Fifty Years: Poems 1957-2007
About this Book
This book collects fifty years of published work, beginning with poems which first saw serial publication in 1957 and continuing through thirteen books.
“Knute Skinner’s Fifty Years: Poems 1957-2007 gives us all a chance to re-live a life worth reading. Skinner does the lot: the sacred, the profane, the formal and the loose, and does them all wonderfully well.”
-John W. Sexton
“He has poems that for sheer beauty take your head off.”
-John Gardner on A Close Sky over Killaspuglonane
Publication Date: Saturday, September 01, 2007
paper €15.00 $25.00
Cover Artwork: Ann Nelson
Read a poem from this book
There’s a white cow standing upon the hill,
surely the whitest cow I shall ever see.
As usual with cows she is eating grass.
Nothing strange about that, except that the light,
the white light of the sun increases her white
until she seems like a moon reflecting the sun,
a cow-shaped moon newly materialised
to dazzle upon the rise of a grassy hill.
Perhaps she is the cow that jumped over the moon,
but how much grass can she nonchalantly bite
with that white light breaking upon her body?
O, now she raises her head and, striking a pose,
commands the field with a curve of her delicate tail.
And so I see that she has become a goddess
exacting and appreciating the homage
owed to a white spirit by darker creatures.
Those dull cows browsing in brown below her,
mere cows, I see that they cannot comprehend
how their appearance enhances the white goddess.
And yet their heads are lowered in due respect.
She is their deity as she is mine,
although I see her only from my distance.
I see her only through my grimy window.
Suppose I left my papers and left my desk,
walked through the garden, crossed the old stone wall,
slogged through the swamp at the bottom of the hill,
then with lowered eyes I could approach that whiteness.
Would I be touched to some extent by the sunlight,
and would my eyes be blinded with revelation?
Or would I find cow dung beneath my feet
and would she and I eat grass for the rest of our lives?
Reviewed by Tom Hubbard, Poetry Ireland Review 98, 2009
Sweet, Chancy and Transient
‘Irish-America’ was once a simple phenomenon – though painful for those forced by economics to be part of it. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Irish and American literatures intersected on the manner (and outcomes) of a westward exodus. The novella Maggie: a Girl of the Streets (1893) by Stephen Crane, better known for The Red Badge of Courage, depicted Irish immigrant life in the slums of New York. Ten years later, George Moore’s story, ‘Home Sickness’ (in The Untilled Field) has in common with Maggie a character who is a Bowery bartender, though in this case he is one who makes an ill-fated return journey to the old country. When in America, he years for Ireland; when in Ireland, he yearns for America. Wherever he is, he’ll suffer from home-sickness.
In that sense, then, perhaps it wasn’t so simple after all. Nonetheless, literature was concerned with the Irish in America, and hardly at all with Americans in Ireland. By the 1930s, with James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, the fictional locus moved from New York to Chicago. If Americans did venture transatlantically east, it wasn’t for long: Stephen Crane produced a series of ‘Irish Notes’, essentially journalistic reports to himself, as if he were a collective folks-back-home. Perceptive as they were, they were the work of an outsider, interpreting the West Cork village pub in terms of his own geocultural frame of reference: ‘On an old mahogany dresser rows of plates face the distant range, and reflect the red shine of the peat. Smoke which has in it the odour of an American forest fire eddies through the air.’
Then, in 1963, JFK visited Ireland and the special relationship acquired new dimensions. Kennedy joked that if the travel arrangements of their respective forebears had been different, de Valera might have become President of the US, and he (JFK) would have been President of Ireland. It has been suggested that as Ireland became less oppressive for intellectuals and the US became more so, there followed a mini-exodus in the direction opposite to the traditional one. Better for an American poet to find himself among the culchies than among the hicks – especially if the former weren’t really culchies after all, but in fact proved supportive of readings or festivals, and with an enthusiasm to rival that of the metropolis, Hibernian or otherwise. It’s all a long way from Stephen Crane contemplating the degraded populace of Ballydehob. US-born poets such as Christ Agee, Ivy Bannister, Knute Skinner and Richard Tillinghast are integral to Irish cultural life. The last-named recently produced a full-length collection of essays on his adopted country, Finding Ireland (2008). The scale of the new relationship is reflected in UCD’s development of its Clinton Institute of American Studies, and of course we should take into account the special impetus of America in the peace process of the North.
For a long time Knute Skinner (b.1929) was in the fortunate – for him – position of having home/work bases in both countries. As a Professor of Western Washington University, he could draw on the superb seascape visible from his window: it’s ‘like any perfectly ordinary morning’, on which the anything-but-ordinary Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands can be celebrated in a poem. ‘At Coney Island’ is an American counterpart to Rilke’s ‘Das Karussell’, but with added uneasiness about childhood and its passing:
But I see them today on their runaway merry-go-round,
inhaling the beach and the buildings, the sea and the sky,
while their mothers are helplessly standing behind on the ground
and wringing their hearts in their hands till they’ve twisted them dry.
