WHY IRELAND NEEDS YEATS 2015….AND MORE
Ireland has designated 2015 the year of Yeats – it’s the 150th anniversary of his birth. Celebration is appropriate not least because this is a poet who sounds surprisingly modern and relevant – lines from such as The Second Coming are often cited today as people observe IS and worldwide turmoil. And unlike the also Nobel prize winning Seamus Heaney, Yeats was always willing to be engaged in politics and with almost any subject.
Yeats’ legacy is however at once something notable and negligible. It can seem like the latter in terms of real influence upon modern Irish poetry which I will argue, despite its contemporary profusion and the cult of Heaney, has – by and large – lost steam and been in decline since Yeats’ death in 1939. It has been so despite Ireland’s earlier and celebrated history of bards and schools of poetry. The situation is radical because now even the very notion of poetry is in eclipse in Ireland. This is evident when one reads for example that Michael Davitt (1950-2005) was “…one of modern Ireland’s finest poets in either of the nation’s languages, (according to critic Philip O’Leary in The Irish Literary Supplement, 22.3.04)). As translated by another of Ireland’s “leading” poets, Paul Muldoon, the kind of adolescent, “avant-garde” level at which Davitt worked as in To Pound from God, was in the order of:
“ I suppose you’ll want me to wipe your bum
Or open a tin of Pedigree Chum….
At least, and unlike Trinity College’s now retired Professor of Modern Literature Brendan Kennelly, Davitt didn’t write a collection of verse called Poetry My Arse and opine that the subject of poetry as he understands it is “basically a celebration of human inadequacy and failure” ( cited An Anthology of Irish Poetry, ed.Wes Davies, p.307).
Those seeking by contrast a confident secular sublime, can always try verse from poetry festival organizer, poetry prize winner and university lecturer in creative literature and poetry, Conor O’Callaghan. The first verse of his two verse poem Comma runs
(and the second verse begins with the word ‘pour’).
Nowadays you are almost more likely to find the spirit of Irish verse and vision in some prose works like Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys or in the work of Colm Toibin, a writer who always wanted and intended to be a poet rather than the novelist he has become. So…what happened? And what might Yeats teach us if poetry is to be significantly revived today in West Europe’s former home of many muses, or at least aisling sky women?
NATIONALISM AND SOUL AS POETIC INGREDIENTS
I will presently give more examples (they could, alas, be greatly multiplied) to suggest just how seriously something is amiss in the emerald fields of Hibernian poesia, but I can state from the outset what is wrong as regards the general direction of the verse since Yeats.
It is of course possible – just – to be anti-Yeats and produce some good poetry as the work of such as Northern Ireland’s Seamus Deane ( b.1940) indicates, but the first de-potentiating mistake of Irish poets was, however politely and surreptitiously, to dismiss or swerve from Yeats as any exemplar. It was felt he was too nationalist in inspiration and there could be no value or future in that because, with Ireland independently established, literature should become international (pursue Modernism in effect). The trend began mildly with a diplomat of the newly independent Ireland, Denis Devlin (1908-1959), but soon it would gather pace and even become a torrent. Rejection of the Yeatsian poetic could hardly go further than in the irony of Celtic Twilight from Brendan Kennelly (b.1936). Instead of any sense of myth or “magic”, the poem evokes a Dublin of prowling decrepit whores and a Grand Canal in whose “rank waters bloated corpses float”. Even studies of Yeats – and even last September’s curiously early London launch of Yeats 2015 somewhat – tend to place the undeclared laureate somewhere apart, in a disappeared society and time past because of his obvious contribution to foundational events of 1916. The psychological and cultural reality however is that by understanding a national history and ethos a poet may better understand and reach into the world at large.
I would hardly be the first person to stress that point – it’s almost a commonplace. Walt Whitman voiced and helped shape American democracy but also espoused universal ideas beyond it while Goethe was the very cosmopolitan founder of a liberal Germanic tradition. But I know for certain the national/international principle is true as regards Yeats from having lived in Asia. I found him to be appreciated there and I might be asked to read from him. Some of Yeats’ verses like Lapis Lazuli are mentally or geographically located in Asia, while it’s well known some of the poet’s best verse dramas draw upon traditions of Japanese Noh. At least one accomplished poet, Desmond O’Grady (1935-2014), is an exception to prove the national/international rule within Ireland. He does manage to combine Celtic with wider themes and like Yeats at one point he was strongly influenced by Pound – perhaps too much so when he got side-tracked into mammoth labours of poetic translation. But though appreciated, O’ Grady enjoys neither the status nor the influence of a Heaney or Muldoon, both poets of the North and the troubled North has attracted a lot of attention in Irish poetry.
