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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Around the Archipelago: Geophany and the Irish Poet



People have morbid fears of the strangest things. For some it’s clowns, but high on my list would be St Patrick’s Day, that primal scene of kitsch-Celtic fakery. Not being much in the habit of pondering my ethnicity, I was nonplussed back in 2003 to find myself in front of a TV camera in North Carolina being quizzed on what the festival meant to me (I was in town for an Irish poetry festival). The short answer, to be honest, was nothing, but I grinned and did my duty. I was aware in doing so of living up to an expectation of me at odds with my self-image, but aware too of how graceless it would have been to launch into a mini-tutorial on poets and the nuances of national self-identification. We are who we are, but we also are – or have a habit of turning into – what others perceive us to be. Many an Irish poet has gone to the States to acquire, not lose, a marketable Irish identity. The fetishizer is no less to blame than the fetishized: as Stephen Owen has written of the concept of world poetry, we need to recognise that ‘this poet from another land and from a different culture is writing in part for us, writing at least in part what he imagines will satisfy us’. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

In the natural order of things the reader comes to a poem from the outside rather than the inside; the American idea of the Irish poem is one such example of applied externality. But in distancing myself from that, I do not fall back on the privileges of an easy-going intimacy with my native tradition. Thinking further about how we come to the artwork from inside or outside, I am reminded of Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, and a rare chance it offers to invert the usual terms of this relationship. In a small darkened room on the ground floor is Harry Clarke’s stained-glass response to Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. With its brilliant reds and blues, the installation surprises us with the ‘fine excess’ Keats proposed as a signal quality of great art. Using acid-etched, double-layered glass, Clarke creates a sense of depth and texture, whether in the sultry delights of Madeline’s bedchamber or the wintry landscapes beyond the castle walls. The display space allows the viewer to stand cocooned inside Keats’s poem, lines from which Clarke includes in the artwork. I was first introduced to the poem at Trinity College, Dublin, but this was not the first time Harry Clarke’s work had given me cause to meditate on the relationship between the artwork, its audience, and its setting. My own natural setting, in so far as I have one, is the jumble of raking beaches, granite mountains and incipient midland plains that make up County Wicklow, on Ireland’s east coast. One less than natural part of the county is the Poulaphouca reservoir, formed by the flooding of 4000 acres of the Liffey valley in the late 1930s. Marooned on a land spit created by this spot of landscape gardening is the village of Valleymount, home to a highly uncharacteristic Irish country church. Its granite pilasters are in the New Mexican style, imported by Wicklow stone-masons who had worked in that state. Inside the church is a series of stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, no less luminous and multi-coloured than ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and coming as a considerable shock to my teenage cyclist self, out mapping my kingdom. Never had Co. Wicklow seemed so Keatsian.

If landscape, artist and artwork usually fall into concentric circles, with the artist mediating between the other two, my experience with Harry Clarke impressed on me the unstable nature of this hierarchy. Inside and outside can swap places: the young poet writing his first poems may find himself liberated by stepping (literally) into rather out of someone else’s shadow; an English Romantic poem can be as much a part of the make-up of the city of Dublin as a street-lamp or a patriotic monument; and our native landscapes turn out to be no less constructed and artificial than the artworks we place in them, needing these artworks before they assume the true form in which we will know them at last. In the fifteen years since I last lived in Ireland, these are findings I have pondered at length, transplanting my Irish beginnings from one corner of the Britannic archipelago to another, and watching the landscapes of memory blend and cross-breed with those I have found in England and Scotland. Even before I left Ireland, a lot of its road-signs were pointed in the general direction of ‘elsewhere’. In Autumn Journal, with only lightly ironized detachment, Louis MacNeice wrote of the Irish diaspora who ‘slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue /and a faggot of useless memories’. More recently, Peter Sirr contributed to a feature on postcolonialism in a poetry magazine I used to co-edit by asking, ‘Don’t all Irish poets live abroad?’



The Wanderlust is inculcated early. Unlike its immediate neighbour, Ireland has never had much of an empire. When I was a primary school pupil in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s, however, the backs of my copy-books came decked out in maps of the world placing Ireland centre-stage, radiating arrows to all the countries in which Irish missionaries were saving the souls of unfortunate heathens. These days I’m told the priests in my hometown come from Africa to save the Irish, but if ever there was an Irish empire impervious to the vagaries of history, it is the empire of poetry. And just like my childhood maps of religious conquest, it is an empire with global reach: Paul Muldoon’s New Jersey and Justin Quinn’s Prague are as much fixtures on the Irish poetry map as Michael Longley’s Carrigskeewaun or Vona Groarke’s Longford midlands. ‘The centre cannot hold’, Yeats grumbled in ‘The Second Coming’, but centre and margin have reached an understanding unforetold by Yeats in the contemporary Irish poem. Derek Mahon’s great ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ begins ‘Even now there are places where a thought might grow’, before giving as his first two examples ‘Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned’ and ‘Indian compounds where the wind dances.’ Far-flung locales generate a shiver of disorientation in the reader, but are accommodated easily enough in a globalized paradigm for what the Irish poem is or should be.

Staying with Derek Mahon, a younger version of that poet once described the housing estates of Protestant Belfast as the final frontier for Irish poetry. The comparison with his Peruvian mines is revealing: here is somewhere about as un-Celtic as it gets, but without any compensating exotic mystique, bringing a dissonant and convulsive quality to the Belfast of his ‘Ecclesiastes’ (‘the /dank churches, the empty streets, the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’). Even to some of his admirers, this side of Mahon’s work is understandable only as a testing ground for the sensitive young aesthete: staying just long enough to work out the place’s incompatibility with art of any kind, the poet flees the scene and ritually disavows it from the safe distance of Dublin or Kinsale. Moving to East Yorkshire in 2000, I had the chance to put a very marginal zone by traditional standards on the Irish poetic map, in the form of the post-industrial grandeur and desolation of Philip Larkin’s Hull. Larkin had spent five years in Belfast in the 1950s, during which he wrote much of The Less Deceived, and which he would later look back on as the happiest period of his writing life, but in going to Hull I was reversing the journey of his ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, that great hymn to the benefits of cultural displacement (‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home, /Strangeness made sense’). There is a poetry of plangent nostalgia for the Irish home-place: this, I decided early on, would have to take its place in the queue behind the Victorian cemeteries, riverside mills and industrial estates that rapidly seeped into my work. I wasn’t the first contemporary Irish poet to have got to Hull: in his ‘East’ Conor O’Callaghan had recruited the town to an anti-heroic tableau of Irish identity and diaspora played out in unremarkable east-coast Irish towns and the North of England, rather than Ireland’s Atlantic West Coast and its preferred exilic reference points of Boston and New York. This poem riled Irish poet Mary O’Malley sufficiently to inspire a rejoinder, ‘The Loose Alexandrines’, in which she accused O’Callaghan of crypto-West Britonism and imagined him calling for ‘No mad women’ and ‘more Larkin, less Yeats, no Plath’, Larkin standing here for a two-for-one deal on gynophobia and the worst kind of conservatism.



Yet here I was living inside O’Callaghan’s poem, getting to grips with the Hullish ‘importance of elsewhere’, but aware at the same time of the Irish dimension to my experience. According to Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it.’ ‘Mauled’ has a pugilistic ring to it, but it is also possible to be mauled by an absence, or failure to connect. I hadn’t gone to England to mutate into a Larkin mini-me. My personal poetic God is Samuel Beckett, and while I’m aware that Beckett the poet is about as famous as Henry James the playwright or Haydn the opera-writer, I had fretted my way through my twenties wondering how to make my poetry more closely resemble the jump-cut collages of his 1935 collection Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates. Writing about the North of England represents a challenge to traditional views of what the Irish poem is and does, but Beckett was already up to the same thing well before he left home, in the itchy, alienated poems of his Irish youth. The opposition of home and elsewhere is powerfully embedded in Irish writing, but rather than choosing one or the other, Beckett flits promiscuously between Dublin, the West of Ireland, London and Paris, often within the same poem. In a silent borrowing from Rimbaud, he situates his poems in an impossible no-place: ‘Ah the banner /the banner of meat bleeding /on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers /that do not exist’.



The young Beckett was dismissive of attempts to revive the Irish language, but when one takes the longer historical view some of the Irish poetry closest to his experience of uprooting and exile was done through the medium of Irish. Led by Colmcille, Irish monks produced some of the greatest works of the early mediaeval period in the far-flung monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne. While Celtic, as a descriptor, is often used as a catch-call to mean ‘anything but English’, it was visions of Celtic Northumberland that inspired Basil Bunting to his masterwork, Briggflatts, with its thistly vowels and visions of Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert. In between persuading myself that I was visiting Hull as a latter-day Celtic atheist monk, I became aware through the work of Ian Duhig of the traditional (‘sean-nós’) Irish singer Darach Ó Catháin (1922–1987), who had transplanted his Irish-speaking family to Leeds several decades before me to work on the roads and building sites. Judged the finest of all sean-nós singers by Seán Ó Riada, Ó Catháin was known to his workmates as ‘Dudley Kane’, and does not seem to have integrated successfully. Recounting a meeting with Ó Catháin in a Leeds pub in the company of poet Pearse Hutchison, Robert Welch describes the party being asked to leave by a landlord who did not want ‘any of that Pakistani singing’. What I learn from this is the ability of Irish poetry and song to move between cultures, but in ways that evade stereotypes and official recognition. Keen to dodge the grandiosity of labels, Roy Fisher has described himself as a ‘sub-modernist’, and in his near-invisible way Ó Catháin can be seen as a ‘sub-national’ artist, equally off the radar in his home and host nations.

Bunting’s Celtic North of England is not the only lost kingdom on the map of the archipelago. The early mediaeval period was marked by the formation of the kingdom of Dál Riata, uniting the north-east of Ireland and the south-west of Scotland. During this period, Scots Gaelic and Irish were still the same language, opening channels of communication that continue to resonate today. Finn MacCool and his merry band of Celtic superheroes, the Fianna, were frequent travellers between the two land-masses, and Mad King Sweeney too flitted across the sea as far as the Isle of Eigg. Mediaeval Irish bardic poets are rarely compared to gangsta rappers, but it’s worth making an exception for another export product, Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh. The ‘Albanach’ in his name means ‘the Scot’, a reference to his flight to Scotland in the thirteenth century after the murder of a tax collector who had disrespected the poet. Distance failed to bring remorse: quite the contrary, as the newly-transplanted Ó Dálaigh wrote a poem gloating over his crime. Deciding in 2012 that Hull wasn’t quite far enough away from everywhere else, I decided to cultivate my own Dalriadic identity and move to Scotland. When Declan Kiberd gave the title Inventing Ireland to a large critical study, he meant to highlight the ways in which Irish identity has been conditioned by being the ‘other’ of neighbouring entities, meaning England; but while the England-Ireland dyad is achingly familiar from academic discourse, I soon discovered how unexpectedly richer the picture became with the addition of Scotland. There was the English-Gaelic divide, but with the addition of the Scots-Nordic dimension too. There was the great modernist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who rather than inspiring an army of poets who wanted to be as like him as possible (early Yeats) inspired generations of Scottish poets to stonewall his impossible example. Early on in my engagement with Scotland, I encountered a fairly literal example of ‘stonewalling’ on a pilgrimage to Little Sparta, the hermit kingdom of the artist and ‘avant-gardener’ Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay had been a leading light in the Concrete Poetry movement of the 1960s, poems whose challenge to the reading voice he solved by declaring that concrete poetry was a silent poetry, bypassing the need for oral transmission. Relieved to be let off the hook of having to cultivate a Scottish-accented style before I could write about the place, I threw myself into poorly laid-out concrete poems based on place-name puns (‘Le Monach Isle de mon oncle’) and dramatizations of silence (a poem about a ‘?’ standing on my copy of Birds of Scotland).



