Father to Poets, Lover of Songs:
James Liddy, 1934-2008
James Liddy, poet, essayist, maverick, bohemian, teacher, literary editor, outsider, raconteur, magus, merrymaker, gossip, subversive, intellectual explorer – and occasionally all at the same time – had the knack of becoming poet-in-residence wherever he set up camp.
In any literary conclave enlivened by his presence he became the centre of gravity. His conversation was always eloquent, witty, entertaining. His Wildean streak of flamboyance and expansive personality, as well as his sense of mischief, may at times have masked the deep erudition (Flann O’Brien in a review of Liddy’s first publication, Esau, My Kingdom for a Drink, seemed more concerned with the poet’s ‘eructation’). That erudition came out of one of the most inquisitive and acquisitive of minds. How true, the description of him in the homily given at his funeral Mass, as a ‘collector of arcane knowledge’.
That ‘arcane knowledge’ was widely and joyfully shared: in the pub corner, in his hand-written correspondence of which there must be vast volumes for some future editor to gather, and in the classroom where his students were treated to incisive, if unconventional, critiques of the Irish literary tradition and the Beat poets to whom he remained a loyal and scholarly champion.
He also remained true to Kavanagh. And to Mandelstam, Baudelaire, Whitman, Jack Spicer, Michael Hartnett, all those spiritual brothers who hovered over any literary conversation with James.
Inevitably, too, the ghosts of his patriot heroes would be invoked: Parnell, John and Willie Redmond, Liam Mellows and always, always, the icon of his heart, Michael Collins. He must have been a precociously keen observer as a child – his recollection of de Valera’s black-and-white Ireland of the 1940s were recounted with vivid actuality. The trips to the Shelbourne Hotel with his mother and sister, Nora, where they encountered the waiter who claimed to be Hitler’s cousin, meetings with W B’s widow George Yeats, the last Ivy Day parade to the Parnell monument in O’Connell Street.
The literary and political eras of the past haunted his imagination, yet he was more in touch with the present than some of the young acolytes who surrounded him. And there was always an entourage of acolytes, attentive to the anecdotes, the remembrances, the tutorials delivered, as if it were part of some kind of priestly function. In these gatherings he was open, alert and loved the heat from a good argument.
He arrived in the United States, as he later said himself, on a ‘mission to meet the good poets’. American received a ready-made authority on its own counter-culture. He joined with the Beats in their rejection of the academic template, taking to heart Jack Spicer’s declaration in his ‘Letter to Lorca’, that the poem is ‘a collage of the real’. Before landing in the midst of America’s campus revolts of the Sixties, his never-forgotten evenings of initiation and discourse with Kavanagh in Dublin’s literary temple of that time, McDaid’s, had been a prep course for the journey outward.
If Kavanagh was his mentor, he in turn became mentor to the next generations. He was generous in his own encouragement of young writers, always making a place for them in the alternative literary journals he created or over which he had influence, the most influential of which was Arena in Dublin in the 1960s, but also The Gorey Detail in the 1970s, and latterly The Blue Canary in Milwaukee. Hartnett was spot on in his poem ‘The Poet as Saint’, when he wrote:
He is father to many poets
and he is lover of their songs.
The fusion of his openly gay sexuality, his Irishness and Catholicism made him a poet who defied categorisation. He formulated his own distinctive vernacular out of what he learned from Kavanagh and the Beats. What Ashbery said of Frank O’Hara, that he ignored the rules of poetry, could equally apply to James’s poems, which absorbed the whole life and a world that extended from Corca Bascinn, Coolgreany and Croghan Kinsella, the mountain under which he is now buried, to his adopted German-Polish city in the American Midwest. It was there he built up a reputation as a poet of originality and style, and developed a highly regarded Irish studies programme in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Although he took himself away from Ireland, first to become a child of the American bop night in San Francisco and New Orleans, where he enjoyed what he called a life of ‘blissful Bohemian excess’, and then happily go native in Milwaukee, he kept the homeland in his sights and thoughts, returning annually to celebrate his birthday among old friends and pick up the news about the latest literary intrigue or political dogfight. His final visit took place last July with no sense that this would be the occasion for a final parting glass.
He will be missed from his nooks of old poetry – in Grogan’s Lounge, Rafferty’s pub and Axel bar.
An appreciation which appeared in The Irish Times and Poetry Ireland Review, following his death in November 2008