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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Limbo Lines

Greg Delanty's translations of Se
án Ó Ríordáin are out. It's a book everyone should buy. Allow me to mark its appearance with some thoughts on Ó Ríordáin and Philip Larkin. And yes I can see the lineation is all wrong in lots of the poetry quotations. Blogger doesn't do lineation, does it. But I'm too lazy to fix it now. Amárach!

By way of illustration of the divided condition of eighteenth-century Ireland, Thomas Kinsella has pointed out that two of its greatest poetic geniuses, Jonathan Swift and Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, spent their lives each in ignorance of the other’s existence. The comparison may not be an exact one, but in the twentieth century two outstanding poetic geniuses, also with much in common, spent their careers too in almost certain mutual ignorance: Philip Larkin and Seán Ó Ríordáin. The similarities between the two are as striking as they are, or have been, unremarked on; the only critic, to my knowledge, who has devoted any space to a comparison of the two is Frankie Sewell, in his Modern Irish Poetry: A New Alhambra. Among the factors that have hampered Ó Ríordáin’s wider reputation has been the reluctance of his estate to authorize an edition of his work in English, though his fellow Cork poet Greg Delanty has been working on an English Ó Ríordáin for several years now. One of the defining aspects of both Larkin and Ó Ríordáin’s work, I will be suggesting, is an inner doubling of poetic voice, and for English- as well as Irish-language readers to have both voices at their disposal will enable a long overdue polyphony in the echo chamber of influence between the two island traditions; at which point all we will need is an Irish-language Larkin.

The Irish Larkin is a by-now familiar subject: the early Yeatsian influence, the decisive Belfast years, ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’ and ‘Dublinesque’, and Seamus Heaney’s critical wrangles with ‘Aubade’, have all been picked over as examples of the Venn diagram intersection of contemporary British and Irish poetry. His 1959 review of Donagh McDonagh and Lennox Robinson’s Oxford Book of Irish Verse offers a handy roadmap to Larkin’s lines of British-Irish demarcation. He praises the editors’ avoidance of ‘political or other narrowness’, but wonders what the term ‘Irish poetry’ can mean if not ‘either poetry in Gaelic or verse born of the nineteenth-century literary movement […] fired by political nationalism’, a definition that would shunt The Deserted Village back to the British Augustan tradition where Larkin feels it more properly belongs. With Yeats and independence, however, rather than breaking off from British verse, Irish poetry ‘curved back to rejoin the Anglo-American mainstream’ and ‘the ruling passion of nationalism died.’[1] The review praises the ‘freshness of metre found in translated Gaelic’, a preference reflected in Larkin’s inclusion of Austin Clarke in his Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century English Verse. But if the ‘strangeness’ of 1950s redbrick, Unionist Belfast ‘made sense’ (to the extent that a young Alan Brownjohn once described him in a review as a ‘Northern-Irish’ poet), the more extreme elsewhere of untranslated Gaelic Ireland is not a territory into which Larkin ventured.

It was also in the 50s, however, that Irish language poetry ventured into some very unfamiliar territory indeed with the modernist revolution of Seán Ó Ríordáin’s début collection, Eireaball Spideoige (A Robin’s Tail). Before introducing Ó Ríordáin’s poetry, let me enumerate some of the biographical overlap between the two writers, since even on this level the two writers’ similarities are striking. Ó Ríordáin lived from 1916 to 1977, was a mother-fixated retiring bachelor civil servant (and bald), and had an all-consuming fear of death. Not to stop there, his publication history too shows an intriguing resemblance to Larkin’s. Like Larkin, he published four volumes of poetry at long intervals: Eireaball Spideoige (1952), Brosna (Kindling, 1964), Línte Liombó (Limbo Lines, 1971) and Tar Éis mo Bháis (After My Death, 1978). And he has come under fire too for alleged misogyny, chiefly on account of the poem ‘Banfhile’ (‘Woman Poet’) in which he refuses to countenance the idea of a woman poet, since ‘Ní file ach filíocht an bhean’ – ‘A woman is poetry, not a poet’.

The place of women in Irish poetry has been at the centre of much debate in recent decades, which raises the related issue of Ó Ríordáin’s relationship to tradition. Like Larkin, Ó Ríordáin found himself in strong reaction against pre-war orthodoxy, in ways that telescope larger debates around literary nationalism. Larkin has been selectively pilloried for his nationalism and, were they so minded, Ó Ríordáin’s critics too could play the jingoist card against him for inward-looking, tribalist essentialism; but here we touch on one of the defining differences between the two men. Where Larkin’s supposed nationalism is seen as imperial and aggressive, from the same point of view Ó Ríordáin’s could be condoned for its defence of an endangered minority culture. In fact his position is more complex and self-questioning than a few easily detachable quotations might suggest, but this too is part of the doubling of voice I have said he shares with Larkin.

As an example of a critic framing a writer within the discourse of the nation, I am reminded of a sound-bite by Sean O’Brien that has graced the covers of Carol Ann Duffy’s books for many years now, calling her ‘the representative poet of our generation.’ This seems to me a worryingly empty critical descriptor: representative of what and whom? One of the commonest misfortunes to befall Larkin is to be set up, then attacked, in a representative role he never sought or welcomed – the Little Englander denounced by Charles Tomlinson and Tom Paulin, the demotic underachiever brushed off by Geoffrey Hill, and the scarcely human specimen assassinated by Andrew Duncan. An Irish example occurs in Declan Kiberd’s Field Day Anthology section on contemporary Irish poetry. Introducing Michael Longley, Kiberd explains away his insufficiently conspicuous Irishness or Irish nationalism by annexing him to the ‘semi-detached muse of Philip Larkin’, a representative figure of ‘British post-modernism.’[2]

If Larkin’s public persona is at odds with all these versions of him, it is much to the benefit of the more complex, ambivalent, and unsettling writer he really is. But rather than launching into a discussion of Larkin’s relationship with Jean-François Lyotard, or Ó Ríordáin’s with Irish revisionism, I would like instead to offer a practical demonstration of what enables these writers to transcend such easy categorisation and what it reveals their poetics to share. A good place to start in Ó Ríordáin’s work is ‘Faoiseamh’ (‘Rest’), in which we see the solitary poet attempt to slough off the obligations of habit. This, I suggest, is Ó Ríordáin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’. The dancehall, that staple of Irish Catholic romance, is the desired escape route, but once entered it not only becomes a site of estrangement, it also estranges the solitude from which the poet has tried to break free. In Delanty’s translation:

But every gob yapped fluently –
except for my dumb face –
in a language that’s completely
foreign to that alien place
where I spend my solitary days.

The foreign tongue he finds himself speaking is ‘Béarlagair’ or ‘jargon’, with its shades of ‘Béarla’, English. To lapse into ‘Béarlagair’ is to suffer adulteration and loss. This poem comes from Ó Ríordáin’s first book, which was reviewed with notorious hostility by Máire Mhac an tSaoi, who questioned the idiomatic nativeness of Ó Ríordáin’s Irish, a charge that enraged the author, and almost certainly contributed to the twelve-year hiatus before his next volume. His lapses into ‘Béarlagair’ are a side-effect of his flight from self, potentially pleasurable but finally disorienting, but also a precondition of the language Ó Ríordáin had found to give this condition voice.

Where the crowd is concerned, however, Ó Ríordáin’s poetry stages a constant to-and-fro between the solitary poet and the accusing presences of his fellow Irish-speakers in the Gaeltacht; accusing, because it is from their preservation of the tradition that he receives his bardic licence. Another such poem is ‘An Bóthar’ (‘The Road’). As in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, a poem we’ll come to shortly, with its reversal of home and abroad, Ó Ríordáin turns the dialectic of self and others inside out by sending the travellers on the road outside home to an empty hearth with only ‘their minds before them’, and disperses his thoughts along the road, a ‘handful of thoughts lost /from a mind with no pockets.’ If the travellers are Ó Ríordáin’s version of the ‘cut-price crowd’, his peopling of their minds with his own thoughts is his version of the osmosis between self and other that is such a ubiquitous aspect of Larkin’s writing: he begins to write about Dockery or Mr Bleaney, only for the speaker to find he is talking about himself by proxy, or writing about the larger interconnectedness of all things in a way that belies the supposed lyric apartness of the solitary Larkinesque self.

For all his grumblings to his diary about accusations of substandard Irish, Ó Ríordáin’s anxiety of voice assumes a central role in the opening poem of Brosna, ‘A Ghaeilge im Pheannsa’, ‘O Irish in My Pen’, which begins:

O Irish in my pen
have you lost your line?
Are you a poor bastard
without lineage?