There are no hills in East Yorkshire, but given the similarity of Aberdeenshire’s granite peaks to those of Co. Wicklow I was aware of unsettling overlaps: was a Gaelically-inflected poem about the Cairngorms a contribution to the Irish or the Scottish landscape-writing tradition? Unexpectedly, my mobile phone-bill helped me find the answer. Almost all the texts I send are to family members living in Ireland, given which my mother worked out how much cheaper it would be for to communicate via an Irish rather than a UK phone. As far as this phone was concerned, I need never have left Co. Wicklow. It struck me that a significant strand of the Irish poetic tradition continues to operate on similar assumptions. The geographical and cultural other enters Irish poetry in so far as it can be fed through Ireland-centric reference points. Routing your poem home to Ireland through a foreign network comes at a higher price. I experienced this tension as a form of stand-off before crowbarring a third element into my dilemma by way of a solution. Like the Irish language, Scots Gaelic is a minority language and one whose continued survival is dependent on government aid. In Scotland, however, the picture is complicated by the presence of another tongue, in a linguistic ménage à trois: Scots, the language of Robert Burns. Feeling the want of local poetic gods to celebrate, I took advantage of six months Robert Fergusson (1750–1774) spent in Aberdeenshire to start writing sonnets in Scots addressed to that great and short-lived poet. The eighteenth-century rhyming weavers of Antrim wrote in something resembling Burns’s Scots, and contemporary Belfast poet (and Edinburgh-resident) Alan Gillis makes witty use of Ulster Scots, but my project had an element of wilful quixotism about it. As far as T. S. Eliot was concerned, in ‘Was There a Scottish Literature?’ (1919), Scots was a dead tradition, a sentimental throwback or two such as Burns or Fergusson aside. Here was my ‘sub-national’ tradition again.

Among the most impressive pieces of literary scholarship published in the last decade is John Kerrigan’s Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603–1707 (Oxford, 2008). In head-spinning detail, Kerrigan traces the patchwork identities from which modern Britain and Ireland were fashioned. The union of 1707 was highly unpopular in Scotland, and many of the Scottish nobles who voted in favour changed their minds shortly afterwards, it seems. Something else I learned about Aberdeenshire was its centrality to the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 against the House of Hanover. My colleague, the poet Peter Davidson has written evocatively of the relics of Jacobite culture that dot the Aberdeenshire landscape, the forlornly beautiful castles nestled between the North Sea and the mountains. In his collection The Palace of Oblivion, he celebrates this landscape in a national language of Scotland that predates both Scots and Gaelic, Latin.



On one level, this is harmless antiquarianism, you might think, with no obvious relevance to contemporary Irish poetry. But as an incomer to these parts, I drew radical lessons for my own work. When my Aberdeen colleague Patrick Crotty, edited The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry he suggested listing on the cover some of the translators he had recruited, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Kathleen Jamie among them. Penguin objected to the fourth of these, given that Jamie is Scottish, not Irish, and might therefore confuse prospective buyers. Crotty stood his ground, helping to remind readers not just of the international appeal of Irish-language poetry, but the international nature of its composition in the first place. Reviewing a more recent anthology of Irish writing, Maurice Riordan’s, The Finest Music: Early Irish Lyrics, I found myself comparing the work of its anonymous Irish scribes to the Objectivists. Here were the ‘diamond absolutes’ of Heaney’s ‘Exposure’, and the scalpel-like precision of Niedecker and Oppen’s lyrics. Reading the line ‘And ancient Ireland knew it all’ in Yeats’s ‘Under Ben Bulben’ it’s easy to diagnose a case of geriatric belly-aching, and though even Yeats might draw the line at crediting Columcille with a prophetic vision of An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, the things that ‘ancient Ireland knew’ were not limited to Ireland, nor are its lesson confined to Irish poets writing the Irish poem in Ireland.

When asked in 1915 what he was fighting for, Edward Thomas knelt and picked up a handful of English dirt: ‘Literally, for this’, he answered. As someone blessed or cursed with a geographically over-active imagination, I have always felt my writing lives or dies by its engagement with the literal ‘this’ of what the English-born, Connemara-based cartographer Tim Robinson calls ‘geophany’, the ‘visible manifestation of the earth’. The only problem is the entirely accidental nature for me of what the ‘this’ is at any given moment. Having got my Scots sonnets off my chest, I began to cast around for another submerged local culture to engage with (perhaps the Shetland islands, and their lost ‘Norn’ language…). And then there’s the question of form. While Paul Muldoon remains among the most ingenious rhymers in Anglophone poetry, it feels like a long time since a younger Irish poet sprang to prominence for audacious formal experiments. I’ve mentioned sonnets and concrete poetry, but steadfastly refuse to develop an identity crisis over my habit of writing both. Peter McDonald has objected to prefixing the word ‘form’ with the verb ‘to use’: does one ‘use’ the oxygen one breathes? Writing the best sonnet or concrete poem we can is much more important than any tribal identity based on choosing one over the other.



In a wonderful letter of 1864 to A. W. M. Baillie, Gerard Manley Hopkins outlined his thoughts on ‘Parnassian’ poetry. The Parnassian is not exactly bad poetry, but poetry which is ‘too characteristic of itself, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration’. Mount Parnassus may not be such a wise aspiration for the poet after all. Had he been a Russian formalist, Hopkins could have preached the virtues of ostranenie, of defamiliarizing as a route to making it new. In ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, which dates from his Irish miserable exile two decades later, Hopkins wrote one of the strangest Irish landscape poems ever, using a palette every bit as arresting as Harry Clarke’s stained-glass windows. Yet, but for this spiky proto-modernist, his great admirer Seamus Heaney might never have found his way to the apparently rootsier style in which he celebrates the landscapes of Bellaghy, Toome and Anahorish. Where in all this is the true ground and form of the Irish poem? We might say of it, as Wallace Stevens did of the singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, that ‘There never was a world for her /Except the one she sang and, singing, made.’ I can’t know for certain, but I would hope the Irish poem is as happy being written in Scots about Aberdeenshire as it is by a Victorian English Jesuit about the Dublin skyline. I’ve quoted Peter Sirr’s observation about Irish poets all living abroad. To which I would now add: yes, including the ones who live at home, wherever that may be.

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Answer to the Question, Whether I Have Anything to Say on Water Charges in Ireland



I am against the water charges in Ireland. Good for anyone who doesn’t fancy paying them. I haven’t written any poems on this subject because it doesn’t spark my imagination. I don’t live in Ireland and can’t name more than one or two serving Irish government ministers. I can’t force into existence a poem that doesn’t want to be born. I’m sure this represents a political cop-out on my part, but not one I have any real will to put right. If I did fancy mounting a case for my defence I could point to some poems I’ve written inspired by the Scottish independence referendum which contain a fair deal of bile directed at the No campaign, Scottish Labour, etc. I say ‘If’, because I resist any impulse to defend my writing on political grounds. I would consider my politics as well to the left of the Guardian but yes, I am the kind of leftist who expresses his Marxism more by reading Adorno on Schoenberg than by going on demonstrations. Just now I find myself wanting to write poems, not about contemporary politics at all but mediaeval Orkney and Olivier Messiaen’s organ music. I think poetry is, at base, an indefensible art: it is inherently irresponsible and should not have to apologise for this fact. My understanding of art has been comprehensively shaped by Marxist theory, but I follow Marx in his belief that the development of art and the development of society are not the same thing: parallel, overlapping, quarrelsomely divergent, mutually-shadowing perhaps, but not the same thing.

Art is a sphere of freedom and possibility. It offers freedom *to* and freedom *from*: I am free to write about political subjects that move me, but also free from any compulsion to write on prescribed topics, on the immediate, on today’s headlines. I can experience the reality of art as easily, and perhaps more easily, by writing about the middle ages than by writing about water charges in Ireland. But that’s just me. I place no one else under my personal prescriptions. Many poets have chosen the ‘freedom from’ model, and not just poets normally thought of as writing at an oblique angle to the politics of their day. There are no Emily Dickinson poems directly about slavery and abolitionism, despite her living through the Civil War. But equally James Clarence Mangan lived through the famine of the 1840s, writing as the figurehead of nationalist Young Ireland, and look at his poems: all that anger and despair channelled into bizarre games with fake translations and personae. Why? Was this a failure of political nerve? Why couldn’t he just say it out straight? Because, for me, this is what happens when art and politics collide. The outcome cannot be predicted or prescribed. If it could, it wouldn’t be art.

But take more politically plain-speaking poets, if these examples seem evasive. Try reading Neruda, Brecht or MacDiarmid ‘straight’ as political poets defending the indefensible, which they frequently did, and you get a terrible, just terrible Stalinist mess. (And that’s just the left: as for Eliot or Pound…) Enjoying their work doesn’t require neutering their politics, but seeing the cages of politics, tyranny, and ideology for what they are, and art for what it is too, rattling its chains in the corner. I love Brecht’s poetry, but when I read him I see art and politics rub against each other more in the style of a car-crash than a mating dance, and a car-crash that numbers him among its victims as much as anyone else. It’s still exhilarating though, and my enthusiasm for both him and leftist politics emerges from the experience unscathed. I think a useful test for anyone interested in poetry and politics is to choose a writer whose politics you find repellent and ask yourself why, nevertheless, their poetry is so good. A certain Irish poet celebrating his 150th anniversary this year does the trick nicely, I find. No social democrat he (‘What’s equality? Muck in the yard.’) ‘Heart-mysteries there’, as he also said. A better world is certainly possible, and better poetry too. On which note, I propose to adjourn for a rereading of Adorno’s ‘Reconciliation Under Duress’.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

‘His Words Are Not His Words’: Generational Succession in Contemporary British Poetry



Dreaming of peace in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney famously looked forward to a time when ‘hope’ and ‘history’ might rhyme. It would be an enviable problem, as political problems go, if all that stood between Northern Ireland and post-Troubles utopia was a question of poetic technique. Writing in the 1890s, however, W. B. Yeats nicely encapsulated the way in which one’s posterity might depend, for reasons beyond one’s personal control, on matters of poetic form and rhyme. ‘Nor may I less be counted one /With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’, he wrote in ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’. Two lines of iambic tetrameter, the first a pious aspiration, the second a list of three names – Thomas Davis, James Clarence Mangan, Samuel Ferguson – into whose company Yeats has now insinuated himself. There are only so many poets’ names one can squeeze into two short lines, after all, so other aspirants to the canonical ground: be warned. Even today, Yeats’s coding of proleptic literary history into poetic form is imbued with a strong authority. Among the most exciting things to have happened to the Irish nineteenth century in recent times has been the rediscovery of the work of James Henry, a mordantly atheist poet and link in the chain from Swift to Beckett. How might Yeats’s line be rewritten to accommodate him? ‘A member of the poets’ club, though honorary, /With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson and Henry’? But that’s a pentameter. The poem’s ‘write-protect’ labels jealously guard the canonical bounds that Yeats proposes.

