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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Entertainment of Idiots

Ciaran Carson’s translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, just out from Penguin. A ‘simply appalling text… endlessly scribbled over’, Frank O’Connor called it (the original). Carson recounts one story of the text’s origin:

Senchan the High Bard of Erin comes to stay with Gúaire, a prince of Connacht, together with his entourage of three fifties of master poets and three fifties of apprentices, each and every one of them with two women and a servant and a dog. They eat him out of house and home, since Gúaire is forced to gratify their every whim for fear of satire. When Gúaire’s brother, the hermit Marbán, hears of this he curses them, taking away their gift of poetry until such times as they can recite the whole of the Táin. For a year and a day they scour Ireland interviewing bards and storytellers in search of the Táin, with no success, for only fragments of that long story survive. At last Senchan goes to Colm Cille, who takes him to the grave of Fergus Mac Róich, one of the chief protagonists of the Táin. Fergus, summoned from the grave by Colm Cille, proceeds to narrate the whole story, which is written down by St Ciaran of Cluain on the hide of his pet dun cow: hence Lebor na hUidre, ‘The Book of the Dun Cow.’

{Quotation ends}

Carson also describes the rírá agus ruaille buaille between St Finnen and Colm Cille over the manuscript of Finnen’s that Colm Cille asks to borrow. (In possibly the only funny thing she has ever said, Ruth Dudley Edwards once suggested that the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA be renamed rírá agus ruaille buaille.) Finnen refuses and Colm Cille secretly borrows and copies the text, working by the miraculous light of his five illuminated fingertips.

Oddly, Carson doesn’t mention the sequel to this early copyright infringement. The two saints fought a battle at Cooldrumman in which over three thousand people were killed.

The monk who copied the text of the Táin to be found in the Book of Leinster ended his ‘redaction’ with ‘a blessing on everyone who shall faithfully memorize the Táin as it is written here and shall not add any other form to it’, before entering a Christian caveat: ‘But I who have written down this story or rather this fable, give no credence to the story, or fable. For some thing in it are demonic deceptions, and other poetic figments; some are possible, and others not; while still others are for the entertainment of idiots.’

Very pleasing to learn from a footnote that one possible meaning of the Irish name Fergus is ‘male ejaculation’. No less beguiling is the fact that Queen Medb’s entourage (‘I had fifteen hundred royal mercenaries, the sons of exiles, and as many more the sons of freeborn native men, and for every soldier of them I had ten, and for every ten I had nine more, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And that was just my household guard.’) comes to a total of 40,458,703,000 persons.

I was sorry to see Maria Tymoczko’s name misspelled, twice in fact, in the introduction. Her The Irish Ulysses is one of the best, the most instructive books about Joyce I’ve read.

Nevertheless, Carson’s Táin: go tuck in.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Auld Sod

Barra O Seaghdha reviews Gerald Dawe’s The Proper Word: Collected Criticism in the new Poetry Ireland Review:

In his postscript, [Gerald] Dawe mentions the contemporaries – the women writers, in particular – he has not written about. He says it is time for a fresh critical appraisal of twentieth-century poetry in English and Irish. He also foresees a broader English-language and European perspective on Irish writing. But already O’Connor and O Faolain had an easy command of European literature, we have been in the European Union for over three decades, and it is quite a while since debate on women and writing in Ireland opened up. Well established by now, Irish Studies becomes nothing but a complacent, self-regulating canton without sustain comparative analysis. Furthermore, for twenty years, as in many of the essays in the first section of the book, Gerald Dawe has been calling for greater honesty and higher critical standards in Irish literary culture. These calls risk resembling endlessly aspirational election manifestoes when not backed up by ideas and assessments that might stimulate and sometimes upset fellow-inhabitants of the canton. The insight in The Proper Word are Dawe’s own; the weaknesses of the book frequently point to problems in the Irish intellectual world in general.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Now don’t, sir! Don’t expose me!
Just this once! This was the first and only time, I’ll swear,—
Look at me,—see, I kneel,—the only time,
I swear, I ever cheated,—yes, by the soul
Of Her who hears—(your sainted mother, sir!)
All, except this last accident, was truth—
This little kind of slip!—and even this,
It was your own wine, sir, the good champagne,
(I took it for Catawba, you ‘re so kind)
Which put the folly in my head!

