no word for that either - that sudden electric plummet
As an essay opens itself, or the startle of a reader recognising a joy
He or she has felt like a mysterious hand. Maybe will get better
With our words, maybe that’s what he is trying to say, maybe there
Will be better words the harder we try to write about what we can’t
Write about very well; or maybe he’s just a nutter with a typewriter.

I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Doyle personally over many years, even though he lived in Oregon and I have never been to Oregon. His poems arrived in the Inbox with ‘what about this?’ in the Subject line, square and many-sided, energetic and unpredictable, prompting all sorts of surprise responses, just as they do now when I type ‘Brian Doyle’ in Eureka Street’s Search line, and start reading