‘A dazzling array of writers acknowledge the work of one of Ireland’s greatest literary talents.’
— John P O’Sullivan, Sunday Times (London) headline of review of Peter Fallon: Poet, Publisher, Editor and Translator (edited by Richard Rankin Russell, Irish Academic Press, 2013)
‘Praise for a “ringleader of every worthwhile poetry plot”‘.
— Kevin Power, The Sunday Business Post
Found in translation
Peter Fallon was wary of taking on the Greek poet Hesiod. He shouldn’t have been
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
In 2004 Peter Fallon, devoted farmer as well as poet-editor, published his translation of Virgil’s agricultural Georgics to great acclaim. As he explains now, in the afterword to Deeds and Their Days (After Hesiod), he was repeatedly asked what he was going to translate next, on the grounds that it is a waste of a proven success not to attempt to repeat it. And, although his answer was “Nothing”, because he did not think of himself as primarily a translator, there were obvious tracks that he could follow. Virgil’s pastoral Eclogues followed the model of the Greek Idylls of Theocritus; in parallel the Georgics can be linked back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, from around 700 BC, which treated the agricultural year among other things. Fallon says he had completed a draft of the Hesiod by 2006, soon after the publication of the Georgics, but was not satisfied with it. The idea of translating Hesiod dogged him for years. The Georgics is modelled on Works and Days in a number of ways that Fallon notes: the opening invocation to Zeus and the Muses prompts Virgil’s invocation of Maecenas as his patron; the almanac of the farming year, and the significance of various days, salutary or unlucky, are in Hesiod first.
“Fallon’s Latin is excellent, but his Greek is not. He overcame this misgiving, reflecting on successful predecessors in what Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell call imitations and Derek Mahon calls adaptations”
So why did he not publish the Hesiod translation until now? The reasons are interesting and substantial. First there is the old translator’s bugbear of inability to read fluently in the original. Fallon’s Latin is excellent, but his Greek is not. He overcame this misgiving, reflecting on successful predecessors in what Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell call imitations and Derek Mahon calls adaptations. Still, Fallon tells us that he “turned his back on Hesiod but he wouldn’t go away”. He “was drawn to Hesiod because of what his work meant to Virgil”, just as Seamus Heaney was drawn to Virgil in part as a fellow farmer.
A second factor that stopped Fallon from continuing with Hesiod was that he felt the version he completed in 2006 “lacked something”. For his “imitations” to be successful, rather than shortcomings in literalism, the imitating writer has to make some distinct contribution of his or her own. Hesiod seems to have found his hour: a learnt line-for-line translation by the Harvard Hellenist Gregory Nagy has just appeared; and the accomplished Greece-based American poet AE Stallings is publishing a verse translation with Penguin early next year. So Fallon’s wish to put a distinctive mark on his translation is understandable. He has now done that in a spectacular way, mainly by a change he made in 2015 when he completely recast the dactylic hexameters of the original into fluent six-line stanzas. This gives compulsion and rapidity to the narrative by a process that he describes in a very neat image: “By discovering and affixing rhymes I shaped a stanza that might allow it to be read as I thought it should be, that is, quickly, with the rhymes as stepping stones in an extended game of hopscotch.”
To illustrate this, here is a passage early in the poem describing Zeus’s inauguration of the golden age:
But mind this well, from where
They sprang, gods and men,
it’s both one and the same.
From Time’s beginning the gods who dwell
on Mount Olympus made a race of men,
a golden race, whose second name
The creative looseness of the lines of varying length is tied up by the tightness of the – mostly monosyllabic – rhymes, and the sentences that predominantly continue past the stanza’s end keep the narrative thrusting forward.
One of the crucial elements in the success of Fallon’s Georgics was the easy lightness with which he introduced Irish colloquialisms into his version: “your storm fears / are a thing of nothing”, “while I’m at it” and so on. In the passage just quoted, “mind this well” and “one and the same” have the same vernacular ease. He achieves this effect widely in Deeds and Their Days, and with the same success as in the Georgics; the advice for springtime work, where the original (going by Nagy’s close translation) says “Get to work early”, Fallon says airily, “The early start – you know the tale . . .” inviting the Irish “tosach maith, leath na hoibre”; Pandora is “a right bitch”. By now Fallon’s declared reluctance to identify as a front-line translator is not credible. The style of these translations is unmistakable, and Fallon is bound to be asked again what he is going to translate next. If he says “Nothing” again, he will not be believed.
