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Anne Enright's novel follows a family that's left behind in a famous poet's pursuit of fame


You can make a long list of men considered geniuses, writers, statesmen, scientists, artists who were also abusive husbands, neglectful fathers and utter boors. One such man is the famed Irish poet at the heart of a new novel. Phil McDaragh is pure fiction, but he comes alive through poetry like, the wren, the wren was a panic of feathered air in my opening hand so fierce and light I did not feel the push of her ascent away from me.

The poet abandoned his family on the way to fame. They still live with the emotional rubble two generations later. Now those women contend with that conflicted legacy of professional beauty and personal pain. It's at the heart of the novel "The Wren, The Wren" by Anne Enright. And the Booker Prize-winning novelist joins us now from Dublin. Thank you so much for being with us.

ANNE ENRIGHT: Lovely to be here, Scott.

SIMON: How do you create a fictional but famous poet realizing that the Irish poet is, alas, a stereotype for a lot of people anyway?

ENRIGHT: Well, there's always some truth in a cliche, and in this instance there's much beauty and honor in the Irish poetic tradition. So it was extremely cheeky of me to go there at all. I had been reading Irish poetry during lockdowns in 2020. Poetry was what I reached for in times of difficulty. And I was interested in how when we were so bereft, we were looking for something lyrical - I was looking for something lyrical and sweet and high. So those connections or those differences were at the heart of the book. The poet is looking for something beautiful and the people around him are left with all - are bereft or left with all (laughter) the other stuff that he's escaping from, mostly himself, it has to be said.

SIMON: And help us understand Carmel, his daughter, and her daughter, Nell, who's just starting out as a writer herself. How does that shadow fall over their lives?

ENRIGHT: Yeah, he walks out when Carmel is 12, and he leaves not in an anguished sort of way. He abandons the family when their mother gets sick. He can't take it. He can't deal with it. He can't stand it.

SIMON: And when we say sick, we just don't mean a cold or flu.

ENRIGHT: No, no. She was recovering from a cancer. So - and he couldn't manage it. The challenge undid him. So Carmel, who was 12 at the time, was a kind of very sensible, stolid sort of little girl. And she used all that kind of literal-minded, tough-minded, pragmatic, all those talents. She kind of shut down and became the person who would tell other people to get over yourself. Get over it. It's fine. So she made her life in a very practical sort of way. And very practically, then, she decided she would have a child of her own and that she wouldn't involve any father, thank you very much, because they were not in any way, in her mind, reliable. So she has Nell. And Nell is just one of those children that comes out completely and utterly themselves. She's that little toddler who's heading for the horizon in that way. She is a little bit like her grandfather, Phil. She is determined to live a poetic, slightly self-absorbed kind of life.

SIMON: Nell is involved with a man when we meet her. Should she see some of those same signs in him?

ENRIGHT: Well, yeah. I mean, some people say on reading the book that she gets involved with a bad man because her grandfather was a bad man. I am not really interested in those kind of simplicities. She embarks on a doomed love the way that love was always doomed in poetry. Love was always obsessive. Love was always helpless and infatuated and yearning and waiting. So she has a kind of evolved crush on this guy who treats her kind of sporadically badly and then less sporadically badly.

SIMON: May I ask you to read one of Phil McDaragh's poems?

ENRIGHT: Yeah. I'm going to read a poem that Phil wrote for his wife when they were courting because his poetry, as far as he was concerned, was his gift for her. It's called "On Killiney Hill."

(Reading) For Terry. Through Angelica and firs, twice-scented meadow sweet, releasing coconut, almond, cardamom, some note beyond my heart's circumference. She peals her aromatic carillon. My bluebell, Protestant girl in the skirt she wore for Sundays.

SIMON: Well, that's utterly beautiful. So how did you put yourself into the mind and skin of Phil McDaragh?

ENRIGHT: Yeah. You know, that was easy. I mean, Phil McDaragh walked into my head, and I know these guys. I know these guys (laughter). I mean, I know them. Claire Keegan, the wonderful Irish writer, said in an interview recently that women are so attuned to male authority, as it were. They spent a lot of time figuring them out, so they might have knowledge of men that isn't returned because it's really in their interest to. Yeah, I knew Phil. I knew his self-serving self-pity, as well as that feeling of reach and inspiration and freedom. I knew all of that. But to make him as a poet - that took a lot of work.

SIMON: Well, but let me put this very practically. This is a character of your creation. Did you ever say, I'm not going to have him write a line that good? He doesn't deserve it.

ENRIGHT: It was really important that the lines be good enough. I mean, I don't have a huge confidence in my talent as a fake poet...

SIMON: (Laughter).

ENRIGHT: ...Or as a real poet. The craft of poetry is, of course, a lifelong endeavor. But the poems had to stand. This was the great work for me, to make us understand how people would fall for it or like us or how those words might endure and how they might endure separate to the man who made them.

SIMON: There's a moment in the book of particular clarity in which nature is seen for just being nature, not necessarily as a writing prompt for a poet. How was that for you?

ENRIGHT: Yeah, I think all poets and all writers come to that moment at some stage where you realize that the world exists independent of your descriptions of it. And one of the key texts behind the book for me is Adam's naming of the beasts - and William Blake did a painting of it - and that line in Genesis where God puts Adam in charge of all the animals in the world. That being in charge is also - starts with naming, which is an act of possession and also can be an act of entitlement and destruction. We don't own the world, and the first way we try to own the world is by naming it. So that renunciation of language is part of a number of writers' practice, and it's a very sweet moment for me. And it's - yes, it's one of great clarity.

SIMON: Anne Enright's new novel - "The Wren, The Wren." Thank you so much for being with us.

ENRIGHT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "RIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.