‘Line’ becomes ‘lineage’, but a lineage betrayed by the author’s bastardized pedigree. ‘Are you a lovely female?’, he asks, in what might be a textbook example of Gaelic idealization of the female muse, the Madonna-whore dyad completed with the later self-reproach ‘You suck up to that foreign whore.’ ‘Do the words belong /to you when I do wrong?’ he asks. Poetry and sin are constantly intertwined. Ó Ríordáin; here he is undecided whether the sinfulness of art is innate or the fault of his linguistic shortcomings. His poem ‘An Peaca’ (‘The Sin’) contemplates the moon much as Larkin does in ‘Sad Steps’, and where Ó Ríordáin finds sin in his artistic failure, Larkin sees the melancholy of surrendered illusions (‘a reminder of the strength and pain /Of being young’), in ways that connect to the vision of youth in ‘High Windows’.

In that poem, sin is present, as a different kind of surrendered illusion. Larkin’s frustration at having ‘Church Going’ described as a religious poem was trenchant, and I’m not proposing to reel him in to the bosom of mother church, but what is interesting here, structurally, is the hinge-position occupied by guilt and sin. Seeing the carefree ‘couple of kids’, the older poet credits them with the happiness he failed to attain, just as his own more straitlaced elders once did with him. The triangulation is like that of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, where instead of the old man simply looking back on his younger self, the younger self too looks back, hall-of-mirrors-style, on an even younger self. It is less the illusory nature of guilt and sin that is at issue than its rhetorical function in opening up this double perspective: the poet is simultaneously the one who had it better (than his elders) and who has missed out (in comparison to the ‘kids’). This is the Gordian knot the poem undoes in its drastic vanishing act into the ‘nothing’ that ‘is nowhere, and is endless.’ But rather like Wallace Stevens’ nothing in ‘The Snow Man’, this is a nothing that is not there but also a ‘nothing that is.’ The Ó Ríordáin shadow poem for ‘High Windows’ would have to be ‘An Leigheas’ (‘The Cure’), in which the poet turns in heavy-hearted melancholy from the capers of youth:

Behind on the hill a fella courts a young one.
I lowered myself in the usual sordid way,
the sole handy remedy for pain.

The Irish verb Delanty has translated as ‘lowered myself’ is ‘thomas’, suggesting in a neat visual pun that Ó Ríordáin is both a doubting Thomas and a solitary John Thomas too.

The affinities with Larkin can also be seen in that paradigm of self-estrangement, ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’. I noted how Ó Ríordáin’s place of solitude becomes ‘alien’ when seen from the dancehall, and close inspection of his syntax shows a similar doubling-back at work in Larkin: ‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home, /Strangeness made sense.’ Logically, it is ‘strangeness’ that is modified by ‘lonely’, suggesting that strangeness may feel it has more company at home, but strangeness it remains, even there. This is the strangeness-within-a-strangeness that explains the poem’s otherwise inexplicably hangdog return to its home place:

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

I’ve already paused on the syntax of the poem’s opening, and for a poet so pointedly punctilious with his punctuation, the absence of a full stop or any pause after ‘establishments’ presents another dig at the home place. Larkin is not saying ‘These are my customs and establishments’; he is saying ‘it would be much more serious to have to reject these customs and establishments, whatever they are, since they’re all I’ve got.’ This is less an Empsonian ambiguity than a booby trap, I think, as readers who get it wrong are licensing themselves to read an entirely absent nationalist self-assertion into the poem.

My next exhibit from Ó Ríordáin stays with the question of literary nationalism. The great ideologue of literary Gaelic nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century was Daniel Corkery, with his call for a literature grounded in the holy troika of land, religion and nationalism. In his poem ‘To Daniel Corkery’, Ó Ríordáin prostrates himself before this custodian of ‘the mind of our race’:

He’s at my side listening all the time.
He’s like a second conscience.
The vigor of his discipline is in my rhyme.
I’m haunted.

In the later poem ‘Fill Arís’ (‘Return Again’), he writes an unashamedly nativist poem of a kind that Larkin never or almost never does (unless we count ‘Going Going’), inviting the reader to foreswear ‘the halter of the English Pegasus’ and re-enter the Irish-speaking sanctuary of ‘Dún Chaoin in the evening light; / knock and your own true self / will open sesame.’ Context, however, is all, and if ‘Return Again’ makes a quasi-racial appeal to the poet’s true Gaelic self, the poem only two pages previous in the same collection, ‘Daoine’ (‘People’) effectively nullifies the basis for this self:

You will play the man here,
you’ll play the man there.
You’re dispersed in guys,
eternally switching disguise
until, out of characters within yourself,
you’ll finally play your own self.

