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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

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
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’.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Table Talk of Mr Andrew Marvell on his Late Mission to the Duke of Muscovie

Below a short story (of a kind) on Andrew Marvell’s ill-fated trade mission to Russia. I’m prompted to post by the discovery that Matthew Francis has devoted the title sequence of his new book Muscovy to the same subject. But my own inspiration entirely independent, let me hereby insist. {Waffling intro ends.}

As one challenged over cards on the Anabaptist controversy or the Hanoverian succession

Foolishly seated on a hogshead of rum the cabin boy tumbled in and was drowned

Nay, Sir, as Mr Milton has lately argued on the Popish question

A distant prospect of th’ingested vomit of the sea, otherwise Holland

Another evening lost on footling correspondence with the Hullites, the boundary fence twixt Mr Chadband’s tannery and the adjoining bawdy house still causing daily nuisance

A beluga, do you say! The Academy will hear of this

Arriving in Archangel, Carlisle was apprised of the withdrawal of the copper coin in the Muscovite duchy and addressed a missive on this subject to the court

The following thousand miles we travelled in six barges pulled by serfs, as is the custom of this land

Mistaken in my furs by a Vologda boatman for a small black bear

It being Guy Fawkes Night Midshipman Niblett did endeavour to dance a hornpipe on the ice, to general hilarity

The many signs of mobilisation against invasion by the Poles now plain to any traveller

Thou heathen slave!, Carlisle’s rebuke to the Muscovites who saw in him, he wrote, an idolatrous likeness of the image of His Majesty himself

But to whom his manservant would trade small pouches of tobacco for quarts of the local fire-water

A period of some three months’ idle waiting

Snubbed and ignored

[The next half hour’s remarks in Latin]

The frolicsome blockhead’s effrontery I threw back in his face, demanding redress

Finally entering the capital on two hundred sleighs to copious sennets, the gift exchange occupying three hours, the niceties of Muscovite protocol a further four days

Standing hatless in the sled, bearing the ambassador’s credentials on a yard of damask

Czar Alexei then appearing entirely covered in jewels, a magpie’s nest of his despot’s gewgaws

A boyar holding the despot’s hand while we kissed it, that his master not be put to any effort

Insolence upon insolence

For ‘Illustrissime’ in the address read ‘Serenissime’, complained the despot

Five hundred dishes served continuously for dinner yet, what’s this, trade privileges not restored? By the Turkoman’s beard!

A sorry disaster

The bootless gift of a sturgeon’s head mouldering away in my chamber

Missives of grievance flying back and forth like a persecution of summer flies all the way to Riga

Exceeding saddle-sore at this point and heartily tired of dining on mutton

The Stockholm interlude, the review of the Swedish fleet and the prototype submarine

An affray with a Hunnish wagoner, pistols drawn, and my rescue from a barbarous rout of peasants and mechanicks, my poor little page tossed up and down in the air

A beluga’s head in the water very like unto a dropsical Dutchman grinning horridly

The biscuits long before our journey’s end having become infested with weevils

Your Majesty! We have not been idle these past nineteen months

In the matter of the boundary fence alongside Mr Chadband’s yard, I recommend it be moved one foot to the left and not one word more be said on this tawdry affair

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Self-Portrait as Staff Meeting of the Touareg Uprising

Nakid mahedjak ya assouf erhlalan

Working within procedure, attendance at arms dump ambush
open day up on last year, a higher than usual proportion of applicants
expressing an interest in kill the rabid dogs, kill them all,
a child watching his own father hanged from the barracks yardarm
while the goat too weak to suckle cries outside my tent, did you find this
meeting very productive/productive/not productive/don’t know?

Mounting fears of destabilisation of Malian regime, beacon of democracy
in region, regulations governing second-marking and collection
of essays by students subject to quality assurance benchmarking
and review; increased porousness of desert borderlands, insurgents
snatching essays from staff pigeonholes by night. O my brothers,
you who have suffered the camps and uranium mines, when will we return

to the seminar rooms of old, scene of staff meetings our forefathers sang?
Bass player absent from this track for reasons of study leave,
exams officer for reasons of extrajudicial internment, any other business
introduced to sound of hand-claps and ululating, gesturing women,
my innumerable harem. Come the Spring, Victorian modules
follow their treacherous migration route south, invigilators

and external examiners trailing behind them, Rossetti and Browning
bedding down by the oases of Niger and Burkina Faso. Learning outcome:
this is my featureless ocean of sand like no other, dispossess me at your peril;
aims and objectives, increased public service television programming
in Tamashek, a naive backpacker from Derbyshire kidnapped
and beheaded. Joining the faculty this semester is one of the leading

