Friday, December 19, 2008
Looking for the text of MacDiarmid’s ‘The Innumerable Christ’ online, I was surprised to find it posted on a wikipedia clone called conservapedia, which I presume is a project devoted to the conservation of encyclopaedias, and which describes the poem as ‘one of the most remarkable meditations on the theme of Christian redemption and other worlds.’ Did Christ save any aliens out there too, as well as us humans? I always read the poem as a meditation on the cosmically laughable hubris of religious belief, but maybe that’s just me. A Vatican observer, I also notice from a quick google search, has noted the possibility of life on other worlds and the risk that some of these creatures, amidst the protozoic slime on any habitable moons of Saturn or Jupiter, might even (for shame!) have been born without original sin.
William Empson was much exercised by John Donne’s interest in extra-terrestrial life, I remember. And just last week we learned of a clause in the X-factor winner’s contract about its terms being binding anywhere in the solar system. If only MacDiarmid could have lived to write a poem about that. Instead of which, here are the last two stanzas of that chilling and wonderful poem, ‘The Innumerable Christ’:
I’ mony an unco warl’ the nicht
The lift gaes black as pitch at noon,
An’ sideways on their chests the heids
O’ endless Christs roll doon.
An’ when the earth’s as cauld’s the mune
An’ a’ its folk are lang syne deid,
On coontless stars the Babe maun cry
An’ the Crucified maun bleed.
Monday, December 15, 2008
What is a minor poet? I did an edition of James Clarence Mangan a few years ago, a poet I love, but a minor poet, undeniably so. I bring this up because Moynagh Sullivan’s contribution to Irish Poetry After Feminism dwells extensively on Patrick Crotty’s treatment of minor women poets of the post-Revival period in his long essay in the Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, to Crotty, are ‘predictable propagandists’, and Nora Hopper Chesson is ‘something of an historical oddity’, and so on. There are plenty of dud male poets from the period too, but for Sullivan ‘although often found “anaemic”, “vatic” and “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.’ One example of this is Crotty’s treatment of Brian Coffey, whom he fairly slaughters, but whom Sullivan sees him as treating in some small way better than those women I mentioned above, since at least he anticipates the more interesting work of his friend Beckett. Whereas by contrast the ‘quite wonderful’ (Sullivan’s words) Winifred Letts is totally dismissed.
Here’s a sample Letts poem for your consideration, and mine too, since I’d never read her before coming across her name in this essay. It’s a jaunty piece of doggerel called ‘The Connaught Rangers’:
I saw the Connaught Rangers when they were passing by,
On a spring day, a good day, with gold rifts in the sky.
Themselves were marching steadily along the Liffey quay
An' I see the young proud look of them as if it were to-day!
The bright lads, the right lads, I have them in my mind,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind.
A last look at old Ireland, a last good-bye maybe,
Then the gray sea, the wide sea, my grief upon the sea!
And when will they come home, says I, when will they see once more
The dear blue hills of Wicklow and Wexford's dim gray shore?
The brave lads of Ireland, no better lads you'll find,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind!
Three years have passed since that spring day, sad years for them and me.
Green graves there are in Serbia and in Gallipoli.
And many who went by that day along the muddy street
Will never hear the roadway ring to their triumphant feet.
But when they march before Him, God's welcome will be kind,
And the green flags on their bayonets will flutter in the wind.
It is so important, I think, to be aware of how those scare-quoted ‘standards’ (see last post) are indeed not timeless entities, but historical constructs, which have of course carried their unfair share of gender-specific ballast. It is so important to be aware of all that and not be spooked out of continuing to believe in standards (no scare-quotes), and to be able to do simple justice to the words on the page, if we still care about that, which I assume we all do. As Dennis O’Driscoll (that man again) once told someone in response to an inquiry as to what his ‘aesthetic’ was, there are good poems and there are bad poems, and he believes it is possible to tell the difference. So here goes. If we award Yeats one standard unit of major poetdom, Mangan comes in somewhere 0.1 of a poet in comparison, I would suggest, and Winifred Letts, on this evidence, somewhere under 0.01. Yeats is ten times the poet Mangan is and at least a hundred times the poet Letts is. That’s why Mangan is a significant minor poet and Letts, in comparison, is not. She is a very minor poet, the case for whom I would be as interested as anyone else to see argued, since I’m evidently very ignorant of her work. But I can only tell it as I see it, as that’s how it looks to me.