“It is very welcome to have a lively version of ‘Works and Days’, one of the foundational works of European poetry, with the drive of this one”
Beyond the formal success here, it is very welcome to have a lively version of Works and Days, one of the foundational works of European poetry, with the drive of this one. Beyond the Virgil parallels, and the familiar stories of the early sections – the five ages, Prometheus, Pandora – Works and Days is an early poetic treatise on astronomy as it relates to the seasons, the first farmer’s almanac. In the extensive account of the seasons and the stars we find “Pleiades and Hyades and brave Orion”, Arcturus and the Dogstar. The ostensible occasion of the poem – stern instructions to the narrator’s brother after a disputed inheritance – is, as Fallon says, no more than an excuse for a wide-ranging account of the world of nature, the universe and daily life. One of Fallon’s earlier poetry collections was called The News and Weather. In Works and Days he has found the perfect original, not just for the Georgics but for himself as poet, farmer and translator. And Hesiod, who wouldn’t go away, has found an ideal transmitter to the modern age.
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
Hesiod, in Peter Fallon’s version, Deeds and Their Days, felt immediately like an old friend, its conversational tempo picking up at key points, then relaxing into the idiomatic rhythms that have long marked Fallon’s work.
— Irish Times Poetry Books of the Year 2017
A Great Delight, A Little Load
Deeds and their Days, after Hesiod, by Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 71 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337218
The classical Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, lived sometime between 750 and 650 BC. He was not an illiterate rhapsode who committed his work to memory, but a literate poet who wrote down what he composed; he may have been the first classical poet to work in this way.
Hesiod’s best known work is probably Works and Days: it certainly impressed Virgil, for when the later came to write The Georgics, it being standard practice for Roman empire poets to recycle content from their Greek antecedents, he cited Hesiod approvingly and at length.
In 2004 Peter Fallon gave us his Georgics (a wonderful work in my opinion) and, whilst preparing that book he encountered Hesiod’s Works and Days, the hummus, so to speak, from which The Georgics sprang. This encounter
catalysed a desire to bring Hesiod’s poem, newly minted in his own idiom, to an Anglophone readership: he set to work combing through ten or twelve English translations (Fallon has Latin but no ancient Greek) and then drafting his version and now, thirteen or fourteen years and many drafts later, we have his rendering of Hesiod’s work, Deeds and their Days.
Fallon’s version runs to 830 lines, parcelled out into nearly 250 six-line stanzas. The form is consistent but never rigid; the lines run on for as long as need requires, including between stanzas; there are rhymes and half-rhymes throughout which bind the whole but these are never at the expense of sense or syntax; the language, overall, though resolutely grave, is always simple and sprightly, lean and enticing; there are some patches of unfamiliar myth, some archaic Greek characters, and occasional proper nouns with which a reader may not be familiar, but there is nothing that can’t be solved in a minute with a classical dictionary or by consulting Wikipedia; this, in other words, is a work that is supremely approachable, as this passage (which also nicely exemplifies the burden of Hesiod’s counsel – “Don’t tarry. Get to work!”) attests:
Don’t postpone until tomorrow
or the day beyond what you
could do today. Procrastination
never crammed a granary, nor the efforts
of a layabout. Good management
Ensures full approbation.
He who defers stares ruin
in the face.
I want to quote just one more passage, which again shows Fallon’s style and also carries Hesiod’s other great theme, which is that at all times our primary human task, as George Orwell puts it (in his essay on Charles Dickens), is to behave better:
The good word
is the jewel in your crown, no better
joy than flows from it when
it’s used well. The mean word floated
on the wind rebounds with double force.
Be one of nature’s gentlemen
at parties at which all those who
congregate divide the burden of expense
and make of it a great
delight and little load.
As the quoted passages reveal (and this is true of the whole) this is a work where those tyrannies that typically bedevil new versions of ancient texts, such as exaggerated fidelity to ancient poetic protocol and wilful anachronism (to name but two), have been eschewed in favour of clarity. There is also modesty in Fallon’s practice: he is so determined that we will love Hesiod as much as he does he simply will not let Fallon, or our admiration of what Fallon can do, ever get in the way. There is no showing off here anywhere, and by keeping himself out of the way Fallon ensures that we really do encounter this great ancient poet and come to see that we do indeed need to cherish him as Fallon wishes.
