Originally published in Hibernia, Friday, September 10th, 1976
“Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright or to try to conceal it”, wrote Ezra Pound in 1913. John Ennis in Night on Hibernia (Gallery Books), 90p) his first book, certainly is “decent” enough in his acknowledgement of his debt. He owes it to Hart Crane, and from the two Crane quotations which preface this collection (consisting largely of those poems that won last year’s Patrick Kavanagh Award) right through to the last poem, Mr. Ennis has chalked up quite a bill.
For a poet being influenced by another poet is a necessary but dangerous business, and the greater the poet the more dangerous can be his influence. But for a man with real talent the influence will never go beyond being a technical one, except in his younger days when he is probably more susceptible to his mentor’s “message”, since he has not yet had time to develop one of his own. Unfortunately, because I do not think that Hart Crane is a great poet, or a good one, I begin by being suspicious for anyone who falls under Crane’s influence, and immediately prejudiced against the kind of poetry that Mr. Ennis is trying to write.
In the matter of technique, Crane has really very little to offer, except, like Dylan Thomas, a kind of rhetoric. And though lacking the tremendous power Thomas’s egotism, like his rhetoric it is very persuasive, and easy to imitate. It is doubly tempting to young aspirants because it give the poet a “bardic” role and does wonders for his self- importance.
It is easy to get drunk on such a potion, as John Ennis’ work testifies:
Dawn, I walk high deck. Sea wastes shock and stun.
Atmospheric dust reddens east, gilds crowning sun.
Turbines, rhythmic twin- screws, twist in a rage.
Buoy us. Ship rides at pelagic anchorage. We die,
Men, boats of myth,
Womb- shouldered gods of nitrogen-
Belittled by time’s windless gin,
Foetal pendants in a toxic sky
Obviously, this is to be a voyage of some significance- even symbolic- and the poet has gone to considerable plans to let us know it.
However, John Ennis is capable of other things, and unfortunately we only get occasional glimpses of them in this collection, particularly in ‘Wheel Chair’, ‘Ride for Andrises’, ‘Dorothea Clare’, ‘Out of the Ruins’, and Sgaruint na gCompanach’. When the poet comes out of the fog of rhetoric he can write great pathos:
Son, father wake, exit greyly once- trodden familiar haunts
Kitchens, sheds, fields. We do not think of this at all.
Last night we sat down, ate our supper at the table.
At dawn, we got up for the long haul
– ‘Out of the Ruins
Here the force of the plain statement “We do not think of this at all” is more powerful than any “ornado” rhetoric. It is the kind of simplicity that for a poet is the most difficult to attain and testifies to Mr. Ennis’s potential.