AT 74-years of age Ennis man Martin Knox admits he left it rather late to start publishing poetry, but the trained chemist is certainly making up for lost time.
After a fruitful working life, which took in stints at Syntex, later Roche; as well as teaching at some of the country’s most prestigious educational institutions, Martin made the leap into poetry and has just published his first book. Entitled, Words Without Song: Vignettes of Reflective Dissent and Childhood Reflections, the volume is a collection of over 100 poems which “go against the establishment” and give voice to Martin’s long-standing belief that the purpose of literature is to highlight uncomfortable truths.
“Racism, poverty, mental health, corruption, environmental damage, the unequal distribution of wealth, suffering, those are some the main themes of my poems,” he said. “Writers should ask serious questions. For a long time, I didn’t have the time to write. When I retired, I found that time. So many questionable things have happened in my lifetime. Take the Mother and Baby Homes from example. I’m always asking myself, why didn’t we scream about it? Well, I’m screaming now.”
With almost seven and a half decades of life experience poured into this collection, Martin said he has only found freedom in the last ten years to put his commit his views to paper.
“I do feel I left it late, a lot of people do that, maybe from a lack of confidence,” he said. “At this time of my life, I have more freedom to say things and to speak out, now that I’m retired.”
Inspiration comes at unusual times and from a range of sources. He shares the story of another of his major influences, the recently deceased singer-songwriter John Pryne, about rushing home from his day job as a postman in Chicago to get his thoughts on paper before it was too late. “Often, I find I’d forgotten my ideas,” Martin said ruefully. “Sometimes, I’ll use my phone to record something and try to capture the inspiration that way. It could be something I observe. An interaction in a café, for example. Or, I might read something in the paper that gets me thinking. Inequality, that really gets to me.”
The inequality and suffering inherent in the migration crisis is another topic that Martin is passionate about. A poem he wrote about the tragic death of toddler Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old Syrian boy who drowned while his family were trying to flee to Europe, has been viewed online more than 6,000 times. “We need to stand up and speak out about this kind of suffering,” Martin said. “There is something radically wrong in the world when this can happen.”
On the day of our interview, a walk along the prom in Lahinch has inspired more uncomfortable questions which he is driven to turn over and over in his literary brain. “When I look at the rock armour there, I have to ask why that money wasn’t spent on social housing instead,” Martin said, “would that money not have been better spent elsewhere. Why are there people sleeping on the streets? Why is our Emergency Department the way it is. We live in an Orwellian world. The other questions that come to me relate to when the sea will finally overtake our efforts to contain it. It brings to mind climate change and our rising water levels. Writers should be digging into these issues.”
Like the poets Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, Martin often deals with more ordinary topics too. “Poetry should get down to the nitty gritty of everyday life,” he said. “My poetry often deals with the absolutely ordinary, things like doing the washing up and so on, and I also reflect on childhood. I think most of us do return in our minds to the place where it all began.”
Born into a family of seven children, Martin and his wife Ann have four of their own, as well as five grandchildren. “Two are kiwis,” he smiled. His daughter Rebecca lives in New Zealand and some of the poems in the current volume take their inspiration from that country. The heart of family life is Cottage Gardens in Ennis where Martin set up home after moving from Clarecastle.
A life-long reader and thinker, Martin’s influences come from far and wide and include figures like Primo Levi and Noam Chomsky, as well as Brendan Behan and the Limerick poet, Michael Hartnett. Bob Dylan is another source of inspiration, his work is among that quoted in Martin’s collection.
“We have a very strong literary tradition in Ireland,” he noted, “but we haven’t always respected our writers. If you take someone like Brendan Behan, he was in poverty until his plays took off.”
His book, which is self-published, and beautifully produced, is full of references to those inspirations, all figures who, in their own ways, have challenged the establishment. “I would consider myself to be an anarchist,” the softly-spoken poet said. “Without the violence, of course. I do believe though that we spend too much time respecting authority figures. The whole political system, in my view is wrong. My preference would be for a participatory democracy. If you look at the distribution of wealth globally, for example, it’s staggering. A company like Amazon makes millions in a single day and you have small shops in Ennis struggling to survive. Something there isn’t right when the system allows that.”
Given his political awareness, the question has to be asked as to whether or not Martin would consider a tilt at a career in the field. His answer is categorical. “I wouldn’t fit the mould,” he said. “It would be nightmare. You have monsters of ships like Fianna Fáil and the other big parties. In my view, you really should not have a situation where someone like Micheál Martin can become Taoiseach after decades in the Dáil. You should get a shot – maybe seven years and then make an exit if you haven’t made change. I am hopeful with the Greens in the coalition though.”
Martin’s hopes for the political system are for change to supports for ordinary people. “People should be paid a living wage,” he asserted. “We need to radically change the social welfare system and the tax system to make sure it’s fairer and more progressive.”
When asked about what drew him to the medium of poetry, Martin’s answer surprises. “I like the fact that you can convey an idea in just a few words,” he said. “If I was to produce a long essay on something like the rock armour, it would take time to write and to read. With poetry, you can create a picture far more easily.”
It is clear that while Martin’s ideas might be captured in relatively few words, he is determined that they will make change. “Poets have to swing public opinion,” he said. “They have to put their heads above the parapet. We need more dissenting voices. One of the reasons I left it so late to start publishing was a lack of confidence, but there was also the awareness that my ideas would not sit well with my employers. I don’t have to be so careful nowadays.”
Already, Martin’s second collection is in the works, and he can be found at his desk at 6am capturing and crafting his thoughts into poems. As he does, his debut volume is destined for five international book fairs next year, from London and Berlin to Mexico City.
“Poetry doesn’t sell,” he acknowledged. “I’m doing this to inspire people.”
Words Without Song: Vignettes of Reflective Dissent and Childhood Reflections is available at the Ennis Book Shop.