Coffey, Brian (1905–95), poet, academic, teacher, and publisher, was born 8 June 1905 at Glenageary, Co. Dublin, son of Denis J. Coffey (qv), president of UCD, and Maude Coffey (née Quin). He was educated at the Mount St Benedict boarding school in Gorey, Co. Wexford (1917–19), and Clongowes Wood College, Co. Kildare (1919–22). From 1923 to 1924 he studied at the Institution St Vincent in Oise, France, where he was awarded a baccalauréat in classical studies (1924). He returned to Dublin and entered UCD, initially studying – at his father's suggestion – medicine, before changing to mathematics, physics, and chemistry. In addition to his academic studies he excelled at flyweight boxing, and published poems (under the name ‘Coeuvre’) in the college magazine, the National Student. He remained at UCD (earning the undergraduate and higher degrees of BA, B.Sc., and M.Sc.) until 1930, in which year he met fellow poet and lifelong friend Denis Devlin (qv), with whom he published the collection Poems (1930).
From 1930 to 1933 Coffey was in Paris, where he studied physical chemistry under the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Jean Baptiste Perrin. Coffey became preoccupied with the philosophical problems his scientific research presented, and in 1933 he entered the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he studied philosophy under the eminent French thinker Jacques Maritain. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his literary interests, socialising with other writers in the city – such as Thomas MacGreevy (qv) and Samuel Beckett (qv) – and publishing the collection Three poems (1933), and the poem Christmas card Yuki Hira (1933), which reputedly won the admiration of AE (qv) and W. B. Yeats (qv). His poetry also attracted the attention of Beckett, who singled out Coffey (along with Devlin and MacGreevy) for praise in his article ‘Recent Irish poetry’ (1934). Coffey contributed reviews to T. S. Eliot's magazine The Criterion in the mid 1930s and published translations of Paul Éluard's poetry. In 1938 Coffey produced a third collection, Third person (which was to be his last poetry publication for some twenty-five years), and in October of that year he married Bridget Rosalind Baynes. They had nine children.
With the onset of the second world war, Coffey, who had returned to Ireland for a holiday in 1939, was unable to return to Paris. He spent the war years working as a teacher in England, and only returned to Paris in 1947 to receive his doctorate. He moved to America to take up a position as assistant professor of philosophy in St Louis University, and settled with his family in a farmstead in House Springs, Missouri, close to Byrnesville valley, an area settled by Irish immigrants in the nineteenth century. Though his years at Missouri were financially and professionally onerous, this period was later the subject of his most acclaimed and well known work, a long poem entitled ‘Missouri sequence’ (first published in the University Review (later Irish University Review), 1962). Though it is his most anthologised poem and confronts characteristic themes such as emigration and exile, ‘Missouri sequence’ is atypical of Coffey's poetic oeuvre in its accessibility and conservative structure and syntax. He did not publish any creative writing during this period, though he contributed philosophical reviews and articles to The Modern Schoolman. His difficult relationship with the university administration culminated in 1952 when he resigned his position, and two years later he moved to London where he taught sixth-form mathematics for the next eighteen years.
Coffey's long abstention from publishing poetry ended in the 1960s as he embarked on a prolonged period of intense creativity. He regularly contributed poems to the University Review (‘Nine a-musing’, ‘Four poems and mindful of you’, as well as ‘Missouri sequence’), edited two collections of Devlin's poetry (Poems, 1962; The heavenly foreigner, 1967), and translated Stéphane Mallarmé's Coup de dés (Dice thrown never will annul chance, 1965). After attending a printing class in 1966–7 he established Advent Press, which published poetry in limited editions and supported the work of younger poets, as well as enabling him to experiment with the visual innovations of concrete poetry, as exemplified in Monster: a concrete poem (1966) and Abecedarian (1974).
Coffey retired from teaching in 1972 and moved to Southampton, but he maintained a prolific literary output. Between 1970 and 1974 he contributed poetry, prose, and translations to The Lace Curtain, a literary magazine founded and edited by the Irish poets Michael Smith (qv) and Trevor Joyce, whose New Writers Press also published Coffey's Selected poems (1971). Several key works appeared in the 1970s. The acclaimed and influential long poem ‘Advent’, and a satire entitled ‘Leo’ (both later published by Menard Press), as well as translations from the French, appeared in the 1975 special issue of the Irish University Review dedicated to Coffey (marking his seventieth birthday). Other publications include The big laugh (1976), Death of Hektor (1979), and the anthology Poems and versions 1929–1990 (1990). In 1983 the poet Augustus Young made a programme on Coffey for BBC radio, and two years later Seán O Mórdha produced a TV documentary for RTÉ. Coffey died 14 April 1995 at Southampton. An archive of his papers is in the University of Delaware library.
Coffey's cerebral and challenging poetry is informed by his diverse intellectual interests (science, philosophy, theology, and classics, as well as the symbolist, modernist, and surrealist movements), and stylistically preoccupied with formal innovation in structure and syntax. As such, he has been regarded as a ‘difficult’ poet who is critically rather than popularly lauded. Though typically grouped with Beckett, MacGreevy, and Devlin as a leading exponent of Irish modernism, Coffey's poetic achievement – notably his translations of writers such as Mallarmé, Éluard, Pablo Neruda, and Gérard de Nerval – also locates him in a wider European literary tradition.