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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Poems That Matter

Countering the contemporary distrust of the word, the poststructuralists’ rejection of the possibility of truth and meaning, Heaney reasserts the metaphysics of presence. His poem is informed by belief in a transcendent metaphysical order which is pre-literary, pre-rational, and ultimately mysterious. (Elmer Kennedy-Andrews on Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mycenae Lookout’)

It is striking nonetheless that both ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Keeping Going’ operate through a series of juxtapositions of image clusters extrapolated from a little suite of master images introduced at the outset. If there is a Lowellian influence at work in ‘Keeping Going’, however, it is an influence absorbed so deeply that it issues in a poem that is radically unLowellian in tone and vision. Indeed Heaney’s text is one of only a tiny handful of poems written in the fifty years since the completion of ‘For the Union Dead’ to achieve a comparable weight and authority of utterance, and it does so in a music no less decisively new and distinctive. (Patrick Crotty on Seamus Heaney’s ‘Keeping Going’)

Mere topicality, of course, is a far from adequate explanation of the poem’s long-term influence, however much it might account for media attention in the 1970s. It is not the fact of the poem’s response to the Troubles which renders it so compelling but the manner of it. As with the later sequence, ‘Wreaths’, from 1979, ‘Wounds’ is notable for a deceptive simplicity of style allied with a complex political (in the broadest sense of that term) layering. In a letter to Longley from 1973, Brendan Kennelly describes it as ‘the best poem I know written about the troubles in Belfast.’ ‘The problem with most of the poetry written about your city’, he continues, ‘is that, to put it bluntly, the poems are sectarian and therefore crippled. “Wounds” knows no frontiers and its pity is unconfined.’ (Fran Brearton on Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’)

Jazz is an endless source of invigorating possibility and Longley’s profound engagement with this “huge” art form marks him out as a poet of the world, a poet of humanity who embodies and embraces paradox and play, order and indeterminacy. Like jazz musicians, the poet is a performer, and the relationship between performer and audience, poet and community is central […] “Words for Jazz Perhaps” not only speaks to the large-scale complexities and wide-reaching extent of Longley’s unique, intricate music but insists upon breathing new life into Irish poetry and broadening the scope of all poetry to ‘accommodate everything’ in this way. (Maria Johnston on Michael Longley’s ‘Words for Jazz Perhaps’)

These from the new issue of Irish University Review, a special on the theme of Poems That Matter 1950-2000 edited by Peter Denman. The other choices are:

Louis de Paor: Seán Ó Ríordáin, ‘Adhlacadh mo Mháthar’
Maurice Harmon: Austin Clarke, ‘Ancient Lights’
Moya Cannon: Patrick Kavanagh, ‘The Hospital’
John McAuliffe: Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Epic’
DW: Derek Mahon, ‘The Forger’
Gerald Dawe: Padraic Fiacc, ‘By the Black Stream’
Bernard O’Donoghue: Richard Murphy, ‘Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie
Brian Donnelly: Seamus Heaney, ‘The Digging Skeleton After Baudelaire
Lucy Collins: Derek Mahon, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’
Neil Corcoran: Paul Muldoon, ‘Our Lady of Ardboe’
Christina Hunt Mahony: Paul Durcan, ‘Going Home to Mayo, Winter 1949’
Frank Sewell: Gabriel Rosenstock, ‘Mussolini ag dul ar Neamh’
Catriona Clutterbuck: Eavan Boland, ‘Mise Eire’
Borbála Faragó: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, ‘The Informant’
Máire Ní Annracháin: Biddy Jenkinson, ‘Gleann Maoiliúra’
Moynagh Sullivan: Medbh McGuckian, ‘On Her Second Birthday’
Paul Durcan: Michael Hartnett, ‘He’ll to the Moors’
Patricia Coughlan: Thomas Kinsella, ‘High Tide: Amagansett’

Much to chew on here, from the memoir style of Neil Corcoran’s piece, with its antenna-twitch of sensitivity to the Heaneyesque intertexts in ‘Our Lady of Ardboe’, to the suasive density of Patrick Crotty on Heaney (with a side-order of MacDiarmid intertexts), the unblushing bardic mantras of Elmer Kennedy-Andrews on the same author, the fascinating inflections of poetic dinnseanchas offered by Máire Ní Annracháin in Biddy Jenkinson’s ‘Gleann Maoiliúra’ (and that’s Lugnaquilla in Glenmalure up above), to the as-ever-richly-suggestive Maria Johnston on jazz in Michael Longley. All yours for €12.

And for the record, the sentence by me at the end of the first paragraph on page 220 should read ‘Modernism in Mahon is more a rumour than a presence, ritually acknowledged rather than acted on’ (scratch the plethoric ‘rather’ printed – aagh! – after ‘rumour’, in other words.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Dreariest Places

It is almost ten years now since I moved to the shipping forecast area-in-waiting that is East Yorkshire, once those rising sea-levels do the decent thing and bury my house at sea. ‘These old P.M.s are gruesome, but I often find them –’, as Krapp confesses to his tape recorder (the joys of aposiopesis), and while I’m rarely, I hope, reduced to drawing water from the fetid lagoon of my day-to-day life for material here, it might seem prissy and affected to avoid the subject altogether. So then: all in all a fairly uneventful-to-comatose ten years of my life, Teflon years, leaving no trace, but bearing the small gift of my previous investment in Ireland and the home place, all my belief in it as my natural centre of gravity, having drained away to nothing, to be replaced by also nothing, since here is hardly home, whatever home means. Here is just a place, like any other, to live, for some reason, whatever reason. And yet there are things to be said for the condition of non-attachment, if that is what I have come to inhabit. I am walking by the Humber just past the non-event of an estuary village that is Paull and thinking of one my very favourite poems John Clare’s ‘To the Snipe’:

Lover of swamps,
The quagmire overgrown
With hassock-tufts of sedge — where fear encamps
Around thy home alone

The trembling grass
Quakes from the human foot
Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass
Where he alone and mute

Sittest at rest
In safety ’neath the clump
Of huge flag-forest that thy haunts invest
Or some old sallow stump

Thriving on seams
That tiny islands swell.
Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams
Suiting thy nature well -

For here thy bill,
Suited by wisdom good
Of rude unseemly length, doth delve and drill
The gelid mass for food,

And here, mayhap,
When summer suns hath dressed
The moor’s rude, desolate and spongy lap,
May hide thy mystic nest -

Mystic indeed,
For isles that ocean make
Are scarcely more secure for birds to build
Than this flag-hidden lake.

Mystic, eh? Speaking here the other week, Hilary Mantel discussed her novel Beyond Black and its psychic protagonist. Pointing out the similarity, on one level, between psychics and writers (both hear voices, both make the dead speak), she insisted that the authenticity or otherwise of her medium, Alison Hart, was not the principal issue in the book and... at that point the discussion veered off in a different direction, though not without the residue of unease it left adding to the sedimentary drift I’m collecting here. Psychics and writers are indeed alike, with the one simple distinction that psychics are nauseating frauds (cue reprise of the Dara O Briain routine about ‘bogus psychics’, as though the bogus ones were going around giving the genuine one a bad name, as if all psychics are not total frauds). But walking by the river and contemplating the array of waders in the shallows (dunlin, redshank, godwit, curlew, egrets, but no snipe that I could see), I thought yet again of my desire to – what? discover and inhabit, me too, their mystic nests? channel these creatures’ voices, speaking, like Yeats’s Cuchulain, no longer with his own voice but the voice of the birds? What am I doing if not taking advantage of their inability to answer back, to peg my precious non-attachment to these innocent birds of passage? Even as we (I) scrape the mange of ego off our (my) attempts at writing with the rusty spoon of self-mortification (Humphrey Lyttelton homage there, I think), does a deeper temptation not hove (hove!) into view, of self-extinction as a proxy for a deeper and even more pernicious form of egotism and vanity? At which point we succumb to Becket’s final temptation, in Murder in the Cathedral, of doing the right thing but for the wrong reason, and I may as well have saved myself the bother of buying those boots and binoculars and stayed down the pub.

