Liddy, James (1934–2008), poet and critic, was born in a nursing home on Lower Pembroke Road, Dublin, on 1 July 1934, eldest child and only son (he had a sister) of James Liddy, medical doctor, and his wife Clare (née Reeves). Dr Liddy came from a prominent Limerick family. His wife's father and uncle (emigrants from Co. Clare) established the first supermarkets in New York; their chain had 800 branches when it was sold to Safeway in the late 1940s. The Reeves wealth gave James Liddy lifelong economic independence; his mother, a well-known socialite, reconnected with her Clare roots by acquiring a holiday home in Kilkeel, where James spent summer holidays and acquired a lifelong fascination with the Clare scenery.
The Liddys spent the first years of their married lives in Castleconnell, Co. Clare, but James grew up in Coolgreany, three miles from Gorey, Co. Wexford, where Dr Liddy became dispensary doctor (he was also a co-founder and organiser of the Wexford Opera Festival). James retained the old family home at Coolgreany until 2002, and spent a month there every summer till 2000. His parents' marriage became a long 'cold war' with heavy alcohol consumption on both sides. James was never close to his father but developed an intense relationship with his mother, lasting until her death in 1984, and acquired many of her cultural attitudes, including a fascination with the minutiae of catholicism. They differed, however, in their attitudes to sexuality; where his mother saw chastity as civilised, James attributed his homosexuality to her emotional impact on him, and came to describe himself as a sexual 'sybarite'.
He was educated at Glenstal Abbey School, where he was 'given a sense of the aesthetic quality of ritual, and of language', but also recalled the annoyance of Abbot Matthew Dillon (qv) at the sight of his copy of the Collected poems of W. B. Yeats (qv), and recalled that the school library was so dominated by genteel English catholic literature that the evocation of the Gaelic tradition in the work of Daniel Corkery (qv) was experienced as a liberation.
Liddy then attended UCD, where he developed his lifelong fascination with James Joyce (qv): he found Joyce's descriptions of University College largely applicable to his own day and credited Joyce with keeping him from taking the professors' pretensions seriously. At UCD he mixed with literary students such as John Jordan (qv) who shared his catholic and literary sensibilities and in some cases his sexuality, and had his first sexual relationships. Liddy then studied law at King's Inns, Dublin, before being called to the bar in 1956. In retrospect, however, Liddy considered that his most important educational experience was being admitted to the literary circle at McDaid's pub centred on Patrick Kavanagh (qv), giving him the experience of meeting a poet in life rather than in books. Kavanagh provided a focus for his discontent with bourgeois life, and he was attracted by the poet's late desire for direct, unmediated experience (as found, for example, in the 'Canal bank' poems). Kavanagh introduced Liddy to the American beat poets, whose publications were available from visitors and from the Dublin booksellers Hodges Figgis: 'I purchased most of them and my soul was struck and shaken by Howl [by Allen Ginsberg]. My literary fuses were blown as my tastes escalated into style' (Ir. Times, 9 February 2006).
From 1960 Liddy began publishing poems in literary magazines, such as the Dubliner and Kilkenny Magazine, and in newspapers, and helped to re-found Poetry Ireland. He used an inheritance to assist needy poets (notably the young Michael Hartnett (qv)); Michael Smith (qv) recalled him as an 'extraordinarily generous mentor' to impoverished poets in early 1960s UCD, with Jordan as 'reserved encourager' (Ir. Times, 16 February 2009). Liddy took a leading role in developing a milieu of little magazines and poetry readings; he was the driving force behind Arena, one of the most influential 'little magazines' of its time (four issues, 1963–5; co-edited with Hartnett and Liam O'Connor and nominally published from Coolgreany, really from McDaid's, and printed by Liam Miller (qv) at the Dolmen Press). Arena was seen as marking the appearance of a new generation, less interested in classic modernist discourse, the conflicts of the state's opening decades, or the social criticism of a Sean O'Faolain (qv), and more purely literary and seeking to capture direct experience. It published a wide range of Irish poets, some of whom had major careers in subsequent decades; its signature item was the poem 'The siege of Mullingar' by John Montague, celebrating the sexual liaisons of young participants in the 1963 fleadh cheoil and proclaiming 'Puritan Ireland's dead and gone / A myth of O'Connor and O'Faolain'. Arena also marked the first appearance of Liddy's talent for humorous notes on contributors (some being Liddy pseudonyms).