Introducing his Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, Yeats gives a majestic lesson in surveying the poetic generations that had come and gone since those salad days in the Cheshire Cheese almost half a century previously, site of his celebrated quip that ‘None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.’ If there was a single dominant trait in Yeats’s character, his biographer Roy Foster has written, it is a sense of how things would look to posterity, and even when recounting anecdotes of his youth, Yeats excels at impressing on the reader that there is only going to be one long-term winner in his tales of contemporaries laid low by drink, drugs, syphilis or failure, and it won’t be Swinburne, Lionel Johnson or Oscar Wilde. Yet Yeats has reserved a peculiar glory for these casualties of rhyme, the 90s poets ‘unreconciled in their metaphysical pain’, to adapt a phrase of Derek Mahon’s. If they have not survived into the ‘filthy modern tide’, as Yeats would call it in ‘The Statues’, it is not because they lacked Yeats’s survival instinct; on the contrary, it is because they were too good for it:
Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.

It is not that Yeats is directly commending these activities to anyone in 1936, though his Steiner Clinic adventures with monkey glands match anything on that list of eccentricities; rather, he is recruiting his contemporaries into a mythology that will transform the stock-market of literary opinionation into something more like a Dantesque final judgement. Writing of Baudelaire six years before, T. S. Eliot had imagined the French poet walking the streets of Paris convinced of his superiority to statesmen and thieves since, unlike them, he was man enough to be damned. If damnation is what awaits Lionel Johnson & co., it is unexpectedly softened by the chance to play a walk-on part in Yeats’s mythopoeia, as Johnson does in his great elegy ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. The ‘falling’ in the first line I’m about to quote is a reference to the story, repeated by Ezra Pound, of Johnson’s death in a fall from a bar-stool:

much falling he
Brooded upon sanctity
Till all his Greek and Latin learning seemed
A long blast upon the horn that brought
A little nearer to his thought
A measureless consummation that he dreamed.

In Yeats’s well-appointed mausoleum, the poet’s shortcomings come to seem irrelevant. Lowly though his sphere might be, it harmonizes strangely with Yeats’s lofty love-choir. Like Moses, he glimpses but does not enter the promised land, a promised land which only the most obtuse of readers will have failed to recognise as Yeats’s work and the dead man’s emblematic role therein. In celebrating the dead, we cannot help appropriating them too; and if Yeats does this with Johnson, he is already doing it to a far greater degree with the subject of the poem, Robert Gregory, no friend of the poet’s in life. While artistic appropriation came naturally to Yeats, the vice is not unique to the Irish poet. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ approaches its subject, Edward King, with such heartbreak that it dematerializes him without a second thought into a classical convention. So strongly in charge is Yeats, in his elegy, that he can end by giving up on his poem without any loss of authority. He had thought of celebrating the dead man’s achievements in greater detail, he tells us, ‘but a thought /of that late death took all my heart for speech.’ The failure of elegy becomes its moment of triumph.



In saying this I am setting up a tension between artifice and authenticity: a tension, as we shall see, with much to tell us on the nature of poetic generations. My elegiac point of entry is hardly accidental though. It is a peculiar vice of the contemporary age to treat elegy as a last bulwark of authentic feeling against the trickeries of the post-modern age (‘Post-this, post-that, post-the-other, yet in the end /Not past a thing’, as Seamus Heaney begins his poem on first looking into Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters). Can it be coincidence that volumes of elegy have proved so irresistible to prize-giving committees? It would take some audacity for a contemporary poet to assert him or herself with the same authority claimed by Yeats, but looking back from the third vendange of poetic New Generations we now see the cheery blue skies of the first such promotion in 1994 through a greyer elegiac filter. I’m referring to the death of Michael Donaghy, a central part of the first New Gen, and whose death in 2004 prompted a heartbroken downpour of poetic lamentations. Among these are the haunted poems of his New Gen confrère Don Paterson, who has also memorialized Donaghy in the prose commentaries of Smith. Death, whatever else it is, is an artistic opportunity. Our readerly expectations of elegiac sincerity were a prime opportunity for Donaghy, in his time, as a lifelong believer in ludic fakery. ‘An Excuse’ begins with the confessional feint: ‘“My father’s sudden death has shocked us all.” /Even me, and I’ve just made it up.’ Paterson illustrates his essay on confessionalism in Smith with another Donaghy poem ‘Acts of Contrition’. The poem is in three stanzas, of six, six and four lines, and moves from a memory of the confessional box in the poet’s youth to a suicide attempt and a police incident room. In each case, the poem handles without making fully available some moment of personal crisis. ‘I’m working on my confessional tone’, says the young confession-goer, hinting that the element of performance is all; ‘Here’s where I choose between mea culpa /and Why the hell should I tell you?’, says the suicidal poet; and ‘I could be anyone you want me to be’, says the poet under interrogation by the police.

The verb ‘interrogate’ is a favourite of the modern critical idiom: we interrogate poems for what they have to say about race, sex and gender, roughing them up only ever so slightly in the process, before releasing them back into the community. Are we right to hear a small cry of distress behind Donaghy’s boast that he can be anyone we want him to be? It’s less the being of X, Y or Z that is the problem than the element of coerced performance, and which should perhaps qualify our delight in his thespian bravado. While ‘An Excuse’ trades on a dramatic reversal, cancelling the confession it initially proffers, the cancellation as much as the confession is heavily conditioned by a quality of assumed intimacy, the quality of bidding or address that Natalie Pollard has studied as a defining aspect of recent British poetry. As showman, the poet is aware of the high-jinks expected of him, and obliges with the requisite party piece. This does not detract from the essential seriousness, which is to say ludic seriousness, of the exercise. In his commentary on ‘Acts of Contrition’, Paterson lets us in on a little secret, in the form of a youthful suicide attempt by the poet: ‘The black private “joke” here is that Donaghy really is writing confessional poetry, and is double-bluffing [...] He doesn’t, however, consider this an important enough detail to explicitly ‘share’ with us.’ The conversations of elegy, authentic or bogus, are paradigms for the conversations that constitute poetic generations.

Like many beloved national institutions, Michael Donaghy was an import, and if ‘An Excuse’ trades on fake family history, the young Donaghy’s move to Britain was heavily conditioned by the trouble he was having within the American poetry family in the 1980s. It is a story he told often, of the takeover of literary theory, the death of the author (Michael Donaghy was once thrown out of a seminar in Chicago by Paul de Man), and the usurpation of the American lyric line – the line of Bishop, Wilbur and Hecht – by the tuneless spambots of Language poetry. While Donaghy wore a largely benign public persona on other topics, the avant-garde brought him out in ferocious spasms of denunciation. Experimental writing, as Paterson summarizes Donaghy’s objections, is all ‘intertextuality [...] but no text’, ‘funless harm’, a ‘suicide note’, ‘meretricious novelty, endlessly repeated’. Its failure are failures of presence, voice, continuity and succession, and where British poetry was concerned Donaghy (though no academic himself) was fearful of an academic takeover of British poetry too by the people he called the ‘ampersands’, the rich music of the British lyric replaced by Prynnite white noise. Since I mention white noise, though, this topic comes up in the Donaghy poem ‘Disquietude’, which conveniently for my purposes telescopes the themes of voice, silence, paranoia, sex, succession and sterility into twenty lines. The speaker is lying in bed beside his partner, unable to sleep. He conducts an interior monologue, but one in which he explores his distrust of the voice, his own or the human voice in general. ‘Would you know if our phone was tapped?’, he asks, and describes the tell-tale sounds of clicking on the line suggesting someone is listening in. Then the poem takes a sexual turn, as he describes stashing a tape recorder under the couple’s bed ‘when we were younger and hornier’. All the mic picked up, however, was ‘wheezing springs’; ‘It would be like listening to strangers now’, he concedes, in a moment reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, that masterly statement of the tangling and mangling of voice and self in the technologies of their preservation. Distorted and incomprehensible though this static is, it begins to seep into the present-tense of the poem, with its own imperious demands:

Sometimes, when I wake beside you in the night
and the door of sleep slams shut and locks behind me,
I hear it creep up out of silence, a brash hush,
a crowded emptiness, the static of the spheres.

It’s like a tap left on. But it’s my own warm blood,
the flood that’s washing all the names away,
of schoolmates, kings, the principal export of somewhere,
and all the sounds as well – a lullaby, a child’s voice –
my own warm blood that must be blessed.

No recording devices are allowed in this hall.
The lights dim, and onstage they’re coughing,
turning pages, giving the score their indivisible attentions,
getting settled for the next movement,
which features no one and is silent.

In a striking reversal, the agent of disturbance is not just the eternal silence of those infinite spaces that so terrified Pascal, not just something cosmically out there but an anxious enemy within: the poet’s ‘warm blood’. As Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed’ showed, bed-based poems have a knack of discovering disquietude in even this most comfortable setting, and in his final stanza Donaghy turns his anxiety back on the concept of voice. I used the phrase ‘write-protect label’ earlier, and here Donaghy employs a quasi-legal injunction in an attempt to reassert vocal control: ‘no recording devices are allowed in this hall’. By way of an aside, I am reminded here of an incident during a poetry reading I attended when the poet mistook a man fiddling with his hearing aid for someone trying to record him, and walked over and asked him to stop. The market for bootlegged poetry readings – or even lectures about poetry – is, I imagine, rather small, but the intimacy of address we enjoy is all part of the aura on these occasions. Speaking of intimacy, Donaghy died before he had a chance to see the 2006 German film The Lives of Others, in which a Stasi agent in the attic is listening in on every moment in the life, including the sex life, of a couple in the apartment below. At one key moment, a conversation is held to test whether the agent is fact there. When the response that would accompany an eavesdropping agent fails to materialize the central character mistakenly decides he is not under surveillance, an assumption with tragic consequences. In ‘Disquietude’, Donaghy casts himself as both dissident and Stasi agent. The intimacies of the private, i.e. lyric voice are subject to hostile surveillance from the forces of white noise, whose transcription of these precious intimacies is a form of bureaucratic gibberish. Yet this is a poem of intense paranoia too, recognising that if there is no actual Stasi agent (or Cambridge poet) in the attic, the speaker is more than capable of performing this function for himself. He struggles to reassert control over his voice, but such is his failure to recognise himself in his own words anymore (shades of Beckett’s Krapp again) that only silence remains.



As chance would have it, Donaghy has another poem on John Cage in an anechoic chamber in Harvard University, in which he hoped to experience complete silence. Like the pursuit of absolute zero on the temperature scale, absolute silence proves elusive, as with the removal of extraneous noise the composer is left with the thumping sound in his ears of his own heartbeat. The resulting musical piece, 4’33”, reflects this impossibility: in performance it is anything but silent, as the restive audience begins to cough and fumble in its seats. We may scoff at this avant-garde prank, but when we play the recording back the inglorious noise we are listening to is our own. The phrase School of Quietude was coined by Ron Silliman as a pejorative shorthand for the conventional lyric, born of contemplative stillness, but for Michael Donaghy no less than John Cage before him, the silence of the lyric self was a zone of treachery and disquietude. The next movement, or poem we might father on posterity miscarries: it ‘features no one and is silent’. This counter-narrative, in which the natural succession of voice to voice from one generation to the next is replaced by silence, manages to gatecrash one of Donaghy’s warmest poems, ‘Haunts’. The poem is addressed to his son, and begins ‘Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me’, but is an exercise in acousmatic disembodiment, an echo the addressee will recognise years from now much as he might remember his father in the ‘margin of a book you can’t throw out’. The words of the poem seem to travel from father to son, but originate – by way of a Möbius strip-like circuit – with the son. Their source is:

the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.