Justin Quinn says:
If the poet writes this spectral stuff and is a woman, what you will often get in addition are reflections on brave female figures in the past, hints at primeval contact with the earth (in Katie Donovan’s case through the use of Celtic mythological figures), quiet indignation at the way man-made representations of women were often wilful distortions of the female figure (if the poet is Irish also, this usually comes from Adrienne Rich via Eavan Boland). As ideology this is compelling. What is objectionable is that these poets are epigones, repeating the stances and insights of their forebears with minimal variation. That which was once courage and transgression is now debased, and the poetry they write is a record of imaginative cowardice.
Moynagh Sullivan says:
Those who sponsor a ‘textually pure’ or formalist, and non-cultural approach to literary studies, those who are often accused of revisionism – and most obviously represented by the intellectual and artistic groups attached to Queen’s University, Belfast and to a lesser extent Trinity College, Dublin – invoke a lexicon of aesthetic defence that is steeped in a fascination with, and deep fear of woman. (...) In the light of [Patricia] Waugh’s observations, reading the traces of the Eliotic cult of (im)personality that Quinn endorses (an invalidation of autobiography, relational identities, intimacy and childhood) as well as the formalism that finds such writers lacking, it would appear that the protection of ‘standards’ implied in the dismissal of such poets involves more than monitoring poetic ‘purity’. It also involves removing the threat of assailed boundaries from the world views, themes and methodologies of such writers...
Peter McDonald says:
I must say at once that I cannot imagine a direct response to her essay which does not have truck with such things as aesthetic standards and poetic value. And for me, there are in fact such things; but I am in effectively denied these terms by Sullivan, who believes that cultural and gender studies have seen through them long ago.
Catriona Clutterbuck says:
Leontia Flynn as a poet-practitioner made the case for avoiding sisterhoods, on the reasonable basis of claiming the right to competitive relations and to difference between Irish women poets. But as Patricia Boyle Haberstroh argued long ago, behind such an eschewal of sisterly solidarity when it edges towards the requirement that women poets admit no common cause as women in poetry (...) lies the anxiety that the woman’s work will not be taken seriously as a master of the craft and visionary initiate.
Fran Brearton says:
‘Political correctness’ may be admirable in many contexts, but the earnest and unironic mode in which appropriate views on women are stated in [Mahon’s] later poems does not make for the best poetry. Whatever Mahon’s unease with the poem after publication, [‘First Principles’] works both formally and thematically neither because nor in spite of its surface gender politics, but by virtue of its latent, and far more complicated, political and artistic tensions.
Lucy Collins says:
In moving between places, the younger Irish women poets problematise the act of speaking from any one position. Their precursors are not specifically female; their textual heritage is not limited by gender or culture. In this way they create new poetic spaces where their own rules prevail.
Selina Guinness says:
Kirkland reminds us that that the demand to ‘attend to form’ itself claims weight as a way of thinking in which humanism (through the search for individual talent) finds itself reflected, asserting itself as a universal good while disregarding traces of its own class and/or sectarian prejudices.
Leontia Flynn says:
What is desirable after feminism may well be a climate (or ‘political dispensation’) in which women don’t feel themselves to be anomalous, and in which their themes and forms are able to arise without being fatally overdetermined. Until such time, McGuckian’s subversive complicity with the cultural codes which impede the attainment of an idyllic neutrality make her achievement a radical and very witty one.
Boland’s mistake, for me, is to assume, first, that her at-homeness in the roles of both woman and poet will make better art than that produced out of fragmentation or exile and, second, that her success in combining these roles offers her a unique and superior point of leverage from which to lift the tragic burden of history. I simply do not believe this is true.
Read more (plus bonus track of Mahon’s otherwise unavailable ‘First Principles’, but while stocks last – only 250 copies!) here. (Note: the book description page doesn’t seem to have a unique URL for some reason: navigate your way to the title Justin Quinn (ed.), Irish Poetry After Feminism.)