Although Yeats’ affinity for Asia owes something to his attachment to the theosophy and theories of magic many could never accept, more generally he was simply following the wisdom of the archetypes with which most serious poetry will always be involved. Genuine introspection will bring one there. Intense affinity with just place may not. Influenced by Joyce, a notable poet, Patrick Kavanagh, believed that one could be universal by devotion to a place, a notion that owed not a little to Joyce’s Dublincentric imagination. He risked becoming, as I think he often was, merely parochial because place will not quite generate the same imaginative verve as society or nation which can be a matter almost of soul. Linked to the archetypes one could say that Yeats was about – in the broadest sense – “soul”, something which, like contemporary Western poetry generally, modern Irish verse singularly isn’t despite the reputation of the Celts for spirituality.
But poetry itself is first and foremost spiritual. If you don’t believe that, then you must at least accept spirituality is what many people either assume poetry is about or appear to want from it – the biggest selling poet in the world today is, like it or not, the medieval Sufi mystic, Rumi. Poetry is Orphic and originated in the ecstatic, prophetic function and the serious poet, i.e. one who offers something beyond the entertainment or instruction which have their place, can never quite escape that root function….and/or the love theme which will often accompany it as we see everywhere from the Bible’s Hosea to Dante in the Vita Nuova. Even major atheist poets like Lucretius and Shelley have dealt in the universe, large vistas and the sublime.
At its highest and best, poetry heals, inspires and creates – including whole peoples. Critic Harold Bloom may exaggerate but is essentially correct to propose Shakespeare has helped form modern humanity; Bloom maintains the bard did not only reflect humanity, he also made it and we have become his characters. In somewhat similar fashion, the rhapsodies of Isaiah inspired and remade a lost Hebrew society and largely through introducing new images of God and the self that allowed a new synthesis for a new age to emerge. Dante half created the modern Italian language itself amid his visions. The poets of the Romantic era expressed and half made the age they inhabited.
Sometimes, just sometimes, poets can and do change the world (though of course the noncommittal Seamus Heaney predictably denied it). Granted most poets cannot and need not aspire to such a degree of achievement. No nation is anyway likely to produce more than four or five really outstanding poets in a century, and society needs not just seers and culture heroes but minstrels, balladeers, teachers and entertainers. Poets nonetheless need to avoid through resentment, dullness or, sloth merely subverting the almost alchemical Great Work to which at varying levels their tribe contributes across time.
THE JOYCE/BECKETT PROBLEM
What could and should have been the ongoing influence of Yeats on modern Irish poetry has, I believe, been blocked and limited within his homeland by the strong competing legacy of Joyce and his admirer cum devotee, Beckett. Both these Modernist writers have cast long shadows. Though both composed a few poems they were essentially authors of prose and both were unspiritual or very negatively spiritual. (Beckett’s prize winning and obscure Whoroscope, written in a hurry to pay Paris rent and rewarded by the heiress Nancy Cunard, if and when it can be understood is arguably one of the most nihilistic, sordid and profane poems in the canon of verse. It surely belongs to “the throne of the faecal inlet” it refers to). The prose of the Joyce/Beckett duo has nevertheless been more weighty in influence upon modern Irish poetry than any poetic antecedents. Some want to claim it for life itself. I admire the wide-ranging erudition on most things Irish of Declan Kiberd, but I can’t accept as per his Ulysses and Us that Ulysses is really any notable guide to the management and celebration of life.
Although Yeats was something of a heretic in relation to most beliefs and traditions, his origins were Protestant. This has been held against him, or at least left him less favoured as a model for novice writers and poets than the by comparison more street-wise, democratic (sometimes), Catholic-raised Joyce who managed to voice those feelings of frustration and discontent many Irish Catholics have felt at least now and again. By contrast, and although Joyce himself could demonstrate an almost non serviam Luciferian pride, Yeats’ Protestant voice would be regarded as imperious and elitist, in short merely Anglo-Irish of the past, something Yeats scarcely even sounded like in real life. (To hear recordings of his voice which is neither very Irish nor English and not particularly emphatic, can come as a surprise and challenges the image some have of him). Patrick Kavanagh reflecting an all too familiar social resentment in a poem called Yeats exclaims, “Yes Yeats, it was damn easy for you protected/ By the middle classes and the Big Houses”. This is green-eyed nonsense like the whole poem in effect – Yeats faced enormous struggles in all directions and rightly called himself poor until well into middle age and winning the Nobel prize.