So who exactly is comforting who? Each is comforting the other simultaneously, on the basis of a reciprocal but ultimately groundless refrain spoken out of that ‘radio silence’.

For such a powerful begetter of New Gen and post-New Gen poetry, Donaghy’s vision of generational succession is curiously bleak, or if not bleak, one in which the voices leading the dialogue of present and past – and future – break out in the strangest places, as though one found oneself poetically apostrophised by a car-park entrance barrier or Tesco self-service checkout. To my earlier opposition of artifice and authenticity I would now like to add a second, that of address and voice-dispersal, the scattering of voice in unexpected ways to unexpected heirs. It is a common misconception, where poetic generations are concerned, that one hands over to the next in the style of relay-racers, their elders’ words of encouragement ringing in their ears as the youngsters speed away. As T. S. Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’:

If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged.

Most poets would bridle at the idea of writing out of ‘blind or timid adherence’ to anything, but the ‘handing down’ or handing over present in the word tradition can have other, less comfortable meanings too. Tradition is also ‘the act of delivering into the hands of another’, as in a prisoner swap, and the connecting lines from generation to generation can swerve in unexpected directions. A map of poetic influence rather than of croneydom would look strikingly different from the flow-charts one sometimes encounter in the wake of prize-giving scandals, showing all the who-knows-who connections of the poetry world. [SLIDE] The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky proposed a ‘knight’s move’ theory of literary history, in which decisive steps are taken in an oblique or diagonal form, my variant on which would be the crazy uncle scheme, which I will confess to deriving from the works of Flann O’Brien, an author whose world is strangely lacking in father-son relationships but full of cranky uncles. I could name Flann O’Brien as one such New Gen crazy uncle, in his influence on Ian Duhig’s Celtic-tinged, anarchic wordplay. Others would include Weldon Kees for Simon Armitage and Michael Hofmann, Raymond Roussel for Mark Ford, Emil Cioran for Don Paterson, and McGonagall for W. N. Herbert.



I’m going to interrupt myself right there, before anyone else does it for me, and point to a glaring problem with this theory. As theories of influence go, it is pleasantly lacking in the testosterone-addled tauromachia of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but even as it dismisses patrilinearity it avuncularly smuggles it straight back in. Let me now propose an alternative mode of influence transmission by way of a poem by Kathleen Jamie, ‘Arraheids’. Where are all the crazy aunts or grandmothers in Shklovskian theory? Answer, in an Edinburgh museum cabinet:

See thon raws o flint arraheids
in oor gret museums o antiquities
awful grand in Embro –
Dae’ye near’n daur wunner at wur histrie?
Weel then, Bewaur!
The museums of Scotland are wrang.
They urnae arraheids
but a show o grannies’ tongues,
the hard tongues o grannies
aa deid an gaun
back to thur peat and burns,
but for thur sherp
chert tongues, that lee
fur generations in the land
like wicked cherms, that lee
aa douce in the glessy cases in the gloom
o oor museums, an
they arenae lettin oan. But if you daur
sorn aboot an fancy
the vanished hunter, the wise deer runnin on;
wheesht... an you’ll hear them,
fur they cannae keep fae muttering
ye arenae here tae wonder,
whae dae ye think ye ur?

Jamie’s poem works to recover the silenced voices of history; and, more than most, the modern Scottish tradition was one in dire need of feminist recalibration. The female voice is first identified with nature, then with the folk tradition – identifications that serve to keep it short of fully-acknowledged personhood. The salty twist to Jamie’s poem is that the disapproving tongue, once we do recover its message, is telling the poet to shut up. The duty to speak not just of, but for the absent is one that stalks the historical imagination, while placing the salvage artist in a difficult position. How to give a voice to the past without first establishing one’s credentials to speak on its behalf? How can we be sure the past is so reciprocally keen to speak to us, and on our terms? Of the 1994 New Generation poets, Mick Imlah, David Dabydeen, and Lavinia Greenlaw have written with sensitive understanding of the past, whether the Scottish nineteenth century, the tragedies of colonial Guyana, or love in the age of Geoffrey Chaucer, but Jamie’s poem highlights the economies of scale to be negotiated before the voice of history and the voice of the lyric ‘I’ can be reconciled, if they can. Jamie has already accommodated the voice of history by writing in Scots, a language whose international credentials she has done much to restore, but the internalized self-censorship of the past, and of its silenced victims, becomes not just the message but the medium of the poem too.

Loss and silencing are the other side of generational canon-formation. The stunning reappearance of Rosemary Tonks’s work, just like that of Lynette Roberts before her, reminds us of what we don’t talk about when we talk about generations, or visible poetic generations at least, and of our duty to think of poetic eras ‘complete with missing parts’, in Beckett’s phrase. The question of gender brings a particular edge to this discussion, as metaphors of patrilinear succession are embedded deeper than we may care to acknowledge in critical language. In an essay on the fate of women poets in the Irish canon, Moynagh Sullivan has pointed to the controlling influence, as she sees it, of metaphors of male lineage. Examining an overview by Patrick Crotty of the post-Revivalist era in Irish poetry, Sullivan alleges a difference between the male and female poets who fall by the wayside in Crotty’s account as minor versifiers. When women poets such as Ethna Carbery or Alice Milligan are found wanting it is because they are ‘predictable propagandists’, fitting all too easily into a predetermined narrative of their essential smallness. When male poets fall short of greatness, and are ruled ‘anaemic’, ‘vatic’, or ‘lifeless’, ‘they still manage to become “memorable” in some way because of a biographical detail, anomalous subject matter, some striking lines, or because they anticipate somebody better.’ While I don’t find, in Crotty’s narrative of literary history, the same overweening male narrative that Sullivan does, this argument highlights the ways in which canonical status can seem a matter of manifest destiny. In the same way that Pip, in Great Expectations – unlike his family – already speaks standard English before becoming the beneficiary of Magwitch’s patronage, different kinds of poet are marked out for different fates. The story of Rosemary Tonks’s disappearance is sensational and compelling, but also bears all the contours of a madwoman in the annexe story, in Edna Longley’s words for the volumes of the Field Day Anthology devoted to women’s writing, commissioned after the realization of the male-heavy flaws of that project in its original form. When F. R. Leavis included Gerard Manley Hopkins (first published in 1918) in New Bearings in English Poetry, he was keener to promote that poet as a contemporary of Pound and Eliot than as any kind of Victorian, but as well as rediscovering Tonks as our contemporary we need to revise our narratives of the 1960s, and descriptions such as Morrison and Motion’s in their Penguin Anthology of Contemporary British Poetry that this was a period of ‘lethargy’, when ‘very little seemed to be happening.’ There are some poets whose first name might as well be ‘the underrated’ – Roy Fisher gets a lot of comic mileage out of this in interviews – but the ‘overlooked’ Rosemary Tonks will only get us so far, versus the Rosemary Tonks whose retrospective significance should be a revisionist account of the 60s and 70s, if only in answer to the voice of Motion/Morrison telling those sceptical of their version of literary history ‘Ye arenae here tae wonder, /whae dae ye think ye ur?



Tonks the outsider is a healthy reminder of the limits of generational self-awareness, but a further complicating factor, in bringing generations into focus, is their ability to reinvent themselves from within. Like Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie has recently been the subject of an academic essay collection, and also like Paterson her work has been found to divide sharply into early and more recent stages. Only ten years ago, I hazard, a book on Jamie would have stressed the elements of woman and nationhood in her work, themes almost completely eclipsed in Rachel Falconer’s essay collection by ecopoetic responses to Jizzen, The Tree House and The Overhaul, as well as the prose writings of Findings and Sightlines. (Where Paterson is concerned, critics once keen to recruit him, by way of his class politics, as a successor to Tony Harrison or the Douglas Dunn of Barbarians, have promoted him to a more free-floating formalism instead.) It’s no shortcoming for a poet to sustain different or even contradictory styles of reading, and there is no certainty that her ecopoetic incarnation is where Jamie will come to rest. Peter Mackay ends his essay on Jamie on a note of caution: ‘This is not poetry as the song of the earth, or of a revelation of dwelling, but as a stymieing and troubling of communication [...] an art of non-communication, a resistance, a making strange.’

Ecocritics may, for the most part, like their poets to ‘dwell’ securely in prescribed zones of environmental interest, but writers can be difficult to pin down on their own patch. I think again of Yeats, a writer with the somewhat scandalous habit of rewriting extensively the poems of his youth: often, the Yeats poem of the 1880s you find yourself admiring for its maturity beyond the author’s years, turns out on closer inspection to have revised almost beyond recognition by the Yeats of the 1930s. Christopher Ricks, a noted Yeats sceptic, goes so far in his Oxford Book of English Verse as to publish two versions of ‘The Sorrow of Love’ as an implied small protest against this habit. Yeats had a stock answer ready for his sceptics, however: ‘The friends that have it I do wrong /Whenever I remake a song, /Should know what issue is at stake: /It is myself that I remake.’

The remaking of the self involves a certain sloughing off of dead skin, and if we return to Peter Forbes’s introduction to the New Gen issue of Poetry Review in 1994 much is made of the poets’ rejection of what he calls the ‘Oxbridge hegemony’ and the ‘lost empire’ of its systems of patronage, last seen disappearing over the hill with the Motion/Morrison Penguin Book and Ian Hamilton’s Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. While the school sports-day exhibitionism of Craig Raine’s Martian period (‘the dustbins bulge like vol-au-vents’) makes an easy target, the generation in Forbes’s cross-hairs also produced Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac, a book that rejects patrilinear national traditions with a vengeance. Simultaneously a product of, and a sly critique of the Eastern European translation boom of the 1980s, Katerina Brac practises an arch voice-dispersal all the more convincing for leaving the basic coordinates of its heroine’s identity undefined, just as, contemporaneously, E. A. Markham was finding it liberating to exchange the expectations of Montserratian authenticity, for the freedom to personify – persona-fy – the white, Welsh feminist he called ‘Sally Goodman’. Here is Katerina Brac addressing the future, which she finds unreal in comparison to the here and now, even though the present is represented by the classical statues from the past and, as she says, none of this is real anyway:

How ironical now to be wasting our breath on the future!
I smile wryly, but when you ask me what I am smiling at,
I find I do not have the power to explain
a feeling so selfish and anachronistic.
There are the statues with their muscles and dimples.
They look so real, how can I persuade you
that none of this is happening or needs to be believed?

Nevertheless, where the Reidian model is concerned at least, Forbes appears to find an insufficiently disturbed core of selfhood at work. He is at pains to distinguish between the border-crossing postmodernism he finds in Hofmann, Duhig, Alvi, Armitage and Maxwell, and the more traditional poetic monologues of the New Gen’s one old-school Oxonian, Mick Imlah. Reading Michael Donaghy, I suggested that his surprises and practical jokes remained within the confines of poetic voice, understood in oppositional terms to post-lyric ‘white noise’, and introducing himself in that issue of Poetry Review Donaghy quotes – concocts – a hostile review which places the voices of self and other in his work in a co-dependent relationship:

His poems are not confessional, but it helps to think of a Confessional – a little box with a screen separating two parties. Think of that screen as the page. A voice seems to come from behind the screen, but if you read the poems aloud the only voice your hear is your own.’ (Florence Olsen, Haymarket)

We are back to the subject of address. ‘A voice comes to one in the dark’, begins Beckett’s Company, a memoir of childhood much invested in the I/you exchanges of imagination and the narrating self. For Beckett, the personal pronouns tended to come on a sliding scale of habitability. Unable to speak in the first-person, the narrator of Company receives his words addressed to a ‘you’ instead. This underlines the intimacy of the narration, but only if the voice in the dark is in fact directly addressing its hearer. In the absence of any evidence for this, the I/you dynamic loses authority and slips into the inauthentic third person instead. Every attempt to reassure oneself of the self, the self-present self, only has the effect of unpicking it further. Having asked, sceptically, ‘And whose voice asking this?’, the text pushes further, ‘Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company.’