My walks also remind me of Tim Robinson’s stopping to wonder, somewhere, about the status of the respect he accords the holy wells and tales of saints and fairies he has collected on Aran and in Connemara given his own frank avowal of atheist materialism. In what sense ‘mystic’ nest, then, I ask myself, mysticism minus religion equalling what? Emptiness, I suppose, for a start, the romance of the void, and (there is no) God knows, I’ve spent enough time wallowing in that. Reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn with some students the other week I drew attention to the self-parodic eternal emptiness of his landscapes, which we agreed, my students and I, formed an ideal correlative to his melancholy shouldering of the tragedies of history. But just around the corner from your empty restaurant in East Anglia, Sebald, I expostulated, there is a pub! with people! serving refreshing and intoxicating beverages! Here’s a couple of blokes called Terry and Geoff talking about today’s football and what a tosser Gordon Brown is. Now snap out of it and buy me a drink. So what do I believe in, and what am I doing with those small brown birds, I ask yet again? The short answer is nothing, given my rejection of any and all forms of religious belief, but the longer answer involves the point at which the empty landscape, the condition of non-attachment, the attempt to channel my birds, would appear to come up short against the language of mysticism. And where I part company with Sebald and his lovingly cultivated melancholia is my concern, at all costs, not to dress up the mere emptiness and dreariness of life into a form of mystique, but to snap back out of it into the deeper desolation of banal reality. There is indeed a pub around the corner full of brash and amiable drinkers talking about football. It is no betrayal of your terrible vocation of seriousness to go there. If anything, going there will remind you that it’s not all about you or even all about not-you, come to that, it’s about the work itself and how, oddball loner or bloke down the pub, it’s all the same to the work since nothing else matters but that, the work. I am entering a defence, in other words, of the dreary, the non-eventful, the aching tedium of it all, as entirely preferable things to the alternatives waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum I’m describing here, out in that wintry emptiness and dark. A real hell, or purgatory, or limbo, really is preferable to an imaginary paradise. The snipe in the reeds is not singing for you. The river spirit does not require your devotions. Writing is not religion or mysticism by proxy. Do not dress your quivering awareness of your insignificance up as some secular epiphany of the sacred-lite. Nothing is sacred. There is no spirit. There is, however, snow falling on the disused mill and the swing bridge I passed walking to the pub last night, where the landlady kindly brought me a plate of roast chestnuts, for which many thanks, again. There is a small brown bird in the reeds:

In these thy haunts
I’ve gleaned habitual love;
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above.

Thy solitudes
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams.

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot,
Giving to all that creep or walk or fly
A calm and cordial lot.

Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ:
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lord William Percy, Three Studies in Bird Character

(Typos now fixed)

As one of the 7th Duke of Northumberland’s thirteen children, Lord William Percy (1882-1963) may have had more free time on his hands than most to devote to the study of waders. The account of his findings, published in 1951, is a wonderful small classic of a book, Three Studies in Bird Character: Bitterns, Herons and Water Rail, abounding in bittern lore. Sir Thomas Browne kept a bittern in his study in an attempt to discover of its mysterious boom. Our author weighs in:

Whatever may be the mechanism by which the booming bittern produces these notes, they have certainly not struck the human ear with associations of the season of the resurrection of life and hope, for allusion to the bird and its voice in ancient literature is uniformly that of a symbol of desolation and woe. As the prophet announces the doom of Babylon, ‘I will also make it a possession for the bittern and pools of water. I will sweep it with the besom of destruction saith the Lord of Hosts’ (Isaiah xiv.23), so the inhabitants of Nineveh are warned that ‘the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows, desolation shall be in the thresholds’ (Zeph. ii.14).

[A footnote adds:] The Revised Version in substituting ‘porcupine’ for bittern mars the rhythm of the passage and seems to convert a paradise for bitterns into a purgatory for porcupines. [Foonote ends.]

If as the age of superstition recedes the implication becomes less harsh, Chaucer’s ‘As a bitore bombleth in the myre’ still retains the ring of melancholy, and it is not till the Middle Ages that references to the bird in the ballads and folklore of our forefathers have lost their former sinister connotation. From then on the bird becomes a cherished object of the chase – ‘euery egge of euery Bittour’ rigorously protected by such laws as Act 25 Henry VIII, XI, 25 – and a favoured delicacy on their tables.


The reference to eating bitterns may explain another folk name for the bird, the butterbump, though the good Lord forbears from offering any recipes. The birds’ melancholy aspect no doubt accounts for their presence (‘the bogey bittern’) in Fungus the Bogeyman, that most fennish of books, as I was reminded by a commenter the other day. ‘Like Surface Bitterns, and like Bogeymen themselves, they are SOLITARY, SKULKING and CREPUSCULAR.’

Our twitcher Lord follows his three species for an entire season, spending what must have been hours a day deep in the reeds stalking the birds, and giving instructions not just for how to approach a bittern but even how to pick one up:

If you think it worth while to assure yourself that the thing can be done, you may wait till the booming starts again, rise silently to your feet, and dash across the intervening space to find Botaurus half defiant, half cringing, at your feet. At the cost perhaps of a blood-stained knuckle from a stab from his bill, which is neither as vicious nor as powerful as it reputed to be, and is in any case no more than you deserve, you may pick him up, for in such circumstances his physical or emotional condition seems to rob him of the power of pulling himself together for sudden flight. Tossed into the air from your hand he will wing away heavily to the other end of the reedbed, or, loosed on the ground, slink off hunch-backed into the reeds.


The book contains no fewer than 80 quizically-captioned plates: ‘A heron descending through the branches of a tree resembles a man walking on a slippery road in imminent danger of losing his balance’, ‘The impasse reached in plate 51 [two bittern chicks tugging at either end of an eel] is resolved, the parent first abstracting the eel from both her young, re-swallowing it itself, and then suppressing all further contention in spite of their protests’, and, combining evidence of the water rail’s habit of picking its young up in its bill with an unintentional, surely, schoolboy pun (our Lordship is far too high-minded for that), ‘One laggard grabbed by the cock and carried off in his bill.’

I have enjoyed reading this book so much that I more or less resent taking time off from looking at it to have to talk about it here instead. In case anyone is wondering what on earth that owl is doing in the plates I’ve reproduced above, the answer is that it’s stuffed. Lord WP decided to experiment by placing the owl by the bittern’s nest with some dead eels lodged between its claws. ‘With an air of the utmost confidence she strode across the nest, walked straight up the owl, seized the eel from between its claws, and swallowed it.’

When I read Tim Dee’s The Running Sky and looked up copies of John Buxton’s out-of-print study of the redstart, which TD was recommending, I blanched at the prices I found. Copies of Three Studies, by contrast, are available for about a tenner.