( Browning, ‘Mr Sludge the Medium’)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s devotion to psychics; Robert’s detestation of them. At a séance both attended, one Daniel D. Home or his spirit proxies raised a wreath from a table and placed it on EBB’s brow. Browning ‘stamped on the floor in a frenzy of rage at the way some believers and mediums deceived Mrs. Browning’, and offered to throw ‘this dung-ball’ (Home) down the stairs.

Ted Hughes, newly squeezed into an 800 page Selected Letters by Christopher Reid, writes to Lucas Myers in 1956 that he has been experimenting with a ouija board: ‘We asked if it knew Shakespeare. It said Yes, but not personally.’ Its favourite Shakespeare line is ‘Never, never, never, never, never.’ ‘Another time I did it with Sylvia. We got one who swore, gave out the most incredible obscenities, and kept refusing, saying “I’m tired.”‘ Pan (as Hughes calls the chief voice) offers to predict the weekend’s football results, for the pools, but gets the scores wrong by one goal per fixture.

But cf. not just the Birthday Letters poem on the ouija board but Hughes passim. Thirty years later he writes to tell the dying Larkin (oesophageal cancer) of ‘a very strange and remarkable fellow down here, quite widely known for what seem to be miraculous healing powers… He heals every kind of illness. Recently he held a party with twelve guests – all ex-patients of his: six of them had been terminal cancer, six with cancer in some earlier phase – all now quite clear.’

Better still, ‘It isn’t absolutely necessary to meet him. All he seems to need is name, details of place – but best of all contact over the phone.’

Which reminds me. The man who made Philip Larkin’s hearing aids was called Raymond Cass, and pioneered pataphysical, sorry psychic research into Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP).

In the words of the Raymond Cass Foundation website:

Famous inventors such as Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla and Oliver Lodge all had a drive to build devices to make ‘contact with the unseen’. This was obviously a euphemism for ‘contacting the dead’. Thomas Edison helped by inventing a medium for which audio could be recorded onto a gramophone and played back. He was also working on inventing a machine which could communicate with the spirit world. Sadly he passed away around 1931 without getting a chance to publish any of his notes.

At the end of the 1950’s, Friedrich Juergenson, a Swedish Film maker/Psychic originally from Russia, was recording a documentary. When he played the tape back he heard many extra ‘voices’. He was out in the woods capturing birdsong. When he played the recording back he heard unaccountable voices on the recording. This instigated Friedrich to study EVP. He famously used a reel to reel tape device and recorded his mother’s voice (Who has passed away years earlier). The reel to reel medium was a breakthrough in EVP research. Friedrich Jurgenson is considered by most to be the ‘Father of EVP’.

In the Early 1970’s Raymond Cass from Hull England started his journey recording voices at his office in the centre of Hull. Cass did many years of research coming up with more than 2000 examples of EVP. Cass was the pioneer of EVP research in the United Kingdom.

What are the voices?

There has been lots of research into what the voices heard on the tape actually are. There are people out there who will not accept that the voices heard are that of dead people. However there is nothing concrete to prove otherwise.

Initially there were 3 main theories of what these voices could be.....

1) Deceased persons having survived the death of their physical bodies
2) Voices come from operators sub conscious (Psycho Kinesis)
3) Breakthrough from a parallel universe.

So far results are far in the favour of number 1.

{Quotation ends}

Now that Mr Cass has ‘gone over’, it is left to his widow to carry on his work. I remember an article about her in the local paper and her reports of communications from the other side from Philip Larkin, which seemed about on a level with the Virgin Mary’s communications to excitable pre-pubescents in less Protestant countries, with slightly less reference to the rosary and abortion. He remained very pleased with the standard of her late husband’s hearing aids though, I think, though why he couldn’t just go and tell him himself I don’t know.

Charlie Brooker, whose collected TV-related bile-spew has been published as Dawn of the Dumb is less convinced. The index to the book does, after all, contain an entry for ‘unforgivable subhuman cock-suckers, see psychics’, but in among the descriptions of what he’d like to do to presenters of programmes about communicating with dead children I enjoyed a reference to a supermarket tabloid called Chat:

Ruth the Truth (‘Chat’s psychic agony aunt’) doles out important advice such as ‘Janice from Pembroke – the squirrel in your garden has a message.’ (…) There’s also an ad for a spin-off mag, Chat: It’s Fate, which looks even better, i.e. worse (sample: ‘MY PHILIP MURDERED ME – SO I HAUNTED HIM UNTIL HE KILLED HIMSELF.’)

