Posted on 21st March 2020
Hello and welcome to a very unexpected hiatus in the ISAIreland world- indeed, all our worlds! While we sit out the necessary delay in working with students, we are so grateful that our hinterland and coastline provides us with endless opportunities to explore the most beautiful places around Donegal, Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo. Each time I wander around the hills of Donegal, the glens of Leitrim, the Fermanagh lakelands, the karstic landscapes of Cavan, or the magnificent Sligo scenery, I am also reminded of the inspiration these places sparked in many of our poets, and how well these writers articulated the shadows and the beauty of Ireland and Irish culture through the extraordinary landscapes. And so, I have decided to create a small anthology of my favourite poems about Ireland, with what I understand to be the cultural context, and the meaning I extract from the literature. Poetry is obviously a very subjective thing – ‘what’s your favourite poem’ is as controversial a question as ‘what’s your favourite song’ – and my explorations of each poem will be based on nothing more than what I know about the poet, what I think the context might be, and how I respond to it. I am open to correction on the first two, – but nevertheless, what I really hope this will do for those of you that are not so familiar with Irish poets or Ireland itself, is match up beautiful words with beautiful places, and dig down a little bit to see how the poem functions to inform us more about Ireland and Irish ways.
Please scroll through this mini-blog, the posts are consecutive, and while it’s not essential to read them in order, I will refer back to some of the things I’ve raised as I move along – so it will make more sense to begin here at Poem 1, and work your way through the blog. Enjoy!
|When all the others were away at Mass
|The Ladies Petition
Mary Ann Allingham
|The Lost Heifer
|The Little Waves of Breffny
|Everything is going to be alright
|A Single Rose
|When You Are Old
Rita Ann Higgins
|Mirror in February
|It’s a Woman’s World
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
|A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford
|The Lake Isle of Inisfree
|Iniskeen Road: July Evening
Epic by Patrick Kavanagh.
March 20 2020
I’m going to begin with one of my favourite poets, Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh was a regular prescribed poet on the Irish high school curriculum, and almost everyone of a certain age learnt all about the ‘Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan’ and the loneliness of ‘Iniskeen Road: July EVening’. He wrote some beautiful poetry and some awful stuff too – but there is one poem for me that stands out, head and shoulders above everything else written in the early twentieth century. It is a poem called ‘Epic’, and it works on so many levels, with lines at the end that make you want to punch the air, and roar out your Irishness.
Some background; After the 17th century, Irish literature took on a new form. All that was in the Irish Language was still there, but frozen for some time as the old Irish poets became redundant. A new form would emerge – what we would call ‘Anglo-Irish poetry’, generally composed by wealthy sons and daughters of the elite. Some of this poetry is very good, and I will look into it further along the way, but these writers existed in a world of intellectual confidence and privilege, and much of it was didactic; poetry written to educate, or provoke, or show off, or influence.
Kavanagh was from County Monaghan, a rural country on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, in the province of Ulster. His background was rural and provincial, and his environment was heavily influenced by poverty- not just material poverty, but the cultural and social poverty of rural Ireland from the 1930s to the 1960s. There were not many options for a farm-boy born in Monaghan at that time- rural folk may have appeared in the poetry of Ireland as imagined by Anglo-poets, but they did, since the 17th century, write it.
Kavanagh always strikes me as someone who wrote poetry because he was compelled to find some way of expressing how utterly Irish he was- inexorably bound to the landscape, moulded and shaped by centuries of tradition, folklore, prayer, discord, conflict and staggering natural beauty. He hated it and he loved it. He was embarrassed by it, and yet he knew he had been gifted with the ability to see a glorious dimension to every crooked tree, muddy puddle and crumbling stone wall. He knew that as itchy and scratchy the rural agricultural hinterland of Ireland was, it had a beauty in it that deserved to be expressed.
The poem ‘Epic’ sees him work through this dilemma. It’s 1938, and there are two things going on. On the world stage, Hitler is sabre-rattling, and perhaps its what a poet should be contemplating. But two families, the Duffys and the McCabes are also warring, and it’s a visceral, local, all-consuming fight, passionate, climactic, personal. Kavanagh’s magnification of the local row, and reduction of Munich to ‘bother’ tell us where his sympathies lie – but is this a legitimate theme? Is it OK to make a scrappy rural falling-out into a poem?
And then he hits us- hard. Homer’s ghost, no less, is brought in, and tells our poet ‘I made the Illiad from such a local row’. And the amazing, definitive last line – wow! We’ve been told, with some swagger!
