Capital verse and Capitol music of Terence Winch

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The Narrowbacks band comprises (top, l-r) Linda Hickman and Eileen Estes and (bottom, l-r) Terence Winch, Brendan Mulvihill, and Jesse Winch. PHOTO: SUSAN CAMPBELL

By Earle Hitchner

During the second half of “An Irish Christmas” matinee show on Dec. 18, 2010, inside the Donaghy Theatre of Manhattan’s Irish Arts Center, Limerick-born singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney recited two poems: one by Leitrim-born Vincent Woods, with which I was unfamiliar, and one by Bronx-born Terence Winch, with which I was familiar. The latter was “Celebration,” a poem about a highly personalized Irish Bronx Christmas, from Winch’s poetry collection “Boy Drinkers” (Hanging Loose Press, 2007).

Several lines in “Celebration” elicited laughter from the audience, including these: “Along with Jesus came the whole / cast of yuletide characters–Santa, Rudolph, / the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby, Frosty, Scrooge. / I’m surprised the Easter Bunny didn’t crash / the event.” The poem elicited the best kind of laughter, rooted in recognition and empathy, where the audience’s own memories merged with the ones Winch so engagingly limned.

I have enjoyed Terence Winch’s verse since 1985 when I acquired my first collection by him, “Irish Musicians / American Friends” (Coffee House Press). Winner of an American Book Award, it includes “President of the Band” and “A Cup of Tea,” poems wholly or partly about Irish American musician Felix Dolan. Among other musicians cited in Winch’s verse are fiddlers Brendan Mulvihill and Jackie Riordan, banjoist Mike Flanagan, and the McNulty Family.

Besides the two books I mentioned, I own four others by Winch: his short-story collection “Contenders” (Story Line Press, 1989), his poetry collections “The Great Indoors” (Story Line Press, 1995; winner of the Columbia Book Award) and “The Drift of Things” (The Figures, 2001), and “That Special Place: New World Irish Stories” (Hanging Loose Press, 2004). I recommend all six.

Winch’s poetry can be any or all of these: conversational, witty, poignant, erudite, tart, candid, apprehensive, approbatory, intimate, insightful, intentionally indecorous, delicate, linguistically inventive, rhymed, and unrhymed. “It’s a matter of depth of engagement and musical register, a matter of what is at stake for yourself in a poem,” Seamus Heaney said about writing verse. Winch understands that. It’s why at times he makes us uncomfortable and probably makes himself uncomfortable. Poetry written too tamely or safely becomes a Hallmark card. No one can accuse Terence Winch of writing Hallmark-card verse.

Much of his poetry is free verse, but he also has a New Formalist command of prosody. In his collection “The Drift of Things,” for example, are “Reverse Number Search for Chilly Evenings in Hell” and “Sleep Waltz,” two imaginatively conceived and executed villanelles. (A villanelle is a fixed form made up of five tercets rhymed “aba” and a concluding quatrain rhymed “abaa,” with the sixth, twelfth, and eighteenth lines repeating the first line, and the ninth, fifteenth, and nineteenth lines repeating the third line.) In each poem, Winch varies the schema slightly to suit meaning or flow. Villanelles literally sound easy, but they are vexatious to write and get right. Winch doesn’t flinch in his. For proof, read “Sleep Waltz,” reprinted here with his permission.

The youngest of five Bronx children born to a mother from Loughrea, Galway, Bridie Flynn (1906-1962), and a Londoner father, Patrick Winch (1905-1971), raised in Ireland by a mother from Ballyvaughan, Clare, Terence Winch also sings, plays button accordion and tenor banjo, and composes songs and tunes. His musical talents can be heard on three albums by the band he co-founded in 1977, Celtic Thunder, who became a fixture in Washington, D.C., especially in the Dubliner pub not far from Union Station. That’s where I first saw them perform, and other visits to see Celtic Thunder (not the commercial concoction paraded on public TV), as well as the Irish Tradition trio, at the Dubliner proved just as enjoyable.

The most popular song Winch ever composed, “When New York Was Irish,” surfaced first on Celtic Thunder’s 1988 album, “The Light of Other Days,” and soon became a staple in virtually every Irish pub in New York City. “I wrote it as a tribute to my parents and their friends, out of my deep regard for the hardships and homesickness they endured as poor immigrants to America in the early 20th century,” Winch explained in “That Special Place,” his book of 24 nonfiction stories and five song lyrics. “Some people seem to think it’s too arrogant or jingoistic. I tell them: write your own version.”

Playing Irish music and writing poetry and prose remain strong vocational pursuits of Winch, who has a B.A. from Iona College and an M.A. from Fordham U. For a time, he was also the head of publications at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and during 2009-2010 he served as poet-in-residence for high schools in Howard County, Maryland. His verse has been anthologized in “The Oxford Book of American Poetry,” “Poetry 180,” and “The Best American Poetry” editions of 1997, 2003, 2006, and 2010.

Winch also writes an outstanding blog that I encourage all “Ceol” readers to bookmark and follow at http://blog.bestamericanpoetry.com. (On the left, scroll down under “Categories” until you hit “Terence Winch.”) I especially recommend his blog entry “Ted Berrigan in Irish America,” in which he describes a special Irish-American night of poetry and music at lower Manhattan’s St. Mark’s Church on Nov. 10, 1982. I was in the audience that evening, and Winch’s recollection rekindled my own.

The best single CD source for songs and tunes composed by Terence Winch is “When New York Was Irish,” a compilation issued in 2007 that’s available from Ossian USA (www.ossianusa.com). Appearing on that compilation are Celtic Thunder and the Narrowbacks.

The latter band currently features Terence Winch on button accordion, his brother Jesse Winch on bodhran and guitar, former Irish Tradition member Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle, Linda Hickman on flute and whistle, and Eileen (Korn) Estes on lead vocal and piano, who is the daughter of original Celtic Thunder lead vocalist Nita (Conley) Korn.

At 8 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 18, the Narrowbacks will be performing at the 33rd Annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry, sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Jim Rouse Theater, 5460 Trumpeter Rd., Columbia, MD 21044. Also appearing will be award-winning Irish author Colm Toibin and members of the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance. For ticket or other information, call 443-518-4568 or visit www.hocopolitso.org.

SLEEP WALTZ

for mcw

Get old enough so you won’t have much to fear.

By then, the music plays inside your head

and everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

In the bathroom mirror I behold my wear and tear.

In our bedroom I try to levitate in bed.

Get old enough so you won’t have much to fear.

Meanwhile, my son at six wants to keep me near

and we sing together every night head to head.

So everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

His father’s tunes, though, will one day disappear

beyond today’s routines and daily bread.

But get old enough so you won’t have much to fear.

Remembering my mother was my first career

and the songs surrounding her on which I fed,

knowing everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

We may waltz in the kitchen now, my dear,

or dance out of time in our sleep instead.

Get old enough so you have nothing left to fear.

Everything beautiful must be learned by ear.

– Terence Winch, “The Drift of Things” (The Figures, 2001). Copyright (c) 2001 by Terence Winch. Reprinted by permission of author.


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