I can now almost feel the year has ended on a positive note. But let’s not get carried away here. And yet: Lord William Percy, master naturalist, I salute you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Water Rail

Pursuing my current birdy obsession the other day, I was trawling through amazon in search of books about bitterns, and found a total of one: Lord William Percy’s 1951 study Three Studies in Bird Character: Bitterns, Herons and Rails. Annoyingly, the copy I bought hasn’t turned up yet, but in the mean time I can’t resist reproducing this picture I found here of a water rail, known to John Clare (since I mentioned him the other day) as the ‘water craik’, and a species with the most unusual habit of carrying its young in its beak. What a fine photograph.

'Nothing so dogged as the silent air...'

This I don’t remember doing before, but a comment left by one ‘Look – it has fallen through’ is a striking enough piece of writing, I thought, to deserve posting out here in the open. Thanks, whoever you are.

Nothing so dogged as the silent air
will come. Will come through tears
a running figure, stuck shadow on the bricks
The city’s dark and tastes of smoke, fireworks

may be gunshots and which ricochet
like sirens like neon grinning thru the rain
off wet road and bricks, finish too.
A running figure, still shadow on the roof

dogged against headlight squalls & wind
vanished at dawn. Will come in hours
When dark the streets are cold and taste of junk, takeouts.
breathe suddenly between us the fissuring spoke

Nothing as dogged as the silent air
rush quiet is permanent vanishes too.

Glyn Morrow of York, I Salute You

Glyn Morrow of York, I salute you. Writing to the Guardian’s Notes and Queries page today, in answer to the question ‘Is a dead badger still a badger?’, you rip to pieces the bubble-wrap that has for too long shrouded philosophical discussions of language in its prophylactic of shame. As you write:

A badger was never really a ‘badger’ even when alive, at least not to itself or another badger, for badgers – and iguanas, camels, ants, etc – have no human language; therefore a badger is/was only a ‘badger’ to a human. So a badger, alive or dead, exists (or not) only as a badger in an anthropomorphic universe [...] to insist it is or was a badger, blaireau, or dachs, is to miss the essence of the matter.


Badgers are not in fact badgers, nor are the blue tit and the tree it is sitting in outside my window a blue tit or a tree. They are a blue tit and a tree as so described in an unthinkingly anthropomorphic world whose language has been designed by and for humans without so much as a consultation exercise first with the badgers, blue tits and trees. Wow!

You may have got away this for going on a few millennia now, humanity, but there are going to be some changes round here, buddy, before the badgers are finished with you. You’d better believe it. Ghost of Ludwig Wittgenstein, please copy.

Glyn Morrow, I salute you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Evening 'Out'

I went to a restaurant the other evening and had some ‘dinner’ there. The ‘reason’ I’m doing that thing with the quotation marks is that the menu listed the cheese as ‘English’ and the fish as ‘locally’ sourced, and unless someone has been watching (and slightly misunderstanding) that episode of Friends where Joey slightly misunderstands the quotation marks sign people do with their fingers, I couldn’t work out what the menu was trying to tell me. I wondered, during my token one veggie option main course (which worked out at £2.50 a spoonful of risotto: cue Woody Allen joke about the food here being awful, yes, and the portions are so small too) whether having ‘asked’ for the bill at the end they would accept me ‘paying’ with some of this ‘money’ (jelly beans) I was carrying in my pocket, but coward that I am I merely ‘went home’ fuming silently to myself at the brass neck of abattoir-friendly ‘restaurants’’ idea of torturing not just animals but the English language too in an attempt to ‘impress’ their ‘customers’.

Call for Papers

Speakers for a conference on sleep are invited
from across a range of disciplines
to put us to sleep then nod off
themselves, concentrating furiously.


his shortest poems
his fullest
in the sense
they could not contain
one syllable more


Wing-mirror spider
sitting tight
all motorway long

takes my finger
come journey’s end
cuts loose and moves on

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Pensthorpe Corncrake

A 300-mile round trip in search of, and yes, there it was, the Norfolk corncrake, John Clare’s landrail:

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but it ne’er
Will blab the secret out...

The ones I saw were captive specimens, granted (‘doing bird’ perhaps, as captives), and part of the Pensthorpe Reserve breeding programme which has seen a few dozen birds released into the Nene Washes in the last few years; but still, I was enraptured to see such mythically elusive creatures, beloved of poets from Clare to MacNeice and Conor O’Callaghan. There’s always Leach’s petrel and the stone curlew, I suppose, if I find myself short of a new avian fetish object, but, what a pleasure. And then to visit John Clare’s grave too! Despite his hounding unto death with the label ‘peasant poet’, a quick walk down the road to the hardly-poky cottage he used to live in should dispel any lingering illusions on that score. But, ah, that corncrake.

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy guest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes that birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

Curlew, Godwit, Avocets, Lapwing, Egret

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Iceland, or Norway as it was then, in what is now modern Denmark

The sacred festival of Spendgasm is almost upon us again, and with it the need to recycle all my lines about much how I hate it, turkey-murdering arse-end of the year that it is. For me, Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling noted, Christmas was always all about commercialism, but in recent years I see a note of religion creeping in, and I don’t like that. Speaking of the great Sir Arthur, the recent death of his interlocutor on the Twelve Days of Christmas, Ludovic Kennedy, is surely pretext enough for embedding one of those deathless interviews here. ‘Season’s Greeblings.... Iceland, or Norway as it was then, in what is now modern Denmark... Underwear, really, wooden underwear... I do have a smoettering of Loep... I imagine if I were to find myself in fourth-century Lapland I could get by, probably... proebably... Can I tell you my second reason first?’

To hurry along, before my funny fuses, some recommendations for Spendgasm spending based on my own recent servicing of at least two of my senses.

My old mucker Christopher Reid, in between honing the art of stepping onto every passing poetry shortlist with the alacrity of Henry James stepping onto the veranda after a particularly good dinner for a brandy and cigar, has also, I believe, invented a genre: the exaugural lecture, with his new O&G pamphlet A Box of Tricks for Anna Zyx, as its poems ‘were to have been presented by the author at his inaugural lecture as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull’, an occasion that sadly miscarried for reasons of illness, and continues to miscarry for reasons of his no longer being around (though his spirit lingereth). This alphabet counts down from Z to A, passing the ‘ur-letter’ X (‘meaning whatever you want’), an Old English Wen ‘more negligible /than a gnat’s kneecap’, inventing a genre on Q (the ‘Quatrina’), translating from Valéry, Caproni, Rimbaud (what a fine translator Christopher is), and... let me pause on k for ‘Kandy’, with its salute to the Buddha’s tooth:

I can’t say that I saw the Tooth itself,
but I did see the bedizened elephant that carried it –
as important a performer, surely, as Chesterton’s donkey –
and hear the clamour and trumpeting
of the accompanying throng.

Our balcony was high above the road
along with the procession passed like a turbulent river
bearing away an unseen holy relic,
bearing elephants, bearing everything away.

The rising flood-line of Christopher Reid books and pamphlets in recent times from O&G, CB Editions and Areté makes the absence of any larger Selected, never mind Collected, a matter of some national urgency. Do something about this, someone. O&G are contactable at 161 York Way, London N7 9LN.

Flarestack, Smokestack. Smokestack Lightning. Howlin’ Wolf. Cliff Forshaw, the Howlin’ Wolf of Hull poetry, whose Wake has just been published by Flarestack Poets:

You are to wander,
entering and departing strange villages.
Perhaps you will achieve nothing.

