Fred Beake: The Poetry of Brian Coffey

I discovered Brian Coffey's Poetry in the late Seventies, and it has come increasingly to seem to me the best work by an Irishman since Yeats. I find it has an inwardness, a music, and a depth of meaning that are wholly lacking in the better known figures of recent Irish poetry.

His long life (1905-95) was in many ways closely connected with his Poetry, and it seems sensible to begin this essay with a fuller biography than is usual in Poet's Voice retrospectives.

He was born in 1905 of solid Irish academic stock. His father was a Professor of Anatomy, and the first President of University College, Dublin. He went through the Irish Catholic education system, which was still I suspect much as Joyce describes it. The moment of rebellion he chose to tell me about (and presumably others) was being beaten with the pandy bat for reading Virgil when he should have been doing other things. Whether this was strictly true I do not know, but the myth certainly reflected a life long interest in the Classics of Rome and Greece that was very personal, and wholly unacademic. Presumably because of this interest he did the French Baccalaureate in Classical studies during a year at a French college in 1924-5. However after this he moved in to Science at University College Dublin, first doing medicine at his father's wish, but later changing to Maths, Physics and Chemistry, which he pursued to M.Sc. level. During this period at University he seems to have become acquainted with both Samuel Beckett (who he played golf with), and his closest literary ally, Dennis Devlin.

He moved in 1930 to Paris to do research in Chemistry, but after three years became preoccupied with related philosophical problems, and switched to philosophical work with the great Jacques Maritain. He became more closely acquainted with Beckett after meeting him in London in 1934. In the same year he began to contribute occasional reviews (and one poem) to the Criterion. From this period too must stem his great interest in French poetry (not least Eluard, who he was to translate extensively). In 1937 after a brief period in Dublin he returned to France to do a thesis on matters relating to Thomas Aquinas under Maritain. In 1938 he married.

The outbreak of War caught Coffey in Ireland, and he was unnable to return to France to complete his thesis. As a result he spent the War in England teaching at a fairly low level in schools, and for the R.A.F.. It seems strange in a man with such enormously high intellectual qualifications, but he seems to have come increasingly to enjoy this sort of work, possibly because it freed him for poetry.

After the War he took his thesis in 1947, and was appointed an Assistant Professor at St Louis University, Missouri, supervising postgraduates in the philosophy of science, and mathematical logic. The chief result of this was the marvellous Missouri Sequence. Coffey's actual stay at Missouri was only four years. He resigned on a matter of 'academic principle', though possibly a dinner party where the President of the College realized that his Assistant Proffessor of Philosophy had known the Communist Eluard played its part. Certainly Coffey and his wife told me this story with great relish when I had lunch with them in the early Eighties.

Coffey and his now large family returned to London, where he taught sixth form Maths. During this period he began to become considerable as a poet, though the chronology is by no means clear. Certainly Missouri Sequence was published in the early Sixties, but how long it had been worked upon is open to question; and there are similar problems with Mindful of You. However by the time that the latter was published in the Irish University Review in 1965 it ought to have been obvious to anyone with half an ear that Ireland had a major, possibly great poet.

Part of the intense creativity of the Sixties was the editing of his friend Dennis Devlin's work after his premature death, and one wonders if the death of Devlin played any part in the great burst of creativity that was Coffey's early old age. Did it perhaps liberate him from the shadow of a poet who had always been regarded more highly than himself? Or did it make him aware of the shortness of the time left to him? However Coffey was always extremly loyal to his friend's memory. I remember his first act when we came in contact in the late Seventies was to try and interest me in Devlin. Yet they were very different poets. Devlin was a more formal artist at first sight then Coffey, and it is no accident Allen Tate was among his American admirers. He was also much less fluid in the movement of his poems than Coffey. Equally they shared a fascination with modern French poetry, and a desire for an Irish poetry in the Modernist mainstream; and Devlin is a considerible poet in his own right.