So the class objection was again a mistake fostering further error because even though with age Yeats undeniably evolved some dubiously elitist, even fascist notions (partly in disgust at the sheer ruin the ultra-Catholic Ireland of De Valera was doing to hard won new freedoms), the fact is that poetry of the serious, bardic kind will often sound or seem elitist. Such poetry declaims, declares, reveals from the higher mind or worlds and as such is not about the everyday nor issues describable in its terms. Even England’s witty, socialist Auden decided in his latter years that what poetry needed next was to get back to the high style. Getting back there could nonetheless prove harder in our egalitarian times than leaving it behind. Ireland especially would seem to have to prepare for a very steep climb. It might even need to engage a bit of “censorship”, a self-censorship of a new and not merely puritanical kind to arrive there and at least try to be serious.
It may be mildly entertaining, but does a poem like James Simmons’ Epigrams constitute something – anything – worthy of a place in Wes Davies’ critically acclaimed and all-encompassing Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry? Epigrams 2 and 4 run:
Made him polite
Now my faculties give in
I see the need for discipline.
Modern Irish poetry could use some discipline. Too many contemporary offerings such as one can read at PoetHead on the Net which has showcased new Irish women poets, seem just self-indulgent and trite.
Award winning Denise Blake, an advisor to the RTE national broadcaster on poetry (like the mentioned Michael Davitt – no wonder poetry is in some trouble!) begins her poem, Adjusting,
The saucepan is full of left over potatoes
And I keep cooking too much rice and pasta
Three placemats still sit on our dining table
In musing on an absent son in Beyond the Front Door she writes of
“Cold pizza slices in a cardboard box, an empty coke can
lying on the table”
Subject matter for Irish still life art perhaps? Doubtless Mrs Blake is a caring family person and her sentiments genuine enough, but one finds nothing here and elsewhere that couldn’t be said as well or better in prose. But possibly she was remembering precedents like Beckett’s in Whoroscope with its ridiculous and profane reference to Hovis bread.
Dr Emily Cullen, noted harpist, short story writer and much else if one can quite locate her anywhere, seems willing to inhabit the same kind of kitchen zone if more impishly than Mrs Blake.. In Galway Mould we learn
For fun I bought you mouldy cheese,
Last night it took revenge on me
Inducing a vivid dream
Of a while chandelier of mould
That slowly lowered
Through our kitchen space.
Although without question Mairtin O’ Direain of Aran (1910-1988) can be hailed, as he has been by some, as a gifted poet of real distinction, apart from him let no one imagine any back-to-Gaelic direction such as Sean O’Riordain (1916-1977) and Michael Hartnett (1941-1999) took would improve much inside or out of any Irish kitchens and better preserve the true Ireland. O’Riordain was a good, proficient if somewhat overrated poet whose illness and dramatic depressions seem like an unintended metaphor for the sad fate of things Gaelic. Hartnett is sometimes good but also sometimes gratuitously weird as in Death of an Irishwoman where she is described as “a card game where a nose was broken…a child’s purse, full of useless things”. If this is the latest incarnation of Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan, that lady is now in serious trouble and indeed a bit useless!
Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill born in the Kerry Gaeltacht in1952 has devoted herself to verse in Irish. Translated, one of her poems begins, “I wake up and my hands are sticky/With the smell of blood” and it concludes…”I’m stuck forever with this stink of blood/That’s on my hands”. In the course of the poem she has reduced bars of Sunlight Soap to slivers trying to rid herself of the smell at the tap. Nowhere is it explained what this blood represents or why it sticks. Does it symbolize, war, Ulster Troubles, the poet or anyone from history or myth? In his Nobel prize address Heaney compared poetic inspiration to breeze over a scullery bucket. Why not the kitchen sinks and dustbins of Hibernia? Well, at least with the likes of Vona Groarke (b.1964) you may find yourself in the open air, kitchen observations exchanged a sort of gardener’s diary verse – “I let the gooseberries/ Rot for not knowing when to pick them”.