Here is Larkin’s poetry of departures, taking off for the Far East but emphatically not wanting to be back for tea, yelling ‘Hello! Moto!’, at motorbike taxis in downtown Saigon and ‘putting the Ho Ho Ho in /Ho Chi Minh City’ while the Vietnamese, it is very much to be hoped, get Spendgasm all wrong in stereotypical ways and string that bastard Santa Claus up on a crucifix where he belongs. Here are Memiadluk and Uckaluk, nineteenth-century stumblers upon Hull from the Davis Straits in Greenland, and look what happened to them. Here is Victoria Pier, site of Peter Didsbury’s ‘At the Pierhead’, and of the mercifully now reopened Minerva. Here are rainsoaked bouquets for those the sea has claimed: ‘bladderwrack, the colostomy /where cellophane traps /what rainwater’s steeped to tea.’ And here is the Cabinet of Curiosities at Burton Constable. List poems can be horribly limp and passive affairs, but not this one:

Rhino horn, coco-de-mer, shark jaws,
tailfins, swordfish, swords, sawfish saws,
quadrants, astrolabes, a huge ‘book camera’,
manuscripts, microscopes, a Concave Mirror
all of Twenty-Four inches in Diameter,
antiquities, dried reptiles, thermometers,
fossils, rocks, minerals, shells, the Claw
of a Great Lobster...

There is more, but that’s your lot for now. Cliff Forshaw is a poet of rooted non-attachments, a nomad of the suburbs and a boulevardier of the wild places. As maps go, Wake is the one that will get you lost, but you’ll thank its author for it, later, or maybe even at the time.

Béla Fleck is and will surely remain the only bluegrass banjo-player to be named after a Hungarian modernist composer, and the third volume of his Tales from the Acoustic Planet series, Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions, is superb. Let me direct you straight away to track five, a virtuoso performance on the thumb piano by Tanzanian musician Anania Nogogia. I couldn’t find any youtube clips of this man, so you’ll have to take it from me when I say he makes a noise not unlike the possible results of Butters from South Park inventing an instrument from a shoe box and a knitting needle and singing as he plays. The man is a phenomenon and needs to be recorded at album-length immediately.

How excellent too to see Mayra Andrade, Cape Verdean chanteuse (and, cough, world’s most attractive living human being) has another album out, Stória, Stória. Cape Verde appears to be principally famous for being the country code where sex chat-lines in the back pages of tabloids eventually redirect you. I believe this is mentioned in a Paul Farley poem. Her music triangulates Africa, Brazil and Europe in a marvellous way. In fact she is so wonderful I will (cough) embed some of her at the bottom here now.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Sun-Fish is also out, but since I’m hoping to write about that elsewhere I will do no more here than point out that the fish in question is not the puffy, swivel-eyed creature, mola mola, you’ll find in tropical waters, but a basking shark. I mention it here because of its Irish name, liamhán na gréine, which sounds suspiciously like Leviathan to me. Could they be related? I also recommend this book.

Aistriuchán suntasach ó ‘Shelter from the Storm’ Dylan in eagrán nua Iris Éigse Éireann, uimhir a nócha naoi. Gabriel Rosenstock an t-aistritheoir:

Saol eile ar fad a bhí ann, sclábhaíocht agus cró
Suáilce ab ea an dorchacht
Is bhí guta ar an ród.
Isteach liom ón bhfiántas
Mar neach a bhí gan fhoirm:
Gabh i leith, ar sí, is tabharfad duit
Bheith istigh ón stoirm.

Má chastar orm aris í
M’fhocal duit ’s mo lámh
Go ndéanfadsa mo dhícheall di
Oíche agus lá
I ndomhan na súl crua marbh
Bíonn teas ar fáil sa choirm:
Gabh i leith, ar sí, is tabharfad duit
Bheith istigh ón stoirm.

I am now so exhausted by inserting all those fadas that there’s only time to mention a long piece on Michael Longley by the always-excellent Maria Johnston, and a typically erudite piece by the most cosmopolitan poet in Ireland, Peter Sirr. Everyone not already doing so should reward these fine editorial efforts with a subscription.

And that’s your Spendgasm sorted out for you. May you choke on your turkey and be given something you already have and never wanted in the first place anyway by the various carbon-based lifeforms who take sufficient pity on you to buy you a gift.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Glimpsed Among Trees

The Case of the Mechanical Turd (Slight Return)

If and when, as can only be a matter of time, a prime-time detective series is commissioned devoted entirely to Aspern Papers-style skulduggery surrounding the literary afterlife of Philip Larkin, and featuring a lovable rogue of a hardbitten Hull gumshoe, the saga of the Mechanical Turd will transfer irresistibly from the page to the screen, I am sure. [...] While the Keyesian intertext [in Larkin’s ‘Poem for Penelope abt. the Mechanical Turd’] acquits our man of the charge of gratuitous abuse of a not-quite student girlfriend, it adds further evidence to the already-swollen dossier of his gratuitous abuse of Sidney Keyes (1922-1943). What’s it all about then?, our TV detective will ask of his bewildered sidekick over a half of mild in the Gardener’s Arms, before bearing down on the Brynmor Jones Library in search of a foxed copy of Eight Oxford Poets and, with any luck, an answer that will have our man Larkin bang to rights.

(‘Larkin and Sidney Keyes, or, The Case of the Mechanical Turd’, continues in current issue of About Larkin...)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Green, Orange, Red

His song is goodybe, even
as he chirps hello
from his deadwood hollow,

the orange-bellied parrot
chirping his gay old sorrow.

He has swallowed his halo:
it glows, a traffic light
suggesting an imminent stop.

In the event of a crash
remember to clean up

these twigs and seeds, and pin
to my breast an orange letter
reading O for zero.

(from the current issue of Misjudge Your Limits)

Investigation Shames Catholic Church Into New Openness, Transparency on Child Sex Abuse: ‘We Openly and Transparently Like Having Sex with Children'

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The Monk of Montaudon: touchy twelfth-century French bloke, ‘always going off on one’, as a student once described Sylvia Plath to me. Hereunder a version from my vaults, my vaults, of his enueg (Beckettian genre!) ‘Fort m’enoia, si auzes dire...

What gets my goat, if you don’t mind,
is the sort whose promises are all wind,
the armchair ‘up-and-at-’em’ kind,
or riding a horse with one foot lamed.
As big a drag, so help me God,
is an upstart buckler-carrying cod
who’s never had to face a sword,
chaplains and monks who wear a beard,
and hook-beaked yes-men bought for a word.

‘Poor but honest’ gets up my nose
in a wench, no whit less than does
a man who fawns too much on his spouse,
even if she’s from Toulouse,
without forgetting the lordly knight
who keeps his airs and graces quiet
till he’s abroad and out of sight
of folk back home who hire the sot
to grind the pepper or watch the pot.

Another thing that gets my back up
is coward Blimps all storm in a teacup,
hawks that never pick your swag up,
and pots as bare of meat as a hiccup,
and, while I’m at it, by Saint Martin,
I hate wine watered by some cretin,
and the sort of misbegotten
blind or spastic cripple that button-
holes his prey on roads two ‘shorten’.

Being made wait at table’s a bore
or getting your joint too tough or raw,
having to sit through liar priests’ jaw,
or being stuck with a stubborn old whore,
and by Saint Delman, given the choice
I’d pass, on fool civilities,
having to travel when there’s ice,
or trying to ride with greaves for trews,
or sauciness from churls playing dice.

And then there are taverns out on their own
for serving salads in a snowstorm,
or trying to make it with a crone
who fires off tap-room farts till dawn –
fun, eh? Or having to call the varlet
out at night to drain the piss-pot,
or seeing a beauty tie the knot
with an ape who stops her doing what
she’s there for (to give me my bit).