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Anyone can make a mistake. Anyone, asked to write a book review, can fail to reach Johnsonian heights of deathless prose. But perhaps it takes an Oxford don writing in the Sunday Times to reach the level of cretinism displayed by John Carey, writing about Dennis O’Driscoll’s volume of interviews with Seamus Heaney:
The America he came to know in the 1980s, as a Professor in California and in Harvard, seemed to him to be living in a ‘centrally heated daydream’, epitomized by the poetry of John Ashbery, which appealed to a middle-class readership, insulated from the cold blast of world poverty, and ‘on the move between its shopping malls and its missile silos.’
Good old Ashbery, smoking jacket and all, with his versified senior common-room tales and ever-dependable way with a triolet. Has John Carey ever read Ashbery? How bothered should we be if he hasn’t? Criticism on this level renders praise and dispraise equally meaningless. If this is poetry reviewing today, abolish it now, someone, please.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
John Kinsella on one third of perhaps the single greatest poem ever written: ‘I do not like Dante’s Inferno’:
I do not like his judgments nor punishments. Its grotesqueries are not adequately deconstructive in terms of the self, and Virgil seems too relieved that this, at least, is not his lot. It’s a smug work. For me, hell is what we live with, and each of these grotesqueries, as maybe Dante would agree, lives with us here and now.
This in the context of his new book Divine Comedy, hailed as a ‘distraction’ on Dante’s text.
And speaking of Dante, what a fine poem in the New Yorker the other week on the Tuscan’s terza rima by someone ‘I’ve never – not once in over 40 years – been able to finish a poem by (...) without nodding off’.
No point in wanting until January for this one, I think. Like Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, I used to like Christmas when it was all about naked commercialism but nowadays I notice an element of religion creeping in, and I don’t like that. No really, I hate Christmas and everything to do with it, so consider me in an almighty sulk until January.
In lapsed honour of the some other time
arrival of a god not mine
bin day finds the grass verge strewn
with stripped brown trees in a tatty line
celebrating nothing and no one.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Maurice Scully, the Paul Klee of Irish poetry, has a Selected out from Dedalus Press: order it here. And while you wait for it, my thoughts on his Wild Honey Press book Livelihood.
‘We use space a lot today’, announced vice-president Quayle back in the reign of Bush the first. Comparing Maurice Scully to Dan Quayle may not seem like a promising start, but Scully too knows all about using space. Is the poem the space of the page or just the thing in the space? It’s been a moot question ever since Mallarmé sent his dice-throw tumbling off the end of the margin. Ralph Richardson thought acting was the art of stopping people coughing, and one definition at least of poetry is the art of getting people to put up with all those white bits the poet can’t be bothered filling in. Some of the section breaks in Livelihood use up to eight near-blank pages (‘why is the white so/ difficult touched/ suddenly’, Scully pertinently wonders in ‘Prelude’), and even when not fast-forwarding in whiteout mode Livelihood is a brisk read. This is fifth-gear poetry, tanked up on Raworth and Olson (‘so that one leads to another /& another leads to a thing just so’), heavy on the ampersand (‘a terminal spinney of ampersands’) and light on the majuscule.
Livelihood is the middle part of a trilogy, and runs to five parts and 336 pages. So what’s it all about then? Open the first page of ‘The Pillar & The Vine’ and the welcome pack goes something like this: ‘wandering beyond the puny /into the light net /this pillar //this vine hard to in shadows /discard patterns that /smash their way //into yr face’. And who could resist an invitation like that? With the obligatory dig at poets on a ‘small half-empty island’ who versify their ‘mothers and fath- /ers and grandfathers and grandmothers and fields / and ploughs and pigs’, Scully pulls his Groucho Marx stunt and resigns from every club that wouldn’t have him as a member anyway. Not that the Scully clan is so hygienically absent from Livelihood as that might suggest, I should add. But anyway, rupture of the lines of communication and all that, so we cut him the requisite slack. But still, what’s it all about?