But let it be said, Ireland’s contemporary female bards are more delicate than the menfolk, including the revered Heaney who (as only one example of the gratuitously sordid) writes – in Mycenae Outlook – having just referred to a vision of webbed blood and bodies raining down on the speaker “like tattered meat” –
“I would feel my tongue
Like the dropped gang plank of a cattle truck
Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck
Not to consider what an über baroque evocation of a state of tension this is, it is really just more from the stock of sensationalist Joycean prose with its “snot green, scrotum tightening sea”, the world as a human theatre where people are holding on to or letting out their urine and never quite forgetting urine like Bloom who enjoys “grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine”.
JOYCE: FROM REALISM TO NIHILISM
If it belongs anywhere, modernist realism of the Joycean kind belongs principally with prose whose main sphere is the factual report and which is not something designed to the same degree as poetry to convey or reach the transcendent. But post-Yeats Irish poetry has constantly, pedantically and monotonously appropriated the themes and style of Joycean realism and cynicism for verse. We need to ask why.
As said, Joyce spoke for those of the Catholic background that Yeats and his advisor in things Gaelic, Lady Gregory, did not share. Jesuit educated Joyce did not however pronounce on religion in any way prophetically – he was closer to a satirist, even just lampoonist of Irish and Catholic traditions. He had no alternative vision that might help reform, modify or substitute for Catholicism; he did not even reject it like an atheist. Like the true Luciferian he sometimes was, and possibly even aspired to be, Joyce simply subverts and renders toxic, contributing by his example to the also unhelpful example of the (Protestant raised) Beckett’s extreme paralysis of thought and action, his Murphy/Molloy/Belacquaism sitting in a corner cursing and despairing of existence – when not farting, evacuating, or masturbating. Inclusion of the latter theme to the field of poetry, (and rather insultingly to the Irish farmer as in Kavanagh’s half good poem, The Great Hunger,) can be traced back to Joyce, Ulysses and its anti-hero Bloom.
In accepting Joyce as high literature and a suitable object of academic study (he quite intended us to make it our life work!) we risk, and Ireland has risked, accepting him more metaphysically by osmosis. And the sad fact is that despite his obvious and undisputed brilliance, Joyce is at root unhealthy, certainly almost the last thing any new nation, not to say nascent poetic circles, should look to for prime inspiration, and if he wrote about the common man, apart from some early work, he certainly didn’t write what the common man could ever hope to understand.. Even just humanly Joyce does not come up to the mark, straining the kind of tolerance society normally reckons to extend to artists. Ignoring his questionable treatment of both parents at their death, this was a person so ungratefully arrogant he could turn even his main benefactor Harriet Weaver from the door. This was a person so merely contrary that having been keen to make Nora Barnacle his mistress, he prevented publication of his first biography because Nora was not portrayed in it as his wife. If Joyce wasn’t Lucifer he was periodically Judas and to follow him leads inexorably to precisely the Judas theme – it receives its fullest treatment in Brendan Kennelly’s bombastic, overflowing succes de scandale, Book of Judas (1991) which supplies the Messiah the traitors he is assumed to need to be himself and identifies Ireland itself with a species of Judas complex.
Such perspectives apart, practically, Joyce’s values were never truly liberal of an exemplary kind for us to follow; they were merely rebellious designed to shock like the basically unnecessary, irrelevant incest theme of Finnegan’s Wake. Even the repulsive reference in Ulysses to “the snot green, scrotum tightening sea” is merely a sideward glance to Dublin’s Forty Foot nude beach often frequented by gays. Anyone from his friends to the Trinity (as in the famous “my Mother’s a Jew, my father’s a bird” etc doggerel ditty) were the pretext of largely aimless, self-congratulatory Joycean humour and cynicism.
The Joyce and Beckett effect has been to divert energies from, rather than to encourage attention to the needed reform and development of modern Irish life including not least its spiritual life to which poetry might have been expected to contribute. One doesn’t need to plough through the earnest examination of the Catholic theme in modern verse that Andrew Auge pursues in A Chastened Communion (2013), to realize that the poets, like the people at large, have few religious ideas to offer (though it does have something – such poets as Padraig O’Tuoma and Micheal O’ Siadhail , both poets are respected including among theologians outside Ireland, a reason perhaps that Wes Davis’s huge Anthology of Modern Irish poetry almost insultingly in the of academic secularism gives them no space or acknowledgement). Mainstream Irish religion has been and remains too weak in theology and philosophy in the first place. This nonetheless means that once the roof has been blown off traditional pieties and reverence there is little substance left but instead just hollow, trivializing profanity like Patrick Fiacc’s whose poem Our Father begins, “Our Father who art a Belfast night /Pub bouncer”. Or again the purely bizarre like Brendan Kennelly’s God’s Laughter. This pictures God unable to stop laughing or “freezing in fear” when he hears words. As fear is a negative emotion plainly it could not be a meaningful attribute of any true deity. But at least Kennelly’s half dotty admirer, U2 frontsman Bono, (who has used the poem for U2’s pop theology), hasn’t controversially praised it as he did Kennelly’s The Book of Judas as poetry flying “as high as the Holy Spirit flies” for sheer inspiration!).