{Quotation ends}

And finally, to complete my trawl through goings-on on the far side, Jon Ronson profiles TV psychic Sylvia Browne in today’s Guardian. A sample of Sylvia Browne at work, on the Montel Williams Show:

‘I need to know where Opal is. I can’t stand this. I need your help, Sylvia. Where is Opal? Where is she?’ Sylvia said, ‘She’s not dead. But what bothers me – now I’ve never heard of this before – but she was taken and put into some kind of a slavery thing and taken into Japan. The place is Kukuoro.’

‘Kukuoro?’ Montel Williams asked, after a moment’s stunned silence.

‘So she was taken and put on some kind of a boat, or a plane and taken into white slavery,’ Sylvia said.

Opal’s grandmother looked drained and confused. Opal’s body was eventually found buried in Fort Worth, Texas. She had, the pathologist concluded, been murdered the night she went missing.

{Quotation ends}

‘Fixed stars govern a life’, as Hughes’s partner in the occult once wrote. They do indeed. It’s just a pity that so often the fixed stars in question are those of scum-sucking moronism and congenital brain-felch. Don’t blame me though. Go take it up with the squirrel in Janice from Pembroke’s garden. He’s got a message for you, after all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Stoner Burblings and Post-Avant Carthusianism

In a post the size of several Robert Creeley collections, surely, Silliman bewails an attack by Charles Simic in the NYRB on Ole Black Mountain Bob, and also, he claims, on the institution of the Collected Poems as a cultural memory bank. Trying to think of writers capable of sustaining his interest beyond 80 pages, Simic names only Whitman, Dickinson, Frost and Stevens. I’m reminded (again) of the New Yorker cartoon that featured a publisher proposing that a new book bypass the publication and marketing stage and go straight to pulping; and that might just be the ideal form for reading quite a few people’s Collecteds anyway. It might be a large tome on the shelf but, still, it’s hard to take late Creeley’s stoner burblings for the epic achievement or the epic annoyance that Silliman and Simic see in them. A disagreement like this is nothing some kind of ring-binder system of detachable pages couldn’t sort out. I don’t know how much space Silliman has on his shelves, but his hostile vision of Simic calling time on the ‘10,000’ publishing poets (in English, I presume he means) after 80 pages suggests plenty of vacant capacity. (As someone said about an Irish university department, there are plenty of vacancies, the only trouble is they’ve all got jobs there.) Flann O’Brien once proposed going into business as a book-feeler-upper and annotator, roughing up all the untouched books on one’s shelf so your friends can assume you’ve read the things if they ever ask to borrow them, and it might take something like that to make even my stock of Collecteds look properly lived in. Do I keep the old typeset-on-a-sausage-machine Collected MacNeice now Peter McDonald’s new one is out? In fact, now that I think about it, I have all of four MacNeice Collecteds. Can I hack the first three quarters off any new Collected Les Murray if I’m buying it to keep up with the last couple of books but already have all the old ones? I’ve seen people dump the packaging on their fruit and veg at the Tesco check-out, after all. The biggest Collected on my shelves is the multi-volume Irish Academic Press edition of James Clarence Mangan, and crazy though I am for Mangan, what kind of weirdo (apart from my kind) would rather all those top-dollar hardbacks (I blagged mine) to a small Selected? There’s nothing like holding other people up to ridicule for their temerity in mirroring your own folly. Some writers never really publish individual collections as we now think of them, Beckett the poet for one; after Echo’s Bones, it was all just new, updated quasi-Collecteds. Ian Hamilton (don’t say it, I’m just using him as an example) did something similar, but given how little of him there was Michael Hofmann’s claim to buy copies of The Visit every time he saw one becomes a little more understandable. With other people, Derek Mahon for instance, there might be a case for a Collected with the covers pointing in rather than out, as an acknowledgement of all the flotsam and jetsam of Mahoniana still out there in discarded earlier selections or long-out-of-print books. Who should I write to if I wanted to republish an early Mahon poem from an OUP book, and one his current publishers never published in the first place? Does it still exist? In her post-Booker interviews Anne Enright was recommending that writers have a breakdown early, to get it out of the way; maybe poets should do the same with Collecteds. Roy Fisher’s second book was a Collected, back in 1968, which showed style, I thought. As for Simic’s bedtime reading test, no I do not want to lug my Lowell Collected into the sack with me. But then there are some books we buy instead of reading, or all the better not to. There may even be poets whose editors hope a good brick of a Collected will cow them into shutting up, for the time being at least. Or maybe the Ron Sillimans of this world (no, just Ron himself) could become latter-day Carthusians, locked away and taking upon themselves/himself not just the sins of the world, but of the world’s Collecteds. And if a non-School of Quietude Collected falls over in the wood and Ron isn’t there to hear it, does it make a noise? I wish I knew.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Tolstoy and the White Bear

