Thursday, April 16, 2015
Around the Archipelago: Geophany and the Irish Poet
People have morbid fears of the strangest things. For some it’s clowns, but high on my list would be St Patrick’s Day, that primal scene of kitsch-Celtic fakery. Not being much in the habit of pondering my ethnicity, I was nonplussed back in 2003 to find myself in front of a TV camera in North Carolina being quizzed on what the festival meant to me (I was in town for an Irish poetry festival). The short answer, to be honest, was nothing, but I grinned and did my duty. I was aware in doing so of living up to an expectation of me at odds with my self-image, but aware too of how graceless it would have been to launch into a mini-tutorial on poets and the nuances of national self-identification. We are who we are, but we also are – or have a habit of turning into – what others perceive us to be. Many an Irish poet has gone to the States to acquire, not lose, a marketable Irish identity. The fetishizer is no less to blame than the fetishized: as Stephen Owen has written of the concept of world poetry, we need to recognise that ‘this poet from another land and from a different culture is writing in part for us, writing at least in part what he imagines will satisfy us’. It would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
In the natural order of things the reader comes to a poem from the outside rather than the inside; the American idea of the Irish poem is one such example of applied externality. But in distancing myself from that, I do not fall back on the privileges of an easy-going intimacy with my native tradition. Thinking further about how we come to the artwork from inside or outside, I am reminded of Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, and a rare chance it offers to invert the usual terms of this relationship. In a small darkened room on the ground floor is Harry Clarke’s stained-glass response to Keats’s ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. With its brilliant reds and blues, the installation surprises us with the ‘fine excess’ Keats proposed as a signal quality of great art. Using acid-etched, double-layered glass, Clarke creates a sense of depth and texture, whether in the sultry delights of Madeline’s bedchamber or the wintry landscapes beyond the castle walls. The display space allows the viewer to stand cocooned inside Keats’s poem, lines from which Clarke includes in the artwork. I was first introduced to the poem at Trinity College, Dublin, but this was not the first time Harry Clarke’s work had given me cause to meditate on the relationship between the artwork, its audience, and its setting. My own natural setting, in so far as I have one, is the jumble of raking beaches, granite mountains and incipient midland plains that make up County Wicklow, on Ireland’s east coast. One less than natural part of the county is the Poulaphouca reservoir, formed by the flooding of 4000 acres of the Liffey valley in the late 1930s. Marooned on a land spit created by this spot of landscape gardening is the village of Valleymount, home to a highly uncharacteristic Irish country church. Its granite pilasters are in the New Mexican style, imported by Wicklow stone-masons who had worked in that state. Inside the church is a series of stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, no less luminous and multi-coloured than ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and coming as a considerable shock to my teenage cyclist self, out mapping my kingdom. Never had Co. Wicklow seemed so Keatsian.
If landscape, artist and artwork usually fall into concentric circles, with the artist mediating between the other two, my experience with Harry Clarke impressed on me the unstable nature of this hierarchy. Inside and outside can swap places: the young poet writing his first poems may find himself liberated by stepping (literally) into rather out of someone else’s shadow; an English Romantic poem can be as much a part of the make-up of the city of Dublin as a street-lamp or a patriotic monument; and our native landscapes turn out to be no less constructed and artificial than the artworks we place in them, needing these artworks before they assume the true form in which we will know them at last. In the fifteen years since I last lived in Ireland, these are findings I have pondered at length, transplanting my Irish beginnings from one corner of the Britannic archipelago to another, and watching the landscapes of memory blend and cross-breed with those I have found in England and Scotland. Even before I left Ireland, a lot of its road-signs were pointed in the general direction of ‘elsewhere’. In Autumn Journal, with only lightly ironized detachment, Louis MacNeice wrote of the Irish diaspora who ‘slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue /and a faggot of useless memories’. More recently, Peter Sirr contributed to a feature on postcolonialism in a poetry magazine I used to co-edit by asking, ‘Don’t all Irish poets live abroad?’
The Wanderlust is inculcated early. Unlike its immediate neighbour, Ireland has never had much of an empire. When I was a primary school pupil in Co. Wicklow in the 1970s, however, the backs of my copy-books came decked out in maps of the world placing Ireland centre-stage, radiating arrows to all the countries in which Irish missionaries were saving the souls of unfortunate heathens. These days I’m told the priests in my hometown come from Africa to save the Irish, but if ever there was an Irish empire impervious to the vagaries of history, it is the empire of poetry. And just like my childhood maps of religious conquest, it is an empire with global reach: Paul Muldoon’s New Jersey and Justin Quinn’s Prague are as much fixtures on the Irish poetry map as Michael Longley’s Carrigskeewaun or Vona Groarke’s Longford midlands. ‘The centre cannot hold’, Yeats grumbled in ‘The Second Coming’, but centre and margin have reached an understanding unforetold by Yeats in the contemporary Irish poem. Derek Mahon’s great ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ begins ‘Even now there are places where a thought might grow’, before giving as his first two examples ‘Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned’ and ‘Indian compounds where the wind dances.’ Far-flung locales generate a shiver of disorientation in the reader, but are accommodated easily enough in a globalized paradigm for what the Irish poem is or should be.