EPIC by Patrick Kavanagh
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
To conclude- I love this so much, I love its colloquial language, and the pitchforks and the angry old man exchanging curses with his neighbours, and Ballyrush and Gortin, and then the huge big leap into the classics, with the perfect landing. This, in my mind, is the poem that gives permission to anybody from any background to be a writer. It is a howl from the poet of the young republic, dying to forge forward with imagination, but being obstructed at every turn. It’s a kick at the barricades, and knocks down at least some of the things in the way of future writers.
Here are some photos of the townlands around Iniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Kavanagh’s birthplace, and the landscape of this poem. Enjoy!
When all the others were away at Mass by Seamus Heaney
March 23 2020
This poem is very well known, and came to mind as yesterday was Mother’s Day in Ireland. I was tempted to go looking for something different, but this ‘fits’ too well with our introduction to this poetry blog via Patrick Kavanagh, and also again helps us understand the landscapes of Ireland and the cultural landscape of Ireland.
Before we look at the poem, let’s look at Heaney. He was born in 1939, a year after Kavanagh wrote ‘Epic’. Heaney as poet is a more articulate, educated writer than Kavanagh, but they do have a lot in common. Both are Ulster poets, most familiar with the rituals and routines of provincial rural life, and both have an extraordinary talent to use words to transform these rituals to something very spiritual, or ethereal, or magical. Kavanagh found this voice, and burst through the farmyard gates with it- Heaney trains it, polishes it, focuses it, but to my mind, it is a similar voice.
Secondly, both Kavanagh and Heaney are impinged upon by history. Kavanagh writes a poem in 1942 titled ‘The Great Hunger’. This familiar expression usually refers to the starvation of the masses due to the potato crop failure of 1845-49. Kavanagh takes this event and ties it to a twentieth-century poverty – a poverty of companionship, culture, a social life, sex, love, – many things that seemed elusive to ordinary Irish people. Emigration had ripped the youth from home to far flung countries, and the Catholic Church cast a domineering and authoritative shadow over those that remained. In turn, Heaney must cope with this legacy, and another hunger that emerges- a hunger for peace. Both these poets feel an absence of something essential to fulfilling the potential of living in rural Ireland. Both of them see this potential in flashes, in sparks, in glimpses, through the fence post, through the barbed wire, through the rain.
A third factor to think about here are the women. I am keenly aware I have begun my blog with two male poets, and not for a second do I want either you to think that there are not enough female writers to write about, or that they are not among my favourites – there are, and they are. However, the landscape of Irish writing in the last three centuries is masculine, segregated, unrepresentative, discriminatory, and it reflects a geography and a society that gave little space to women in any area besides the kitchen, the bedroom, and the male imagination. Much of the work of Irish women writers would be to (is to) dismantle the misogynistic structures given to them, grieve for the losses between the many gaping cracks of this structure, and reimagine a literature in which they can fit. All of this has happened, and we will get to it.
Now to the poem. Heaney wrote a sequence of sonnets, dedicated to his mother, Kathleen, and this, the third in that sequence, reconstructs a childhood memory of peeling potatoes. Even this first image contains so much information about Ireland around the 1940s. Everyone- absolutely everyone went to Mass on Sunday. There was usually an early Mass, and a later mass, and of course, mothers were up first every morning, so they would often get themselves out first, and the rest of the family later. I couldn’t help thinking it might have been the one time of the week that the woman might have some time to herself- it was probably the only hour in the week that one could be sure where everyone was, or was supposed to be.
So young Heaney is, for some reason, home with his Mam, and for that precious time, he is ‘all hers’. Again- we are in an era of large families- Heaney was the eldest of nine children – so ‘quality time’ between parents and children was a rare and precious gift. There is silence as mother and son peel potatoes together-broken only by ‘little pleasant splashes’ as the skins fall. The silence seems intimate and peaceful, even dream-like, for them both.
We are propelled into a much noisier scene – a deathbed, where a priest’s prayers are furiously fast and loud – ‘hammer and tongs’ – and the cacophony is added to by mechanical responses, and crying. There is no comfort in this for our poet. He returns to the scene so beautifully described at the beginning of the poem, and adds more intimacy – heads bent together, ‘her breath in mine’. And the last line does what it should do, which is make you well up, and blink away a tear!