On a pessimistic reading, the multiplication of voices may be a coded response to the limits of self-expression, even or especially through the form of persona. What lies beyond self-expression? I’ve alluded to the names absent, for whatever reason, from our generational roll-calls, and in looking now at the work of Denise Riley I come to the subject of innovative or experimental writing, a style whose place in British poetry is very different now from what it was in 1994. The Riley poem I wish to consider is ‘A Part Song’, a poem for a dead son, and as such an example of a genre painfully concerned to get beyond the pained soliloquy recognised by Geoffrey Hill in his ‘September Song’, when he writes ‘(I have made /an elegy for myself it /is true)’. The elegist must confront a failure to recapture the lost other, and the inherently self-directed nature of the genre. The poem is sweaty with our designs on it and, as in Don Paterson’s ‘Postmodern’, to draw an unusual comparison, the realization that it has been us all along, and not the longed-for other, comes as something of a humiliation. Since Donaghy uses the metaphor of the screen, I am reminded of a comically self-referential moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers where the two young protagonists go to the cinema and are intrigued by the image on-screen of a woman bathing. Keen to see more, the audience stand up, the better to peer over the edge, and, frustrated, rush the screen and tear it down. Behind the screen is, would you believe, a woman in a bathtub. Behind the signifier, we still fondly dream, somewhere or other lurks the signified.



There are no bathtubs in Denise Riley’s ‘A Part Song’, but there is plenty of raw desire to exchange the frustrations of artifice for the authenticity of direct address. Apostrophes to the dead collide numbly with the genre style-sheet: ‘I can’t get sold on reincarnating you /As those bloody “gentle showers of rain” /Or in “fields of ripening grain” – oooh /Anodyne’. Presenting us with these scraps of degraded poetic language in quotation marks, Riley recalls Geoffrey Hill’s verdict on the quotation marks in Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’. It is not that the oven-gloves of punctuation take the rap for the failures of language; rather, they absorb ‘the rapping noise made by those things which the world throws at us in the form of prejudice and opinion.’ Grief is a stubbornly ineloquent experience at the best of times, which is to say the worst of times, and in elegy the authority of the dead channels a voice through the living through which loss can be made good. In Riley’s poem however we encounter a tragic failure of ‘voice recognition’, as the poet assembles her words from echoes, mishearings and more of that white noise:

Outgoing soul, I try to catch
You calling over the distances
Though your voice is echoey,
Maybe tuned out by the noise
Rolling through me – or is it
You orchestrating that now,
Who’d laugh at the thought
Of me being sung in by you
And being kindly dictated to.
It’s not like hearing you live was.
It is what you’re saying in me
Of what is left, gaily affirming.

Here is what becomes of the lyric I/you relationship, confronting and internalizing the opacities of language, in a form that has weighed and found wanting the power of persona to make the dead speak. With her roots in Cambridge poetry, Riley represents a tribe ignored rather than ritually overthrown by Peter Forbes in 1994, but it would be a brave reader who met Riley’s poem with Donaghyesque denunciations of tuneless dissonance. Riley avoids game-playing over questions of sincerity, but repeatedly drives the lyric address up against a realization of its constructedness – ‘She do the bereaved in different voices’, as she writes, echoing Eliot’s original title for The Waste Land, ‘He do the police in different voices’. Another article of faith against innovative writing, twenty years ago, was the assumption of puritan coercion involved, since no one could actually enjoy this kind of thing. I’m sure Riley had more important matters on her mind when writing the following lines, but note how even here she confronts the element of coercion in traditional elegy, where the dead addressee is expected to get in line with our poetic designs on him:

For the point of this address is to prod
And shepherd you back within range
Of my strained ears; extort your reply
By finding any device to hack through
The thickening shades to you, you now
Strangely unresponsive son, who were
Such reliably kind and easy company,
Won’t you be summoned up once more
By my prancing and writhing in a dozen
Mawkish modes of reedy piping to you
– Still no? Then let me rest, my dear

Writing on modernism since the 1960s, Jeremy Noel-Tod, via Hugh Kenner, contrasts the idea that the speaker of a poem can be read ‘like a character in a novel’ with the more sweeping discovery that the name attached to a poem – J. Alfred Prufrock for instance – designates a ‘“possible zone of consciousness”, where the material of the poem “can maintain a vague congruity.”’ Few readers, I imagine, have ever much argued about whether the more rebarbative poems of J. H. Prynne are spoken in that poet’s real voice, whatever that might be, or someone else’s. It is not so much this or that voice versus the question of voice per se. I am unfamiliar with any attempts to push the young Prynne as one of the ‘new voices’ of British poetry in the 1960s, but in one of his most radiant poems from that decade, ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’, he applies an unexpected logic to the question of newness, weighing in on a geological controversy of the day over the dividing line between the Pleistocene and the Holocene. The latter marks the dawn of the human age, and in Prynne’s poem humanity becomes a kind of post-glacial afterthought:

We know where the north
is, the ice is an evening whiteness.
We know this, we are what it leaves:
the Pleistocene is our current sense, and
what in sentiment we are, we
are, the coast, a line or sequence, the
cut back down, to the shore.

Il faut être absolument moderne’, Rimbaud wrote in 1873: we must be absolutely modern. Sceptics are prone to wondering what becomes of modernism once it overthrows the old order and becomes the dominant aesthetic, but here is the startling truth of Rimbaud’s rallying-cry mapped onto geological time: the encounter with modernity happens not just coming over the Starnbergsee and stopping for coffee in the Hofgarten, but in the traces of glacial erosion on the landscape of Norfolk and East Yorkshire. Given the belief among some geologists that the conditions of the Pleistocene have lingered longer than previously assumed, ‘the “glacial question” that the poem poses’, according to Jeremy Noel-Tod, ‘is whether we are really as modern as we thought’.



Now is not the moment to relive the clashing continental shelves of Cambridge poetry, the Faber list and the other floating land masses that cooled into the Pangaea of contemporary British poetry half a century ago, but what I suggest we can take from my Prynne example is the degree to which our concepts of the new and of generational voices function within a larger ‘zone of consciousness’. It is not that we need choose deep time over the disposable now, but that the experience of being somewhere between the two throws up interesting perspectives on both. The recent coining of the term ‘bit rot’, to refer to the problems of archiving data whose media platforms have become defunct, was a reminder of the perennial problem of filtration, as the contemporary is decanted into the past. In my Contemporary British Poetry, I used the example of anthologies as a barometer for how this relationship of present and past was holding up. Using three anthologies, Motion and Morrison’s Penguin Book, Kennedy, Morley and Hulse’s New Poetry, and Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade, I found very different expectations of what, numerically, constituted a poetic generation: 20 poets in the first case, 55 in the second, and 85 in the third. In another example, I noticed that the contemporary, which is to say post-1971 section of Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry was longer than the section devoted to the entire eighteenth century, a period not without merit in Irish poetic history. The restriction of the three New Generation promotions to date to a fixed 20 writers heads off accusations of generational inflation at the cost of a certain arbitrariness, as though tying our poetry futures market to a fixed rather than variable rate of interest. For a different model, and one that travels far afield in literary history, compare Paul Keegan’s Penguin Book of English Verse, which arranges its poems by date rather than author. There is no progress in the arts, Hazlitt claimed, but the inter-generational fluctuations recorded by Keegan can be extreme. The 1590s account for 59 pages, while the 1900s, caught between the ebb-tide of Victorianism and first stirrings of Modernism, manage only 6. Marlowe wrote in a generation roughly ten times as fertile as that of Charlotte Mew.

In Canto XIII, Ezra pound looked back fondly to a time when historians ‘left blanks in their writing I mean for things they didn’t know’, and in offering this example from Keegan I am reminded for the second time of Blaise Pascal and his terror at the eternal silence of those infinite spaces. It is part of the voice anxiety I have described today to think of the alternative to our fecund poetic generations as the equivalent of dead air on the radio, that ultimate broadcasting sin. Mention of this reminds me of a story involving the battle of voice and white noise not unlike that going on in Donaghy’s ‘Disquietude’. Gaelic football fans, back in the day, were fond of bringing transistor radios to Croke Park in Dublin to follow the wonderful commentaries of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the game unfolding before their eyes. One such game was preceded by a minute’s silence, which took a radio producer by surprise. Fearing the crime of dead air, he put on some music, which then screeched out horribly in a feedback loop, ruining the occasion. The supposedly secondary activity of commentary has an unfortunate habit of catching up with and gate-crashing the main event. Studying the sharp end of the contemporary comes with the thrill of ‘writing to the moment’, in Tom Paulin’s phrase for his preferred style of rapid-response critical engagement, but it can also leave the critic like that radio producer, anxious to keep the mood music going to stave off any awkward longueurs.

I began with Yeats and elegy and would like to return in conclusion to the same genre, in the form of Don Paterson’s ‘Phantom’, his elegy for Michael Donaghy. There is scarcely a better example in contemporary poetry of my pseudocouple of artifice and authenticity than Paterson, and even in the midst of grief for his dead friend the urge for comedic bunking-off is strong. Previously to ‘Phantom’ in Rain, Paterson accommodates Donaghy to a heteronymic identity by addressing him as ‘Miguel’, reflecting Paterson’s dalliance in Spanish poetry and the work of Machado and Vallejo. The first three words of the poem are ‘The night’s surveillance’, prising open the intimate register to wider and more uncomfortable scrutiny. Paterson’s Zen affinities are well-known, and where a conventional elegy might place God or religious consolation, ‘Phantom’ insists on emptiness and silence – perhaps as our ‘Initiator into nothingness’, in Michael O’Neill’s description. Contemplating Zurbarán’s St Francis in Meditation, Paterson proposes to ‘arrest the saint mid-speech’, and snatch the words from his mouth: ‘I would say his words are not his words /I would say the skull is working him.’ This moment of kenosis or emptying-out does not satisfy the poet long, however, and soon he is returning to his ekphrastic image in a desire to render not the light of Zurbarán’s painting but the underlying darkness. When he progresses to the next stage, of channelling Donaghy’s voice, he invokes the ‘I-Am-Not-That-I-Am’, combining Jehovah-like authority with a simultaneous disclaiming of self-identity. The cosmogony that follows inverts the usual relationship of self and non-self as Paterson describes an outer world gazing into the inner in search of the cosmic meaning it fails to find elsewhere, in the poet’s post-Christian vision. Behind the eye lie the self, the soul, a god, and this final principle of meaning is one and the same with death:

And god could not see death within the soul
For god was death. In making death its god
The eye had lost its home in finding it.
We find this everywhere the eye appears.
Were there design, this would have been the flaw.
The allusion to Frost in the final line is unmistakable – the ‘design of darkness to appal’. If this a tragic defeat, it is one the poet has brought on himself, making an idol of a poetic ‘design’ that leads him further and further into himself with only the pseudo-presence of the dead for company.