When he worked on a building site in the 1980s Scully’s job involved writing the words ‘Site normal. Nothing to report’ in a logbook at regular intervals. Here the site is rarely normal, and we’ve got the CCTV tapes to prove it. He spends a lot of time ‘establishing the field’ as he calls it, like someone who invites you round for dinner and proceeds to assemble the kitchen table in front of your eyes. Here he is on the job in ‘In the Music’:
There is a ball, a sphere. There is a field,
a rectangle. At each end a space, an Aperture.
Marking on the field and mine, marked and
numbered. A set of rules, a set time, a whistle,
an umpire, an audience. The phantasy of pride of
skill in tactical symmetry, the siphon of violent
energies, the bonding of comrades, place-adoration,
display-therapy: our gift, your tradition! A poet
under the grassblades, threnody in the palmtrees.
There is a ball, a sphere.
The world is round after all. But with his reverie further down the same page of having no readers, ‘None at all’, we can only assume that Scully didn’t want us to RSVP the invitation in the first place. ‘He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, /the epistemology of loss’, as Berryman wrote in another poem about a ball.
Kit Fryatt is right, in her Metre interview with Scully, to see lots of Kinsella in the first section of the book, The Basic Colours. The Paul Klee comparison Scully himself makes is also revealing. (And speaking of painting, my copy of Livelihood has strange smudges in the margin every now and then that look like they’re ghosting in some adjacent twilight world, half Le Louis Le Brocquy inkblot Morrigan, half shroud of Turin Jesus.) Musically, he’s a John Cage minus the Buddhism who’s just sat on a firework. It’s all about play and improvisation, tuning up, exploring different frequencies and registers, picking up a riff and running with it without pausing to ask, as I’m now doing for the third time, what it’s all about:
beat it’s a beat
that’s what it is.
what is it made of
the Mission cuts in deep
but the people jeer
this beat this singular this
I stopped everything
the people jeer
just to pick up
the downtrodden people jeer
catch it precisely
not bend it smooth it out
into Literature or Song or Art of
just once in a while
lifting yr nose from the pile
After the tuning up of The Basic Colours, there’s a lot, in a kind of stanzaic systole-diastole style, about forms of writing and representation in Zulu Dynamite (Sumerian pictographs, charcoal sketches, ‘the name of the sound of the rain’). Priority offers the striking proposition that ‘an inventory of engaging rubbish is the gleaming /ambiguous horde under the floorboards of that book /in the dream in the dark’. There follows a ‘transcapture’ of the Seán Ó Ríordáin poem ‘Saoirse’, which reminded me of the George Tabori production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors sit around reading at a rehearsal from their copies of the play until you realize, No, this really is the play! The tuning up and the performance become one; the scaffolding is the façade. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I think Scully is aiming for:
I’ll go down: tonight. Yes.
Tiny animate creatures connect. Proliferate.
This house; that star. Bless
dispersing in the air.
Be desperate. Measure measure.
O fix sticks in the mud: decide. Stuck.
Raghaidh mé síos anocht.
Which just leaves Steps and Adherence, the former resolutely trying to stammer its way past the aposiopesis of ‘The thing about poetry is’ – is what? – and the latter staring, big-eyed Narcissus, into a deep pool of despair before hauling its way back to ‘Happiness – /under a lion’s paw under a furnace //under the sun’.
A frequent charge against this kind of poetry is that it fails the memorability test. Granted, we may have some way to go before Poetry Please starts clocking up requests for favourite bits of Zulu Dynamite, but this isn’t really an argument at all. Robbie Williams’ ‘Millennium’ is a catchier tune than a Webern string quartet. A man in Japan recently recited pi to 83,431 decimal places. So what? Just because something gets stuck in your head doesn’t make it worth hearing. There are deeper patterns of recognition and pleasure than those of rote learning. And that’s Maurice Scully for you.
Finally, I’ve almost got through this review without rehashing the debate that normally follows any mention of Irish neo-modernism faster than you can say ‘Call for Papers’. Is Seamus Heaney a patch on Trevor Joyce? Why isn’t Catherine Walsh as famous as Eavan Boland? Discuss with reference to your favourite theory about the 1930s, identity politics and Northern Irish poetry. What a pleasure to give all that a rest and read a good book instead. Livelihood is a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. You should do too.