You needn’t think I’ve two good words
for fiddle-scrapers in good courts,
for will-grubbing farmers’ brats,
or partners who don’t back your cards.
All of which, by Saint Marcel,
applies to coats lined double as well,
to heirs-in-waiting to a castle,
the stuffed-shirt’s party (called a ‘social’),
or the tourney’s sweaty jostle.

But, God, tableclothes are a pest
that miss your place but cover the rest,
and scab-handed lads to cut the roast,
or a poor fit in a chain-mail vest.
Not much better’s being kept at the door
if what you’re kept in is a downpour,
or having to listen while your friends score
points off each other, and ignore
they’re both wrong in this hot-air war.

Another thing that I can’t bear
is past-it hags in tarty gear,
or any old strumpet who puts on an air,
or wants me to ogle her legs if I dare,
though, by Saint Avon, what could touch
the fat dame with too tight a snatch,
the lord who bleeds his serfs too much,
or trying to sleep but keeping watch?
Forget the wenches – there’s your bitch.

And that’s not all that gives me the pip:
riding through rain without a cape,
pigs that catch my nag asleep
and guzzle a troughful of his slop,
or what it feels like on his back
once the harness comes unstuck,
or dinner invites from the bloke
whose larder you find chock-a-block
(while he remembers he can’t cook).

Shambolic Liverpool Win UEFA Cup

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Self-Portrait in the Concave Mirror of the Life, Trial and Martyrdom of Ernest Lalor Malley

‘I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.’

Order, order!
Opening the case
for the prosecution,
the Zoological Society
of London announced the return
of Mr Ern Malley’s paper
on his discovery of an oviparous
monotreme, ornithorhynchus
, on the grounds
of non-existence: ‘If there are
mammary glands, where is the butter?
The “platypus” is the merest
imposture and you, sir,
are a damnable fraud.’

Representing himself
Ern Malley, Irish rebel
and author of a memoir, On
Another Man’s Wind
, hailed
by avant-garde periodical
Fractious Echidnas as ‘pungent’
wished to denounce
in the strongest possible terms
the Scouse poet-mechanic
and disturber of the peace
Ernie O’Malley.

‘The use of the copula
I considered an indecency’,
testified Officer Vogelsang,
only the twitchings of whose
ever-vigilant groin stand
between Australia
and moral collapse.
‘In the strictly conscientious
prosecution of my
duties’, he added, ‘I have
sometimes found it
necessary to do away
with language altogether.’

Ethel Malley, housewife
and sister of the accused,
stated weeping that
the life and works of authors
James McAuley and Harold Stewart
had all been an immature
prank for which her brother
now wished to apologise.
The whole affair had been
a terrible strain on their father,
and she too had been against
this writing game from the start!

The defendant, Ern Malley,
in his closing remarks
ruled Dermot Trellis,
in Flann O’Brien’s recently
published At Swim-Two-Birds
an inadmissible witness
before finding himself guilty.
‘I am denounced as a hoax,’
he protested as he did so,
‘but patently exist. I call
on myself to drop this trumped-
up case now before
I waste any more of my time.’

I By the Tide of Humber

I think of Peter Didsbury’s ‘Three Lakes by Humber’, and yes, I know there is only one swan in that photograph, not two:

Clean, and left to please itself.
two swans circling
on an Iron Age mirror

And in fact, who should I meet on Newland Avenue, fresh from spotting the Far Ings bittern at last, flying overhead (as pointed out to me by the man sitting beside me, to whom many thanks), but Peter Didsbury. Confusing syntax that, is it not, but no, Peter Didsbury was not flying overhead, amusing though that would have been.

I have spent the last few years of my life watching the sky sink into the mud, it seems. There are worse ways to spend one’s time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hint Hint

‘Among the unusual professions of the people [greatest-living-Brayman Dara Ó Briain] meets [in his book Tickling the English, reviewed by someone or other in the current TLS] is that of airtraffic controller controller, which does not, it turns out, involve preventing air traffic controllers from bumping into one another.’

(Harbour Bar, Bray, Christmas?)

‘There is the world’s most middle-class crime story, when an audience member describes a burglar breaking into a house during a dinner party and “We all just presumed he was another guest”; all the valuables are recovered when the escaping thief drops them on the courgette patch.’

(Good to get away th’ auld family for a bit. Porter House maybe?)

Tickling the English is a thoughtful and wise critique. It is also extremely funny.’

(Christmas holidays then. The Porter House it is. Any afternoon there’s a Liverpool game on. Mine’s an Erdinger, thanks.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Country, The Burn, The Hard

Leeches petrol.

Leach’s petrel.

For more by me on one of the above subjects, courtesy of the kindly folk at Verse Palace, see here.

Large Vat of Drivel

The university sector, as it exists in the minds of the people who run this country, is a fairly dysfunctional-absurdist place, in policy theory and, increasingly, thanks to the efforts of those nice people, in practical fact, and I can’t explain why any better than Stefan Collini does in his commentary piece in this week’s TLS, ‘Impact on Humanities’.

Workers in the humanities produce ‘outcomes’ of various kinds which are then graded for the purposes of conversion into funding on a five-yearly basis in the Research Assessment Exercise, as was, lately renamed the Research Excellence Framework. Among recent government bright ideas is the suggestion that research be given a 25 per cent weighting for ‘impact’ achieved, in terms of its ‘demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society.’ Examples of these benefits could not be more crudely utilitarian, including ‘creating new businesses’, ‘commercialising new products or processes’ and other ideas copied from the minutes of the nearest photocopier salesmen’s convention. This sounds like a familiar standoff between highminded layabouts and hardnosed philistines, but more important than that is the total incoherence of these ‘indicators’, even in hardnosed philistine terms. Collini gives the example of a diligently researched edition of a Victorian poet, ‘exemplif[ying] the general values of careful scholarship and remind[ing] its readers of the qualities of responsiveness, judgement, and literary tact called upon by the best criticism’, but whose ‘impact’ (in the terms outlined above) is zero. Unless of course that Victorian poet was in the habit of burying poetry manuscripts with his dead mistresses and digging them back up again afterwards, and the bodice-ripping ITV period drama on this subject mentions the study in the credits afterwards. That, apparently, is ‘impact’.

Collini writes;

Even if the policy represents a deliberately attempt by government to change the character of British universities (and the humanities are, I suspect, simply being flattened by a runaway tank designed for other purposes), its confusions and inadequacies should still be called to public attention. There are, after all, some straightforward conceptual mistakes involved. For example, the exercise conflates the notions of ‘impact’ and of ‘benefit’. It proposes no way of judging whether an impact is desirable [DW butts in: is it ‘impact’ if the Times covers a front-page story on my latest article in The Journal of Thomas Lovell Beddoes Studies as the single most arse-achingly tedious piece of English prose ever written?]; it assumes that if the research in question can be shown to have affected a number of poeple who are categorized as ‘outside’, then it constitutes a social benefit of that research [DW again: if I throw copies my article out the window and hit a passing schoolchild on the head, is that ‘impact’?] It also confines the notion of a ‘benefit’ to something that is deliberately aimed at and successfully achieved. Good work which has some wider influence without its authors having taken steps to bring this about is neither more nor less valuable than good work which has that influence as a result of such deliberate efforts, or indeed than good work which does not have that influence at all.


The proposals, Collini concludes, are ‘drivel’, reducing humanities academics to ‘door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”.’