Staying with Derek Mahon, a younger version of that poet once described the housing estates of Protestant Belfast as the final frontier for Irish poetry. The comparison with his Peruvian mines is revealing: here is somewhere about as un-Celtic as it gets, but without any compensating exotic mystique, bringing a dissonant and convulsive quality to the Belfast of his ‘Ecclesiastes’ (‘the /dank churches, the empty streets, the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’). Even to some of his admirers, this side of Mahon’s work is understandable only as a testing ground for the sensitive young aesthete: staying just long enough to work out the place’s incompatibility with art of any kind, the poet flees the scene and ritually disavows it from the safe distance of Dublin or Kinsale. Moving to East Yorkshire in 2000, I had the chance to put a very marginal zone by traditional standards on the Irish poetic map, in the form of the post-industrial grandeur and desolation of Philip Larkin’s Hull. Larkin had spent five years in Belfast in the 1950s, during which he wrote much of The Less Deceived, and which he would later look back on as the happiest period of his writing life, but in going to Hull I was reversing the journey of his ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, that great hymn to the benefits of cultural displacement (‘Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home, /Strangeness made sense’). There is a poetry of plangent nostalgia for the Irish home-place: this, I decided early on, would have to take its place in the queue behind the Victorian cemeteries, riverside mills and industrial estates that rapidly seeped into my work. I wasn’t the first contemporary Irish poet to have got to Hull: in his ‘East’ Conor O’Callaghan had recruited the town to an anti-heroic tableau of Irish identity and diaspora played out in unremarkable east-coast Irish towns and the North of England, rather than Ireland’s Atlantic West Coast and its preferred exilic reference points of Boston and New York. This poem riled Irish poet Mary O’Malley sufficiently to inspire a rejoinder, ‘The Loose Alexandrines’, in which she accused O’Callaghan of crypto-West Britonism and imagined him calling for ‘No mad women’ and ‘more Larkin, less Yeats, no Plath’, Larkin standing here for a two-for-one deal on gynophobia and the worst kind of conservatism.
Yet here I was living inside O’Callaghan’s poem, getting to grips with the Hullish ‘importance of elsewhere’, but aware at the same time of the Irish dimension to my experience. According to Conor Cruise O’Brien, ‘Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it.’ ‘Mauled’ has a pugilistic ring to it, but it is also possible to be mauled by an absence, or failure to connect. I hadn’t gone to England to mutate into a Larkin mini-me. My personal poetic God is Samuel Beckett, and while I’m aware that Beckett the poet is about as famous as Henry James the playwright or Haydn the opera-writer, I had fretted my way through my twenties wondering how to make my poetry more closely resemble the jump-cut collages of his 1935 collection Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates. Writing about the North of England represents a challenge to traditional views of what the Irish poem is and does, but Beckett was already up to the same thing well before he left home, in the itchy, alienated poems of his Irish youth. The opposition of home and elsewhere is powerfully embedded in Irish writing, but rather than choosing one or the other, Beckett flits promiscuously between Dublin, the West of Ireland, London and Paris, often within the same poem. In a silent borrowing from Rimbaud, he situates his poems in an impossible no-place: ‘Ah the banner /the banner of meat bleeding /on the silk of the seas and the arctic flowers /that do not exist’.
The young Beckett was dismissive of attempts to revive the Irish language, but when one takes the longer historical view some of the Irish poetry closest to his experience of uprooting and exile was done through the medium of Irish. Led by Colmcille, Irish monks produced some of the greatest works of the early mediaeval period in the far-flung monasteries of Iona and Lindisfarne. While Celtic, as a descriptor, is often used as a catch-call to mean ‘anything but English’, it was visions of Celtic Northumberland that inspired Basil Bunting to his masterwork, Briggflatts, with its thistly vowels and visions of Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert. In between persuading myself that I was visiting Hull as a latter-day Celtic atheist monk, I became aware through the work of Ian Duhig of the traditional (‘sean-nós’) Irish singer Darach Ó Catháin (1922–1987), who had transplanted his Irish-speaking family to Leeds several decades before me to work on the roads and building sites. Judged the finest of all sean-nós singers by Seán Ó Riada, Ó Catháin was known to his workmates as ‘Dudley Kane’, and does not seem to have integrated successfully. Recounting a meeting with Ó Catháin in a Leeds pub in the company of poet Pearse Hutchison, Robert Welch describes the party being asked to leave by a landlord who did not want ‘any of that Pakistani singing’. What I learn from this is the ability of Irish poetry and song to move between cultures, but in ways that evade stereotypes and official recognition. Keen to dodge the grandiosity of labels, Roy Fisher has described himself as a ‘sub-modernist’, and in his near-invisible way Ó Catháin can be seen as a ‘sub-national’ artist, equally off the radar in his home and host nations.
