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Austin Clarke (1896-1974) was an Irish poet. He was educated at Belvedere College and UCD. After he got his M.A., he assumed the lecturing position at UCD formerly held by his mentor, Thomas MacDonagh, after MacDonagh was executed for taking part in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Clarke's work isn't well known outside of Ireland. Two reasons for this are the uneven quality and sometimes excessive topicality of his poems.

With regards to quality, his poetry is consistently uneven, to coin a contradiction. At any point in his life, Clarke could write a real clunker of a poem. So, unlike with Wallace Stevens' poetry, for example, you just can't read a Clarke poem and assume it's going to be ok. You have to be on the lookout lest you stub your toe on a cornball rhyme or a clumsy phrase. Clarke takes judgment to read, and for most people, spending that energy isn't worth it.

Clarke also had the habit of writing very topical poems about local affairs. This makes some of his poetry hard to understand without you also having a copy of whatever newspaper article he was writing about. Here's one of Clarke's poems, "Rightful Rhyme: The Plot":

So, in accordance with the plot,
MacDonagh, Plunkett, Parse, were shot.
Campbell dropped dead in a mountainy spot,
Stephens, lifting the chamber pot.
O Conaire went, a ragged sot.
Higgins was coffined in a clot.
Twice-warned, when must I join our lot?

Forgetting the sledgehammer rhyme for a moment, who the heck are these people? Beats me. MacDonagh is his slain mentor perhaps, but as for the rest of these folks, I'm knocking, but Clarke isn't letting me in. He's obviously writing for himself and his friends. That's nice for him, but we get little for our time and trouble.

Clarke was fascinated by the intricate quality of Gaelic poetry, and he would often incorporate into his poems Gaelic techniques like criss-cross rhyme or having a set number of syllables per line.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his, called "Secrecy":

Had we been only lovers from a book
That holy men who had a hand in heaven
Illuminated: in a yellow wood,
Where crimson beast and bird are clawed with gold
And, wound in branches, hunt or hawk themselves,
Sun-woman, I would hide you as the ring
Of his own shining fetters that the snake,
Who is the wood itself, can never find.

This poem is fascinating and evocative, simultaneously hard-edged and shrouded in mist. I memorized it many years ago, and it still moves me, but I'm still not exactly sure what it means. This is undoubtedly why I find it beautiful.

Clarke, Austin. Selected Poems. Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1976.

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