The poem’s final section pulls back from this brink. The tone lightens as Paterson/Donaghy appears to dismiss the whole elegiac apparatus (‘I can’t keep this bullshit up’). When the dead spoke to Kathleen Jamie, they told her to shut up; now Paterson goes to the next level again and dismisses his revenant:

He went on with his speech, but soon the eye
Had turned on him once more, and I’d no wish
To hear him take that tone with me again.
I closed my mouth and put out its dark light.
I put down Michael’s skull and held my own.



The poet began by identifying authority with the dead, silencing the elegiac object to better to commune with it in the authentic quiet of death. He turns the dead man’s words off at the source – ‘his words are not his words’ – the better to claim their inheritance and channel their voice himself. But at this point the fantasy of succession miscarries. Committing to it involves becoming his own proleptic elegist, Hamlet and Yorick at once. I therefore read the final image as one of exasperated rejection. We subject poetic generations to our narratives of control only at high risk to ourselves, courting death by premature canonical rigor mortis. The crazy-aunt electronica of Georgian musician Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze, hailed earlier in Rain, and all its pumping white noise, may be a more life-giving force than our fantasies of the elegiac music of the spheres. Maybe the Paterson of ‘Phantom’ knows this too. Just like ‘Little Gidding’, the poem opens onto time future only by completing its communion with time and poets past in an act of necessary leave-taking. The true begetters of the poetry to come will be the figures who, like Eliot’s ‘familiar compound ghost’ leave us ‘with a kind of valediction’, freeing us to build their monument tragically, flippantly, joyously: in their shadow but also on our own terms, and on our own.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Case of Kevin Higgins, or, The Present State of Irish Poetic Satire



The topic of Irish poetic satire prompts me to a number of opening generalisations. Irish satire, I will propose, divides into optimistic and pessimistic strains. The former views the baiting of public nuisances as a contribution to social hygiene: by unmasking the reactionary face of the Catholic hierarchy, runs the logic of a typical Paul Durcan poem, the poet gently encourages the bishops to leave the stage, and cease inserting their croziers where they are not wanted in debates about contraception, divorce and homosexuality. Pessimistic satire takes a dimmer view of our ability to extricate ourselves from the toils of folly, and fears that the best we can hope for is to recognise our idiocy but also the delusory nature of the progress to which we look for relief. This would be broadly the Tory anarchism that Declan Kiberd has diagnosed in the Irish tradition, and of which Swift, greatest of all satirists, remains the lacerating paragon.


Humour has always been a defining feature of the Irish tradition, but a head-count of contemporary poets with the comic gene yields patchy results. Ribald and highbrow comedy is a strong feature of Paul Muldoon’s work, but the case of Eavan Boland reminds us that an absence of any discernible sense of humour is no handicap to a serious critical reputation, in some quarters at least. In the final chapter of his Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, Justin Quinn names Paul Durcan and Brendan Kennelly as the most consistent poetic satirists of modern Ireland. The satirist’s place, for Quinn, is between the perennial Scylla and Charybdis of the Irish imagination, tradition and modernity. In the straight-faced version of history these two coexist in immaculate balance: ‘the distant past of ancient Ireland is now acceptable for use in the heritage industry, while the recent past (of Catholic and nationalist repression) is used to warn what might happen if the country does not fully embrace the globalised free market.’ The satirist trades balance for excess, overstatement and savagery, uncovering the hidden dissonances of the social process. Prominent among the younger poets to have set themselves this challenge is Kevin Higgins, born in 1967 and the author of four collections in the last decade corresponding roughly with the rise, prime and decease of Celtic Tiger Ireland, The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010) and The Ghost in the Lobby (2014). ‘Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives’, Philip Larkin says of the female figure in his ‘Deceptions’, and Higgins announces his sense of words’ cutting force at the outset of his first book: ‘I come from a long line of men, /who saw words not as decorations /but weapons, knives with which to cut /others down to size.’


Seamus Heaney professed a desire to take the English lyric and ‘make it eat stuff it has never eaten before’. With satire occupying a sizable portion of Higgins’ work, he broadcasts an aversion to the effete lyric tradition and the poet as fashioner of exquisite, bejewelled stanzas. In ‘To Certain Lyric Poets’, the romantic imagery of the delicate bard is there ‘to let us know /he still gets laid’; his words are ‘beautiful things, /flowers to be arranged /around an altar to his ego.’ Facing this text is ‘I am Ireland’, a reworking of a Patrick Pearse poem, gutting the patriot’s sentiments and installing in their place the random trash of contemporary Ireland:

I am Ireland:
I am the love-child of Brian Keenan and John Waters.
I drive Lebanese terrorists and Sinéad O’Connor bonkers.
I will go on forever.

This is far from Higgins at his most effective, but the juxtaposition of the last two examples illustrates a key choice for the satirist. If we proceed on the basis of my optimistic template of social activism, an identification soon crystallizes between lyric detachment and political indifference, with a complementary identification forming between political engagement and the anti-lyrical detritus of mass culture – of terrorism, the cult of celebrity and the moronic infernos of pop music. Gestures of studied contempt for the first of these options and a lightly ironized embrace of the latter lay down a seductive paradigm for the all-purpose satirical poem. The debauching of Patrick Pearse’s idealistic poem into latter-day trashiness, however, raises a problem. With peculiar inside-out logic, the successful satirist will often bring immortality to the object of his ire, which his original intention had been to banish from the earth. Who would remember Wood’s half-pence today but for Swift’s Drapier’s Letters? I say ‘successful satirist’, because if the poem fails to master its occasion the transience of its material will have the opposite effect, of dissolving the poem’s interest for readers who will see not topicality but yesterday’s headlines, forgotten and illegible.


A corollary of this is the opposition of home and abroad. The case of Austin Clarke provides a salutary example here. Witnessing the power of the church at close quarters, Clarke was one of its most vocal critics in the post-independence Free State. While this satirical vein yielded its share of fine poems, it also threatened to become a form of poetic fly-paper, reducing Clarke to self-immolating gestures in his attempts to get away from a subject to which he remained desperately attached. This desperation, combined with the parish-pump aspect of his poems’ occasions, is what Denis Donoghue has in mind when he dismisses Clarke as a ‘local complainer’, one who has suffered the dreaded decline from satirist proper to a crank. The bad blood between Clarke and Samuel Beckett, despite their many shared qualities – their aversion to the authoritarian church among them – may have been prompted on Beckett’s side by a fear that he too would bog down among the objects of his hatred, becoming their hostage rather than their master. Beckett’s satirical poem ‘Antipepsis’, on the banning of More Pricks Than Kicks, is pitched more fatalistically than Clarke’s satires, but while it appears to wallow in unending Irish stupidity, it does so (we remember) from the position of elective distance and exile not available to Clarke. Bringing this up to date, I can think of strong satirical poems inflected by the same dialectic of home and abroad. Justin Quinn’s ‘Ur-Aisling’ and Conor O’Callaghan’s ‘East’ are two fine satires, on the subject of feminism and the nation, and the myth of the romantic west respectively. Powerful though they are, both poems depend more than a little I think on the exilic distance from which they are written. Neither poet has lived in Ireland this century, and both write more in a spirit of settling their homeland’s hash than anything as deathly bland as an invitation to constructive debate.


Though Higgins was born in England to emigrant parents and possesses a strong internationalist streak, much more so than Quinn’s or O’Callaghan’s his work gives a sense of an Irish poet talking directly to his home audience on home ground. An audit of Higgins’ targets, however, raises immediate difficulties when we seek to place him on my spectrum of optimistic versus pessimistic satirists. The principal surprise for a first-time reader would be the number of poems Higgins devotes not to the architects of Ireland’s various disasters, religious, economic and social, but those most convinced of their possessing the solutions to these problems. Chief among these are the anti-war movement and the Irish far left, as represented by the Socialist Workers’ Party. At any point in this discussion, the ground is likely to shift from an argument about literary politics to politics pure and simple, but Higgins’ indignation is driven by a Hitchensesque suspicion that many of these organsations are less anti-war than apologists for unsavoury non-US-aligned régimes. He pounces with Orwellian gusto on the language of euphemism and apologia with which the apparatchiks of these groups square what Auden would call ‘necessary murder’ with their consciences, as in ‘Firewood’, his poem on the Darfur conflict, inspired by an anti-war activist’s statement that it was ‘problematic’ to describe the slaughter in that region as ‘genocide’. A protest against the use of Shannon airport by US military flights, provokes the following response, ‘they’ being the protestors:

You uproot weeds, tell yourself
if their dream republic got born,
the cat wouldn’t be crouching
in the dark, but cold between slices
of questionable brown bread –
all you’d have to eat – know
you’re more likely to go
into the night on a unicycle
screaming: Free Paris Hilton!
Free Paris Hilton! than accept
another red balloon from them.

Yet a contradiction, or possibly several contradictions lurk in these poems. Higgins’ despair at the logic whereby one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend scores some palpable hits in his attacks on the far left’s sleazy weakness for Saddam-style dictators standing up to American aggression; but there is a corresponding blind spot on the other side of this debate. His early poem ‘A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home’ offers a trenchant satire on those who fail to bridge the gap between liberal opinionation and radical action. Everyone’s favourite Slovenian provocateur, Slavoj Žižek, is fond of the Max Horkheimer line that those who do not wish to speak critically of capitalism should keep silent on fascism, which he employs as a retort of choice to those whose objections to more extreme political solutions fall back on the presumed naturalness or desirability of the status quo. Something of this infects Higgins’ God That Failed-style polemics against the Irish left, particularly in the essays and reviews collected in Mentioning the War, which in one disturbing moment inspire him to praise the good faith of Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle in wanting to bring democracy to Iraq (!). It is also worth pointing out that Higgins has chosen to publish his satires on the Irish left on the Blairite website Harry’s Place, which has combined opposition to the skulduggery of the hard left with a noisy enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq. This does not invalidate Higgins’ position, but reminds us of the complicity that is the lot of most satirists prepared to wade into political debate. One might even suggest that the problematic nature of Higgins’ political stance is useful, in its way, as a corrective to the disingenuous and naive nature of contemporary anti-war poetry, as encountered in the anthologies of largely forgettable poetry galvanised into existence by recent wars in the Middle East. The premise of anti-war poetry is the rejection of force and coercion, yet few contemporary poets are more desperately coercive than Harold Pinter in his anti-war doggerel or smug assumption that poets possess the ‘gift to set a statesman right’, to paraphrase Yeats. Reviewing a trio of anti-war anthologies, Higgins plays off Pinter’s poems against Hayden Carruth’s far more successful ‘On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam’, a poem which internalizes and makes a work of art out of all the reasons one might have for not taking up that invitation.


