Irish Poetry in the High Desert: Poet, James Desmond O’ Hara
By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – September 3, 2017) — As I anxiously awaited the arrival of a signed copy of Irish priest and poet Pádraig Daly’s book, Last Dreamers, I came to the realization that I didn’t need to wait for airmail from Ireland to read and experience great Irish poetry: it was here in the high desert, being written with resolve and reflection in New Mexico’s state capital of Santa Fe.
Poet James Desmond O’Hara has great potency with his verse. With fluid stanzas and well-crafted words, his poems both enlighten and educate. Take for instance his poem John Of The Priests:
John of the Priests
I am a priest hunter
He was a horse thief
They are of low character
He came across my path
On the way to my Lake of Heads
Where ash trees have never blossomed
I drowned him and sunk him in the water
He is weighed down and facing north to never see the sun arise
In this poem one receives beautiful linguistic equilibrium but also an education: the poem is referring to a killer by the name of John Mullowney (aka. Seán na Sagart) who was hired by those in the Reformed Church to hunt down Catholic Priests, killing them for their bounty .
But O’Hara doesn’t just write about doom and gloom. Some of his most beautiful work reflects his Irish heritage: love, nature, and the Early Medieval Christianity that was the Irish or Celtic Church; what, O’Hara states, is natural to the Irish senses: “In Ireland, at one time it was said that ‘the poet’s job is to hold within his arms the moral boundaries of his people.’” Take for instance his poem Ballast Songs of Alleluia, where nature, love, and faith co-exist.
Ballast Songs of Alleluia
The evangelists having plumbed
the depths of sleep
awaken into cadmium yellows
and season patterns of irradiation
Witness slumbering forests
and hushed up meadows
in mountains’ foldings
Winter granite flankings
and melting music streams
icy obbligato of snowflakes
and shadow jewellery
fat and furred
burrowing badgers and beavers
Heavy feathers flourishing
of travelling coyotes and wolverines about
With a Billie swoosh of speed kick
John James skates the rink wreath
and guides in swirls and sweeps
their score of feet and wheels
through the clear spray shavings
Sharply recovering themselves
from a which way in the white
ballast songs of alleluia
life infusions after peak performance
Fickle feelings and laughing frost stars
lifelines of a marionette
sparkles moving in the silhouettes
Born in November 1957 in New York City to Irish immigrants, the O’Hara family moved back to Ireland in 1962. From the age of five, O’Hara spent most of his upbringing in Killarney. O’Hara was educated at Saint Brendan’s College near the shores of Loch Léin . His career began as an hotelier and business manager of luxury resorts with a variety of positions taking him around the United States.
But his most genuine interest has always been writing. He honed his craft in Ireland, taking cue from poems he appreciated such as Patrick Kavanagh’s Pegasus, Quarantine by Boland, Casualty by Heaney, The Bear by Kinnell, and for the total package, Gerard Manley Hopkins, saying, “I look to elegance and dignity in a poem and avoid what I see as coarse.” When O’ Hara arrived back in the United States, particularly in New Mexico — a land full of creativity — he pursued his writing passions in several projects, including an epic poem and allegory of the human journey based on the Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator and a work on the genocide in Ireland of 1845-1851.
James and I have been friends for a few years, being introduced by a notable local artist.
I recently caught up with James in Santa Fe at his home, constructed in 1730, adjacent to the oldest church in the United States. Interestingly his home was once the stables for Franciscan priests who were building the church. Over tea and lunch we talked poetry and his forthcoming work, Petition.
Give me an overview of your thoughts on poetry. What constitutes a good poem?
“I believe a poem should have a beginning and a middle and an end and tell a story. Color, pace, movement, fresh surprising vocabulary, melody, and tension. Furthermore, the poet should have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter and-or first takes the time to educate him/herself. If one is tackling an important topic or piece of writing, I believe a good idea is to say a prayer, a petition or, make an invocation that one’s ego is left at the door, helping prevent one from mucking it up. A poet is a servant to the piece. In short, a poem will have meaning for itself and will create itself in cooperation with the writer. Poetry is not a commodity.”
In a way, your answer brings up the age-old discussion between the craft of the poet and the personality of the poet. Some feel that a good poem is strictly about craft; others would argue it’s about the personality or particular style of the poet. What’s your angle?
“I believe in craft and submission to the muse or put another way the spirit of the subject matter; that the poet should be invisible. Let the voice of the subject matter speak for itself. In good work each word is precise and the whole verse is intelligible, easily accessible and has metrical qualities. The linear mind of the poet brings structure and math, and the lateral mind of the poet bringing asymmetry and imagination. One comparison that comes to mind is that prose is wine and poetry is cognac.”
I like that. If poetry is about craft, what is the end purpose of the poem? To educate or enlighten? To provide a feeling?
“A poem when it succeeds, in my view, should tingle a spine, and broadcast a definite position.”
So the poet has a responsibility to communicate something, correct?
“Yes. The writer has a responsibility to call out bad behavior in his/her work; vulnerable creation particularly requires champions. I believe in the 10,000-hour rule in order that one perfects and brings skill to the task. It seems to this writer that much poetry in the present time is stream of thoughtlessness and that mediocrity is held as a superlative.”
If some modern poetry is too “stream of thoughtlessness” as you say, do you think this is a problem of the poet or the institutions that train the poets?
“Some people have high-jacked the stylistic quality of verse, and are holding hostage the Elder Sister of the Arts. I believe that audiences or readers should demand better work.”
Tell me about Petition. What did you choose the name?
“I believe that life is about seeking the Divine Romance and a constant petitioning for one’s birthright within that romance, after Psalms 65:9 : ‘God’s stream is filled with water, He filled a bowl with food for me to eat.’”
There are many big subjects in Petition, covering historical events, real personages, and references to a variety of classical works. How do you approach such subjects?
“When writing about an important or big subject, I might seek something immense or important in a poetical marriage in order to balance, push back upon, strengthen the whole, and make the poem fresh. I look to find a device, a scaffold, to hold the work together. I seek to introduce surprise to a well-trodden road. I also believe if the internal critic says this topic is ‘way too difficult,’ this voice needs to be silenced; it is a summons and challenge to beat that unhelpful voice within my head. On the other hand, when the subject matter is small and weak then the poem might should reflect these attributes?”
Give me an example of your last comment? What do you mean “weak?”
“I suppose weak is not the precise word, maybe diminutive is a better word; something not grand in subject or scale. Here’s an example from my poem, I Name The Stars.
I NAME THE STARS
I search for you
I Am that I Am
and could rend
the whole mess of sky
are but small things
Shy soft songs
make the living house
best you know how
guess you are fearful
Brilliant. But I think in this diminutive subject there is deep meaning, correct?
“There may be. But I’ll leave you with this: let the mouse be the mouse. He or she has her place in His plan. The fact that there is no hierarchy I think makes for the best poetry.”
For more information of James Desmond O’Hara’s work, you can find his poetry in various publications he’s been published, including Icarus Magazine of Trinity College, Dublin , Nimrod Journal of Prose and Poetry of the University of Tulsa , Salmon Poetry of Ireland , and promoted via sponsorship by the Ireland Arts Council .
Photo captions: 1) James with his Irish Wolfhound. 2) James preparing the table. 3) Icarus Magazine: Trinity College, Dublin. 4) Salmon Poetry, Ireland. 5) James outside of his house. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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