Speaking as every taxpayer’s idea of the layabout academic, and someone who has never read the Times Higher Education Supplement in my life, I am, I presume, a walking embodiment of all the reasons why these barbarians are now at the gate, or inside it writing government reports. But drivel is drivel and having a large vat of it emptied over your head does not become any more pleasant an experience for your being told it was written by the people who pay your wages.

Oh, and can I put this blog on my RAE returns? Assuming I can, some customer-driven ‘impact’ in the comments, please.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich

Ah, the sweet aftertaste of crumbly Arran cheese, as I was reminded the other day while washing some down with a pint of Arran blonde beer in a bar outside Brodick. And ah, the distinctive kidney shape of the island itself (ára = kidney), I was also reminded, looking at the large map of the place on the wall, before replacing my pint on an Arran-shaped table. That’s four Arrans in one mouthful of beer.

For whatever reason, there is less perceived need in Hull to look at the place on the wall, and eat, drink and dine off it too.

Arran, however, is quite suburban, as Scottish isles go, given that it’s a mere two hours from Glasgow city-centre. Perhaps the more remote you get the larger the chunks the island name takes out of the rest of the language, until by the time you get to Sula Sgeir all other words have been purged and the inhabitants (gannets and fulmars, in that case) spend all day reworking that scene from Being John Malkovich where he goes inside his own head and into a world of conversations that go ‘Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich’, ad infinitum. ‘Sula Sgeir? Sula Sgeir Sula Sgeir Sula Sgeir.’

For reading, MacNeice’s I Crossed the Minch. It chimes all too perfectly with my remarks the other day about the appeal of ‘meta-Gaelic’ to people who cannot speak that language. As Jonathan Allison was saying of that book at the get-together in Aberdeen where I was doing my own sounding off too, this poet of things being drunkenly various finds himself strangely susceptible to all manner of Gaelic purism, which burden they, the locals, not he must then shoulder. The Perceval and Crowder figures in that book remind me strongly of the idiotic Englishmen in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes who spend the whole film worrying about the test-score at Lord’s, unable to turn off the drone of their upper-class twittish chatter no matter what their surroundings (much like the group of wax-jacketed, purple-trousered upper-class twits in the bar in Brodick, intent on some fraternisation with the stags on Goatfell, I’m sure). MacNeice gets some wan mileage out of this Mutt and Jeff combination, but then launches into his own version of chatter in a discussion of Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism, an utterly pointless book, then and now, and not, one would have thought, the kind of thing anyone needed to dwell on in the wilds of Lewis or Harris. My point being that, for all the appeals of the far Celtic shore, the ambient musak of Anglophone chatter retained a certain irresistible appeal, if only as a buffer against the elemental ferocity all around, a point MacNeice never quite faces in that fascinating piece of hack-work. In just the same way that MacDiarmid’s ‘On a Raised Beach’ gets back, philosophically, to the stones, by forsaking the earthier language (but artificial in its own way, yes I know, I know) of Sangschaw and Penny Wheep to crash his way through all those Latinate jaw-breakers, half of whose meanings I suspect he didn’t even know himself. Do stones speak Latin? Or Gaelic? Or possibly Sumerian? Whichever, I’m sure they sound nothing like ‘On a Raised Beach’. It’s an exercise in ‘meta-stone’, in other words.

Sighted: stags loping lazily across the road, a golden eagle on a telegraph pole, a buzzard, lots of oystercatchers and lapwings, and most pleasingly of all, Britain’s most persecuted bird, the grouse-fancying hen harrier, préachán na gcearc.

Anyone with a spare hour on their hands can listen to John Kerrigan speak, fascinatingly, on I Crossed the Minch here.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

What I Believe

Ses ailes de géant l’êmpechent de marcher, but as for the contents of the albatross’s stomach...

I was inspired to look up Chris Jordan’s work by a similar picture in the Guardian the other day. He has been documenting the effects on albatrosses of the plastic they pick up out at sea and feed to their young, believing it to be food.

An obituary for Claude Lévi-Strauss the other day described his philosophy of life as one of ‘serene pessimism’, but how to express this serenely? Life is shit. For most people and creatures, at most times, life is shit. As Beckett’s ill-fated attempt at a stage character in Mary Manning Howe’s play Youth’s the Season put it: ‘My conception of the universe is a huge head with pus-exuding scabs – entirely revolting.’ This is my philosophy of life too.

(Life is shit.)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

'Service Me Sexually From Three to Seven Times a Day'

John Cheever to Allan Garganus: ‘All I expect is that you learn to cook, service me sexually from three to seven times a day, never interrupt me, contradict me or reflect in any way on the beauty of my prose, my intellect or my person. You must also play soccer, hockey and football.’

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

On the Trembling Margin

Hereunder the text of a talk I gave at Aberdeen at the weekend, titled ‘On the “trembling margin”: Irish-Language Trace Elements in Contemporary Irish Poetry in English’. Yes, it is woefully incomplete. I don’t discuss Heaney or Montague, the first of whom has every bit as deep a scholarly knowledge of Irish as Thomas Kinsella, but without the Gaelic Atlas with the weight of the world on his shoulders complex, and the latter of whom is every bit as much of an old-style culural nationalist as Kinsella, but whose engagement with Irish partakes more noticeably of a private drama (the stuttering speech of his ‘grafted tongue’). I also don’t engage with Vivian Mercier or Declan Kiberd, as alternatives to the merely catastrophist view of the fate of Irish taken, again, by Kinsella. And since I was speaking in Scotland you’d imagine I might have had something to say about Rody Gorman, who triangulates his work between English, Irish and (Scottish) Gaelic, but no. I did, however (thanks Kit), receive some suggestions for who that Irish poet might be who lives and writes in apparent total indifference to the Irish language (your suggestions please...). Seo agaibh anois:

In a short film of 2003, Yu Ming is Ainm Dom, a Chinese man decides to move to Ireland, and having established in an atlas that the official language of that country is Gaelic, sets about learning it. On arrival in Dublin he enters a pub and asks for a job, only to be met with incomprehension. Finally, one man sitting in the corner intervenes and explains as Gaeilge how Yu Ming has been sadly misinformed. English is the language of Ireland, not Irish. At this point, his use of the famous mirror sequence from Taxi Driver while practising the language in China (‘An bhfuil tusa ag labhairt liomsa?’, ‘You talkin’ to me?’) seems all the more appropriate, since also in the words of that celebrated soundbite ‘I’m the only one here’. It gets worse: the bemused barman exclaims to another drinker that he wasn’t aware Paddy spoke Chinese. But all is not lost: the closing sequence of the film features some tourists arriving at a pub in the Gaeltacht and encountering Yu Ming behind the bar, who greets them with a hearty ‘Fáilte go Conamara!’, ‘Welcome to Connemara’.

A post-Celtic Tiger Irish-resident version of Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac can easily be imagined, a Latvian, Angolan or Chinese poet commenting with affectionate irony on the Irish and their foibles. But as Yu Ming’s example reminds us, there is already a resident linguistic alien among the Irish, and that is the Irish language itself. A taxonomy of Irish writers and their relationship to the Irish language today might go something like this. At one end of the scale are poets who not only write in Irish, but refuse to have their work translated into English. I’m thinking here of Biddy Jenkinson, whose gran rifiuto was, oddly enough, made in precisely that language: ‘I would prefer not to be translated into English in Ireland. It is a small rude gesture to those who think that everything can be harvested and stored without loss in an English-speaking Ireland. If I were a corncrake I would feel no obligation to have my skin cured, my [torso] injected with formalin so that I could fill a museum shelf in a world that saw no heed for my kind’.