The question of, if not coercion, then at least energetic canvassing is endemic to poetic satire, nor is it overcome by reading a satirist with whom one finds oneself in perfect agreement. Satire is a form of war by other means, and it is worth noting that one of Higgins’ satires so enraged elements of the anti-war left in Galway as to provoke a physical assault on the poet. The conflict will out, and in his return to the scene of the crime in his two most recent collections Higgins shows himself an enthusiastic (verbal) combatant. I will now float another generalisation about poetic satire: that, rhetorically, it cannot help but tap the energy and force, and even the violence, of its target. Much as people today like to announce that they are not religious but are deeply spiritual, it has become a commonplace to bemoan the misfortune of the October revolution in falling into the hands of Stalin. Žižek is never happier than when reminding us that there can be no Christ without St Paul, no Lenin without Stalin, and that to believe otherwise is an unfortunate case of the Hegelian ‘beautiful soul’ complex, which believes in the need for radical action up to but not including the moment of actually doing something. This is not to say that the Irish poetic left is without its Stalinist contingent, whose idea of political action is writing angry letters (or facebook posts) denouncing other Irish poets for not being sufficiently political, for the crime of these other poets not also devoting their time to writing angry letters (or facebook posts) attacking yet more people for not being sufficiently political – and by now we have entered the world of the ‘We could sit around here all day talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches’ scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Here is Higgins’ poem ‘Critical Support for the Insects’, which he prefaces with an epigraph from Johann Hari, quoting a Stop the War activist saying the anti-war resistance should use ‘any means necessary’ to secure its aims:

Nothing against the dressing gowns smoking
by the main, revolving door;
nor the young men ambulanced here
weekend nights with suspected
broken heads.

But when the guru with no face
and John Lennon glasses, who labelled
the man dragged from his chicken wire cage
to be beheaded over the internet
another broken egg
for the anti-imperialist pancake,
takes time out to shout:
Save Our Health Service,

it makes me want to die
in a cold hospital
with no running water, under
the one remaining fluorescent light
which, when the last doctor flees
for the relative safety of Mogadishu,
will begin to blink madly;

where the only thing
that’ll make my trolly move
up and down the corridor
will be the insects.

Higgins nicely skewers the emptiness of political language in placing the unexpectionable (‘Save Our Health Service’) side by side with the grotesque. This has the effect of making the apology for murder seem banal, and the defence of the health service seem empty, or as detached from reality as the response to a far-away war. But then Higgins responds with his own rhetorical violence. In repudiating the sloganeer, he mentions Mogadishu, in a hyperbolic rhetorical touch. This is of a piece with over-the-top references throughout Higgins’ work, as when a poem about a haircut and the property market in Ireland (‘Inconvenience: A History’) lurches into allusions to a UVF victim skinned alive and a train taking a Jew to Birkenau. The phenomena are utterly incommensurate, and it would be a very artless reader who thought otherwise. Similarly, the speaker of ‘Critical Support for the Insects’ might wish to think twice about swapping treatment in an Irish hospital for one in Somalia, but if such hyperbole is the price of satirical catharsis, then so be it. This is Brechtian Plumpes Denken, ‘crude thinking’, in action.

There is a pattern of slippage in these poems from the banality of Irish political discourse to a more colourful, but dangerous or irresponsible register, for which references to Birkenau, Pyongyang or the Lubyanka do duty. While literalists among his readers will dispute the poems’ right to draw these comparisons, I would argue for the incommensurability as part of Higgins’ desired satirical effect, with its attendant implications for the role of the satirist himself. Higgins has intelligently tackled the phenomenon of the artist as anointed outsider in ‘President Robinson Pay Homage to Lord Haw Haw, 21 October 1996’. Written in pastiche Paul Durcan, this poem wittily reprises the defence of the novelist Francis Stuart by Durcan and others against the charge of war-time misdeeds and subsequent anti-Semitism. This is not the place to revisit the rights and wrongs of the Stuart case, but what interests Higgins is the implied neutering of what makes Stuart Stuart in the defence mounted by his supporters. Stuart traded zealously on his contempt for liberal democracy and his need for outsider status, while enjoying the position of saoi, or wise-man, of Aosdána, the Irish Academy for the Arts. This is not a contradiction entirely of Stuart’s making, as Higgins recognises by making President Robinson the focus of his poem, as she hails the wartime broadcaster William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw): ‘His is an awkward, an uncomfortable voice.’ The blurb-like quality of the president’s endorsement, recalling the word ‘edgy’ on the back of every other slim volume, highlights the co-opting of the outsider artist. Is it a prerequisite of the genuinely awkward, uncomfortable voice that it should remain invisible to heads of state? Further, we are reminded by Higgins’ poem of the way in which satirical gadflies such as Durcan end up promoted to national treasure status (and Aosdána membership). A poem in The Ghost in the Lobby is subtitled ‘after Peter Reading’, a welcome acknowledgement of one contemporary satirist who did not soften with age, and could be found fulminating in his later work against ‘Tony fucking Blair’; but unless Higgins is proposing to take up the role himself, Irish satire conspicuously lacks a Peter Reading (the only plausible candidate is Dave Lordan, whose emergence has also coincided with the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger). Another possibility, alongside the establishment court jester and the brilliant refusenik, is the outsider whose only qualification is that no one wants to praise, listen to, or acknowledge him, for the very good reason that he has nothing to say and is, in fact, as talentless as he is delusional. This figure too is a staple in Higgins’ rogues’ gallery, and is not without numerous real-life counterparts.

Mention of the UVF prompts another generalisation. While the local bother that has led to Brownlee’s disappearance in Paul Muldoon’s ‘Why Brownlee Left’ has fascinated British and American critics for decades, parish-pump rows from south of the border have struggled to engage the attention of critics outside Ireland. Had Edward Said lived to a hundred, I don’t think he would ever have followed up his Field Day pamphlet on Yeats and decolonisation with one on present-day politics in the Republic of Ireland. Higgins’ poetry is highly focused on the claustrophobia of the southern Irish experience, but the invisibility of many poets from the Republic to readers in the adjoining island, to go no further, is a complicating factor, and one that Irish criticism has yet to resolve. Questions of marginality and how to frame the Irish experience for wider consumption obtrude into many of these poems. When Higgins subtitles his poem ‘Remembering the Nineties’ ‘after Donald Davie’, he signals the time-stamped quality of poems committed to period detail. Not all ‘local rows’ (in Patrick Kavanagh’s phrase) end up transmuted into Iliads, and the redneck councillors and back-bench TDs with whom Higgins peoples his work will scarcely remain legible, even as period detail, to future readers. The Davie reference also serves a more important purpose, when read in tandem with Davie’s ‘Remembering the Thirties’. As Davie’s response to the Movement, to whose chariot he had been yoked, ‘Remembering the Thirties’ was a gesture of dissent and defiance. It also coincided with his impatient critique of his Movement contemporary Philip Larkin (a frequent touchstone in Higgins’ work), who Davie decided had resigned himself to a ‘poetry of lowered sights and patiently diminished expectations’. Davie was having none of it, and used his Thomas Hardy and British Poetry to commend the work of Ed Dorn and the Black Mountain Poets instead. It would be an unexpected development, to be sure, if the next step in Higgins’s development was a conversion to Language poetry and a diehard campaign against the soft underbelly of the Irish poetic mainstream – a target in waiting for Higgins, if ever there was one. The poem on which I would like to end, ‘Ourselves Again’, collides painfully with another set of lowered sights and diminished expectations, as experienced in perhaps Higgins’ favourite tense, the future anterior. Combining references to the English translation of Sinn Féin and Thomas Davis’s nationalist ballad, ‘A Nation Once Again’, the poem explores familiar tropes of political disappointment. The Celtic Tiger has been and gone, and the familiar is reinstated and embraced with unexpected vigour. The new dispensation has finally arrived, with the twist that it was the old dispensation all along. In its masochistic ecstasy Higgins’ poem offers a variant on the Larkinesque wallowing condemned by Davie, and the violence of the satirical act is almost physically present in the percussive line-break between the words ‘future’ and ‘finished’. This is a cul-de-sac and no mistake, social and political but not artistic. There is something deliciously wretched in the prospect of being ‘ourselves again’, but an accompanying refusal to say what we might or should be instead, which seems an appropriate impasse on which to finish:

In the park our ice lollies
fall victim to the June bank holiday heat,
while in glass rooms numbers moving
through dark computers
declare the future
finished.

Tomorrow, we’ll have our double glazing
taken out; the crack put back
in the ceiling and a draught
installed under every door.
I’ll attach a For Sale sign
to the seat of my pants.

Gangs of the angry unemployed
will bear down on the G Hotel
chanting ‘Down with Daiquiris
and Slippery Nipples! Give us back
our glasses of Harp!’

In pubs nationwide, the carpets of yesteryear
will be reinstated, and there’ll be meetings
of Sinn Féin the Workers Party
going on permanently upstairs.

On our knees, we’ll ask
for the unforgiveness of sins
and life not lasting.
We’ll be ourselves again
and then some.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

‘A conch in which the exiled sea is heard to moan’: Mallarmé and Irish Poetry (with a sidewards glance at Scotland)







(Text of a paper I gave at the Contemporary Poetry Conference in Manchester the other day.)

Few European poetries have been better represented in translation by Irish poets than French. From the heady days of the 1890s and Yeats’s meeting with Mallarmé, to Beckett, Coffey and Devlin’s translations of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé in the 1930s (including in Devlin’s case, a translation into Irish), to the Francophile excursions of John Montague, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and most recently Justin Quinn, modern Irish poetry has provided an invigorating renewal of the Franco-Hiberno auld alliance. In this paper I will be confining myself to one French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, as a test case for how Irish poets approach translation today. The mage-like Mallarmé is, in any case, a test case for just about any theory of literature – ‘the man’, as Brian Coffey called him, ‘who went further than any other in exploring the nature of poetry, and attempting to say what it is and how to make it.’ As George Steiner writes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé in After Babel: ‘With them Western literature and speech-consciousness enter a new phase. The poet no longer has or aspires to native tenure in the house of words. The languages waiting for him as an individual born into history, into society, into the expressive conventions of his particular culture and milieu, are no longer a natural skin.’

The prospect of not inhabiting language as a natural skin has a long pedigree in Irish writing, as expressed in Montague’s ‘A Grafted Tongue’: ‘To grow /a second tongue, as /harsh a humiliation /as twice to be born.’ The specifically Irish debate over the naturalness of one tradition versus another is not my focus here, however, but the ways in which any translation works to blur the line between what is native and what is foreign. ‘Translators want to stay at home’, Vahni Capildeo has written, somewhat counterfactually. Yet consider some of the current orthodoxies of poetry in translation. Ours is an age of versions rather than translations, in English at least. Often, a poet without expert knowledge of the target language will produce poems ‘after’ Dante or Mandelstam, sometimes with updated cultural references, and which the Anglophone poet then publishes under his or her name. In the marketing of these books, it is often the versioner’s name that carries the project: his third book, The Eyes, features Don Paterson’s name on the spine, with a smaller acknowledgement, ‘after Machado’, under Paterson’s name on the front cover. Where styles of translation are concerned, the belief in the availability of the foreign in English extends to formal aspects of the original – rhyme for instance – despite the different conditions under which these occur from one language to another. In the afterword to his translations of Mallarmé’s Poems in Verse, Peter Manson takes a stand for the contrary impulse, rejecting the false equivalences and expectations of rhymed translations:

These translations were done in the conviction that a translation of Mallarmé should at least be allowed to sound like interesting modern poetry, and that the strict (or even the very lax) use of rhyme and regular metre is one of the surest ways of forbidding that from happening.

Metrically, translators tend to assume equivalences between French forms such as the alexandrine and the English iambic pentameter, despite English prosody being accentual-syllabic and French not; these, too, Manson rejects.

