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Irish poet and novelist Colm Toibin reads from his new poetry book 'Vinegar Hill'


Colm Toibin, the great Irish poet and novelist, joins us now. So let's not fritter away any more time before he reads a poem.

Colm, could you please read "Prayer To St. Agnes"?

COLM TOIBIN: (Reading) O holy St. Agnes, cure me of metaphor. Make me say exactly what I mean without trickery or recourse to words that are not clear or clean. O martyr and saint, let life be dull, and make our verses unadorned, and let next year's poems be plainly full of signs that lessons have been learned. The flowers grow as appointed from the soil and do not paint a meadow with delight. They wither or get picked, which serves to spoil our notion, so mistaken on first sight, that they are sprightly dancing in the breeze. Then taking applause, their heads all bowed. I swear, in all mention of flowers, these rich, false words will never be allowed. In return, please open heaven's gate so I can see what really is with no sweet terms to mask my fate to live in true, unsweetened bliss.

SIMON: And that is Colm Toibin reading from his new collection, "Vinegar Hill." The great poet is currently teaching at Columbia University in New York. And thanks so much for being with us.

TOIBIN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why would a poet pray to be cured of metaphor?

TOIBIN: I wanted the poems to be plainer, to really depend on single statement - that if you just write down something that's true and without adornment that you will actually get maybe much more expression or certainly a sort of power where you're not attempting, in a way, to do something poetic as much as attempting to, in a way, beguile the reader with the rhythm or with what's not in the poem as much as any set of tricks or any set of, I suppose, adornments.

SIMON: An especially arresting poem, I think, for many people is one that touches on mortality - "Two Plus One." Could I ask you to read that, please?

TOIBIN: "Two Plus One." (Reading) My heart is watching and weakening, mercilessly counting the beats. It is bored, casually waiting for this to cease. My father died at 53. Vessels leaked in his brain. Then arteries weakened. He moaned in pain. My mother's eyes were gray as his were blue. Her breath rose high above the town before it sank in death. I have their two weak hearts in one weak heart, their eyes merged in my gaze. His slow smile, her soft side glance oversee my days.

SIMON: Oh, my.

TOIBIN: This is about 10 years old, this poem. And I got - I couldn't believe - you know, you get a miracle sometimes where they oversee my days, which - both meanings of, you know, someone overseeing something, oversight, and then actually, literally, their eyes overseeing.

SIMON: Yeah. There's a sense of frailty - help you see the world in a different way, truer way.

TOIBIN: And, you know, I love to say that - I had testicular cancer. And I had really awfully difficult chemo. And I was really sick. And, you know, I'm not sure it's true. It might be a defense mechanism. But I love to say that I learned nothing and that if you need cancer to teach you to appreciate life, then there's something really wrong to start with, you know...

SIMON: (Laughter).

TOIBIN: ...And that I just lay there. It was boring. It was tough. It was hard. It was sometimes painful. But the idea that when it was over, I became a new man, or I found God, or I suddenly discovered, you know, the joy of eating lobster or something, I - you know, all the things that were in me just returned slowly, including my hair.

SIMON: I read that - I have read that you were a late reader. And I wonder if that wound up strengthening your appreciation for the - for words.

TOIBIN: I think it left me free to imagine things, to wander around the house in a sort of dream. While my siblings were all busy buried in books, I was sort of looking at them, checking them out, going into the other room to see what was going on there. I think it allows you to, in a certain way, when you're maybe 7 or 8, to become a better noticer.

SIMON: Could I please get you to read a section from "November In America"?

TOIBIN: Well, this is set in New York, and it's the very night that the voting has taken place which will cause Donald Trump to become president of the United States.

(Reading) That night, there's hope in their Yankee hearts as the ballots are being guarded against the truth. Soon, Twitter, fake news and rage itself will be all the rage, and children will be held in cages, and dreams will be tossed and blown. But that night, we see them in all their innocence, loving the song and comforted by the singer. Walk on. Walk on. Outside, it was November in America. We went to a bar. There was hope - some hope - in the hearts of those poised for power. It is sobering to remember. We were not laughing anymore.

SIMON: What did you want to capture in this poem?

TOIBIN: It was a particularly dramatic occasion where there's a song called "You'll Never Walk Alone." On our side of the Atlantic, it's the song sung by the Liverpool fans in a very raucous way at both home and away matches on a Saturday. It sort of goes - they just belt it out. That is what it is in Ireland and England.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Walk on through the wind. Walk on...

TOIBIN: And, of course, on the night I'm talking about, it's being sung very beautifully by Jessye Norman. And it's been sung with full emotion. So when she's going walk on, walk on, it's pure. It's beautiful. And the audience - I mean, the Americans are really wowed by it. They love it. They're moved by it.


JESSYE NORMAN: (Singing) And you'll never walk alone.

TOIBIN: I'm with an English friend, and we cannot stop ourselves. We're ready to burst with laughter. So it's one of those lovely moments where a cultural artifact means two entirely different things on a particular night where divisions in America are really becoming more and more apparent.

SIMON: Yeah. One last poem we want to get you to read - and it's - if you could tell us the story. It's "Pangur." And you're not the only poet to have addressed this, are you?

TOIBIN: "Pangur" is one of the oldest Gaelic poems. And, I mean, it's probably from the sixth century. Christianity has arrived in Ireland. And there's a monk. And he's writing that while he's hunting for the right word, his cat Pangur is hunting for mice. Seamus Heaney has done a version. Eavan Boland has done a version. Paul Muldoon has done a version. Every Irish poet does a "Pangur."

"Pangur." (Reading) Pangur, a neighbor's cat, comes to my flat for peace and quiet. He likes to lick my bare toes while I type. But he cannot keep himself in check, and soon he starts to bite. Pangur, I bark, if you don't stop, I would put you back in the poem by that monk.

SIMON: (Laughter) Which raises the question, is that how a poet settles scores?

TOIBIN: (Laughter) That's what poems are for - to threaten your cat.

SIMON: (Laughter). April's National Poetry Month. Do you like National Poetry Month?

TOIBIN: I think America's great. I love America. And I love the way it does these things. If that happened in Ireland, everyone would be laughing about it. And people would start having no poetry for April. Or they would, you know - but in America, these things are taken very seriously. And people pay a lot of attention. And poetry is something that really enriches people's lives. We know this because when there's a big ritual - for example, when there's a funeral or even a wedding, people often ask me, do you know a good poem for a wedding? - because they want something to mark the ceremony. So it isn't as though poems don't matter. They mightn't matter in everyone's daily life. But for those important occasions, they really - poems really do matter.

SIMON: Colm Toibin - his collection, "Vinegar Hill" - thank you so much for being with us.

TOIBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.