Bunting’s Celtic North of England is not the only lost kingdom on the map of the archipelago. The early mediaeval period was marked by the formation of the kingdom of Dál Riata, uniting the north-east of Ireland and the south-west of Scotland. During this period, Scots Gaelic and Irish were still the same language, opening channels of communication that continue to resonate today. Finn MacCool and his merry band of Celtic superheroes, the Fianna, were frequent travellers between the two land-masses, and Mad King Sweeney too flitted across the sea as far as the Isle of Eigg. Mediaeval Irish bardic poets are rarely compared to gangsta rappers, but it’s worth making an exception for another export product, Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh. The ‘Albanach’ in his name means ‘the Scot’, a reference to his flight to Scotland in the thirteenth century after the murder of a tax collector who had disrespected the poet. Distance failed to bring remorse: quite the contrary, as the newly-transplanted Ó Dálaigh wrote a poem gloating over his crime. Deciding in 2012 that Hull wasn’t quite far enough away from everywhere else, I decided to cultivate my own Dalriadic identity and move to Scotland. When Declan Kiberd gave the title Inventing Ireland to a large critical study, he meant to highlight the ways in which Irish identity has been conditioned by being the ‘other’ of neighbouring entities, meaning England; but while the England-Ireland dyad is achingly familiar from academic discourse, I soon discovered how unexpectedly richer the picture became with the addition of Scotland. There was the English-Gaelic divide, but with the addition of the Scots-Nordic dimension too. There was the great modernist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who rather than inspiring an army of poets who wanted to be as like him as possible (early Yeats) inspired generations of Scottish poets to stonewall his impossible example. Early on in my engagement with Scotland, I encountered a fairly literal example of ‘stonewalling’ on a pilgrimage to Little Sparta, the hermit kingdom of the artist and ‘avant-gardener’ Ian Hamilton Finlay. Finlay had been a leading light in the Concrete Poetry movement of the 1960s, poems whose challenge to the reading voice he solved by declaring that concrete poetry was a silent poetry, bypassing the need for oral transmission. Relieved to be let off the hook of having to cultivate a Scottish-accented style before I could write about the place, I threw myself into poorly laid-out concrete poems based on place-name puns (‘Le Monach Isle de mon oncle’) and dramatizations of silence (a poem about a ‘?’ standing on my copy of Birds of Scotland).
There are no hills in East Yorkshire, but given the similarity of Aberdeenshire’s granite peaks to those of Co. Wicklow I was aware of unsettling overlaps: was a Gaelically-inflected poem about the Cairngorms a contribution to the Irish or the Scottish landscape-writing tradition? Unexpectedly, my mobile phone-bill helped me find the answer. Almost all the texts I send are to family members living in Ireland, given which my mother worked out how much cheaper it would be for to communicate via an Irish rather than a UK phone. As far as this phone was concerned, I need never have left Co. Wicklow. It struck me that a significant strand of the Irish poetic tradition continues to operate on similar assumptions. The geographical and cultural other enters Irish poetry in so far as it can be fed through Ireland-centric reference points. Routing your poem home to Ireland through a foreign network comes at a higher price. I experienced this tension as a form of stand-off before crowbarring a third element into my dilemma by way of a solution. Like the Irish language, Scots Gaelic is a minority language and one whose continued survival is dependent on government aid. In Scotland, however, the picture is complicated by the presence of another tongue, in a linguistic ménage à trois: Scots, the language of Robert Burns. Feeling the want of local poetic gods to celebrate, I took advantage of six months Robert Fergusson (1750–1774) spent in Aberdeenshire to start writing sonnets in Scots addressed to that great and short-lived poet. The eighteenth-century rhyming weavers of Antrim wrote in something resembling Burns’s Scots, and contemporary Belfast poet (and Edinburgh-resident) Alan Gillis makes witty use of Ulster Scots, but my project had an element of wilful quixotism about it. As far as T. S. Eliot was concerned, in ‘Was There a Scottish Literature?’ (1919), Scots was a dead tradition, a sentimental throwback or two such as Burns or Fergusson aside. Here was my ‘sub-national’ tradition again.