Manson’s fastidious approach places him in the tradition of ‘deviant translation’ that Dónal Moriarty has diagnosed in the case of another devotee of Mallarmé, the aforementioned Brian Coffey. In his monograph on that poet, Moriarty compares Coffey’s translations to those of Derek Mahon, whose rendering of French poets such as Nerval and Rimbaud are elegant, witty and rich in rhyme. Mahon’s translations aim, above all else, for readability, whereas Coffey’s take a perverse delight in their awkwardness. Coffey pays close attention to etymology, and will deliberately flaunt faux amis lookalikes between English and French such as ‘flames’ for flammes in a Rimbaud translation, flammes in this case meaning ‘banners’. Moriarty comments:

Such is the nature of Coffey’s method of translation that the reader is continually made aware that English is constructed out of foreign materials. A stimulated awareness of the diachronic dimension of language enriches the meaning of the line but, more significantly, it is another way of inscribing foreignness into the translation.

The most celebrated instance of this approach in modern poetry is perhaps Nabokov’s 1964 translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Abjuring the liberties and readability of the Anglo-friendly version, it preached fidelity above all else and was widely attacked as an eccentric curiosity. The readable versus the awkward, surface versus depth, inscribe an opposition of smooth versus rough. Pound’s early translations shocked readers with their slangy register, but also had frequent recourse to archaisms, as in his translations from the Anglo-Saxon and Cavalcanti (a poet that Manson has translated ‘after Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky’). Whether erring on the side of the slangy or the archaic, what the translation refuses is the transparency of a naturalized text, readable as though an English original.

To return to Mallarmé, the addition of Ciaran Carson’s name to the mix at this point gives us an opportunity to put the results of Moriarty’s ‘deviant translation’ to the test of comparison. Mallarmé’s is a poetry haunted by silence, nothingness and death, and if there is any truly shared ground between the verso and recto pages in a translation of this poet it is most likely to be found in the white space between the blocks of text, a temptation encouraged by Mallarmé’s envisioning of the book as a tombeau, or tomb for the writer’s soul. Carson’s Mallarmé’s is among the most joco-serious of his English incarnations, however. The Alexandrine Plan is plainly the work of someone immersed in French tradition but happy to perform an accommodation between translationese and the English sonnet, which is to say both the sonnet in general and the ballad-tinged sonnets which Carson had been writing in such abundance in the late 1990s. Here in Carson’s translation are the first eight lines of ‘Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe’:

Having undergone His final metamorphosis,
The poet with his sword unscabbarded commands
His generation to arise, who did not understand
Till now that Death had always been His major thesis.

And when the angel came to purify their lexis,
These earnest scribblers of the hydra-headed band
Proclaimed, in words of many complicated strands,
Solution of a laudanum necropolis.

‘There is no more dismal – or, frankly, stupid – way of reading a translation than to pick on single words’, Michael Hofmann has written; so let me begin to picking on single words. In French the dead poet is transformed into himself (‘Tel qu’en Lui-même l’étérnité le change’) whereas in English he undergoes his ‘final metamorphosis’ – not strictly the same thing. Another departure occurs in lines five and six, famously paraphrased in ‘Little Gidding’, where it appears that the angel has come to purify the lexis of the ‘earnest scribblers’ (not in the original) rather than the tribe; the English text upholds a separation between the ‘scribblers’ and their tribe absent from the French. The disorientation may be down to the effects of laudanum, which appears in line eight without any direct equivalent in the French, though opiates, we might remember, are everywhere in Carson’s books of this period. Now compare Brian Coffey’s translation of these lines, from his 1990 Poems of Mallarmé:

Such as to Himself at last eternity changes him
the Poet arouses with a naked blade
his century terrified not to have known
their death triumphed in this alien voice

They like a foul uprising of hydra hearing once the angel
giving a purer sense to the words of the tribe
announced shouting his spell as drunk
in the flood without honour of some black swill

The transformation ‘to Himself’, the tribe reunited with its words (minus ‘scribblers’), the non-specific black swill (Mallarmé’s noir mélange – laudanum is reddish-brown) – all are present and correct. Yet local questions of accuracy aside, there is a larger sense of foreignness in the Coffey’s idiom here. Why ‘to’ rather than ‘into Himself’? The placing of ‘hearing once the angel’ makes it difficult to establish if ‘They’ or the hydra are doing the hearing, while before line eight comes to its rescue ‘announced shouting his spell as drunk’ sounds like a more than usually unidiomatic Coffeyism. Depending on one’s scansion, line five contains up to nine stressed syllables, while line seven has only four. Is this Mallarmé meets Ogden Nash, we might begin to wonder.

As Moriarty ruefully acknowledges, ‘Coffey’s translations do not soar, nor do they sing’, but the uncommitted reader may need more than quirky etymological witticisms to make up for this fact. I would now seem to have reached a familiar impasse, with Carson offering readability but semantic compromise and Coffey a stricter fidelity, but at the expense of any compelling verse music. I’m reluctant to leave matters there, however, so luckily for me I can appeal to another Coffey text in which this opposition achieves a rather different resolution. I mean his translation of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard as Dice Thrown Will Never Abolish Chance, published in 1965 and never reprinted (the volume is also, I might add, a small masterpiece of book design by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press.) Mallarmé’s poem is one of the foundational moments of modernism, akin to Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra or Malevich’s White on White. In it, the line of verse walks the plank into the nothingness that is perhaps Mallarmé’s truest element. Henceforth, the page is to be ‘prise pour unité comme l’est autre part le Vers ou ligne parfaite’: the page becomes a unit of composition unto itself, promoted to the status already enjoyed by the stanza or the line. Such is the typographical challenge represented by Mallarmé’s poem that the first fully accurate text was published as recently as 2004. Briefly, the poem is a meditation on chance and necessity. The poem chooses one of its infinite possible manifestations, but no matter how convinced it is of its rightness (and freedom is the consciousness of necessity, Engels said), the element of chance can never be abolished.

To return to the question of ‘deviant’ English versus translationese, Dice Thrown shows no let-up in Coffey’s weakness for archaism. What is new is the element of mobility brought to his language by the orchestration of the text, and the ‘path of sounds suspended in giddy heights, linking unfathomable abysses of silence’, as the over-excited young Beckett wrote of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It may seem peculiar to speak of movement, given that at its heart the poem insists that ‘NOTHING [...] /WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE /BUT PLACE’, but this is the paradoxical movement in stillness we find in Beckett’s Still or the shimmering soundscapes of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, where static cloud-like chords hang in the air, but under the surface all is teeming (or, Beckett word, formicating) with motion. Here is the passage in question from Coffey’s translation. I have no idea how best to signal its spacings and silences as I read this passage, or the difference between the words in capitals and those not. I will signal one more deliberate faux ami though: Coffey’s ‘vague’ the original vague, meaning ‘wave’: ‘NOTHING /of the memorable crisis /or might have /the event come about of itself in view of every result nul /human / WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE /an everyday uplifting pours out absence /BUT PLACE commonplace plashing below of waves as for dispering the empty act /abruptly which otherwise /by its lie /had founded /perdition /in these reaches /of the vague /in which all the real dissolves.’

Mallarmé’s ambitions for poetry as a synthesis of all the arts resembles Wagner’s for his Gesamtkunstwerk, but where Wagnerian opera is overblown and epic Un Coup de Dés is ethereal and evanescent. Un Coup de Dés is Finnegans Wake rewritten as a batsqueak in outer space. To the question what the poem is actually about, despite my earlier inelegant précis, there is no real answer beyond (cliché of avant-garde clichés) the process of writing itself: agreeing with Wallace Stevens, this text is very much the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it. Or, rather, this is a poem about the ‘ghost of a geste’ (another archaism there), since the poem ‘does not record any performed “act”’. Moriarty is quick to correct a rival translator who translates Mallarmé’s ‘fiançailles’ as ‘nuptials’ (Coffey has ‘betrothals’), the consummation having yet to take place.

Where the applications of Mallarmé’s poem are concerned, for Irish poets, the consummation most certainly has yet to take place. The tired taxonomies of Irish ‘antiquarians and others’ are not something I propose to exhume here, but where questions of prosody and visual layout are concerned, I think it is safe to generalize that Irish poetry has proved extremely resistant to relaxing its grip on the safety-rail of the left-hand margin. The axes of formal versus free verse and tradition versus experiment criss-cross treacherously: Mallarmé is of the avant-garde even while writing sonnets, whereas in Irish poetry today to write a sonnet is, often, to signal allegiances incompatible with the faintest itch to hit the ‘tab’ key before beginning the line. While Un Coup De Dés should not be confused with concrete poetry, that genre too has fared equally badly at dislodging the hegemony of the left-justified lyric. Derek Mahon has dabbled in concrete poetry down the years, but in poems he has uniformly chosen not to collect and reprint. In his translations of Philippe Jaccottet, he has complained of the unreadable French poetry, ‘poésie illisible’, that would displace the lyric disciplines of the Swiss writer, suggesting any Mahonesque interest in Mallarmé would stop short of Un Coup de Dés. The fault-line between Mahon’s modernist temperament and his cleaving to lyric forms above all else has been one of the most influential arguments with oneself in Irish writing ever since Mahon’s début in 1968. The prose poem too, beloved of the nineteenth-century French tradition, might be added to the mix here as peculiarly antipathetic to the Irish tradition. Why is this?

The answer to that question is too large for a single conference paper, but I do have a suggestion for ending the stand-off between the Carson and Coffey approaches to translation studied earlier, or at least watering it down a little by way of some Peter Manson again. While Manson has produced a (comparatively) ‘straight’ translation of Mallarmé’s Salut as part of The Poems in Verse, a version in his 2008 collection Between Cup and Lip demonstrates a novel approach to linguistic incompatibility. There is proverbially many a slip between cup and lip, and Manson introduces some slippage in his own voice in between the translated French text, which he places in capital letters. The capitalized text can be read separately or across the interpolated text, giving (as in Un Coup de Dés) two different narratives:

NOTHING, MENISCUS, VIRGINity grown back into, traVERSE
what hope REFERS TO NOTHING BUT THE CUPidity
SO SLOWLY knocked, with the candle, UPSIDE DOWN: this one A TROOP
OF SIRENS ON THE CEILING could not awaken DROWNS in blood liquor.

The French text bleeds through the surface of the English like a pentimento, and can be absorbed either on its own terms or as part of the interlocking grids the text establishes. The visual similarities between Un Coup de Dés and hypertext have often been remarked on, and perhaps the innovation of the Manson example just quoted is to reimport this device into the superficially more conventional fabric of a rhyming quatrain. I have used several musical comparisons already, but perhaps what Manson is doing here is best understood in terms of the aleatory experiments of post-Webern composers such as Lutosławski and Xenakis, in which structure and freeplay – here, the translated and the original material – are allowed to intermix. Alea jacta est: ‘All Thought utters Dice Thrown.’

Writing to Hans Naumann in 1954, Samuel Beckett (whose translation of a Mallarmé prose poem has finally been restored to the canon in his Collected Poems) punningly insisted on ‘le besoin d'être mal armé’, his artistic need to be ill-equipped. More than a century since his death, the overwhelming audacity of Mallarmé’s work continues to wrongfoot all attempts to accommodate his poetry in English. This is both scandalous and all to the good, since nothing like the point of over-repletion with translations of Mallarmé has yet been reached. Much work remains to be done, whether in the style of Coffey, Carson, or Manson. While the absent ‘ptyx’ of the sonnet ‘en –yx’ may continue to elude us (and just what the hell is a ptyx, by the way), the ghostly shell of himself that is Mallarmé in English provides like few other poets, for anyone picking him up to listen, a ‘conch in which the exiled sea is heard to moan’.