Now there are many reasons for affection: Hesiod is an Adam, and it is good for us to know from whence our literary art has sprung and to honour that source. However, more vital than its historical importance is the work’s moral message. Hesiod was a moderate, the burden of whose counsel was this: the primary duty of human beings is to put ourselves into and then maintain a proper relationship with planet earth. This relationship, says Hesiod, has many aspects: stewardship is one: awe is another; understanding is a third; but the kernel of the relationship between us and the earth is respect. As the Holocene ends and the Anthropocene era begins, and Gaia’s future has never looked so bleak, we would do well to heed the counsel of Hesiod as articulated by his peerless advocate, Peter Fallon. Oh yes, we need to talk about Deeds and their Days.
— Carlo Gébler, Dublin Review of Books
Strong, My Love
(The Gallery Press, 2014)
Peter Fallon finds beauty in a broken world: Strong, My Love
Peter Fallon’s new book takes its title from A Family Tie, the last of the shorter poems in Part One, which urges “Be strong, my love, / in the broken places”. It expresses the mixed spirit of this powerful and often elegiac collection with great aptness: the world the book represents is in many ways broken, but a redeeming positive force — love is a good word for it — is never far away in its pages. If, like Fallon’s previous books, the subject is pastoral and the setting is invariably rural, it is a view of the agricultural world that represents the verities and politics of the wider world. It has been true since the Classics, especially for Virgil, whose Georgics Fallon translated to such acclaim, that the associations of the term “pastoral” can be misleading: the rural subjects have always reserved the right to carry public implications far beyond their setting.
This is most striking in the 13-page sequence Thorn Wire which is the book’s centre, both literally and imaginatively. The first section describes with exactness the brutality of the “devil’s rope” (“barbed wire” in England; “thorny wire” in North Cork) as it tears the farmer’s hands: “you’re stretching a single strand when it unleashes its attack – a coiled cobra springs, snags and rips raw lumps from the back of your bare hand”.
This section sets the scene powerfully for a sequence on the barbarous history of this “metal briar”, from the “depth of the trenches / of a continent / at war / with itself”, to a wounded “deer ground to a stand- / still, the insult / branded on its eyes / as the single strand / of rust / applied / its hurt and harm”, to the “cage / of razor wire, electrified” where the “impresarios / of torture strode” in Buchenwald.
This despairing poem asks in its fifth section: “Was there ever a moment the fist of the age wasn’t raised and ready to strike?”, and ends with the device of “a chaplet curled / like a crown of thorns / around the temple / of the world”.
The thorn wire is a fitting running image in a book: the grim poem Law recalls “the childhood shock and awe” at the legally required dehorning of cattle (“Cut horns amassed / like battle trophies in the slush”) which is brought back to the poet’s mind by “the latest slaughter / in Iraq” with a photograph of “a boy the age that I was then with half / a head, whose skull was shorn below the ear, / straight through bone”.
Yet, angry and despair-inducing as this sequence is, it is not the unvarying sentiment that the book leaves us with. The family ties of the title-poem are at the heart of it, with (as the cover-note says) “a series of prayers for his daughter and son and for their generation”. Against the horrors and brutalities of the world are set the virtues of family and friendship. Fallon’s friend Seamus Heaney was fond of quoting from a Shakespeare sonnet: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?”; it is a plea that is raised throughout this book. Here, beauty – whether in the lyrical observation of trees or birds – holds its own: the heron’s lift-off “is a gift and grace and true uplift”. It is undeniable that “As if there were no end to plenty / we plundered earth”; but, as the narrator in The Night Itself looks at the snowflakes, he sees in them “earth’s / impetus to goodness, despite its aches / and disappointments”.
Heaney said that Fallon’s fundamental concerns were “care, company and community”; in this book to these may be added compassion and fellow-feeling – with people, animals and the natural world. Certainly family and friendship have their pains too: in the wonderful poem The Man Who Never Was, Fallon returns to his son John, who died straight after birth and now “who’d be a man who’s twenty-three”. In the lines from The Night Itself (perhaps the finest poem in the book) “When my old friend / falters on a stair / or founders on a word or name” the reader must think of Yeats’s beautiful lines about Lady Gregory in old age in Coole and Ballylee, 1931: “Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound / From somebody that toils from chair to chair”. But the eloquent sympathy in these passages forbids despair; at the end of Light (in the Sorrow Field), the suffering “widow woman” can tell the hare which lies low: “Go, long lugged, long legged one,/ run for fun, run for your life”, and we remember that Fallon when a child released the hares that were held for a coursing meeting.
