The Internet is a blessed gift for a mind in love with linkage across time and space, but like anything mechanical it is dumb, literal and narcotic. Only a wary mind can keep it useful and honest, and resist confusing information with truth. On the way to something else I learned of Sean Rafferty, a Scottish poet (1909-1993). I wanted to know more so I Googled his name, which I learned he shares with a BBC broadcaster, an archaeologist, an actor, a mortgage planner, and a “coastal outreach specialist,” among many others. Though I found little hard information about the poet, he sounded interesting and my library has a copy of Collected Poems, published by Carcanet two years after Rafferty’s death. They also have Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America, written by the above-mentioned archaeologist.
So, I come cold to Rafferty’s poems. They impress me as sharply observed, concise, quietly funny and melancholic. He seems to have lived on the margin, away from the literary world and the media, publishing little until 1973. He became a publican in Devon, and after a fallow spell returned to poetry in the early nineties. The Carcanet edition includes an interview Rafferty gave to his editor, the poet Nicholas Johnson. The poets he speaks of most excitedly are Catullus, John Donne, George Herbert and John Dryden, though he knows the moderns – Pound, Eliot, MacDiarmid. He seems to have been an autodidact, educated but not in any conventional academic manner. He admits to having read Wittgenstein but says:
“…when I tried to read Wittgenstein it was farcical. I simply couldn’t understand it, but in a curious way I realised it was a marvellous way to write poems. Because he writes in such short paragraphs.”
I detect no false humility or straining after cleverness. Rafferty seems his own man, a gentle man, and isn’t much bothered by what others think. Of his decades keeping a pub he says:
“Oh yes…it wasn’t as bad as that in the pub. I quite liked the pub in a sort of way. I liked the language…it’s gone now I think. Some people still talk it...It was beautiful, and funny. They had these curious similes. Weak as a robin. Wild as a hawk. Maized as a wheelbarrow.”
Many of Rafferty’s poems are untitled, another act of humility. Here are four lines from a 13-line poem (page 110):
“I have been happy watching happiness
visit a room as simply as the sun
turning a gesture into a caress
and turning every sentence to a song.”
And this (page 121):
“The candles yawning and the fire gone out.
Silence, your sin; let silence make amends.
You will not write a line and if you wrote
What would you write but epitaphs and ends?”
And on the next page:
“Say your say to earn the silence
soon must pay a lodge and bed
words will never win you. Settle.
And the worm be satisfied.”
I had already heard echoes (not influences or imitations) of fellow Celts R.S. Thomas and especially Samuel Beckett, and the next page seemed to confirm it:
“Not to be, not to be born is best
So the chorus sing.
“Room for a beggar man.
“What but a crown of thorn
could cap the suffering
marks out that wounded brow?
“This man was once a king.
He begs no kingdom now.
“A dark low ceilinged room
A single bed and rest.
Let the chorus sing
Not to be born is best.”
And here’s the final poem in the collection:
“Poets you may read it in
Williams Yeats or Hölderlin:
care for language, learn your trade
nothing is that is not made
made to stand, transparent, fine,
like the glass that holds the wine.”
Thanks to the Internet I learned of Sean Rafferty without looking for him. It didn’t tell me a lot but it told me enough. So do Rafferty’s poems.