goats of his generation. In an increasingly competitive sector,
what are sand dunes for? I have climbed up and down the mountains
and know the caves where the questionnaires are hidden, the Research
Excellence Framework impact statements we have worked on so long.
Further to chair’s business, violent separatist demands submitted
single-spaced in future will be returned unmarked. Parched void

my homeland, minutes of the last meeting its only laments. The monitor lizard
is cunning, but no less so the teaching assistant. As the vice-chancellor
himself prophesied over mint tea: inappropriate in the workplace,
the billowing blue-robed elder will one day return through the door
of the essay revision seminar and declare, ‘I alone am Sultan of these
my Touareg homelands, and hereby raise this fact as a point of order.’

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tale of a Horse

after Isaac Babel

It started with Savitsky taking Khlebnikov’s white stallion.

Khlebnikov was given a black mare instead, but pined for his stallion.

So Khlebnikov wrote to headquarters, who said, Give him the horse back.

Off he rode to get it and found Savitsky shacked up with some Cossack girl.

Do you know who I am?, asked Khlebnikov. It says here to give me my horse!

Do you want a piece of this, said Savitsky, waving his pistol. Get lost!

Off rode Khlebnikov to the Chief of Staff who said, I dealt with this earlier.

So Khlebnikov sat down and wrote a letter saying, That’s it, I’m off.

On and on it went, saying how much he missed his stallion.

You idiot, said the commissar, come and have dinner; it’s just some horse.

But he threw himself on the ground saying, Go ahead, shoot me.

All he wanted was his damned horse.

And off he went, and that’s how we lost him.

I saw a lot of myself in Khlebnikov.

The whole world to us was a meadow in May criss-crossed by women and horses.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


In Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude
a man holds a knife to the narrator’s neck
and launches into a poetry reading, then
apologises, explaining it’s the only way
he can make people listen to his work.

Listening to your work, by contrast, I feel
I’ve got the village flasher instead, who,
having opened a raincoat on his baby-bird-
on-a-nest of a little pink winky, proceeds
to wave it in my face for a good half an hour.


from the Tamazight

Has Mahmoud married a third time in secret?
Brothers, so he would have us believe,
rolling his eyes and preening himself,
but I see him slip from his tent at night
in search not of some loose-sleeved beauty
but the storks that nest by the mosque,
singing to them while his wives sleep alone,
speaking their names like a young man in love.

Sam Riviere

I enjoyed Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities so much I decided I couldn’t wait for his next book, and have therefore written a new Sam Riviere poem on his behalf. Hereunder. I hope he likes it. Poet in question not him, obviously.


The hair-dryer in the swimming pool is broken again,
it was roaring away to itself on the way in
and still doing it as I left, prompting the thought

‘That’s a coincidence’, but then a man in overalls
started whacking it and I knew it was broken,
at which point I thought of that reading

you gave three years ago, the sound of which
I am still to this day scraping out of my ear,
your enjoyment of which in no way lessened

as the horror of your seven-person
audience grew, reaching a condition I can
only describe as panic, and Christ but you

droned on and on; it wouldn’t in the least
surprise me if you were still there three years later
shouting at the bloody coffee dispenser.

Friday, July 06, 2012


‘Aie – Aie – Aie!
Please sir, your thumbs are through my windpipe, sir!’
– Browning, Mr Sludge,‘The Medium’

after Tibor Soustal

muse of creative writing
courses, hail! patron
of scribblers no one wants to
publish (and that’s just the prof) –’

jots bored hourly-paid
teacher stuck with ‘life writing’
for non-readers, man’s
inhumanity to the
humanities come to this.

Workshop by workshop
instalments proceed apace
of The Sword of Drax,
a tale of who-gives-a-fuck
inspired by Christ-make-it-stop.

friend, on your PhD by
novel. It remains
unpublishable. But did
Tolstoy have a PhD?

‘Dear Minimum Wage-
provider’ (mentally drafts
reference, one more
debt-crippled, fobbed-off, naive
poor innocent off his hands.)

A visiting bard,
drunk, spins a tale of what he’d
like to do to ‘that
cunt’ reviewer: livelier
by far than his wilting verse.

‘Over the weekend’
(mentally fills out report
on conference in
Derby) ‘I shared best practice,
a drinks tab, body fluids...’

Lingering late on
the library’s abandoned
classics floor he weeps,
pens hexameters to the
muse of illiteracy.