Avant-garde Irish poet Brian Coffey (1905-1995) was highly influenced by French surrealism and produced works that drew from his interests in philosophy and religion, particularly Catholicism. Coffey ran his own press, Advent Books, in the 1960s and 1970s. He also translated the work of other poets into English, including
Brian Coffey was born in Dublin on June 8, 1905. His father, Denis J. Coffey, was Professor of Anatomy at University College, Dublin, and, from 1908 to 1940, served as its first president. Coffey attended Clongowes Wood College and Institution St. Vincent where he studied European and Catholic culture and earned his bachelor's degree.
As early as 1924, while earning advanced degrees in mathematics, physics, and chemistry at University College, Coffey began writing poetry. He published his first poems (including "Sada" which was later reprinted in Poems and Versions: 1929-1991 and is included in this collection) in UCD's The National Student under the pseudonym Coeuvre. During this time, Coffey met fellow aspiring poet Denis Devlin, who would become a lifelong friend. In 1930, they co-authored a collection simply titled Poems , published at their own expense.
Coffey moved to Paris in the early 1930s to continue his studies in physical chemistry under Jean Perrin. However, a developing interest in philosophy led Coffey to transfer in 1933 to l'Institut Catholique de Paris where he worked with the noted French philosopher Jacques Maritain. During this time, Coffey also became acquainted with other Irish literary expatriates, including Thomas MacGreevy and Samuel Beckett, both of whom encouraged Coffey to continue writing. In 1934, Beckett published an essay entitled "Recent Irish Poetry," in which he wrote of Coffey and Devlin, "[they are] without question the most interesting of the youngest generation of Irish poets." Coffey was twenty-nine.
Coffey began work on his doctorate in 1937; however, the onset of World War II forced him to abandon his studies and move to London, where he found work as a teacher. In 1938, Coffey married Bridget Rosalind Baynes, daughter of Dr. H.G. Baynes, a distinguished psychologist and partner of internationally renowned psychologist Carl Jung. Shortly after the wedding, Coffey's second volume of poetry, Third Person , was published by Europa Press. The press was owned and operated by George Reavey, who would become a close friend.
During this time, Coffey made several visits to Beckett's bedside while the latter was recuperating after a stabbing. It was here that Coffey was introduced to the ailing James Joyce, an experience he would reflect upon later in his brief essay "Joyce! What now?" published in The Irish University Review, Joyce Centenary Issue (1982).
In 1947, Coffey returned to Paris and completed his doctoral thesis, De l'idée d'ordre d'après Saint Thomas d'Aquin . Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position in the philosophy department at Saint Louis University, Missouri, and he and his family relocated to the United States. Here, Coffey began his best known work, Missouri Sequence .
Coffey and his family left the United States in 1952 and returned to London where Coffey found work teaching sixth-form mathematics. In the years following this move, his career as a poet blossomed. He published several poems in University Review and Poetry Ireland , including "Nine -- A Musing," "Missouri Sequence," "Mindful of You," and "Fidelities."
In 1966, Coffey attended printing classes and established his own press, Advent Books, which began publishing limited editions of poetry with a special emphasis on typography and jacket design. Among his own works to be published by Advent Books were Monster , a concrete poem with illustrations by John Parsons (1966); The Time, The Place (1969); Village in the Mountain , a translation of French poet Gaston Bonheur's La Village dans la Montaigne (1970); Brigid Ann (1972); and the beautifully illustrated Abecedarian , the original drawings of which are included in this collection.
During these years, Coffey also published several volumes through Liam Miller's Dolmen Press. Among them were two editions of Devlin's work which Coffey edited, Collected Poems (1964) and The Heavenly Foreigner (1967), as well as Coffey's translation of Mallarme's Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (1964).
Friend and fellow publisher Anthony Rudolf of Menard Press is responsible for publishing much of Coffey's later work, including Slight Song (1985); Advent (1986); and Poems of Mallarmé (1990).
Consistently avant-garde and strongly influenced by French surrealism, Coffey's poetry also reflects deeply religious and philosophical sentiments. His most frequent themes include exile and emigration. The sound of his poems, their syntax and rhythm, has led many to compare Coffey's work to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Brian Coffey died on April 14, 1995, at his home in Southampton, England.