It also strikes me that the relationship -poignant as it is, has been one of silence. Did Kathleen or her son actually verbalise their closeness at any stage? The poet here is able to turn the memory into an expressed understanding of love – but that’s his art. But could she? Irish writing is filled the pain of words unspoken (see ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ by Brian Friel), parents and children who could not say what they felt. We have the Catholic priest intrude, (again, see ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’), with his prayers and platitudes, words that have lost their power. The poet and the priest have access to words, however they work. What of Kathleen? She breathes for the boy, she feeds the boy, she inspires and inhabits his work, but we do not know what she thinks. And this, my friends, is all too frequently where the women are in Irish poetry- but we shall return to this theme elsewhere.
Anyway, enjoy the poem, a few pics of Bellaghy, County Derry to accompany it, and happy Mother’s Day, whenever you celebrate it.
‘FROM CLEARANCES, SONNET 3’ by Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
The Ladies Petition by Mary Ann Allingham (1803-1855)
March 25 2020
In the last blog post, I referred to the absence of women’s poetry in collections of nineteenth century Irish literature, and this is today’s topic. I wrote in my Kavanagh post that Irish writing was dominated by the elites – they had the education and the money – and this is where you will find the majority of published women. However, although women’s poetry exists, it is practically invisible, and has been, until very recently, ignored. And if you’ll bear with me, I want to use this poem of Mary Ann Allingham’s to illustrate why we should put our women writers into our literary history, and dismiss the reasoning that has kept them out.
When I studied English literature in high school, and later taught it, the standard poetry textbook remained unchanged. This book was called ‘Soundings’ and for twenty-six years, all Irish students studied, to some degree, the poetry contained within. Four of the featured poets were Irish – W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and Austin Clarke. Nineteen were British or American. All of them were white. There was one female poet, Emily Dickinson. A woman famous for self-isolating from the world, and feeling funerals in her brain. Brilliant as she is, and she is, there was not much in the textbook for the thousands of young Irish women with which to identify. So rather than find a gender rung to cling onto, I went for nationality – the Irish poets were familiar, mostly in their rendering of Ireland as either hostile or divided or mystically rural.
We did study Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, the romantics, – I could quote you lines from Wordsworth and Shelly until Kavanagh’s cows came home, but we did not read one line of a poem by an Irish woman over a period of twenty-six years. Shocking, right? What is more shocking is that subliminally, we must have concluded that the women were not there because their poetry wasn’t good enough.
Finally, the curriculum was revised, and more female poets added, although it’s still not 50/50, and there is zero representation of any poet of colour on the current syllabus. Still shocking. I hear people complain that adding women’s texts to the canon is a victory for political correctness over literary value. I have heard this argument over and over, by people I respect and admire, and it is not only misguided, but actually detrimental to an appreciation of the true literary culture we enjoy. I regret that many of the poems I know (and love) for so long are not by women, but a favourite poem is not only about content, but it’s where we read it, who we thought about, how we responded, where we would use it again. I will always have a place in my heart for Yeats, Hopkins, Shakespeare- because I would never want to undo the delightful literary explorations that brought their poems to me- but I really wish that my teachers had spent an equal amount of time bringing me into women’s’ worlds, Irish women’s worlds. I have been spending as much time as I can doing this for myself ever since.
So how do we overcome the notion that nineteenth century /twentieth century women’s poetry ‘isn’t as good’? Snort, and say ‘yes it is’ works for me most of the time J but here’s the crucial point- women’s writing is different. It’s apples and oranges, because, for the most part, women occupied a different place in the world to men, literally and culturally, their viewpoint was different. The majority of poets I studied were peripatetic creatures, wandering o’er vales and hills with their notebooks in hand, contemplating nature, God, beautiful women and great Art. Many (and I’m talking about British and American white men here), had the benefit of a classical education, of libraries, of travel, and all of them, even the rural Kavanagh, had an agency and freedom that few women would or could have.
Women’s writing has been subject to boundaries. Domestic spaces are frequently places of labour and confinement; not too many opportunities for oft reclining on one’s couch. Work, marriage, children, illness, obligation, duty, loyalty, and most of all, an absence of choice are frequently so present in women’s writing, and this creates a different poetry. It can only be considered ‘lesser’ if women’s lives and their preoccupations, imaginations, ambitions and desires are considered ‘lesser’-and we surely are past that?
I have chosen this poem by Mary Ann Allingham as an easy illustration of this difference. Allingham was born and raised in Ballyshannon, County Donegal; – she was a published poet and travel writer. Her handwritten manuscripts were discovered in Trondheim, Norway, by scholar Eva Hov, who recognized their importance, and deserves much credit for recovering these texts. Allingham corresponded with her Norwegian nephew for years, sending him poems, stories and texts that reveal her as a well-read, complex, frustrated, playful, witty, lonely individual with a deep connection with nature and the outdoors, particularly the landscapes of Donegal. She also sent her poems to publishers, and was published and plagiarized in several magazines and books. Despite her publication, she is virtually unknown, and even her own nephew, William, who would become much more famous as an Irish poet, declined to credit her as a serious poet.