On a similar note, ‘Our Water Supply’ ends with the eminently quotable lines: ‘How good the spring water was when we had it – / like life itself, sweet, chancy and transient.’ Another grimly grinning conclusion belongs to a much-cited Skinner poem, ‘The Cold Irish Earth’, set by the Cliffs of Moher near his Irish home (and from where he can look in the direction of his other homeland): ‘but down at Healy’s cross / the Killaspuglonane graveyard / is wet to the bone.’ A bizarre ossuary in Rome – is there an ossuary that isn’t bizarre? – prompts observations on the contrast between the stacked remains and the nervous tourists (‘contractile fibres and sinewy tissues intact’) heading for the exit to buy their postcards.
By now there should be enough evidence to support the contention that if there’s a spectrum of American poetry with the likes of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost at one end, and with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg at the other, Knute Skinner veers in the direction of the first pair. In the past I’ve called this the ‘laconic-expansive spectrum’. A ‘laconic’ such as Skinner, as per Dickinson and Frost, works a seemingly homespun Gothicity which is yet quietly artful in the way it jolts the reader out of the even tenor of pleasant expectations. For example, in ‘The Custom of Queens’, we might think we’re in for a piece of cosily comic verse deploying the stanza form of John Godfrey Saxe’s ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Gardener’s Song’ (‘He thought he saw an elephant’). It’s an extended ballad form, i.e. you have an extra two lines over the standard ballad quatrain, with a rhyme scheme abcbdb. Skinner’s poem, however, has ‘down’ rhyming with itself, or even and unsettingly (in stanza 3) with its plural form:
This tickled her but one may reign
the other way around.
No principle applies to queens
when it comes to going down.
Queens move in a mysterious way
and have their ups and downs.
As line 5 suggests, the familiar form is further subverted by weird echoes of familiar poetry: William Cowper (‘God moves…’), Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (‘They were dying, Egypt, dying’) and W S Landor’s ‘Rose Aylmer’ (‘Ah what avails the sceptred race’). At this point, if I were more of an academic than I am, I’d be chuntering on about intertextuality. As it is, Skinner’s ‘The Customs of Queens’ serves as a playfully compressed anthology of Great Lines, offering us a mordant take on female regality. And not a cute elephant in sight.
Many of the poems in this retrospective volume are praise-poems to Killaspuglonane, where Skinner has lived (when off-campus) since 1964. Darker tones are never going to be far away in any Skinner poem, but he clearly identifies with the place and its people, enjoys both the rhythms and the quirks of rural Irish life. Two of his most remarkable poems, from the 1960s, juxtapose unassuming Killaspuglonane with the wider world-theatre: LBJ and Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Twenty years on, one of the poet’s American personae muses curtly: ‘old Ronnie addressed the nation / He wanted more of my money for the Contras’ (‘Friday Evening’).
‘The Sorcerors: a Laotian Tale’ leaves one pleading for poetry to recover more of that narrative function which it has lost to prose; similarly it needs to reclaim from drama its deployment of personae. Isn’t poetry, after all, a form of theatre? We’re not talking, necessarily, of specific ‘performance’ pieces. It’s odd that we often refer to a poet’s ‘voice’ in the singular, as if there weren’t a multiplicity of voices potentially available to his or her imagination. Knute Skinner has a whole section where, as he says, ‘the characters, including the narrators, are all fictitious.’
Anyone who has taught at an American university will smile wryly at Skinner’s references to conveyor-belt courses (‘Humanities 309… Humanities 108’), his irreverence towards po-faced academic bureaucracy. I recalled the remark of a Connecticut English Dept colleague, after we’d attended a performance of Mahler’s 9th: ‘That was worth far more than any number of MLA conferences.’ Brian Arkins’s admirable introduction, interestingly, claims Knute Skinner as a ‘Southern poet’ in the Irish sense; usually, when we hear that phrase, we think of Carolina rather than Clare. It’s a measure of Skinner’s shrewd adoptions and adaptations. To keep it fresh, Irish craziness requires an infusion of American craziness. Knute Skinner duly obliges.
Review by Maggie Kelly
One of our WPA members, Knute Skinner, lives in Ireland. I emailed him to learn, among other things, what he might say about the importance of place in his writing. This request coincided with the debut of his latest book.
This book, a retrospective collection titled, Fifty Years: Poems 1957-2007, begins with his first published poem, “Stars.” The poems are labeled as “Early,” “Later,” “Fictions,” and “Recent.” Most of the poems were taken from 13 books that were published at two-to-three-year intervals from 1965 to 2005. The bulk of the Early poems were written whileSkinner was still in the United States; the majority of the rest were written in Ireland.
Skinner’s attachment to Ireland began in 1958, when his father died. With a small inheritance, Skinner traveled to Ireland. “… I fell in love,” he
wrote me, “with the people and the countryside. In a curious way, even though everything seemed strange, I felt at home.” So two years after his first visit, he bought a small cottage, and has lived there ever since. By that time he had earned his PhD, but chose to raise a huge garden and “worked in a bog cutting turf to heat the cottage and feed the kitchen range.”