Scriptures and especially the reformist/prophetic Hebrew tradition scarcely register for Ireland despite some natural Celtic affinity for such, a reason perhaps that the Irish and Jews have been so associated, at least politically, in America. Irish Catholicism is, alas, more a matter of devotions, rituals and folk religion, not to say superstition, though in earlier centuries and before Catholicism invaded via England like Protestantism later, the Celts produced the likes of Pelagius and Erigena in theology and philosophy. The convolutions of Joycean thought which could serve an almost “rabbinical” examination of life and literature, are expended by Joyce and his imitators on what is often little more than lavatory wall scribble. The attack upon Irish religion given Joycean example has become a matter of aesthetics rather than thought, and there the matter has become largely stuck. Reform and development are highjacked by aimless, passive complaint which the poetry echoes. Joyce’s interest in Ireland may at one level have been futuristic in revolt against nationalist nostalgias of his time, but paradoxically his labours (eighteen years alone on the still almost unreadable, Finnegans’s Wake whose best effects are contained in the first and last sentences!) catch the culture in a circling, repetitive torpor from which it seems unable to emerge.
If it wasn’t clearer earlier, it is fully apparent in the wake of the Murphy and Ryan reports and ongoing church scandals, that the Catholic church has failed Ireland abysmally.The country has survived less because of Catholicism as long popularly maintained, than despite it. For long the hierarchy opposed most Irish moves and calls to independence, (notoriously one prelate declared that hell wasn’t hot enough nor eternity wasn’t long enough to punish Fenians). Meanwhile, hidden in orphanages, monasteries and nunneries was behaviour fit for the Inquisition. Some of it (and despite the vein of quasi-Wildean preciousness in a lot of Irish culture) seems as though arisen from some, satanic, nightmare level of Celtic consciousness which the modern poetry almost celebrates in its vision of existence as virtual vomitorium and lavatory, a dream world in which one falls in a shower of waste as in a ridiculous short poem Free Falls by Thomas Kinsella. (You can read it with a commentary many times its length in Britain’s Guardian newspaper’s Poem of the Week for 9.12.13 where you will be assured Kinsella b.1928, “significantly helped shape the course of poetry in Ireland, and beyond”. By conducting it to Sam Beckett’s lavatory?)
Only Catholicism whose semper idem principle has almost automatically opposed change, fails to recognize the at once psychological and spiritual principle, that there is a duty to seek change for the sake of soul, and even for spiritual health and progress to question religion as mere tradition and “to let the dead bury their dead”. Biblically God is portrayed as departing from the Jerusalem temple (Ezek 10:18) when a certain level of evil is exceeded, this in itself a declaration that no institution however venerable is automatically, eternally sacrosanct in the eyes of God. The Judaeo-Christian tradition always declares “come out of her my people” (Rev 18:4 ) the reason being “so that you do not partake in her sins….so that you do not share in her plagues”. Christianity is, or should be, less about tradition than the in-break and formation of the new. In our own times and faced with certain features of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has proposed, (what Christians seem fearful of doing even while Christians are persecuted by Muslims and denied the legal right to use the Allah word in some places), namely that Muslims should reject their faith and become either atheists or Christians or (more recently she concedes) at least definitively reject the traditions of Sharia Law.
In The Invention of Ireland (1995) Declan Kiberd proposes the Protestant perspective could have been more used and useful to Ireland. I agree. Maybe reform is yet possible for Irish Catholicism, but as the author of Temple Mysteries and Spiritual Efficiency who believes religion must work for people, I feel I could go further than Kiberd and maintain it’s probably high time Ireland abandoned the Catholicism it seems no longer able to trust, love and believe – not abandon for pure secularism which would be defeatist and perhaps even impossible given certain features of the Celtic mind, but some alternative. Obviously one would not recommend surrender to anything like Paisleyite Protestantism and Ireland wouldn’t go there anyway. But anything from Orthodoxy to Charismatics might serve….anything in order to start again and actually to exert a spiritual will, to integrate the levels of Celtic vision. This, where it is strong in persons, is currently sinking back into the vaguest neo-paganism, new ageism or perhaps Buddhism, going everywhere and nowhere like the repeated ambiguities of Bono lyrics or an agnostic Heaney advising in Doubletake,
….“Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells”.