Luftig, Victor. "Brian Coffey." Dictionary of Irish Literature: Revised and Expanded Edition. Ed. Robert Hogan. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996.
"Introductory Essay." The Irish University Review, Special Brian Coffey Issue, 5:1 (Spring 1975): 9-29.
The Brian Coffey papers comprise personal and literary papers which document Coffey's life and career from 1917 to 1996. The collection contains manuscripts, scrapbooks, collages, artwork, cassette recordings, newspaper clippings, correspondence, photographs, ephemera, and postcards. It is divided into seven series: Creative Works, Artwork, Academic Notebooks, Writings by Others, Correspondence, Photographs, and Ephemera. Each series illuminates Coffey's role as a student, scholar, scientist, philosopher, poet, artist, writer, publisher, critic, teacher, translator, mentor, friend, husband, father, and grandfather. Writers whose work Coffey translated include: Guillaume Apollinaire, Gaston Bonheur, Paul Claudel, Paul Eluard, Stéphane Mallarmé, Pablo Neruda, and Pinto Repentista Embolador. The collection also houses significant correspondence with Denis J. Coffey and Mary Margaret McAlpine, as well as work by or about by longtime Coffey friend, Denis Devlin.
Series I., Creative Works by Coffey, encompasses his writings, translations, Self Books, scrapbooks, collages, and cassette recordings. Subseries I.1 includes manuscripts and other material related to forty-five works by Coffey, including poems, short stories, and essays. Items of note include signed, typed manuscripts of Advent and Death of Hektor ; two handwritten drafts of an experimental story Good Sykhosom ; six handwritten drafts of a long, unpublished poem, Henry ; and a one-of-a-kind copy of Old Gravois Road , bound by Coffey with calligraphy by his daughter, Ann.
Fluent in both French and Spanish, Coffey frequently translated poetry from its original language into English, and Subseries I.2 includes many of these endeavors. The bulk of this material remains unpublished. Among those poets whom Coffey translated are Guillaume Apollinaire, Gaston Bonheur, Paul Claudel, Pablo Neruda, and Pinto Repentista. Coffey was most interested in the work of Paul Éluard and Stéphane Mallarmé. He published his translations of the latter in The Poems of Mallarmé: Bilingual Edition in 1990.
Subseries I.3, the Self Books, are unique to the Brian Coffey Papers. They are neither simply journals nor scrapbooks, but a combination of both. The collection includes five of these books, which contain journal entries, correspondence, newspaper clippings, early drafts of poems, and notes for future works. The Self Books offer a rare glimpse into the mind of the poet. They are unselfconscious, intended for no one but the author and his family. They also reflect the spirit of the time in which they were created; Coffey frequently includes newspaper clippings detailing current events.
Coffey's self-titled Notes for Concerning Making comprises Subseries I.4 His essay of the same title appeared in the Autumn 1973 edition of Lace Curtain , and the book is clearly meant as a continued exploration of the ideas set forth there. Spanning the mid-1970s to the early-1990s, Concerning Making contains notes, poems, essays, reviews, and newspaper clippings which illuminate some aspect of the creative process.
Subseries I.5 contains Coffey's twenty-two scrapbooks which span the years 1933 to 1993. Similar to the Self Books, the scrapbooks includes letters, newspaper clippings, manuscripts, photographs of family and friends, and ephemera. The only discernable difference between the Self Books and the Scrapbooks is that the latter have fewer handwritten notes and journal entries. Items of interest include postcards from Samuel Beckett, letters and telegrams related to the death of Denis Devlin, early drafts of Coffey's poems, and several original sketches and lithographs.
In addition to Coffey's many collages and loose scrapbook pages, Subseries I.6 also contains an extensive collection of newspaper clippings. These clippings reflect Coffey's religious beliefs as well as his interest in both national and international politics. Also included are a substantial number of editorials on an array of subjects, from American politics to the political upheaval in Ireland, the use of nuclear weapons to the decline in church attendance in England. Coffey also collected articles on humorous subjects, as well as the occasional cartoon.