Although his permanent home was in Ireland, Skinner taught at Western Washington in Bellingham, where he founded the Bellingham Review, and taught “for periods ranging from one to three months a year.”
Regardless of which side of the Atlantic he was on, Skinner’s work consistently demonstrates several qualities. One of them is his ability to tell a story through detail. Such is the case in “A Small Construction Site in County Monaghan,” in which a young worker, like an eager horse in traces, wants to complete a job, but must wait while we watch his supervisor clean, fill, and successfully light his pipe. Suspense builds as the older man talks and tamps and finally can attend to the job.
The reader automatically assumes that the most important thing for the younger man was to learn his trade, but we learn in the last lines that
it is patience that he really must learn. That sort of wit, that twist, is another device Skinner has skillfully mastered. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and life caught in a small moment is not what it had at first seemed to be.
Also pervasive in his poems is Skinner’s sense of place. In answer to a question I had asked him, he wrote, “Place has had a very strong influence, as my neighours pop up in my poems and a number of poems are set in the country side …I live just two miles from Liscannor Bay, five from the Atlantic, where the Cliffs of Moher rise dramatically to about 700 feet from the water. But it’s probably the hillside meadows and the ancient stone walls enclosing cows and sheep that appeal most strongly to me.”
Reading through this collection, one meets Skinner’s neighbors and family, learns things such as how long it takes to draw a pint of ale, and contemplates with the poet what it is like to suddenly catch oneself getting older.
Review by Wayne Burrows
Originally a native of St Louis, Missouri, Knute Skinner has been living and working in the Irish Republic since 1964, and although not among the household names of contemporary Irish writing, as this substantial gathering of his work since the fifties demonstrates, his output has been consistently interesting and accomplished. As regular readers of the Irish and UK small presses will be aware, the signature of Skinner’s poetry is an off-handed lightness of touch, approaching big themes through casually observed everyday incidents and details. In ‘The Figure By His Side’, a man thinks he glimpses an unsettling, ghostly presence in the corner of his eye (“the words springing to mind -/grey, grim, gaunt, grotesque …”) then ponders the absent shadow through a view of himself, “aged and ageless with one foot out of the grave”, concluding that whatever it might have been, “it stayed in his mind…twisting twinges of botheration/into serious knots”. The poems continually perform this trick of sneaking up on an intimation of transcendence or mortality from an odd angle, glancing at romanticism in anticipation of “more light in the house” and “a new view of Michael Healy’s meadow/with its wavelike rise to the skyline” in ‘Our Crab Apple Tree’, or dread through the presence of an ominous letter on a mantelpiece that “looked larger each time I glanced up from the table/where Grandfather poured tea with a resolute hand” in ‘Stale Biscuits’. While these later poems perfect the method, the retrospective offered by this volume suggests that – even in the more formal early poems – Skinner’s sensibility has been working this seam from the start, offering a poem of praise to ‘Urine’ or wondering whether ‘Blackheads’ were “there all the time,/gathering, deepening/waiting for the touch of’ my fingers”. He offers prayers for his garden’s peas and cabbages to grow unmolested by “hungry crow/or caterpillar”, compares his home’s unreliable water-spring to “life itself, sweet, chancy and transient”, and notes, after a rainstorm in ‘The Cold Irish Earth’, that while his coat “hangs drying now/by the kitchen range…down at Healy’s cross/the Killaspuglonane graveyard/is wet to the bone”. The way Skinner’s puns and ease with everyday language work to plumb surprising depths reminds me of the superficially similar approaches of James Wright or Paul Muldoon’s The Prince Of The Quotidian, though Skinner’s approach to the everyday conceals its underlying romanticism and linguistic playfulness far more completely than such poets as these generally do. Even so, there’s a kind of Buddhist sensibility at work occasionally, as in ‘Fun With Earthworms And Crab Grass’ or ‘Sand And Water’, and it’s often left productively difficult for the reader to tell exactly how seriously Skinner’s writing takes the human condition it describes. He’s at his most richly humane when beginning ‘Milk And Cookies’ with the image: “Yawning, I shut the book and got off the bed.//Well, that’s life, I suppose/Never a dull moment”. Towards the end of the volume, he also offers a series of ‘Four Poems For Edna’ that affectionately compare his beloved to “a pub where the dark red wood/glistens behind the bar”, and later observes her emerging from a fever, “sitting up in bed,/the thermometer out of her mouth”, Edna herself marking her sweaty bedclothes with the words “I think I could win a wet T-shirt contest”. So far, so prosaic. Yet by allowing Edna’s self-deprecation to trigger a wave of spousal desire (Skinner offers his own vote, “moving closer, admiring her nipples while inhaling the residue of Vicks on her chest”) the poem performs a surprising turn, allowing illness to be transformed from ordinary tenderness to eroticism and love. In work like this – and there is a good deal of it in these pages – Fifty Years reveals itself to be as fine and engaging a testament to the complicated nature of simple pleasures as any in contemporary poetry.