Coffey, Brian (1905–1995) By Keatinge, Ben
Brian Coffey was an Irish modernist poet whose life and work are closely associated with fellow Irishmen Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Denis Devlin (1908–1959), and George Reavey (1907–1976). Sometimes called the 1930s Irish Modernists, these poets published their early work in the 1930s, mainly from Paris. However, Brian Coffey’s reputation as a poet rests primarily on work published after World War II. His early volume Third Person (1938) was followed by a period of poetic silence broken by the publication of his best-known poem, “Missouri Sequence,” in 1962. This was followed by the long poems Advent (1975)—regarded by some as his masterpiece—and Death of Hektor (1979), and the late volume of lyrics Chanterelles (1985). The most complete selection of Coffey’s poetry appeared in 1991 as Poems and Versions 1929–1990. Coffey’s modernism is paradoxical. A lifelong Catholic, he admired the “surrealistic reliance on the free flow of imagery from the dark within.” An Irishman who never lost his affection for home, he was obliged to live his life in exile. Rejecting Yeats, he nonetheless absorbed the earlier poet’s influence. Formally, Coffey uses ellipses and unconventional spacing to give his poems an indeterminate feel. His poetry can be densely allusive, approaching an Eliotic “mythical method” in Death of Hektor, which has earned him his reputation as both a difficult and a neglected poet.