Ballyshannon is a plantation town built on a steep hill, with the Erne River at the bottom, a popular scenic spot for the more privileged families of the area. Allingham’s family were Protestant elites, but she was not wealthy, and her poems often refer to money troubles and her reliance on the generosity of others.
In this poem, Allingham appeals to the gentlemen of Ballyshannon to do something about the dirty pavements of the town. Men, practically attired, can comfortably ignore the mucky pathways and devote themselves to full enjoyment of the local scenery. The women, in their long skirts, are distracted from this pleasure; – the froth of the waterfall only reminds them of the washing they will have to do when they get home. Allingham asks that the men use their ‘carts and horses, your money and goodwill’ to rectify the situation, and promises them the everlasting gratitude of the ladies of the town.
While on the surface, it is a playful complaint, it is a brilliant illustration of two different approaches to nature. She creates dazzling images of nature- a crimson sunset, sparking waterfalls – but they are not accessible to her – she repeats the phrase ‘in vain’ to emphasize how empty these experiences are rendered if she can only think about the practical outcomes, the inevitable attrition, labour, expense, effort. There is also a clear dependence- men have the means, the tools, the money to fix these things, – the women do not. Allingham is asking (nicely) for a pathway to the world that men enjoy; she sees it, and she wants it, but she cannot have it unless they help her. Lurking under the niceness is a controlled wit- her ‘tail of woe’ is a frisky pun, and her reference to ‘evil ways’ appears to be an exaggerated appeal to the men’s moral guardianship.
This poem is not well known, and if not for Eva Hov, it would never have seen the light of day, but I enjoy it for many reasons. It’s about a local town that I know, the scenery is familiar to me, and to any of you who have been to Ballyshannon. But more importantly, it can be easily unpacked to illustrate how gender inequality manifests itself in writing – there will be an alternative gaze, because of different priorities, and poetry like this must be included so that readers can find themselves in the texts. I hope you enjoy this- practically no-one has read Allingham, myself and Eva think you should!
THE LADIES PETITION
–Requesting the Gentlemen to Mend their Ways
by Mary Ann Allingham
Who walk about in Boots;
You little think how ill the wet
And dirt, a Lady suits
Mark well our Tails of Woe! And sure
They will your hearts appal
As we sweep- ankle deep
Thro’ the Mud upon our Mall
A day may smile most brightly;
To tempt us forth to walk
In vain we look for pleasant paths
Thro’ mire alone we stalk;
In Vain our Beaus may talk to us
We can’t to give them ear
As we try with a sigh
Thro’ the wet and dirt to steer
In Vain, in light and splendour
The glorious Sun goes down,
We cannot be beholding him
And be holding to our gown
In vain do gold and crimson clouds
Adorn the western sky
For the spots and black dots
On our dress is all we spy
In vain the roaring waters
Rush sparkling down the fall
We cannot look upon the stream
Sad thoughts it would recall;
We would think upon the wash Tub
When the frothy foam we’d see
Like Soap suds, where our duds
After Promenade must be.
Then grudge not your assistance
But kindly take in hand
To strew out path with Gravel
Brought from the pebbly strand
Oh! Let your carts and horses
Your money and good will
Be at hand, at command
For to serve the Ladies still
Then ye Ballyshannon Gentlemen
Unto our walks attend;
And, Oh! In pity aid us
Our evil ways to mend
So for your well fare ever
We in duty bound shall pray
That your feet, still may meet
All thro life a smooth path way.
The Lost Heifer by Austin Clarke
March 25 2020
Hello everyone. Today’s choice of poem was inspired by a walk across the hills, and some meditation on the wet and lovely landscapes that surround us, especially here in Donegal. There is almost always rain, or mist, or water in the grasses and the bogs, and almost always a ray of sunshine coming from somewhere. While many might complain about the weather in Ireland, I rarely find it ‘bad’ – it is never really cold (as in Wisconsin cold) and it is never hot hot (as in North Carolina hot). There is nothing to fear in the outdoors- we don’t have bugs or bears or snakes or anything that you have to avoid. There are some days when hailstones can slap you sideways, or dark clouds can sink so low over the mountains that they are rendered invisible -but generally I find that as long as you have an old pair of boots to pull on, a warm hat and a pair of gloves, it is always worth exploring outdoors.