If even Latin America has been casting off Catholicism usually for Protestant alternatives, why not Ireland if it would help cauterize the wounds and go somewhere definite?
I think there can be no question but that influences on Irish leaders of opinion stemming from Joyce and Beckett and their often slavish successors colour the social outlook and have favoured poetic themes in a way to justify a certain victimology, a culture of complaint and aimless protest much of it just a Beckettian sinking Winnie passivity. And we readers of such authors are even encouraged by the guides and critics of their productions to take a “poor Joyce” and still more a “poor Beckett” line in estimation of their lives and work. Contrary to Yeats’ meaningful dictum “in dreams begin responsibilities”, it as though these artists’ deliberate life choices meant little or nothing. Especially depression in the style of Beckett somehow excuses speaking darkness and a sitting-Murphy despair to the rest of the world at every opportunity –the sort of thing some of us like myself, who has suffered clinical depression, have made actual effort to avoid.
We need moreover to wake up and realize that like the bad tree which can only produce bad fruit, in pursuit of their aims these persons have, however unwittingly, contributed to establish new and unacceptable restrictions. Obviously much censorship in Joyce’ youth was absurd and we have all heard of how the accomplished prose of Dubliners got refused for publication because of inclusion of the word bloody. Yet a century later admirers and inheritors of the Joycean legacy are not themselves without their prejudices and the society which readily tolerates what today would have the likes of Beckett executed if he were a Muslim for repeated profanities, behind the scenes can prove controversially censoring in the area of religion and much else. Even to include such words as “conduct” and “bestow” can be sufficient to refuse you publication.
I had no special intention to make this article personal, and I don’t really have any need now that the scandals and injustices experienced in relation to persons of the literary establishments and publishing is available for anyone to read as an aspect of my memoir Reflections of an Only Child. (amzn.to/1rRagvl). However if I do include a personal note at this point, it’s because while preparing this article I received from The Irish Review, and not unexpectedly – I only applied to satisfy pressures on me to do so – an incoherent refusal from a writer (ironically and almost hilariously of all people the author of Deconstructing Ireland) as regards a request for some exposure of my poetry.
I was informed in one and half lines they couldn’t publish “it”, whatever poem could have been meant by “it”, since I’d suggested seeing a collection of verse (New Poems and Two Celtic Dramas) from which something might have been selected. As self-recommendation I had pointed out a poetic drama of mine on a Celtic theme had been performed in Australia. I also suggested my Coming To Syracuse mini epic could be looked at on my blog [it’s now a 6 part Canadian made You Tube video at http://bit.ly/1pi8Hn1 ] as proof of some basic competence in poetry (It would be too long for their publication so I didn’t offer it for such). As no one from specifically Ireland visited the poem between my sending the email and receiving the refusal two days later, plainly those of The Irish Review didn’t bother to check.
Had he/they done so, it would have been clear, apart from shortage of space or a special theme of the month such as could have been told me, there would be at least no moral right to refuse me. Any occasionally expressed claim of mine to be writing and as a Protestant of Irish nationality closest to Yeats in theme and style is not any boast but a statement of fact. I am more inclined to the mythic, metaphysical and visionary theme, and I deserve the attention denied me and not for the first time, but continuously in Ireland for anything poetic or otherwise. And I could well demand it in the face of the sometimes insulting and selfish way those of the diaspora are too easily dismissed as having no inheritance, no stake in anything Irish at all. (I can’t imagine Jews or Italians suffering the same kind of treatment). I suspect what the refused “it” was and which damned me, was that I also mentioned, (and I admit I was testing the waters!), that he could also look on the Net at my (quite popular) Remembering Seamus Heaney. No one today is allowed to blaspheme the Heaney god. He is Irish poetry, even if some of us like Camille Paglia (who refused to anthologize him) would consider him third class Yeats.