Next along would be the great majority of writers in Irish who, I presume, would have no objection to being translated into English or any other language, but whose books are read and received by an Irish-language readership with little acknowledgement of their existence outside this small community. Liam Ó Muirthile, for instance, is a fine contemporary Irish poet, but where is the engagement with his work among critics of Irish poetry who write predominantly on poetry in English? It is practically non-existent. A different case again is that of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Ní Dhomhnaill has done more than any writer in recent memory to raise the profile of the Irish language, but the manner in which she has done lays bare not a few of the morbid aspects of the relationship between Irish and English. Ní Dhomhnaill’s translators include some of the most distinguished contemporary Irish poets some of whom can, and some of whom cannot, speak Irish. Moreover, it is entirely within the bounds of possibility that one of the latter, working from Ní Dhomhnaill’s cribs, might produce a more readable version than one of the former, as indeed has happened. Where Irish is concerned, the postcolonial linguistic condition admits of not just hybridisation but immaculate conceptions.

Another category again, possibly a one-man category in recent times, is that of the writer whose sense of grief and guilt over writing in English leads him to abandon it for Irish. I am thinking here of Michael Hartnett, who dramatised his great about-turn in A Farewell to English in 1975. A central problem throughout that book, however, is its re-energizing of the link between the Irish language and a brand of national and even racial consciousness that almost guarantees the tragic impasse of the project, and which finds more profitable expression in the series of translations from Ó Bruadair, Ó Rathaille and Haicéad that occupied the last years of his life.

My next category would be that of the committed but Anglophone cultural nationalist, actively translating from Irish and fully aware of the postcolonial ironies of his every step in English. Here I might name Thomas Kinsella, whose translation of the Táin and whose New Oxford Book of Irish Verse and (with Seán Ó Tuama) Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed are landmarks, dolmens even, in modern Irish poetry, but products of an unabashed belief in the mutilation of the Irish psyche by the colonial experience. In his Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, Justin Quinn takes a very brisk view of Kinsella’s position: his theory of a ‘dual tradition’ is ‘plainly wrong’. To Kinsella’s example of Jonathan Swift and Aodhagán Ó Rathaille’s ignorance of each other’s existence, Quinn replies: ‘the distance between the two languages and their worlds is greater than Kinsella will admit: you can only have a “dual tradition” if there are enough readers who are bilingual.’ For Kinsella, even when ignoring each other, the two traditions remain locked together in time-honoured antagonism, whereas for Quinn, lacking Kinsella’s nationalist template, it is simply delusional to describe contemporary Irish writing in these terms. This leads him to combine a hard line on what, if anything, is still distinctive about Irish poetry (his answer being: the Irish language) with a total absence of the emotional reasons that might underpin the argument if it were being advanced by Kinsella. How apparently close but in fact utterly removed we are from Kinsella’s position when, in a debate with Barra Ó Séaghdha, Quinn declares: ‘I wished to inquire whether a work can be Irish yet not be in that language. I ultimately don’t think that it meaningfully can be, and that it forms a kind of sub-section of Anglophone poetry, which is not identical to English or British poetry.’

How far we are, too, from the practice of most contemporary Irish poets should also become apparent in what follows: here my taxonomy begins to fragment, as writers unwilling to follow the logic of Quinn’s demanding position put the Irish language to more private or meta-poetic uses instead. A good example of this would be Eavan Boland. To the best of my knowledge, Boland is not an Irish speaker: the Irish language in her work seems to me to fall into the category of fetishised identity exhibit, to be touted in the abstract rather than examined, spoken or read in the living particular. I have written about this before, so will restrict myself to one example, the bardic poet whose dispossession she sketches in ‘My Country in Darkness’:

The Gaelic world stretches out under a hawthorn tree
and burns in the rain. This is its home,
its last frail shelter. All of it –
Limerick, the Wild Geese and what went before –
falters into cadence before he sleeps.

He shuts his eyes. Darkness falls on it.

Whatever else Boland’s aims, adding to the store of our knowledge of the Gaelic world is hardly among them. The reality of Gaelic culture is snuffed out and replaced by Celtic Twilight cliché. Why is our bard voiceless and unnamed? Boland could tell us a lot more about him if she wanted. When other people do this to us it is cultural imperialism. When we Irish do it to ourselves it is laziness.

A different example of this combination of distance from the Irish language and re-engagement with it across that very distance occurs in the work of Medbh McGuckian. When The Southern Review devoted a special issue to Irish poetry in 1995, it featured a remarkable conversation or comhrá between McGuckian and Ní Dhomhnaill. When the conversation turns to the Irish language, McGuckian describes her linguistic self-image as an Irish-haunted speaker of English in frankly remarkable terms. She frets in the shadow of the colonial language, so that:

even the words ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Wordsworth’ – at some level I’m rejecting them, at some level I’m saying get out of my country, or get out of my...

[Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill]: ... soul.

MMcG: Get out of me. [...] I do feel that there’s a psychic hunger [...] and I’m lying like a corpse under it all.

She aspires to write ‘an English that would be so purified of English that it would be Irish’, but it is a revealing commentary on the Irish purity aspired to by McGuckian, surely, that both the medium of pursuit and the eventual goal are the English language. The further postcolonial experience appears to take us from the Irish language, the greater the temptation to reinvest in it as a cultural fantasy, a mirage of otherness from the Anglo-culture we flatter ourselves we reject, but that in fact governs every aspect of our daily lives. Are Irish poets in denial about this fact and using the Irish language, or a meta-version of it, as a shield against this unpleasant reality?

One immediate come-back to that might be to wonder what is wrong with cultural fantasies, when they take the rich and compelling form McGuckian’s poems frequently do and, also frequently, with some Gaelic element very strongly in the mix. In ‘Elegy for an Irish Speaker’ McGuckian invokes the ‘Roaming root of multiple meanings’ before announcing ‘I cannot live without /your trans-sense language /the living furrow of your spoken words /that plough up time.’ Shane Murphy has done invaluable work identifying the wholesale borrowings and rewritings going on under the surface in McGuckian’s work, but even the non-specialist reader might recognize the quotation here from Mandelstam’s ‘The Word and Culture’ (‘poetry is the plough that turns up time’), not to mention the reference to the Futurist movement of ‘zaum’ or trans-sense. Once again though, it is revealing that, for all McGuckian’s talk of returning to a decontaminated Irish essence, her work takes the route of centrifugal dispersal across other languages and traditions. Perhaps Irish sleeps somewhere at the heart of all this in the same way that, as she writes in ‘The Dream Language of Fergus’, ‘Latin sleeps, they say, in Russian speech.’ But no matter where it resides, it does so as an enabling myth, a projection, a glorious fantasy, as well as a mere language to write in or speak.

Derek Mahon too has translated Ní Dhomhnaill from English cribs, but it is notable in the wake of the politically greener noises Mahon makes in The Yellow Book, with its jibes about Northern Ireland, how its sequel, Harbour Lights, strikes overtly bardic postures, unpicking the etymologies of Irish place-names and translating a seventeenth-century poem of Tadhg Ó Ruairc’s. Mahon displays his characteristic Francophilia when the girl addressed in the poem is praised for her ‘gold chevelure’, while it is also doubtful the original card games played included bezique (invented in the nineteenth century). Reading the poem again in his collected translations, Adaptations, it is striking how tonally consonant it is with Mahon’s versions of poems from French, German, Italian and other languages: not for Mahon the willed (or at any rate I’m guessing it was willed) awkwardness of Kinsella’s translations, underlining the implicit resistance of the Irish poem to Anglicisation. This may be a late variant on the old redskins and palefaces divide, but even as Mahon becomes (apparently) more racy of the Munster soil, he insists all the more on how racy of the Baudelairean intertext his Irish versions are. Mahon is no neo-Corkeryan, but the most pragmatic of born-again bards.