As I was walking along, the sun briefly peeped out from behind an ominous looking cloud, and for a moment, the wet rushes (grasses) around me looked like they were tinted with silver, and a beam of light saturated the far fields. The line of poetry that came to mind was ‘brightness was drenching through the branches’. It described exactly what I was seeing.
It is also impossible to walk through the Irish fields and bogs without a sense of history – there is almost always some character from mythology associated with wherever we go- Queen Maeve of Connacht, Diarmuid and Grainne, Finn McCool, the Children of Lir – all of these powerful old stories are rooted in this dramatic landscape, and every Irish child hears of them when they are young. But there are also lots of scars on the landscape from other events in the Irish past- deserted famine villages, walls and piers build during the public works schemes, old stone crosses, passage tombs, castle ruins- history is never far away, and gives the landscape even more meaning, as you walk through it. It is not simply a walk through nature, it is a walk through time.
As I mentioned before, it was quite a challenge for modern poets to create, or recreate this sense of Ireland, in the English language. However, one poet that really rises to that challenge is Austin Clarke, the author of that line of poetry that stuck in my head. It comes from the poem below, titled ‘The Lost Heifer’, and it is a strange little poem – almost impressionist in style. You can read various interpretations of what or who the heifer was supposed to be, but that’s really not the point. There are two lovely things happening here- a combination of very irish images – herds of rain, pure cold wind, silver out of dark grasses – but there is also a unique approach to the sounds within this poem. The internal rhyming form that was used by Irish language poets is adopted here, to give a very ‘Irish’ sound to the poem- it is musical, (if you get technical and look under the bonnet you’ll see that he has loaded the lines with assonance and sibilance) – but we don’t need to deconstruct it like this – just read it out loud, and let it sing to you, it will bring you into the landscape and the history in a way the best poetry can do. Enjoy the poem, and some photos below.
THE LOST HEIFER by Austin Clarke
When the black herds of the rain were grazing,
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery hazes of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.
Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning sliver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain.
The Little Waves of Breffny by Eva Gore-Booth
April 1 2020
Hi everyone. Last week, I had the pleasure of rambling to a little harbour in County Sligo, called Raghly, which has, at its entrance, the old home of the Gore-Booth Family. The Gore-Booths relocated a little further up the coast to Lissadell House in the 1830s, and in 1870, Eva Gore-Booth was born there. Eva Gore-Booth is one of the most interesting women writers and activists of her time, but her story has often been overshadowed by her famous sister, Constance Markievicz. However, Eva is a fascinating woman in her own right, and it was her poetry that came to mind as I walked along the Sligo coastline.
Eva was very sensitive and appreciative of her privilege, and also aware of the very beautiful part of Ireland in which she lived. She was also very aware of injustice and inequality, and having been inspired by Esther Roper, who would become her life partner, she set up a branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association in Sligo, with herself as secretary, sister Constance as president, and her other sister, Mabel Gore-Booth , as treasurer. She then moved to Manchester to work with Roper to campaign for female suffrage, and for improved wages and conditions for women in the textile industry. In 1913, illness forced Eva to move to London, where she continued to be involved in campaigns on animal welfare, capital punishment, and anti-war sentiment. She fought on until ill-health finally forced her to retire from much of her political work, but continued to write, until her untimely death in 1926. If you would like to read more about Eva Gore-Booth, I highly recommend Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics by Sonja Tiernan
A constant theme in Gore-Booth’s poetry is the beauty and serenity of the natural world, especially the area around Lissadell House. What I love about this poem in particular is the physical connection she makes between the locality and who she is. She acknowledges that the little roads and breezes and waves that she witnessed as a young girl are a part of her, – the powerhouses of her identity – heart, mind and soul – are indelibly forged and interwoven with the gentler, constant aspects of the seascapes.
Like Mary Ann Allingham’s poetry before, there is no great loquaciousness or ostentatiousness about the language. It is a simple poem, focused on the small and the still – and the power of the small and the still to prevail, even of the face of worldly turbulence. Her strength is drawn from steadfastness, endurance, constancy and respect for the things that shaped her in her youth.
This is a poem to take with you around the coast of Sligo, as I did, two Sundays ago. You can wander the backroads of Cloonagh, and every cove of the coast will offer you a sheltered spot to watch the waves lap against the beach, timeless and beautiful. Here’s the poem, see below for some photos of this area, and pencil in a visit to Lissadell for your next trip to Ireland.