Among the most impressive pieces of literary scholarship published in the last decade is John Kerrigan’s Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603–1707 (Oxford, 2008). In head-spinning detail, Kerrigan traces the patchwork identities from which modern Britain and Ireland were fashioned. The union of 1707 was highly unpopular in Scotland, and many of the Scottish nobles who voted in favour changed their minds shortly afterwards, it seems. Something else I learned about Aberdeenshire was its centrality to the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745 against the House of Hanover. My colleague, the poet Peter Davidson has written evocatively of the relics of Jacobite culture that dot the Aberdeenshire landscape, the forlornly beautiful castles nestled between the North Sea and the mountains. In his collection The Palace of Oblivion, he celebrates this landscape in a national language of Scotland that predates both Scots and Gaelic, Latin.
On one level, this is harmless antiquarianism, you might think, with no obvious relevance to contemporary Irish poetry. But as an incomer to these parts, I drew radical lessons for my own work. When my Aberdeen colleague Patrick Crotty, edited The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry he suggested listing on the cover some of the translators he had recruited, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Kathleen Jamie among them. Penguin objected to the fourth of these, given that Jamie is Scottish, not Irish, and might therefore confuse prospective buyers. Crotty stood his ground, helping to remind readers not just of the international appeal of Irish-language poetry, but the international nature of its composition in the first place. Reviewing a more recent anthology of Irish writing, Maurice Riordan’s, The Finest Music: Early Irish Lyrics, I found myself comparing the work of its anonymous Irish scribes to the Objectivists. Here were the ‘diamond absolutes’ of Heaney’s ‘Exposure’, and the scalpel-like precision of Niedecker and Oppen’s lyrics. Reading the line ‘And ancient Ireland knew it all’ in Yeats’s ‘Under Ben Bulben’ it’s easy to diagnose a case of geriatric belly-aching, and though even Yeats might draw the line at crediting Columcille with a prophetic vision of An ‘Objectivists’ Anthology, the things that ‘ancient Ireland knew’ were not limited to Ireland, nor are its lesson confined to Irish poets writing the Irish poem in Ireland.
When asked in 1915 what he was fighting for, Edward Thomas knelt and picked up a handful of English dirt: ‘Literally, for this’, he answered. As someone blessed or cursed with a geographically over-active imagination, I have always felt my writing lives or dies by its engagement with the literal ‘this’ of what the English-born, Connemara-based cartographer Tim Robinson calls ‘geophany’, the ‘visible manifestation of the earth’. The only problem is the entirely accidental nature for me of what the ‘this’ is at any given moment. Having got my Scots sonnets off my chest, I began to cast around for another submerged local culture to engage with (perhaps the Shetland islands, and their lost ‘Norn’ language…). And then there’s the question of form. While Paul Muldoon remains among the most ingenious rhymers in Anglophone poetry, it feels like a long time since a younger Irish poet sprang to prominence for audacious formal experiments. I’ve mentioned sonnets and concrete poetry, but steadfastly refuse to develop an identity crisis over my habit of writing both. Peter McDonald has objected to prefixing the word ‘form’ with the verb ‘to use’: does one ‘use’ the oxygen one breathes? Writing the best sonnet or concrete poem we can is much more important than any tribal identity based on choosing one over the other.
In a wonderful letter of 1864 to A. W. M. Baillie, Gerard Manley Hopkins outlined his thoughts on ‘Parnassian’ poetry. The Parnassian is not exactly bad poetry, but poetry which is ‘too characteristic of itself, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration’. Mount Parnassus may not be such a wise aspiration for the poet after all. Had he been a Russian formalist, Hopkins could have preached the virtues of ostranenie, of defamiliarizing as a route to making it new. In ‘Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves’, which dates from his Irish miserable exile two decades later, Hopkins wrote one of the strangest Irish landscape poems ever, using a palette every bit as arresting as Harry Clarke’s stained-glass windows. Yet, but for this spiky proto-modernist, his great admirer Seamus Heaney might never have found his way to the apparently rootsier style in which he celebrates the landscapes of Bellaghy, Toome and Anahorish. Where in all this is the true ground and form of the Irish poem? We might say of it, as Wallace Stevens did of the singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, that ‘There never was a world for her /Except the one she sang and, singing, made.’ I can’t know for certain, but I would hope the Irish poem is as happy being written in Scots about Aberdeenshire as it is by a Victorian English Jesuit about the Dublin skyline. I’ve quoted Peter Sirr’s observation about Irish poets all living abroad. To which I would now add: yes, including the ones who live at home, wherever that may be.