“OUT OF SHAPE FROM TOE TO TOP”
Well might Yeats’ valedictory Under Ben Bulben almost prophetically declare:
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top…
“Well made” here is key. Poetry (above the simple entertainment level) is first and foremost the art of excellence. It’s because it is about excellence that Yeats like his virtual mentor, Shelley, often felt that what he had produced was not quite good enough. ”True” poetry is what is as distinctively finished as a piece of sculpture or memorable as the strains of a major symphony. And despite the self-doubt, it was this absolute quality that at his best Yeats was able to achieve and it’s why he continues to be internationally celebrated. Obviously he wouldn’t have appreciated those many Irish poets who have followed him who are too often writing what is almost an anti-poetry that has not issued from heart and intellect working in harmony. And there is something else here.
It is an admitted embarrassment that the elderly Yeats should have leaned towards fascist views of genetics and eugenics and that his Under Ben Bulben too baldly refers to the new Irish poets in terms of:
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base born products of base beds
but there is arguably a kernel of truth here to be considered.
POETRY THAT REMEMBERS
It was and still is yet another mistake of post-Yeats poetry that it too lightly assumed there is scarcely anything Irish to represent whether through the “remembering” of Yeats’ Great Memory (read Collective Unconscious) or raw temperament. By the latter I mean those things like a sense of rhythm, pattern, even a way of observing people and objects that seems as distinctive as La Tène Celtic art yet spontaneous and minimally acquired through cultural means.
There are two ways in which persons belong or deeply feel they belong to a country. One may do so, as the perhaps more Anglo-Irish than Irish Yeats seemed to, namely by some hard-to-understand and as good as occult principle of earth consciousness of the kind Jung accepted. It is a belief that the land itself can leave some imprint beyond any effects of culture or the length of time spent there. (Like actress Joanna Lumley, unquestionably many Anglos born in India have felt there is some “touch” of Asia left on them that time and cultural education away from it will not erase or explain). Plainly there was something in Yeats that would always want to arise and go to Innisfree or stand beneath Ben Bulben even when dying in France. Just recently I read on the Net the poem of an Irish American plainly in the grip of the same kind draw to the Irish earth itself. Some accomplished late poems of the mostly self-exiled C.Day Lewis could be deriving their strength from the principle.
The other important way one belongs to a people is – likely enough – genetically. It is almost taboo in a multicultural society to speak of race as any determinant of anything, but there may even be a hidden injustice to that position, one which obscures certain realities. How do we explain (as the last week that I have been writing this, one hears of the Lebanese son of an Australian mother and the Libyan son of a French Canadian mother, both feeling themselves different and maladjusted and turning against family, homeland and every sensible advantage to become IS fanatics.
Multiculturalism is a value system relying much on the empirical/pragmatic outlook Yeats held suspect, and it is apparent the kind of society it encourages too often produces divided, discontented even tormented individuals left to feel an impulse to realize – precisely what? It may be, and probably is, the ineradicable drumbeats of something profoundly genetic that feels unaccepted, inalienably different and struggles to reach expression beyond whatever a post-enlightenment culture of reason lays out. I have myself protested in Reflections of an Only Child what seems like the blithe indifference to questions of race and inheritance among Irish leaders of opinion. If some nations have had too much race theory, Ireland has arguably had too little, even almost none though of no people group might something like racial inheritance be more obvious – the character of the Celts is easily recognizable in the descriptions of the ancients over two millennia ago. It is too easily imagined in Ireland (and originally because pragmatic, empirical England had assumed something of the kind) that as long as a person can make a living and be fed, it doesn’t much matter where on the face of the globe they reside. Accordingly, immigration is almost regarded as necessary and convenient even while it may in fact prove quite disorientating and take a real psychological toll on individuals.
Reacquainting myself after many years with Irish poetry and its issues, I found a reading of Stan Smith’s Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity (2005) and Wes Davies’ compendious An Anthology of Irish Verse (2013) dispiriting. There were fine examples of poetry from numbers of poets, but overall I would judge the collection, especially as it covers the scene over the last two generations, trashy. Too often it presents a punkish anti-poetry in which the only Irish thing about it is the will to act and pose, in this case to act out not being Irish, to uncharacteristically understate oneself, to be cool because it’s hip, sophisticated and neo-international to be so. (As I shall inevitably be accused of exaggeration, I was pleased to read a Paris Review interview (The Art of Fiction. no 82) in which even Edna O’Brien, whose concern is with prose fiction not poetry, charging modern Ireland with just imitating Anglo-American mores).
“STILL THE INDOMITABLE IRISHY”?