Greatly enjoying M.J. Hyland's two novels at the moment (have finished How the Light Gets In and am half-way through Carry Me Down). The narrator of How the Light Gets In mentions how it is forbidden to think of the Torah when you’re on the toilet. As a child, she goes on, Tolstoy was tormented by his brother who told him to go stand in the corner and not think about a white bear. As you’d expect, the white bear was all he could think of.

A perplexing state of affairs. Do not think of these words, these words you are reading. Anything else but these words: I forbid it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Engaging Moral Agon

Beckett fact no. 90.

‘And yet, when I sat for Fellowship, but for the boil on my bottom…’

But for that boil, indeed. Beckett’s time at Trinity College, Dublin, and subsequent allusions to it have been well documented, from his contribution to the Trinity Cricket XI’s performance against Northampton to his portrait of Rudmose-Brown as The Polar Bear in Dream and More Pricks Than Kicks to Ernest Louit’s travails with a college committee over his dissertation on The Mathematical Intuitions of the Visicelts in Watt. But allow me to add my tuppence ha’worth anyway, based on a trawl through back issues of student magazines from the 1920s. How exactly did the genteelly residual colonial atmosphere of Trinity just after Irish independence shape Beckett’s writing?

Incalculably, need you even ask?

TCD, A College Miscellany, to which Beckett contributed ‘The Possessed’, offered ‘colonial and ten-year subscriptions’. It carried ads for the ‘Swastika Laundry’ in Ballsbridge, whose chimney and its distinctive ancient Hindu symbol remained on view when I was a student myself.

‘We note’, it notes, ‘that Mr A.E. Jacobs, who was returned as Unionist Member of Parliament for the East Toxteth Division of Liverpool, is an old Trinity man.’

In 1925 suggests as Christmas gift for Rudmose-Brown a model ‘wind-jammer’, and publishes ‘A Christmas Dose in Three Spasms’ an ‘Engaging moral agon spread over three numbers.’

A.A. Luce, Beckett’s tutor, writes in 1926 discouraging non-veterans from falling in with Remembrance Day parades. Students of a unionist stripe were targeted by local ‘poppy-snatchers’, a custom that gave rise to the wearing of razor blades under the poppy, as described in a memorably gruesome Michael Longley poem.

XXXIII no. 574, 24 February 1927: ‘We have nothing to say.’

2 February 1928, talk by W.E. Milligan to the College Theological Society on ‘Christianity and the Race Problem’:

The innate antipathy which exists between white and coloured races, as well as the widely divergent moral outlook, which distinguishes the Western from the Oriental, forms a very difficult barrier to the spread of Christianity.

Trinity men appointed to the Indian civil service.

12 February 1931: S. B-ck-tt: An exhausted aesthete who life’s strange poisonous wines has sipped, and found them rather tedious – J.C. Squire

I wish he would explain his explanations. – Byron

Now if only I could remember the name of the turn-of-the-century Trinity Classics Professor who translated Gilbert and Sullivan into Latin hexameters, in between energetic letters to the Church of Ireland Gazette, and delighted students at Christmas parties with his Boris Yeltsin-like skill on the spoons.

But sadly it's gone.

For more on the Dublin Swastika Laundry see here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Don Paterson Aphorism Randomizer

As inspired by Don Paterson’s new book of aphorisms, The Blind Eye.

A thunderclap of inspiration during sex. I confess as much afterwards, that and my momentary temptation to feign, or even trigger, a premature resolution to our strenuous congress. And how like her to fly into a rage, not at my temptation, but my failure to act on it. My sexual pleasure may have belonged to me, but my poetry always belonged to her. We broke up a month later after a particularly vitriolic argument over who was the greatest Delta bluesman (Lightnin' Hopkins?!).

Irresistible urge, during a lunch with M., who ventures the suggestion that half the people who send him their work these days may as well just pop a turd in the jiffybag instead, to point out – Well, at least they’ve chosen the one person I know who’s likely to eat the damn stuff.

Capax imperii nisi imperasset, as Tacitus said of Galba. N., whose abilities I have always previously admired, and who seemed to me the sagest of man, makes the appalling announcement that he has begun to write. And not just poetry either, but aphorisms too! Pretentious bastard.

Meet a Sebastian at a book launch and cut short obligatory disquisition on Scottish class system by glassing the fucker right in the face. 'Sebastian' , eh (+ whimsical reference to Nietzsche or Cioran here).

F. sidles up to me, at his own mother's funeral no less, and inquires about the sycophantic but completely accurate review of me he has published in a grotty small magazine, and which as a mark of my respect for him I flatly deny having seen.

The myriad of unconscious erections that come and go during my sleep, unsavoured, unspent. Intended for and – I like to imagine – somehow received by all the women I will never have and, whatever they might like to think, oh but they know it.

The Grampa Simpson Joke

Just walked down the corridor for a pee and came back laden down with flotsam from the great Bête Noire garage sale I found going on outside my esteemed colleague John Osborne's office door. If anyone fancies free back copies of this chock-full-of-Hull-poets big small mag of the 80s and 90s, go pick some up now. I have a particular fondness for the Terry Street revisited special issue, which paired Douglas Dunn's poems to photographs by Robert Whitaker, not least the one on the cover of the young urchin standing in a Hull tenfoot very solemnly gripping his parts.

I also picked up some LPs that were being thrown out, including a double album called The Dial-a-Poem Poets, which features Ashbery, Baraka, Burroughs, Cage, Coolidge, and so alphabetically on to Waldman, Whalen and Wieners.

As John Giorno wrote of the project (and is that he doing the phone as penis stunt on the album cover? We can only hope so):

One day a New York mother saw her 12-year-old son with two friends listening to the telephone and giggling. She grabbed the phone from them and what she heard freaked her out. This was when Dial-A-Poem was at The Architectural League of New York with worldwide media coverage, and Junior Scholastic Magazine had just done an article and listening to Dial-A-Poem was homework in New York City Public Schools. It was also at a time when I was putting out a lot of erotic poetry, like Jim Carroll's pornographic "Basketball Diaries," so it became hip for the teenies to call. The mother and other reactionary members of the community started hassling us, and The Board of Education put presssure on the Telephone Company and there were hassles and more hassles and they cut us off. Ken Dewey and the New York State Council on The Arts were our champions, and the heavy lawyers threatened The Telephone Company with a lawsuit and we were instantly on again. Soon after our funds were cut, and we couldn't pay the telephone bill so it ended. Then we moved to The Museum of Modern Art, where one half the content of Dial-A-Poem was politically radical poetry At the time, with the war and repression and everything, we thought this was a good way for the Movement to reach people. TIME magazine picked up on how you could call David and Nelson Rockefeller's museum and learn how to build a bomb. This was when the Weathermen were bombing New York office buildings. TIME ran the piece on The Nation page, next to the photo of a dead cop shot talking on the telephone in Philadelphia. However, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver and The Black Panthers were well represented. This coupled with rag publicity really freaked the Trustees of the museum and members resigned and thousands complained and the FBI arrived one morning to investigate. The Musuem of Modern Art is a warehouse of the plunder and rip off for the Rockefeller family and they got upset at being in the situation of supporting a system that would self-destruct or self purify, so they ordered the system shut down. John Hightower, MOMA Director, was our champion with some heavy changes of conscience, and he wouldn't let them silence us, for a short while. Then later John Hightower was fired from MOMA and Ken Dewey recently flying alone in a small plane crashed and died.

{Quotation ends}

You can read more (and listen) here. I'll be doing so too, since despite my new acquisition I find myself in Grampa Simpson's predicament when he snapped up Krusty the Clown's pornography at a bankruptcy auction: now if only I had a pornograph to play it on! But I don't.

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.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Kick in the Arse

Well, that didn't take long. The not a whisper blogger has been told there will indeed not be any more whispers, for legal reasons. It also emerges he didn't know what an IP address was, which strikes me as a somewhat unsound basis for an anonymous blog devoted to slagging people off. As for me, I have to live with the fact that now his identity has been revealed, and it turns out to be someone I've never trashed in print or vomited on in a Dublin bar, to the best of my knowledge anyway, his dislike of me was free of any taint of impurity. He disliked me for no better reason than what an all-round no-mark and mediocrity I am. Really, as if I haven't spent the last God knows how many years telling you that myself. It also emerges, on top of all his other spelling mistakes, that he believes he has been 'ousted' rather than 'outed'. So it goes in this bitch of a world.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lives of the Saints

Saint Catherine of Siena was given to licking sores. Leperssores in particular she couldn’t resist.