In 1972 Coffey retired from teaching, and a year later moved to Southampton to a large pleasant house in Alma Road. Here in 1975 he completed probably his best long poem Advent, (though here again he seems to have begun composition at least a decade before) and in 1979 perhaps the most immediately approachable of his major works, the Death of Hektor. There was also a good satire, Topos, which he became a little wary of after a bad review, just as he had of Leo (his concrete, satirical poem of the Sixties). Sadly neither are in the Daedalus Press 'Poems and Versions' of 1991. For the rest he wrote some good short poems, and some versions of Mallarme, which trickled in to print in the Eighties in various small press books.

He was a man of enormous vitality, and always kind to his fellow writers. He was also a Catholic with deeply pagan roots, and an Irishman who loved his country, yet on the whole did not choose to live in it.

The Poetry

Coffey never wrote badly, and yet his evolution was a curiously slow and painful one. Possibly his early academic career was in part to blame. However (to me) to look at the early poems up to and including his Third Person volume of 1938 is to encounter someone with great talent who has not escaped his influences, which seem to me to be Eliot and the French poets of the Twenties and Thirties, and is not saying enough to compensate for it. These were however short poems, and on the whole Coffey always wrote better when he wrote at length. Possibly this was connected with a theory he expressed in a letter to me when he was old: 'One thing about Surrealism ... it was the pronounced and dogmatic atheism (French ecole Primaire kind of stuff probably mainly due to Breton) in its original form which destroyed the good effect of surrealistic reliance on the free flow of imagery from the dark within...'. Certainly his poetry at its best is nearly always a continuous search from inside 'the free flow of imagery from the dark within', and such an exploration requires space. The result in a more minor figure than Brian Coffey would no doubt have been total obscurity.

However his work is saved from being aleatoric by the brilliance of the intellect directing the search. Central to the method is a theory of verbal thought, which (as far as I know) Coffey never formulated as such. It starts from the assumption that the mind knows where it is going, even when its beginning may seem impossibly raw and unformed. The opening of Advent is perhaps the most extreme example of this.

The correlative of this 'rawness' in Brian's work is extreme subtlety of verbal movement: sentence structure becomes highly elastic in a way which feels (to this reader at least) more like the inflected poetry of the Greek and Latin poets than modern English. There are parallels here with the late work of Louis Zukofsky, who had a similar interest in the Classics. However that ferociously materialist Jew regarded the world in a very different way to the Catholic Brian Coffey, with the result that though the method is very similar, the outcome is not. Brian is continuously wandering through the inner arguments of European and Irish Catholic Culture (but with serious modifications out of the pagan tradition) whether it is the deep issues of History, Life and Death that dominate Advent, the culture of War (as in the Death of Hektor), the nature of Love (as in Mindful of You and How far from Day Break), or the simpler more worldly poems of Missouri Sequence. It is not however only the verbal movement that has a relationship with the Classics. Much of Advent (though not all) seems to be organised round a free hexameter of six stresses, and to my ear at least there is a classical 'feel' to the movement of most of the great poetry, even though it is admittedly not in very regular patterns.

Yet the thing that matters about this poetry is not its provenance, but its relevence, which is enormous. Where so much of the official poetry of our age (not least Seamus Heaney) contents itself with saying the nice safe things that preserve the consensus of what reality is, Brian Coffey with his backgrounds in Science, Philosophy and Surrealism, probed deep beneath the surface of the accepted 'Real'. His answers (which are more often than not half glimpsed) are never comfortable: 'there is loss in love, and death in life, but there is something beyond either, and the true joy is in the journeying' would be my own bald summary of twenty years reading of a poet, who seems to me one of the most durable of our period.

Short Bibliography

1. Irish University Review Brian Coffey Special Issue of 1976. This remains invaluable. It includes an excellent short biography, a fine essay by J.C.Mayes, the first printing of Advent, the only bringing together of numerous versions from the French, and the satire Leo.

2.Brian Coffey: Poems and Versions (1929-1990) : Daedalus Press 1991. This is the nearest we have to a collected Coffey. Unfortunately it leaves out the satires Leo and Topos and ommits all the French translations. The need for a companion volume is pressing.


This piece is taken with permission from Poet's Voice 3.1. The Poet's Voice is a wide ranging magazine, covering most things in contemporary English Poetry, and published from 12, Dartmouth Ave., Bath, subscription is 8.50 pounds