THE LITTLE WAVES OF BREFFNY by Eva Gore-Booth
The grand road from the mountain goes shining to the sea,
And there is traffic in it and many a horse and cart,
But the little roads of Cloonagh are dearer far to me,
And the little roads of Cloonagh go rambling through my heart.
A great storm from the ocean goes shouting o’er the hill,
And there is glory in it and terror on the wind,
But the haunted air of twilight is very strange and still,
And the little winds of twilight are dearer to my mind.
The great waves of the Atlantic sweep storming on their way,
Shining green and silver with the hidden herring shoal,
But the Little Waves of Breffny have drenched my heart in spray,
And the Little Waves of Breffny go stumbling through my soul.
Everything is going to be Alright by Derek Mahon
April 3 2020
There is no doubt that right now, we are living in strange and troubling times. Our news reports are full of death counts and isolation commands, and many of us have anxieties moving in on various fronts- health, work, family, neighbours, friends… it’s sometimes hard to find happy moments to sustain us. As you’ll know from this blog, and from the photography series splendid isolation, my way of keeping cheerful is to wander outside, by the beach, or over a mountain, or down a country lane, or wherever I can find nature. I also find the same consolation wandering through poetry, and very often, the two collide beautifully. As I have already mentioned, Irish experience is rooted in the landscape, and therefore Irish poetry often finds its imagery there, digging into our weather, our bogs, our stonescapes and seascapes for the metaphors that will make the verses uniquely Irish.
I found this poem many years ago, and it is so lovely and simple, and appropriate for these days. It is also a poem you can use no matter where you are- the poem itself assures you that even if you do not have the direct sensations of being outside, the evidence of these facts of nature exist- the poet himself is behind a window, and the sea is merely reflected for him, but that is enough for him to get out of his physical boundaries and into a more hopeful space.
He acknowledges briefly that ‘there will be dying, there will be dying’ – and this repetitive, slow-paced line hints to the inevitability of death for everyone, for generations to come. This melancholy fact is dismissed quickly, and replaced by the energy of the flow of poetry from the watchful heart to the hand- he is alive now, everything is working, the earth is turning, and the sun is shining. And there is such consolation in the simplicity of the final line – it’s what we say when we are sad, it’s how we reassure our friends and family when they are sad – it’s what we want to hear ourselves. I have gone to this poem many times, and it remains one of the most comforting I know. I hope it works for you. Enjoy!
EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT by Derek Mahon
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
You might enjoy this clip of acclaimed Irish actor Andrew Scott reading the poem.
A Single Rose by Leland Bardwell
April 6 2020
Hello everyone. If you are following this blog, you will know that I am keen to expose the Irish landscape through my favourite poetry written in the last two centuries or so – and that a major epiphany I have had while gathering my favourite poems was realising how few of the women poets of Ireland came automatically to mind. Partly, this is because when I was at school, I was taught few poems written by women. Secondly, when my job was teaching poetry, there were few poems by women on the curriculum. The poems I know, I have found by browsing, and reading anthologies, and I hold on to them like gold nuggets, and wonder why I had to do a lot of sifting through much mediocre muck to find these! Still, I love when a poem jumps off a page and whacks you on the side of the head, and says ‘you need to know this’. And here is one where exactly that happened.
We have to also acknowledge the variety of ways in which we define ‘Irish landscape’. We do ourselves a disservice if we limit this to a horizontal platform of geography and scenery. There is a social landscape, a political landscape, an economic landscape, a historic landscape, a mythical landscape and imaginary landscapes to be considered. I do think that these landscapes are, by twists and turns of history, more visible in the topography than they might be in other places, and it’s one of many reasons that Ireland is a wonderful place to visit, but today’s poem is restricted to a morgue and a reference to brown cauliflower. And it still speaks volumes.
For many women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, their immediate landscape was one of prohibition. So much of the world was forbidden. Irish women were shackled to the domestic environment by the law, by the church, by their bodies, until very recently. It is a dramatic and essential difference in the poetry of Irish men and Irish women. Where you do find nature in the poetry of Irish women, it is usually symbolic of escape. There is a vast vast body of sadness, missed opportunity, pain and endurance in Irish women’s poetry, and I do believe we are only beginning to unpack that pain now.
So you may ask- did Irish male poets articulate pain? Yes, absolutely. Gerard Manly Hopkins’ terrible sonnets deliver mental anguish in 3D , we’ve mentioned Kavanagh’s isolation as artist and as man, Yeats’ lugubrious heart-ache is ever-present, and I’ll introduce you to Thomas Kinsella’s mid-life crisis in an upcoming blog (scarily, it was at the age of thirty-three!) – but I think each of these poets also found the flip-side of their tribulations too. Access to joy was available to them, and so was self-pity, which I’ll suggest, is a privileged emotion. They had a gamut of intensity to play with, and they did.