Saint Ursula is credited with eleven thousand virgin handmaidens. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about them.

Saint Christina the Astonishing had herself strapped to a mill wheel, and round and round she went.

In The Gathering Anne Enright mentions three Roman martyrs who had mustard stuffed up their noses. I doubt if that was the sole method of martyrdom, somehow, but it might have made a nice touch after garrotting or beheading.

Saint Dionysus was beheaded and promptly picked his head up and presented it to his executioner.

Saint Martin de Porres is probably, alongside Phil Lynott, the only black man that Irish Catholics of my generation grew up feeling they had a personal relationship with.

Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque drank the dirty water from her convent laundry until she succeeded in paralysing herself. That must have pleased her no end.

Saint Maria Goretti is the only saint whose mother was present at her canonisation, as was the man who had murdered her half a century before, and who subsequently became a Capuchin lay brother. She chose death over defilement.

Saint Wilgefortis prayed to be spared marriage and sprouted a beard. For this disobedience she was crucified by her father. She almost certainly did not exist.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tramps and Stress

I was reading an article the other day about how good meditation is for us. Though it wasn’t really about meditation at all, as the real point of the exercise was how much more effective a bit of peace and quiet makes us in our hyper-aggressive workplace and the rest of our busy-busy multi-tasking lives.

It gave me an idea: executive stress for tramps. Give tramps a brief timeout every day in which they can take a difficult corporate down-sizing decision, get in a road rage incident, and bone the secretary after squash. And then, suitably refreshed, get back to drinking meths under a bridge for the rest of the day. Executive stress. For a filthier, less healthy, heavier-drinking tramp. Let's just say it worked for me.

Gnat's Fart

It linked to me, so let me return the compliment. Someone or other in Dublin who fancies him/herself as the Perez Hilton of the Irish poetry scene (gasp) has started this gnat’s fart of an excuse for a literary blog.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Of George Konrad’s A Feast in the Garden:

I don’t know when I last felt so mutinous while reading a book. A Feast in the Garden is an absolutely dire novel, misconceived, opportunistic, inflated, poorly written, cynical and floundering. Little G.K. in a prospect of history. Of course, there are occasional decent things in it – at almost four hundred pages, how could there not be – but even they are somehow routine, and what repeatedly struck me was the novel’s stupidity, tactlessness and bad faith. Export-quality horseshit.

Of Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories:

Had I not been reviewing it, there is no stage at which I would not have stopped reading A Book of Memories. I ached not to read it. I would have stopped happily after one page, after five pages, after a hundred and five, after seven hundred and five. My marginalia grew more and more virulently obscene, before finally drying up altogether as I lapsed into apathy. (…) It’s hard to say what makes it so prodigiously unsatisfactory; length, long-windedness, evasiveness, over-structuring, mediocre expression, absence of humour, absence of voice, smugness and preachiness, the persistent withholding of such ordinary amenities as names and ages and settings and incidents, a dully and vauntingly cerebral book about bodies (how disgusted D.H. Lawrence would have been with it!), racking up more and more and about less and less…

{Quotations end}

And this, in contrast to my previous maunderings, is the kind of critic who makes me reach for the word ‘magnanimous’. I praised Michael Hofmann’s long review essay on Zbigniew Herbert recently, and I never read his collected reviewery, Behind the Lines without a sense of awestruck gratitude. Here are just some of the reasons why it’s hard to think of anyone, certainly anyone in this neck of the muckball, to compare with him as a poetry critic, among the many other kinds of critic he is.

For a start, he is a poetry critic who also writes about fiction, cinema and art. There’s a rarity.

He is an English-language writer and English resident from the age of six or so who can describe England as ‘at the edge of my circle rather than at the centre of its own.’ He can lavish praise on the woeful Tom Paulin’s poetry all he likes and I still don’t mind, because this is someone whose true poetic gods are Trakl, Brecht, Montale, Celan, Benn. There’s another rarity in Anglophone quarters, or circles.

He is the kind of critic who can review his own former editor at Faber, Craig Raine, so badly the piece runs under the title ‘Raine Raine Go Away.’

Of all the New Generation pod people, he is by far the one who has remained his own man, most quirkily, self-damagingly even, as in his inexplicable abandonment of poetry and almost-gleefulness over it, as signalled in the pages of Poetry. (An upcoming Selected is listed in the new Faber catalogue, but there’s no mention of it containing anything new.) He is the most unpredictable, most unguarded, most risk-inviting and also at-risk.

And also because, now that I've hymned his flamethrowing, he also reads the things he loves (Bishop, Kees, Lowell, Muldoon, Berryman, to name a few Anglophones at least) with such complete command and writerly understanding of what needs saying, of what he can do for you as a critic and what would be mere insult to your intelligence. So yes, magnanimity.

And always a phrase-maker supreme. As ticked and noted in my copy of Behind the Lines:

Brecht’s attention to ‘the inessentials that are everything.’

Under the Volcano ‘eats light like a black hole.’

Early O’Hara is ‘practically unreadable… nowadays you need a machete to read it.’

‘Trakl once threatened to kill himself unless he were given credit by a sweet-shop owner.’

‘A note like tja, dieses Boulder? [‘Boulder, eh?’] is like the Odyssey in a sigh.’

And there’s more. Looking something up in putting this together, I found this online, much to my surprise.

Michael Hofmann. As magnanimous as only someone with a truly foul critical temper can be.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Thanks to Mark for his thoughtful reply to my post on Les Murray. This is an anonymous blog, in the sense that no one of this name has a driver’s licence or bank account, rather than anything more glamorously cloak and dagger, so I’m probably better off keeping a leash on my instinct to compose long rants about what I really think of poet x, y, or z. As a long-time Silliman reader, what I can abide least about the whole School of Quietude manoeuvre is the combination of ignorance – ‘I don’t need to read this stuff, I know all about it in advance’ – and superiority complex – ‘and I’m a better person than you for not reading it’. So even though (this is where the pettiness I signalled above comes in) I… am not really a Heaney fan… do not really… rate him… as such a great writer… I’m probably better off just not bringing the subject up, not that it occurs to me to, most of the time. (Hopkins to Bridges: 'Do you know, a horrible thing has happened to me. I have begun to doubt Tennyson.')

But Mark’s comments about Heaney-bashers and my passing flight of introspection on the subject prompts the following suggestions for forms of critical pettiness. The following, I submit, are silly and wrong things to find yourself doing, as a critic.

1) Coming back for more having kicked someone’s previous book to death. You’re tacitly confessing you didn’t finish the job the first time round. That or you’re secretly in love with your victim.

2) Listing all the prizes your victim has won, in the midst of your hatchet job on him/her. It only makes you look petty, even if all the prizes are completely unearned.

3) Only writing about Irish poetry, let’s say, since Heaney is in the air, and expecting to be taken seriously as a poetry critic. Whatever about Heaney, I’ve no compunction in putting the boot into Heaney criticism, which has to be some of the most almighty dross around, like a road accident between a postcolonial studies seminar and a St Patrick's day parade. As I type I’m looking at a book on Heaney whose bibliography listings for Jacques Derrida run to a page and a half and whose index does not mention Longley, Mahon or Muldoon even once. Call this stuff what you want, but criticism it is not.

4) Pace my comments on Silliman above, using the word ‘quiet’ as a chuck-a-dog-a-bone term of praise. ‘Despite their general uselessness, X’s poems work their quietly effective magic…’ What other words, ‘trusted’, ‘respected’, ‘life-affirming’ (gulp…)?

5) This is related to item 3. Let me call it the genealogical heresy. Nick Laird’s second book has been reviewed a lot lately, and its critics have carefully gone about placing him in the Longley-Muldoon-Paulin line. Why? Why not place him in the Ronsard-Supervielle-Mayakovsky line? Why does criticism have to be about us, who we are, where we start from, and where we’re meant to end up, here? As well as being related to, I notice this one slightly contradicts item 3. Too bad!

6) Don’t pick on one corner of the poetry market, stick to reviewing it, and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. When I read William Logan, I wonder – where are the reviews of small press titles? As a critic who routinely breaks suggestion 1 Logan may be a very brave reviewer, but I’m left wondering why, if the new Jorie Graham or Louise Glück books aren’t much cop, he can’t just go and find something interesting to review instead. He should do.