A fellow Ní Dhomhnaill translator of Mahon’s, Michael Longley, is worth reeling in on our súgán rope at this point. Of his fine poem ‘On Hearing Irish Spoken’, Justin Quinn has commented: ‘Yet Longley, it is clear, is not going to go so far as to learn [Irish]’, which brings our argument to a sensitive crux: should he? Poetry is not community service, so Longley no more ‘should’ learn Irish than he should learn Icelandic, Latvian or any other minority language that took his fancy. But do we hereby establish that this attitude to the Irish language (the commonest among Irish poets writing in English today, I would suggest), means that while we dip into language as a theme or source of Celtic otherness, in practical terms owe the language nothing, nothing at all? I am very reluctant to think this is the case.

And finally there is the poet who does not speak Irish, whose imaginative world does not include the Irish language, and in no way registers its absence. Can anyone suggest such a contemporary Irish poet? We have long established that the game of ‘Irish, Irisher, Irishest’ is demeaning to discussions of Irish poetry, and using one’s interest in Irish as a badge of privileged identity should impress no one. But taking that as read, we find ourselves at my previously announced crux all over again. On what grounds could one reprove, if one wished to do so, this hypothetical writer whose world simply excludes the Irish language? Do we wish to reprove this writer?

In pursuing this Linnaean survey, I am aware of following an arc away from the Irish language as medium to the Irish language as message, as in Boland’s auto-exoticising appropriations of it. But even in Irish this strategy is all too tempting. When Quinn notes that for Gearóid MacLochlainn, as for Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘the Irish language itself is also the main theme’, are we at risk of aping the ludicrous feis of Myles na gCopaleen’s An Béal Bocht, whose fanatical Gaelgeoir insists that speaking Irish is not enough, we must only use it to speak about the Irish language, the better to be ‘fíor-Ghaeil fíor-Ghaelacha a bhíonn ag caint fíor-Ghaeilge Gaelaí i dtaobh na Gaeilge fíor-Ghaelaí’ (somehow I think that translates itself). But Mylesian absurdity aside, it must be possible to write both intelligently in and on the language without succumbing to morbid self-referentiality. I will now conclude with two examples from recent poets that, I believe, make use of Irish-language themes in just such a way.

My first is the sequence ‘Edge Songs’ from Peter Sirr’s 2004 collection Nonetheless. A note describes the poems as ‘a series of workings, adaptations, versions, “skeleton” translations of poems in Old Irish, Middle Irish and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by an imagined Irish poet’, though original poems of Sirr’s are added to the mix too. Sources given include the Aisling Mhic Chonglinne, The Life of Brigid the Virgin and the poems of Sedulius Scottus. We meet a ‘solitary blackbird’ in the first section and think, of course, of the ninth-century blackbird of Belfast Lough:

the quick impulse of it, slantwise
scribbled on the edge of the moment
this hasty space, trembling margin
this at last a place to live in

The poems are full of transformations, performed with the fiat of Amergin’s ur-text of Gaeldom, familiar to generations of readers of Graves’s The White Goddess:

she hangs her cloak on a sunbeam
turns water to beer
she causes a foetus to disappear
makes salt from rock
her mantle is not stained by raw meat
a river rises up against cattle thieves
wolves are her swineherds

There is a cottage, or even bothy industry today in Celtic spirituality and nature mysticism, which operates almost entirely on the meta-level of self-conscious Celticness (I’m thinking here of the works of John O’Donoghue and John Moriarty), but here is the real thing, whatever that may be, precisely in its abstention from self-applied identity markers. Consider section x, a response to the eleventh-century lyric ‘Ná luig, ná luig’:

What else should we swear on, if not the earth
how should we walk, if not so lightly
we hardly touched it


where else can the world go
but away from us, like an ebbing tide
and what should we do

but follow

‘Edge Songs’ are among the finest achievements of recent Irish poetry and a paradigm of what a linguistically curious writer, with no apparent cultural-nationalist baggage whatever, can do with this rich and challenging material.

My second and final example is the poem ‘Gloss/Clós/Glas’ from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s The Girl Who Married the Reindeer. This must count among the most intensely coded, some might say overdetermined, reckonings with the Irish language through the medium of English in recent Irish poetry. Its scholar has been ‘raking the dictionaries’, ‘hunting for keys’, working on a puzzle whose solution is ‘the price of his release’, though his release from what remains opaque. Where most poets troping the Irish language in English are concerned to emphasize its distance from the language in which they are writing, Ní Chuilleanáin instead drives the two almost together, but subject to a tantalizing yet insuperable divide, in which I for one hear echoes of MacNeice’s ‘Dublin’, with its similarly painful degrees of closeness:

Two words as opposite as his and hers
Which yet must be as close
As the word clós to its meaning in a Scots courtyard
Close to the spailpín ships, or as close as the note
On the uilleann pipe to the same note on the fiddle

Caitríona O’Reilly has praised the poem as a ‘visionary examination of what it means to reach out, to step beyond personal limitation and prejudice in all areas of life’, and in its final stanza it achieves a condition of, simultaneously, doubleness, in-betweenness, and neitherness, if that is a word:

The rags of language are streaming like weathervanes,
Like weeds in water they turn with the tide, as he turns
Back and forth the looking-glass pages, the words
Pouring and slippery like the silk thighs of the tomcat
Pouring through the slit in the fence, lightly,
Until he reaches the language that has no word for his,
No word for hers, and is brought up sudden
Like a boy in a story faced with a small locked door.
Who is that he can hear panting on the other side?
The steam of her breath is turning the locked lock green.

The solving language is recognized, paradoxically, through its poverty – it has ‘no word for his’, just as the Irish language has no word for ‘No’ (or ‘Yes’). The final image is of togetherness across, or do I mean in division. The unreachable girl turns the ‘locked lock green’ with her breath: the door is faoi ghlas, locked, and glas also means ‘green’ (it also means ‘death-knell’ in French, I might add). However, on the Gaelic colour chart it’s important to note that glas can also be glossed as ‘grey’: they are the same word, just as Irish has the same word for ‘hand’ and ‘arm’ and ‘leg’ and ‘foot’, and other very obviously different things, one would have thought. I am reminded of George Steiner’s discussions in After Babel of the different cultural resonances of the same word in different languages: Brot is not bread is not pain, or arán. Ní Chuilleanáin exults in this small act of ‘insisting so on difference’, as Larkin called it in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, an act of tricky ambiguity that may appear to complicate the plain sense of things, while in fact reminding us there never was an innocent plain sense of things in the first place, just as that concluding locked bilingual door is more liberating than any amount of monoglot open sesames. Despite my earlier worry about the ‘overdetermined’ nature of this poem, it is surely among the outstanding Irish poems of our times.

At this point it only remains to say that it is a cause of real regret to me that I am not talking here, today, in as well as about the Irish language. It is, let us not forget, vastly more important to speak and write the Irish language than to speak and write about it in English. The Yu Mings of this world, from Connemara to China, have had enough time now to practise their Travis Bickle lines in the mirror, but the next time an Irish-language poet finds him or herself asking ‘An bhfuil tusa ag labhairt liomsa?’, there has to be a better riposte than – I switch back to English to underline the gloominess of the answer – ‘I’m the only one here’.