The truest poetry is the most feigning, and the true Gaelic self that should the basis of Ó Ríordáin’s art is in fact a kind of holiday cottage for the soul. Despite his dedication of Brosna to ‘the people of Dún Chaoin’ in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, Ó Ríordáin spent his working life in the markedly less Gaelic environs of Cork city, only getting to ‘play his own self’ on special occasions, and spending the rest of the time ‘dispersed in guys’, in Delanty’s punning translation of the original, ‘scaipithe id dhaoine’. And if he contradicts himself in this, very well, he contradicts himself. One of the strongest myths surrounding the Irish language from the Gaelic Revival onwards has been purity, the undiluted Celticness of the language and its users, but as the counter-example of Hugh McDiarmid’s Scots reminds us, some of the finest examples of Celtic modernism have emerged not from a pure essence but from synthesized and even artificial versions of supposedly ancient tongues. Here is not the place to discuss Ó Ríordáin’s modernist compound words and coinages, but as with Larkin’s so-called English nationalism, brushing the poet against the grain produces much more interesting results than taking his pronouncements at face value. If the ghost of Daniel Corkery is ‘at my side listening all the time’, half-shaman, half-stalker, Ó Ríordáin has a precedent for this kind of shadowing in the remarkable poem ‘Footprints’, which I’d like to read for you in its entirety:

Now I’d like to meet him
when it’s out of the question.
He went southwards that morning.
He’ll never return.

A sunny morning in Kerry,
the skitting stream can be heard
like hidden girls’ giggling in the gully
as I pass that way.

He walked with me that morning.
the pair of us on the one path.
It struck me walking back,
noticing his footprints in the mud

that he wasn’t here till he left.
Being here he can never be there.
That character who’s gone
is a complete person.

May the soul of that fellow
who accompanied me,
and the souls of all my diverse selves
who follow, be saved for ever.

Those feet that printed the mud
were also mine, yet
it wasn’t I who was the one with him
listening to the stream.

I wasn’t born until he died.
There are many me’s in myself.
I die with every word,
but I rise with every breath.

The new me tags me
until each other becomes one another.
Myriads pen these verses,
a new person with every breath.

Layer by layer I peel
these characters from my heart.
It’s no wonder I’m fond of the prints
in the mud as I depart.

The possible Larkinesque intertexts spoil me for choice here. There is the thrill of vanishing in the opening stanza: ‘He chucked up everything /And just cleared off’, as Larkin puts it in ‘Poetry of Departures.’ Like Mr Bleaney, the mysterious other ‘wasn’t there till he left.’ The idea of being completed by absences is straight from the Larkin poem of that very name: ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’ Another Ó Ríordáin poem, it is worth noting, is titled ‘In Absentia’, and counsels ‘Whatever else you wait for /do not wait for your self. /Whatever you see /don’t see yourself above anyone else, /to be blind to your own self is best’, while another, ‘Línte Liombó’ (‘Limbo Lines’) wonders whether it is the poet’s ‘me or anti-me’ that shows itself in the mirror. Counting down to none rather than up to two in search of this completing absence is also the burden of Larkin’s ‘Counting’, in which ‘counting up to two /Is harder to do; /For one must be denied /Before it’s tried.’ Ó Ríordáin’s line ‘I wasn’t born until he died’ raises the spectre of another triangulation with Beckett, the Beckett of ‘I gave up before birth’ and the I/he pronominal wranglings of The Unnamable, but finds its Larkin resonances in a poem such as ‘Self’s the Man’, with its own war of the ‘he’ and the ‘I’: ‘So he and I are the same, //Only I’m a better hand /At knowing what I can stand /Without them sending a van – /Or I suppose I can.’

‘Footprints’ ends by choosing the alter ego’s muddy footprints over the chimera of the true self, and in his mud-celebrating poem, ‘Here’, Larkin hails the ‘shining gull-marked mud’ in a famously I-avoiding first sentence, opting for the muddy vagueness of in-between states, in but not of his ‘cut-price crowd’, clarified by loneliness but ending on a note of mystic openness rather than enclosure within the carapace of the self. By extension, these two poets’ shared reputation for beleaguered solitude belies the deeper play of self, anti-self and other that is more truly reflective of their bodies of work, whether considered separately or side by side. Ó Ríordáin may have worried that his language was a ‘poor bastard without lineage’, and Larkin that his home was an un-‘underwritten’ strangeness, but across and athwart such absences and apartnesses the unexpected connecting lines of literary history can trace alternative poetic histories. The secret dyad of Ó Ríordáin and Larkin’s work is one such alternative poetic history, and one that deserves to be much better known than it is.

[1] Philip Larkin, ‘West Britons and True Gaels’, in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews 1952-85 (Faber and Faber, 2001), pp. 189-90.

[2] Declan Kiberd, ‘Contemporary Irish Poetry’, in Seamus Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day, 1991), vol. 3, p. 1375.

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