Saturday, December 06, 2008
One note encountered
the next in a Gortahork bar
a lit hole dug in the evening
its resinous tang, the landlord
playing chess in the corner
and, having nothing better
to do, the reel began
whistling itself to itself.
While I watch his elbow stitch the air
to the triplets of ‘The Black Mare of Fanad’,
the next sound along, just out of hearing,
is the purr of the cat whose gut he sent haring
in search of the tune, its phantom paw
coming down softly, viciously on it.
I ask for ‘The Cat that Kittled
in Jamesie’s Wig’ and here
they come now, the kittens:
moving on to my thatch,
digging their claws in and holding
on through the lightest of naps;
droplets of blood sloping
over my lashes and down
my grateful cheeks.
For a youtube clip of Donegal fiddlers James Byrne, Tommy Peoples and Danny Meehan playing that strathspey I mention, ‘The Cat That Kittled in Jamesie’s Wig’ (youtube embedding ‘disabled by request’), see here.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
The house I lived in when I was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, was built without a foundation and on wet winter days like today entry would require a complicated series of leaps across the large puddle that collected in the doorway, sometimes with the aid of a sandwich board someone had helpfully placed there. One of my student acquaintances was only too happy to negotiate this obstacle in search of a safe place to skin up, a habit I began to find increasingly annoying after another acquaintance was ejected from rooms for possession of a trivial amount of weed. To compound my displeasure, this person borrowed a pair of my boots and refused to give them back. Allow me at this point to sidetrack into a tale of John (non-Hollywood-actor) Wain, who when living in Reading University found it an inconvenience to walk down the corridor to the bathroom and fell into the disgusting habit of pissing in bottles. Hosting a party one evening, he poured someone a glass of wine, pondered it quizzically, and said ‘That looks like piss’, tasted it and confirmed, ‘It is piss!’ As you will already have guessed, this tale tops that one in one crucial regard. Reader, I too was a disgusting young man and have been known on (an obviously one-off, never to be repeated) occasion to take a leak in a handy empty bottle. Anyway, this person, who never did return my boots, attended a party in my room, attempted to slug a drink from a bottle, which contained a healthy pouring of feculence, otherwise piss, a fact I didn’t break to him then but which, twenty years after he took my goddamn boots, I hereby make public, and take that, you boot-filching blackguard, you drank my piss!
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Any fans of Father Ted out there will remember Tom, the village/island idiot, who gives Ted a lift one day and stops to nip into the post office. Cue the sound of a rifle being discharged and Tom’s comment, on getting back into the car, that he ‘doesn’t like filling out the forms, Father’.
I sympathize entirely, as will anyone who has ever filled out a grant application to an arts funding body. But spare a thought for that excellent poetry magazine, The SHOp, described by John Montague as ‘the best poetry magazine in these islands’. Its new issue arrives with a letter apologizing for its inability to pay contributors, owing to the loss of a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The saga goes something like this. All applications these days must be made not to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland but a body called ‘Awards for All’, any reference to Lewis Carroll being strictly unintentional, I presume. Some bureaucratic stickings points, such as the magazine not possessing a Northern Irish bank account, dragged proceedings out to the point where a whole annual cycle elapsed and the (twenty-page) application had to be begun all over again. This new application was also rejected. I quote: ‘The most bizarre [of the requirements outlined by ‘Awards for All’] was the demand that, because we sometimes publish poems by teenagers and also by “vulnerable adults”, we were to secure the endorsement of an independent referee with “ANI clearance” and “up-to-date child protection training.’
The SHOp’s failure to provide these credentials means ‘we won’t be receiving the £4500 sterling that we had hoped for from that oddly-named body’, which I presume represents something like the amount it has received in the past.
Communicate your displeasure at this absurd injustice to:
Awards for All
1 Cromac Quay
Tel: 028 9055 9090
Fax: 028 9055 1444
Textphone: 028 9055 1431
Send your support, financial or otherwise to: