Speaking As a Poet, and a Teacher
Burns Scholar Dawe enjoys pursing multiple careers and interests
By Sean Smith
A poet, literary critic and teacher, Gerald Dawe says half-jokingly that he spends much of his time as Burns Visiting Chair in Irish Studies "straddling the academic-creative seat."
So, he explains, whereas his inaugural lecture as Burns Scholar last fall was a talk on Belfast poet Padraig Faicc, his next Burns event, on April 13 at 4 p.m. in Burns Library, will be a reading of his own works. "I spoke as an academic for one, so now I'll speak as a poet for the other," quipped the Belfast native in a recent interview.
Dawe is a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin and director of its Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing, as well as co-director of the Trinity graduate creative writing program, the first of its kind offered by an Irish university. He has published six collections, including The Lundys Letter, for which he was awarded the Macaulay Fellowship in Literature, and most recently, Lake Geneva.
If Dawe juggles vocations, he also adroitly pursues seemingly disparate interests in his various incarnations. He is utilizing the Burns Library's acclaimed archives to assemble what he hopes will be a groundbreaking anthology of Irish war poetry. But Dawe can also muster plenty of enthusiasm for a discussion about legendary pop singer and fellow Belfast native Van Morrison.
Dawe's interest in Morrison goes far beyond cable channel or oldies radio station nostalgia. In Morrison and Belfast, Dawe sees a man and a city intertwined, perhaps underappreciated, not a little misunderstood.
If Americans know little of Belfast other than as a flashpoint of sectarian turmoil, Dawe explains, they also are largely unaware of the reverence Belfast holds for Morrison, whom he says is an aptly complex embodiment of Ulster's capital city.
"To understand what Van Morrison means to Belfast, you have to get a handle on what makes Belfast Belfast," said Dawe, who explored the influence of Belfast's cultural roots on the works of Morrison and other artists in the 1998 essay "The Rest Is History."
"There's a physical energy in the accent, underneath which lies an often sheltered lyricism. Van gets access to that. He contradicts what seems to be the prevailing view of Belfast as a 'hard place.' He has written so many words that convey a tension, between a romantic cry and a mocking tone.
"That's Van, and that's also Belfast."
In a similar vein, Dawe hopes the anthology he's assembling through his research at Burns will provide a poetic and literary view of Ireland's role in conflicts from 1914-45, encompassing World Wars I and II as well as the 1916 Easter Uprising, the Irish Civil War and the Spanish Civil War. Based on what he's unearthed so far, Dawe says he has every reason to be confident of success.
"People are often uncomfortable with the idea of Irish fighting for the British military, but many did," said Dawe. "The Irish poet William Monk Gibbon enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of World War I. As it turns out, while he was fighting in France, he carried with him the poetry of Thomas McDonough, who was one of the martyrs of the 1916 uprising. So here you have an Irish soldier fighting for Britain, yet all the while he is reading the poetry of an Irish nationalist.
"That's an example of the ironies and complexities we find in war and other kinds of conflict. I've always been uncertain about William Butler Yeats' statement that 'War is an issue of passive suffering,' so this project is perhaps my way of addressing that uncertainty."
In fact, Dawe says he is having almost more success than he can handle: "I could be at this for 10 years. It's so interesting to see works of all these poets - some famous, some who faded from the landscape - coming together. I feel truly fortunate for this opportunity to work at BC and in the Burns Library."