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Poetry Focus: Seán Rafferty

Seán Rafferty by Alistair Noon

The Scottish poet Seán Rafferty was born a century ago today, on February 5th, 1909. At Edinburgh University in the early 1930s he impressed Sorley MacLean with what the latter would later recall as “his brilliance in the Hugh Selwyn Mauberly manner of Pound.” Over a half-century later, MacLean could still recite long sections of Rafferty’s early Mauberlyesque The Return to Wittenberg. But MacLean was also careful to point to Rafferty’s future development, mentioning “some very different poems that were perhaps adumbrations of his mature poetry, than which nothing could be more different from the early Pound.” Here’s one poem that for me is quite distinctively Rafferty in the way it combines lyricism and simplicity of diction with a subtle idiosyncrasy of syntax:

Who walk this side of silence still?
long since to sleep a day’s work done
across the fields over the hill
the harvesters are home and gone.
Who walk this side of silence still?

The harvesters are home and gone;
their meadows sleep till early light
the water sleeps beside the stone.
Who calls this late their last goodnight?
the harvesters are home and gone.

Who call this late their last goodnight?
their roads are dark, how far their bed?
Listen. Beyond our blindfold sight
are they the living we the dead.
Who call this late their last goodnight?

Living in London during the 1930s and 40s, Rafferty began to write music hall songs whose humour has survived surprisingly well, not least because of a formal control well above par. His first wife died on V.E. Day in 1945, giving sad occasion to a string of superb lyrical elegies.

Having remarried, he and his second wife moved to Devon where they ran a country pub. Some of the characters who propped up the bar come vividly, sometimes hilariously to life in a series of pub poems. After retiring from the pub, he tended a garden on a farm for city children. He became friends with his neighbour Ted Hughes, who sent Rafferty’s poems to PN Review. He died one winter evening in 1993, while walking home.

With friends and admirers like Hughes and MacLean, you might have thought that the path to fame would have been, if not easy, then at least eased, but Rafferty’s publishing history was erratic in the extreme. Early magazine publications were followed only towards the end of his life by a couple of small press chapbooks and a posthumous Collected from Carcanet. Partially, perhaps, this was down to a very self-effacing nature – he seems to have taken the Emily Dickinson / Franz Kafka route of heads-down-and-write with little regard to publishing success. Poems, from Etruscan Books, is in print and the thing to get.

A poet who never gave readings but had all his poems in his head, his poems ooze orality. Feeling, form and a sense of both personal and wider history come together in Rafferty in a rare way. I find it easy to imagine his best pieces in an anthology of British poetry of the 20th century.

Alistair Noon edited last year’s online symposium on Seán Rafferty at Intercapillary Space, which is reissued today as an e-chapbook. At the Emptying of Dustbins was recently published by Oystercatcher Press; it will be reviewed at Eyewear.
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