Obituary: Brian Coffey
Monday 17 April 1995
Brian Coffey was an unmistakably modern poet.
Essentially, his modernity consists in his preoccupation with the meaning of poetry, with the nature of the activity of making poems. It was this preoccupation, lasting all his life, which most sharply distinguished him from other Irish poets who in general tend to work from a blueprint notion of what a poem is and direct their efforts to producing that thing. It also made him unpopular with the makers of anthologies of Irish poetry.
For Coffey, the making of a poem was always a deeply human activity, an engagement in the process of becoming human. As with other activities in a contingent world, he saw it as a process without certainty of issue, without predeterminable product. His absorption in experimental poetics, like that of Hopkins, was the result of his intention to discard the predetermined categories of conventional language-usage, to free language to explore and express the hitherto unknown.
This Joycean attitude towards language he shared with Samuel Beckett and Denis Devlin, an attitude that may, as Jorge Luis Borges believed, account for Irish writers' feeling different (from English writers) and consequently freer to innovate. (Joyce himself, to judge by the "tundish" incident in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, seems to have believed something similar.)
Brian Coffey was born in Dublin in 1905. His background was academic, his father being Professor of Anatomy and the first President of University College, Dublin (1908-40). At UCD he took degrees in the arts and sciences. Also in UCD he met Denis Devlin, who became a lifelong friend; the two poets shared their first book publication with Poems (1930).
Between 1930 and 1933 Coffey studied Physical Chemistry in Paris under Jean Berrin; and, still in Paris, he studied the philosophical problems of physical science under Jacques Maritain. In Paris he met Thomas MacGreevy, and in London in 1934 he met Beckett, with whom he had a warm friendship until Beckett's death in 1989. He was in Paris again in 1937 and in 1938 but, having returned home on holidays to Dublin in the summer of 1939, he found that he could not go back to France because of the outbreak of war.
Between 1939 and 1947 Coffey worked in England, mainly teaching. After obtaining his doctoral thesis in Paris in 1947, he emigrated to the United States and worked as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St Louis University, Missouri. In 1952 he resigned from St Louis, and after a couple of difficult years in the US, he returned in 1954 with his family to England, where he taught mathematics to sixth-formers until his retirement in 1972. Soon afterwards, he moved to Southampton, where he was to stay.
In 1963 Coffey edited Denis Devlin's Collected Poems (1964) and his own Selected Poems was published by New Writers' Press in 1971; a Brian Coffey Special Issue of the Irish University Review was launched by the then President of Ireland, the late Cearbhail O Dalaigh; a late publication was Chanterelles, a collection of dazzling short poems (1985).
Brian Coffey wrote profoundly and tenderly of the love between man and woman, that difficult and complex relationship which he believed created a possible alternative to the terrible solipsism of modern consciousness; he wrote satirically of the depersonalised and dehumanised life of 20th- century industrialism, commercialism and state bureaucracy; and in recent years he had been writing of modern man's despoliation of the earth, articulating terrifying glimpses of the nuclear Armageddon in his long poem Advent. The great long work of his last years, however, is "The Prayers", of which only extracts have so far appeared.
While Beckett the novelist and playwright sadly pondered the absurdity of human life without ultimate meaning, Coffey the poet, sustained by his traditional philosophical and religious convictions, persisted in exploring possibilities of meaning for human life, and this very persistence constitutes in itself, regardless of any results, an affirmation of the human spirit in the face of this century's paralysing negativities.
Of the man himself: acute intelligence, gentlemanliness and generosity were his distinguishing characteristics. Having had a large family (he and his wife Bridget had nine children), he knew about young people and easily related to them, with sympathy and good-natured tolerance. There was never a hint of condescension in his attitude towards them. Confronted by opinionated elders, however, he could be scathing and, with his deep and broad erudition, lethal when he chose.
As his protg of 20 years' standing, and an admirer of his work for longer, I frequently felt aggrieved that he received so little recognition, especially in Ireland; but whenever I expressed this to him, he was dismissive. For Coffey, the writing of poetry was profoundly serious and well beyond the concerns of literary fashions. His last book was a translation of some sonnets by Mallarm (whose work preoccupied Coffey all his life), and it is perhaps this enigmatic French poet who provided Brian Coffey with his ideal, both as a man and as an artist.
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