Feature Articles

JAMES LIDDY PAPERS by Robert Michael Jaeger

(PI News November/December 2011)

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) Archives Department is pleased to announce the opening of the James Liddy Papers. The collection contains the writings of this world-renowned Irish-American poet and former UWM professor.

James Daniel Reeves Liddy was born in Dublin in 1934 and grew up in Coolgreany, Co Wexford. His father, James, was also born in Ireland and worked as a dispensary doctor. His mother, Clare, was born in New York to Irish parents. After Liddy earned his Master’s degree in English from the National University of Ireland in 1959, he attended law school, and even briefly practised law. However, poetry was never far from his mind, and he soon devoted himself to his passion.

Liddy’s literary career spanned nearly 50 years and began in 1959, with the publication of his poetry in The Irish Times. He studied under Patrick Kavanagh and was influenced by other Irish writers including James Joyce and W B Yeats. Other influences were Charles Baudelaire, Walt Whitman, Jack Spicer, and Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac.

In 1963, Liddy co-edited the literary magazine Arena in Dublin with Liam O’Connor and Michael Hartnett. Only four issues were produced, but it became a well-known publication in Ireland. Years later, after arriving at UWM and much to his surprise, Liddy learned that the UWM Archives had acquired the Arena files in 1966. Liddy also served as editor with several other publications, most notably The Gorey Detail from 1977 to 1983, a poetry magazine that ran during the Gorey Arts Festival, and Blue Canary Press, a Milwaukee publication that he co-founded.
After the end of Arena, Liddy began to travel, first to Spain, and eventually made his way to San Francisco in 1967. Once there, he began a career in teaching. He continued to work at various universities, such as the State University of New York at Binghamton, Lewis & Clark College, and Denison University, settling at UWM in 1976. He taught classes in English, Beat literature, creative writing, and Irish literature for over 30 years.

Liddy was well liked by his students and adopted city of Milwaukee. A publisher once described Liddy’s work as a ‘treasure’, and Milwaukee was lucky to give that treasure a home. A former student wrote to Liddy and thanked him for ‘encouraging the poetic insights within my soul.’ The poet John Ashbery described Liddy as ‘one of the most original among living Irish poets’.
Writing prolifically, Liddy contributed articles, reviews, and poems to numerous periodicals. He also gave countless readings. Over 30 books and chapbooks of poetry and prose bear his name. Some of his better-known works are In a Blue Smoke (1964), Blue Mountain (1968), Baudelaire’s Bar Room Flowers (1975), Corca Bascinn (1977), Chamber Pot Music (1982), Young Men Go Out Walking (1986), A White Thought in a White Shade (1987), Art is Not for Grown Ups (1990), Collected Poems (1994), The Doctor’s House (2004), and The Full Shilling (2008). A new collection of previously published poems was released this year, entitled Selected Poems (Arlen House).

Liddy received the Posner Poetry Award in 1995 from the Council of Wisconsin Writers. He was also one of the first members of Aosdána, the prestigious Irish association of artists. He passed away in 2008 at the age of 74.

The Liddy collection (see web address at the foot of this page) contains correspondence, photographs, publications, notes, videos, and drafts of his works. There are also several unpublished works, including a novel entitled Beastmeat. Liddy translated into English the works of other poets as well, such as Else Lasker-Schüler and Osip Mandelstam.
Of particular interest are the drafts. Sometimes he would simply change a word or two, altering the mood or tone of the poem, while other times he would modify it completely. The drafts are not limited to poetry however; Liddy wrote numerous articles that are in various stages of completion as well.

The correspondence includes letters from notable poets and writers such as Padraic Fiacc, John Montague, Thomas Kinsella, and Thomas McGonigle. Liddy’s own correspondence dating from 1967 touches on his new life in America working as a professor, and other poets and their writings.

Also in the collection is correspondence from Liddy’s parents and relatives. Many of these letters date from the 1930s. Liddy later used these letters as source material for his memoirs The Doctor’s House and The Full Shilling. They helped Liddy see what life was like for his family and stay in touch with his roots.
The Liddy papers were donated by Jim Chapson, who worked closely with the processing archivist. He provided context for the documents and supplemented the original donation with additional materials. In October, a public program was held in the UWM Libraries to celebrate the opening of the collection. Friends and colleagues remembered Liddy and read some of his poetry.

Robert Michael Jaeger recently graduated with an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He works at the UWM Archives as a project archivist. After finishing up with the Liddy Papers, he is currently dealing with preservation issues within the UWM holdings.

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