Of particular note is subseries I.7 which contains two audio cassettes made by Coffey at his home in Southampton. On the first cassette, recorded in 1975, Coffey reads selections from his long poem, Advent . The second cassette includes Coffey reading selected poems of Dylan Thomas, ee cummings, and Paul Éluard, as well as selections from his own work, including Mindful of You , Glutz , and The Big Laugh .
Series II. includes artwork by Coffey, S.W. Hayter, and Coffey's children and grandchildren. A supporter of the visual arts, Coffey was himself an artist and his small press, Advent Books, was known for its emphasis on illustration and jacket design. Many of Coffey's sketches, lithographs, monoprints and mixed media prints can be found in this series, including The Island , which was later printed in The Poems of Mallarmé . The series also contains S.W. Hayter's original artwork for Death of Hektor .
Academic Notebooks and Lectures are contained in Series III. Spanning the years 1924 to the 1950s, this series details Coffey's intellectual pursuits from his teenage years as a student at University College, Dublin, through his tenure as assistant professor of philosophy at St. Louis University. The series contains forty-five items, including both a rough and final draft of Coffey's doctoral thesis, "De l'idée d'ordre d'après Saint Thomas d'Aquin," completed in 1947.
That Coffey retained such a vast array of writing by others is a testament to his love for the creative process; Series IV. includes the poetry, short stories, reviews, and critical essays of more than sixty writers. The series is divided into four subseries: IV.1 Writings about Coffey; IV.2 Poetry and Fiction; IV.3 Modern Celtic Poetry: An Anthology ; and IV.4 Critical Essays. Items of note include Parkman Howe's 1975 interview with Coffey which later appeared in Eire Ireland ; typescript poems of Denis Devlin and Thomas MacGreevy; and several typed and handwritten drafts of Augustus Young's Danta Gradha . The anthology of modern Celtic poetry is also interesting, as it was only in the early stages of development when its co-editor, Denis Devlin, passed away. The anthology, which was never completed, includes extensive holograph notes by Devlin and his co-editor Norman MacLeod, as well as several letters to potential publishers.
Series V. contains Coffey's extensive correspondence from family and friends as well as from booksellers, publishers, and fellow writers. The series is divided into four subseries: V.1 Personal Correspondence and V.2 Professional Correspondence, V.3 Denis J. Coffey letters to Brian Coffey, and V.4. Postcards. The bulk of the materials in subseries 2. Items of note among the Personal Correspondence include a letter from psychologist H.G. Baynes (Coffey's father-in-law); love letters from his wife, Bridget; and several letters from his children and other relatives. Coffey also corresponded with many prominent contemporary poets, playwrights, and novelists including Denis Devlin, Samuel Beckett, Augustus Young, C.S. Lewis, and Thomas MacGreevy. Letters from fellow poets often compliment or query him about his work, and many correspondents send poetry and fiction of their own. Coffey seems to have been something of a mentor for younger writers, including Michael Farrell, Parkman Howe, Billy Mills, and Michael Smith. Coffey's correspondence with Margaret McAlpine is of particular interest. Though little is known about her personally, the correspondence indicates that she and Coffey shared a close relationship based on an intellectual appreciation of poetry. In many of her letters, she offers candid critiques of his work and makes suggestions for future improvement.
Photographs of Coffey and his family can be found in Series VI., which is divided into two groups: Early Years and Later Years. All of the photographs are undated, and many are unidentified.
The final series in the collection (VII.) encompasses ephemera, including Coffey's personal papers and records, as well as art exhibit catalogs, playbills, publicity fliers, publisher's announcements, menus, and other material. Items of note include Coffey's first passport, his marriage certificate, various driver's licenses and membership cards, and a copy of his will, as well as financial and medical records.
The Brian Coffey papers as a whole provide a valuable historical account of the twentieth century as well as a unique look into the life and mind of one of Ireland's more prolific poets. In a 1975 interview with Parkman Howe, Coffey declared
It's through the language that one's working in that the real poetic thinking is done. [It's about the making, I think now, more than anything else. And what goes on in this process of using the words, and choosing this word rather than that word . . . It is the connection of words and how they best fit together.
Documenting the "making" or creativity is what lies at the heart of the Brian Coffey papers.