I think that Irish women poets had to use different tactics to counterbalance the pain – frequently they use comedy, or sarcasm, or shock tactics. We’ll explore this theory as we go along. Let’s acknowledge that it was very difficult to be a female Irish poet, and then to be taken seriously as a writer. A poet who rose to that challenge was Leland Bardwell, 1922-2016. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of her, and yet, her life story is that of a genuine rebel, a woman who overcame almost untenable circumstances and remained faithful to writing. You’ve probably heard salacious stories of Shelley and Byron and love triangles and all sorts of shenanigans, I read these too, and this seemed to add to the allure and romanticism of these writers- love, sex, opium, poetry!
Well, Bardwell had a very colourful life, – she did, of course, end up with the children after the partnerships and affairs, and the responsibility for taking care of them, she outraged Catholic Ireland, and was never fully accepted by her peers, despite her obvious commitment to her art. I can’t help thinking that if she were a he, we’d have read much more of her, and about her, and seen the movie. If you like the sound of her, her memoir is called A Restless Life (2008), published by Liberties Press.
This poem is short and simple, as she imagines her own post-mortem, and the comments of the students as they observe her internal organs. She imagines their derision, as they witness the evidence of a dissolute life. Her lungs and liver are shot – and she is judged. But she knows what they will find, and implies that she is at peace with every decision she has made.
I’m not going to say much more, I’ll let the poem do its work, and hope that it slaps you on the side of your head and says ‘remember me’. Stay safe!
A SINGLE ROSE by Leland Bardwell
I have willed my body to the furthering of science
Although I’ll not be there
to chronicle my findings
I can imagine all the students
poring over me:
“My God, is that a liver?
And those brown caulifowers are lungs?”
“Yes, sir, a fine example of how not to live.”
“And what about the brain?”
“Alas the brain. I doubt if this poor sample
ever had one.” As with his forceps
he extracts a single rose.
The photograph used is of a ceramic rose person, by artist Eva Marie Restel. Do visit her site to read the very moving back story of these beautiful pieces. I am the lucky owner of a rose person, thanks to my dear friends Carol & Liz, and it seemed to be the perfect illustration of this poem.
When You Are Old by W.B.Yeats
April 10 2020
Hello everyone, I hope you are enjoying the blog so far. Today, I’ve decided it’s time we gave a nod to W.B. Yeats- probably the most famous Irish poet, and arguably the best of the lot. He certainly is prolific- he had a long life, and was intensely engaged with Irish culture from a young age, and pursued his craft with absolute dedication, not only as a poet, but as mentor, playwright, political commentator, and unrequited lover. I feel that Yeats is very like our own Bono – love him, hate him, or ponder on his dubious outbursts of commentary, his craft is truly beautiful – the words are always working to create the loaded textures of Ireland- in image, in language, in nuance, in articulation. In other words, despite being a bit of an oddball, each poem is a wonderland of its own, extremely accessible, evocative of Ireland in a novel way, and his art was tremendously influential for every writer who came after.
The internet and the bookstores are filled with texts on Yeats, – you can read up on his connections with the North-West of Ireland, his role as poet, politician, cultural reformer, his fascination with the occult, his myriad of relationships, and many other aspects of an intriguing writer. I’ll certainly choose more of his poems as this blog travels along – but I’m going to begin with my favourite of them all, a love poem simply titled ‘When You Are Old’.
The subject of this poem is, of course, the love of his life, Maud Gonne. This one-sided romance is also well documented, and Yeats’ ongoing condition of heartbreak probably endears us to him in ways that his more didactic poetry would not. Yeats proposed marriage many times, and each time Maud refused him. I do have certain reservations about the relationship, probably best summed up by a local illustrator, Annie West, who has a series of Yeats cartoons poking fun at the old curmudgeon. One of them shows a reclining, pot-bellied Yeats in a domestic setting, with a harried-looking Maud cleaning up around him, -illustrating what might have been if Maud had said ‘Yes’. Maud Gonne herself said to Yeats, “you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness, and are happy in that… [T]he world should thank me for not marrying you.”
Yeats came up with various strategies to deal with Maud Gonne’s rejection. In ‘No Second Troy’, he takes twelve lines to construct a magnificent justification for her refusal of him – and manages to take a swipe at her friends and her activities in the process. He always seemed to struggle with the fact that she just wasn’t that into him, and it seemed to feed his imagination and his introspection consistently.