The cover-note tells us that this is Fallon’s first collection since The Company of Horses in 2007. It is not surprising that such meticulously crafted and well weighted poems as these take time. And of course much of his time and literary skills have been put at the service of the other writers that he has published through the Gallery Press. He is generally recognised as the foremost Irish publisher of poetry; what this book establishes – or reminds us – is that he is also one of the foremost practitioners. Perhaps it is time that Gallery devoted to him one of its fine volumes of Collected Poems; or maybe that would be premature for a poet at the height of his powers who still finds so much of moment to say, and who says it so persuasively.
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
The Company of Horses
(The Gallery Press 2007)
You don’t need to read more than two lines to hear Peter Fallon’s signature, a braid of eloquent silence and perfect pitch. To borrow a title from one of his poems, it’s country music — sly rhymes, alliteration and assonance just beyond expectation but inevitable and natural . . . Inseparable from beauty is the humane weight of Peter’s words. His poetry includes a moral inquiry into the nature of the world.
— Joyce Peseroff
With its lightness of touch, its sense of a natural rhythm of recurrence in nature, the collection is at least a reworking of classical inheritance. It features three excellent translations of Ovid . . . The poems responding to animals are particularly strong in accurate, sensitive description. Many of these poems will be valued for the sense of a natural world subject not just to renovation and renewal, but also a companion sense of completion.
— John Knowles, Fortnight
The Company of Horses is a collection of beautifully written and thought-provoking poems. Peter Fallon’s powers of observation are finely tuned to the natural world around him . . . He has an uncanny ability to express himself with brevity of word that never impinges upon the clarity of thought or image. He exhibits a prowess for capturing exquisite poetic landscapes without the slightest hint of literary profligacy or pretension. It is (his) innate humanity juxtaposed with his discerning kinship with the natural world around him that captures the essence of his poetry. He possesses an acute ecological awareness – nature is celebrated and revered – but its power is never underestimated. The Company of Horses examines the intricacy of our relationship with the natural world – relationships which at times appear fragile and tenuous reveal a capacity to endure and recover.
— Gearóid O’Flaherty, The Irish Book Review
Superb . . . courteous verse, both to its readers and to the world it is evoking . . . Conflict is depicted without sermonising, and with great precision . . . There are few collections that look at the world with such warmth and uninhibited optimism.
— Michael McKimm, The Warwick Review
Classic Fallon in its wonder-filled portrayal of the flora and fauna surrounding (his) home in County Meath and in his evocative sketches of nature further afield. As much as I like Fallon’s earlier poems, I am even more taken with these new ones. His lines’ verbal dynamism stems from the poet’s reveling in the still moments of joy and contemplation he finds in observing nature and its inhabitants. If, as he claims in the title poem of this lovely volume, ‘the company of broken / horses is a quiet blessing’, so is this collection. In this time of war, I am thankful for its appearance and for Peter Fallon’s persistent appreciation for a variety of lives well-lived.
— Richard Rankin Russell, The Colby Review
Airs and Angels
(Press on Scroll Road, Carrollton, OH, Summer 2007)
Poetry that affirms life’s beauties . . . Peter Fallon’s poems have a simple inevitability which marks the finest lyric poetry.
— Jan Elsted, Parenthesis (Journal of the Fine Press Book Association)
By 1998, the year of the publication of News of the World: Selected and NewPoems, Mr Fallon had proved himself a poet quick and alert, turning like a good weather vane to meet the changes and the shifting requirements of the world as it presented itself to him and as he found it.
In these [new] poems he writes with an acute particularity of eye and ear, recording ordinary events made extraordinary by the amplitude of his care and the precision of his notice . . . They register a remarkable change of vision. Metaphor has now come to the fore, no longer as a function of description but as a clue to metamorphosis. These poems, by their likening of like things, compose a mythology of the daily world that makes it unworldly, more than we expected, better than we would have bargained for if we had been given a chance to bargain. Thus the world speaks to us, presents a ‘verdict’, which it does not translate, but from which we may learn to live considerately in it. I don’t know what the literary world will think of these poems’ bold flirtation with the ‘pathetic fallacy’ but without waiting to hear I gladly allow it. It is one of the ways of staying in touch and even in harmony with the everyday world.
— Wendell Berry, excerpts from his foreword to Airs and Angels, Press on Scroll Road, OH, 2007.