In February 1962 Liddy read a prose poem in honour of Joyce at a commemoration organised by the Law Students' Debating Society. (This was subsequently broadcast on the BBC Third Programme radio network and published by Dolmen Press as Esau, my kingdom for a drink (1962).) Liddy participated in the opening of the James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove, Co. Dublin; for a time he was its keyholder and second caretaker. His first poetry collection, In a blue smoke, which he later described as juvenilia, appeared in 1964, and a second, Blue mountain, in 1968.
In 1966 Liddy gave up his legal career and moved to Spain, then briefly returned to Ireland before moving to San Francisco where he taught in San Francisco State College and lived in the Haight-Ashbury district, centre of the hippie subculture, and experiencing the 'summer of love' in 1967. Here Liddy pursued sexual liberation and sought out new poetic friends and mentors. His contact with members of the circle of the beat poet Jack Spicer (1925–65) was particularly important, and his later work makes extensive use of Spicer's favourite form, the 'series poem' (a collection which can be read as a single sequence). In San Francisco Liddy met the poet Jim Chapson, who became his long-term partner, though their relationship was not exclusive. (In a late poem Liddy stated 'monogamy shuts out God'.)
Liddy spent the fall semester of 1969 teaching a course on Ulysses at State University of New York, Binghamton, and spring 1970 as poet in residence at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, followed by a somewhat unhappy stay at Denison University in Ohio. In 1972 he moved to the University of Wisconsin at Parkside, where he came into contact with Gareth and Janet Dunleavy, scholars of Ireland. After a year teaching in UCG (1973–4) and a year of 'bohemian excess' in New Orleans, where he taught at Delgado Community College and lived in the French Quarter, with the help of the Dunleavys Liddy joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where for the rest of his life he taught courses on Irish poetry, beat literature and creative writing, and helped to build up one of the major Irish studies programmes in America; he became professor in the English department and director of Irish studies. His classes often took place in local bars or restaurants or in his apartment; he was a regular on the American academic conference circuit, giving papers on Irish or American literary subjects and participating in the social life associated with academic conferences; his view of life, as of poetry, was conversational and relational rather than solitary and introverted, and he celebrated the Dionysian power of drink and friendship.
For some twenty years Liddy was the leading light of The Blue Canary, an annual publication named after a popular bar-restaurant and dancehall on the south side of Milwaukee, and with an associated Blue Canary Press; through these he encouraged and published young Milwaukee writers. Some of these publications make heterodox use of catholic language and symbols, and some of their literary events were associated with St Hedwig's parish in Milwaukee. Although highly critical of the institutional church and dismissive of doctrinal catholicism, Liddy did believe in an accepting God. He was a friend and admirer of the controversial Rembert Weakland (b. 1927), archbishop of Milwaukee (1977–2002), to whom he could relate through Benedictinism, Irish heritage and sexual orientation. Weakland is celebrated in some of Liddy's works as a 'saint', along with Patrick Kavanagh, American beat poets and famous gay men, and such figures as the American catholic radical Dorothy Day and the attempted peacemakers Pope Benedict XV and Emperor Karl I of Austria.
Liddy befriended and promoted the talents of many young poets and academics in Ireland and America, and they in turn admired him deeply and promoted his work. His advocates argue that he was a major poet – 'the Irish Donne' according to Brian Arkins, author of the principal study of his work and editor of his Collected poems (1994) – whose full stature was not recognised in Ireland because Ireland had not yet sufficiently absorbed the sensibility of postmodernism.
Liddy's move to America was associated with a deeper assimilation of the 'democratic' literary model of Walt Whitman and of the beat pursuit of antinomian ecstasy in the everyday. His bibliography is complicated because he published widely in journals, pamphlets and chapbooks as well as in book collections (a checklist (1962–2004) by Thomas Dillon Redshaw may be consulted in An Sionnach, i, no.1, (spring 2005), 108–39). In all, Liddy published more than fifty chapbooks, collections and prose works.