If I hardly recognize any distinctive, perennial Celtic character in the poetry of especially the last thirty years (beyond perhaps, however negatively, a quality of violent/surrealistic “vision” in elements of Brendan Kennelly), it is because something counter-intuitional is going on. There is a refusal of the “remembering” which Yeats rightly considered essential to poetry, Irish or any other. It will be protested that Heaney, a poseur if ever there was one, does remember – he remembers a dark ancient bog past and a rough farmland present or recent past. But his roughness is either inauthentic or unnecessary or both. If he genuinely aimed to represent a rural coarseness he should not have weighed his verse down like an over burdened Christmas tree with jargon and obscure technical vocabulary that avoids, or substitutes for, real emotion or committed statement (a really great and passionate poet could, like Racine, say everything with only two thousand words). Also if Heaney is indifferent (as in The Early Purges) to the killing and drowning of kittens and pups, then he was just a rough cur who we can and should just dismiss as such. I can only say, as indicated in my memoir, my own forebears in Ireland didn’t take that kind of attitude towards animals despite being raised on a farm and I know plenty of Irish didn’t and don’t either. Indeed I looked up an article on the Net where some protested similar things, in one case someone insisted their people had been farmers not far from the Heaneys and didn’t approve such views. Heaney’s sentiments cannot just be excused on the basis they are only “representative” of Irish life and farmers.
In response to Early Purges words like
….Still, living displaces false sentiments
And now, when shrill pups are prodded to drown
I just shrug, “Bloody pups”, it makes sense.
one disgusted correspondent was even moved to extemporize:
Seamus is dead thank God
I hated the words of this man
Cruel and unthinking and more than a little odd
Now he’s gone, give his work an outright ban
My chief overall impression of modern Irish poetry is of so much quasi-journalism presuming to call itself verse. (And again, having arrived at that conclusion, I was again fascinated to note that from her different sphere Edna O’Brien opines in the mentioned interview that the trouble today is so many writers are just journalists). Ireland’s poets sound too often depressed, glum, sullen, resentful, mocking and shocking, even occasionally cruel like Michael Hartnett – his Pigkilling belongs with Heaney for indifference to animals – almost totally devoid of a smile and certainly lacking any good story to tell. Indeed it’s can be so remote from any light touch that isn’t outright clown-silly with Paul Muldoon (”with a stink and a stink and a stinky-stick”) that it’s hard to imagine Oscar Wilde ever came out of Ireland. It’s typical of what’s wrong that a quite well known, almost popular poem by Sean O’Riorain called Saoirse (Freedom) includes such sentiments as:
I’ll bear affection for people
without anything original
in their stockthoughts.
One can of course do that; it belongs today to various relativist and egalitarian tendencies – Yeats’ “levelling wind” – but if you surrender to the humdrum in this way you won’t be going on any Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to anywhere (certainly not to Yeats’ Byzantium) and have much to say or be at all. Ultimately most modern Irish poetry, like too much poetry elsewhere, is just a bore, an activity for in-groups, precisely the scene Yeats would encourage us to turn from and even scorn. And necessarily so if one doesn’t want to lose all sense of social, let alone literary direction.
According to one of his reviewers, the essential idea behind Colin Graham’s The Deconstruction of Ireland (2001) is that what’s called ‘Ireland’ just “stages its own deconstruction and that at every turn the idea unravels and reforms itself, always in anticipation of the next act of definition and criticism which…will be inadequately applied to it”. It follows that both affirmation and deconstruction for Ireland are but a “momentary stop on a seemingly runaway train” and Ireland, itself a concept in flux, “is a future which is always posited and never attained”.
Undeniably Ireland and our world is changing, but change is not everything; and notions of an ungraspable, indefinable “Ireland” bespeak how things are – or will just feel and seem – to the secular consciousness for which there is no “remembering” in the Yeatsian sense, little or no scope for poetry in the broadest sense as contributing to culture, and perhaps most importantly as indicated, no personal or collective willingness to take real control of the spiritual life from which so much else flows.
We inhabit an almost post-poetic age in which the magic, the mystery, the spirit of the poetic art has been lost, but which the policy direction behind the granting of bursaries, prizes, professorships of poetry, publications are almost busy helping us lose, putting what was once a fairly public medium – even when difficult, Isaiah, Dante and Shakespeare were essentially for everyone – into the hands of cliques. Yeats, even in his greatness may not be the perfect poet – who is? – and most could never reckon to follow him into ritual magic. But if poets and modern Ireland cannot regain some grip upon his magic and the magic of existence, we shall continue in the shallows rather than the heights of literature if we don’t bring it to near outright extinction. Hopefully Yeats 2015 will provide new inspiration and beginnings.