News of the World: Selected and New Poems
(The Gallery Press 1998, reprinted 1999, 2001)
The Irish Times described its publication as ‘something of an event’.
RTE television produced a 30-minute profile to mark its publication, and the national radio station devoted two complete programmes to it.
In The Examiner (Cork) Tom McCarthy celebrated ‘a major presence in Irish poetry for the past twenty years. No one has done so much in a practical sense to influence the shape of our poetic world . . . The quiet understatement, the poet as a kind of poker-player with the soul has become a Fallon trademark. Dealing well even with a mean hand is part of his radical excellence.’
‘For one who has occupied such a central place in Irish letters, Fallon’s oeuvre is surprisingly, and refreshingly, lacking in self-conscious literariness… The maturity of this poetry is evinced by a careful, seldom uncritical investment in the local and natural . . . An important and rewarding volume.’ (The Irish Times)
‘His is an individual voice, a quiet presence that has grown steadily through the years, marking out a geographical, rural centre as its own, connecting with it, speaking for it and to it, absorbing its solid values, using its colloquial expressions, creating its figures, and at the same time moving towards a greater poetic mastery in which the language of the poem is richer, truer to its own aesthetic. The later poetry of Peter Fallon, the new poems of this collection, are fully rendered, beautiful creations in themselves, whether set in Meath or Maine. Each is an exact embodiment, a carefully disciplined development, precise in rhythm, clear in image, something to be cherished.’ (Books Ireland)
The Georgics of Virgil
(The Gallery Press, 2004)
Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation
Oxford World’s Classics (OUP: Oxford/NY, 2006)
In April 2005 RTE (the national radio) broadcast Peter Fallon’s reading of the poem each night for a week in its Book On One series.
‘To read this great work is to feel earthed as well as engrossed. Peter Fallon handles The Georgics (a poem completed c.29 BC, comprising four books that deal with crops, trees, livestock and bees) with the expertise and empathy of a poet conversant with farm life. Each individual line glistens like a newly-turned furrow. Both the fact-filled plains and the sublime heights of Virgil’s work are compellingly rendered and the poem flows so freely and lyrically one soon forgets it is a translation . . . Vigorous and meticulous, The Georgics of Virgil is a restorative read, full of fascinating lore but also tinged with resonances for our imperilled planet.’ (Poetry Book Society citation)
‘ . . . bountiful, faithful and frolicsome, a big achievement, in fact, a new poem living its own vivid life in English . . . It is this combination of truth to the words Virgil wrote, natural vernacular speech and a general at-homeness on the land that makes Fallon’s an inspired translation . . . Taken in parts or as a whole, it says, “Glory to the world.” And the glory is renewed for our time in Peter Fallon’s translation.’
— Seamus Heaney, The Irish Times
‘Ground – the working of the earth, the cycle of the seasons, the smells and textures of farm and field – is alive and in good hands in the Irish poet Peter Fallon’s supple and assured new translation of The Georgics of Virgil.
— Jonathan Bate, TLS International Books of the Year
‘Tough, unsentimental, practical, knowledgeable, affectionate, and above all readable as a novel, Peter Fallon’s version of the Georgics is a lovely piece of work . . . It renews the Latin classic in an idiom of remarkable immediacy and concreteness – now plain, now garnished with its specialised knowledge, now intense and lyrical . . . Fallon’s vivid sympathy with his text and its relish of country matters animates his rendering, allowing him to capture its timeless qualities in a language that seems effortlessly rooted in our own time… One of the major satisfactions of Fallon’s version is the way it manages, without apparent strain, to do rich justice to the holistic texture of Virgil’s poem, to its various levels of meaning . . . how well the poem shifts emotional gears – intimately practical one minute, and the next managing the operatically tragic lament of Aristaeus over his bees, that leads in turn to the narrative tour-de-force of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld and its terrible aftermath. What we have here is a great poem richly reclaimed, and it is cause for celebration.’
— Eamon Grennan, Metre
‘ . . . magnificent . . . The language of his version is at once wonderfully easy and energetic . . . Fallon is the perfect translator for The Georgics, as is borne out on every page . . . realizing that no work is all high points, he slowly developed a language to deal with the whole, and has done so with spectacular success . . . brilliantly versatile . . . responsive to the different registers necessary for this extraordinarily various work. There are great predecessors for this venture, from Dryden to Day Lewis; but Peter Fallon’s version will live with the best.’
— Bernard O’Donoghue, TLS