That’s enough stupid suggestions for reviewers. I was reading Attila József the other evening, his poem and review of Mihaly Babits, a good writer and one who’d done him no harm, and whom he decided to savage for no apparent reason, an attack that did József himself lots of damage:

Yapping jackal, croaking raven,
shamed, the prince of sneers
blurts his song, the filthy craven,
master but of years…

{Quotation ends}

Why did he do it? What did he think he was doing? Critic as idiot (non-)savant kamikaze. Critic as trusted, respected, life-affirming kamikaze, even. But still not bland.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Listening to Les Murray read the other evening in a half-empty village hall I was struck again by how skilfully he manages to perch such a large and generous vision on so slender a foundation of self-pity. Because self-pity really is there, at the taproot of his work, I think. His elegy for Joseph Brodsky, ‘Church’, begins:

The wish to be right
has decamped in large numbers
but some come to God
in hopes of being wrong.

We are always in the wrong before God, Kierkegaard wrote. After any triumph, he is ‘as usual inconsolable’, Murray has written. But in general the pleasures of feeling in the wrong rather than wronged won’t get you very far, in Murrayland. The driving force of his work is a rage against injustice and bullying that likes nothing better, in recent years at least, than flipping over into a form of semi-controlled but more often incontinent bluster. It’s controlled in his public readings anyway, where I’ve noticed he shies away from the more fire-breathing Catholic stuff. But anyone who’s followed his career back home as well as on the European circuit will know what a doughty culture warrior he’s been. In Peter Alexander’s biography of Murray (a book that survived the pulping of the first print-run for legal reasons) the attacks on Subhuman Redneck Poems is glad-handled into irrelevance:

Many of the poems spoke for Cecil and for Murray’s people, the rural poor, against those who would patronise and suppress them: perhaps 10 per cent of the volume’s poems, as a result, were passionately indignant. The critic Don Anderson, whose judgement Murray respected, picked out this group of poems for condemnation and listed them by name, calling them ‘vile’. Murray felt they had hit the target: ‘He named all the right ones’, he remarked with a grin.

{Quotation ends}

Here’s Alexander on Murray versus the Liberal Media Elite, a contest fought in a mood not unlike Homer Simpson’s when Moe tells him his it was ‘politics’ that ended his boxing career (‘Lousy Democrats’):

The ferocious, massed attack on her was a phenomenon he recognised from Taree High, and he would do his best to stand against it wherever it found a victim. He considered that Darville’s crime lay in showing up proponents of multiculturalism, and in ‘talking about dangerous material, the Holocaust and, more dangerous still, the immense slaughter, the killing fields, of the Communists—you're just not allowed to mention that stuff. The Communists have an enormous interest in suppressing all that history.’

{Quotation ends}

Red-brown moral equivalence and all that, in other words, or not even equivalence: the red lot are obviously much worse. The victim here is Helen Darville/Demidenko, the recently outed hoaxer who had belied her Home Counties roots to publish a fairly iffy (anti-Semitic) novel about the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. Shortly afterwards the media moved on to Pauline Hanson, a pigshit-thick racist politician, but victim of media hounding and therefore in need of defending.

The foundations of Murray’s self-pity are all there in the last of ‘Twelve Poems’, from The Biplane Houses:

Filling in a form
the simple man asks him mother

Mum, what sex are we?

Country rather than city. A ‘simple man’, who you – you liberal bigot – are just waiting to insult, patronise or dump in a home. And a ‘simple man’ with a nice friendly old mum to look after him, and even save him from the hideous depredations of sex, which as we’ve already established ‘is a Nazi’. But a simple man who also has Les Murray on the case, checking for reds under the bed, taking on the no-good media, and selflessly taking the good fight to the fleshpots of Melbourne and Sydney on his behalf.

And my point in all this is: there’s something really nasty about Murray’s worldview, but I admire the way Murray insists on trying to make poetry out of such an ugly, even repulsive side of his ‘redneck’ Catholicism. Because when I read Heaney, writing out of a similar rural Catholic background, I can’t but get impatient at how much he fails (unlike, say, John McGahern) to show the cruelty and narrowness of the conservative Catholic universe, alongside all the good things Heaney got from it too. So although I read the nasty Murray poems in a spirit of open hostility, I prefer his ability to render his religious worldview in the round (favourite Murray shape) to what I consider the soft, nostalgic version of Catholic Ireland I get from Heaney. So my point is (one more time): if you’re a writer and have a nasty side, show it. Another of Murray’s ‘Twelve Poems’ reads ‘To win me, they told me /all my bad attitudes /but they got them wrong.’ Well, put us right then. Be as bad as you can. Get it all out there. Just don’t be bland about it.