A Munster song of love and war (1971) heralded his breakthrough into mature style, fully developed in Baudelaire's bar flowers (1975), an exercise in creative imitation of Baudelaire's transgressive urbane juxtapositions of sacred and profane; it also involves a provocative expression of Liddy's own sexuality. (Liddy maintained that he would have liked to have been Baudelaire.) Corca Bascinn (1977) combines a celebration of the landscapes of Co. Clare which at once echoes and questions Irish romanticism with a Blakean embrace of pagan energy and the body over Christian abstraction. At the grave of Father Sweetman (1984) (John Francis Sweetman (qv)) similarly celebrates Liddy's north Wexford and south Wicklow stamping grounds. A white thought in a white shade: new and selected poems appeared in 1987; Art is not for grownups (1990) is a collection of Blakean epigram-proverbs mocking various Irish pieties. In the Slovak bowling alley (1990) hymns the urban scene and varied ethnic traditions of urban Milwaukee. Trees warmer than green (1991) celebrates Charles Stewart Parnell (qv) both as a figure of sexual potency shocking to puritans and as the embodiment of a humane constitutional nationalism contrasted with the strident Maud Gonne (qv). (Liddy met Gonne when he was a student, and greatly preferred George Yeats (qv). He regarded himself as ancestrally Redmondite or 'blueshirt' and was briefly involved with Fine Gael in the 1960s, though he also makes grim references to his parents' pro-German sympathies during the second world war, which he had not shared even then.)
In 1994 Liddy's Collected poems (including new material under the heading 'She is far from the land') were published by Creighton University Press (Omaha, Nebraska). Although vigorously winnowed of juvenilia, this collection was not definitive even when it appeared, and Liddy grew even more prolific in subsequent years; some critics consider the work of his last decade to be his finest. Gold set dancing appeared in 2000, followed by I only know that I love strength in my friends and greatness (2003) and On the raft with Fr Roseliep (2007). (Raymond Roseliep (1917–83) was a midwestern US priest-poet with whom Liddy had been acquainted.) Liddy also produced numerous translations and adaptations, including a partial translation of the poem by Michael Comyn (qv) about the departure of Oisín (qv) for Tír na nÓg, and two volumes of versions of Osip Mandelstam (with Paul Vogel).
Liddy continued to write poetry until within a few weeks of his death, and his poems were often casually disposed in letters or as gifts. No less than four collections, Askeaton sequence (2009), Wexford and Arcady (2009), It swings from side to side (2011) and Rome that heavenly country (2011) (the latter two including memoirs of Liddy by Drew Blanchard and Eric Adams respectively) appeared posthumously, and in 2011 the poet John Redmond assembled Selected poems as an accessible introduction. Two posthumous collections of Liddy's literary-academic essays appeared in 2013, edited by another protégé, the St Louis-based academic Eamonn Wall: On American literature and diasporas and On Irish literature and identities (each including a transcript of a Liddy interview, with Brian Arkins and Mike Begnal respectively). Liddy also made occasional experiments in prose fiction, though these are not regarded as particularly successful; the most substantial, completed over a decade, was the novella Young men go walking (published in the book Triad (1986)), a portrait of a gay relationship in 1960s bohemian Dublin. Two volumes of memoirs have been published. The doctor's house (2004) is not so much a conventional autobiography as a collection of essays and prose poems (several of these are written in the voices of people who impinged on Liddy's life rather than as by Liddy himself). The full shilling (2009) has a somewhat more conventional chronology but strongly emphasises his parents and their world.
Although Liddy became an American citizen, he continued to visit Ireland regularly and to move in Irish literary circles, giving poetry readings around the country and publishing widely in local anthologies, little magazines and specialist imprints such as Kerr's Pinks, Arlen House and Salmon Publishing. Poems by Liddy regularly appeared on the 'New Irish writing' page of the Irish Press, edited by David Marcus. In 1982 Liddy participated in the Joyce centenary celebrations, although his proposal to rename Beresford Place in Dublin in honour of Nora Barnacle (qv) was rejected by Dublin Corporation. Some years before his death, Liddy was elected to Aosdána.
From 1970 Liddy took a leading role in the Gorey arts festival, founded by the artist Paul Funge and held annually over thirteen summer weeks. (Funge's 1978 portrait of Liddy is reproduced on the covers of Liddy's Collected poems and Selected poems.) Liddy chaired Funge's Gorey Arts Centre when it was formally incorporated, and acted as literary editor to the centre's annual poetry broadsheet (which developed into a small magazine, the Gorey Detail (1977–83); several local writers whom it published – including Philip Casey and Colm Tóibín – received help and encouragement from Liddy and went on to wider fame). Liddy also oversaw the publication of several small collections of poems associated with the festival, and held parties in his Coolgreany house for participants.
James Liddy died in Milwaukee on the night of 4–5 November 2008 after a short illness, during which he continued to write; he was cheered by the election that night of Barack Obama as president of the United States. He embodied, and often anticipated, vast changes in Irish sensibility and in the literary and academic infrastructures of Irish literature; he was clearly a significant figure though his exact stature and significance are still debated. 'Being queer, like being Irish and being catholic, has charted my imagination' (interview, On American literature, 172).