The beauty of this is, of course, that loving someone who does not return the favour is entirely relatable, whether you are poet, pauper or president. The experience is ubiquitous and universal, and allows the reader to easily transpose the poet’s feelings for their own. When that poet is a wordsmith extraordinaire, as Yeats is, the journey for the reader is emotional and deeply felt. I think this is why Yeats is so loved outside of academia. He has had his own heart-strings pulled, by romantic love, by love of country, by love of culture, and he has the words to tangle us up easily in these desires.
‘When you are old’ manages to pay the deepest compliment to the love of his life, but what makes it human, and intoxicating, and believable is that he can’t quite exit this grand paean without self-consolation. Is it a bitter dig? I don’t think so, but I do think that Yeats’ ego always needed to believe that one day, his love would regret her choices. She will always be the one who got away- he will always seek the happy ending, and if not in reality, then in imagination.
The poem opens in the imagination, leaping forward to a time when the subject of his poem is ‘old and grey and full of sleep/ nodding by the fire’. A whole new fantasy is created – his beloved is a doddery old woman, devoid of energy, youth and power. He invites her then to reflect on the lovers she has had in the past – those who loved her for precisely those qualities – her beauty, her body, her sensuality. They must be now dismissed, because she is no longer that woman. He reminds her that there was one man – himself, of course- whose love went beyond the cosmetic, the physical. He tells her (and this is probably my favourite single line in the whole of poetry)
‘One man loved the pilgrim soul in you’
The choice of ‘pilgrim soul’ is so odd, and so at odds with all of the other characteristics. Souls don’t age – a pilgrim soul is always searching, on a spiritual quest for the deep meaning of the world. Coming from Yeats, who was deeply intellectual, and constantly searching for the meaning of things, this is a massive compliment. He says his love went beyond anything corporeal or sexual. It is an incredible declaration in a very simple line.
However, can he leave it at that? Unfortunately not. He imagines her reflecting on this, and regretting her loss. Oh William! In beautiful poetry, he describes the love that once could have been hers gone forever, hidden in the mountains. He leaves her, in his imagination, sadly looking to the stars for the soul mate that was lost.
I’ll leave you to read it yourself- the rhythm is like a lullaby, it’s a poem for a late night glass of wine, and a wistful wander down what-could-have-been lane. Go with it! I think despite the sentiments, it is the poet himself who is sighing, and I like to think that Maud would have poured a glass of wine, taken down the book, ripped out that page, stuck it in the fire, lit herself a cigarette, and had a good old husky chortle at the chap who couldn’t take no for an answer! Enjoy!
WHEN YOU ARE OLD By William Butler Yeats
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Some People by Rita Ann Higgins
April 13 2020
Hello readers. I want to return to some women writers, and I will alert you to the fact, mentioned previously, that Irish women writers often use techniques of shock, humour and the inversion of certain established concepts in their work. It’s well proven that such tactics can focus attention where attention is scarce, it also drags language into the dusty, dirty corners that women see, and speak of with a voice that differs from the voice put in their mouths by the old masters. You might reflect of the representation of women in the canon of poetry – frequently delicate muses, passive victims of fate, or cruel agents of vindictiveness – goddesses, queens, crones, take your pic. Rarely are the women nuanced or humanized, and rarely are they seen to be dealing with reality. One of the few classic poets to have some fun with this was ole Shakespeare- you may recall his sonnet which begins ‘My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun’ – he writes;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
But Shakespeare was brilliant, so that’s as expected!
Anyway, I’m going to introduce you to an Irish woman writer named Rita Ann Higgins. She is all of the things I have spoken of- funny, explicit, shocking, profound. This poem is called ‘Some People’ and it is a poem about social justice. Higgis was born in 1955, one of eleven children. She left school at the age of 14, and worked for a time in various local factories. Her sense of activism and social justice came to the fore during the 70s, a time of serious poverty in many working-class parts of Irish cities. This poem highlights the many injustices visited upon the poor families in a sequence of shocking and visceral images- beginning with a devastating opening which you will, and should find disturbing and violent. She wants you to, so you are immediately angry, maybe even offended. Direction in mis-direction; if you are outraged by the use of the ‘c-word’ in a private encounter between you and a poet, imagine what it would be like to be called this in front of your children?
Having woken up the tin-foil edges of your sensitivities, Higgins describes the litany of indignities which are all part of the experience of poor Irish mothers – no money for the basic necessities- rent, light, education – then the delay of accessing healthcare – for painful, urgent conditions; toothache, varicose veins.
She then veers off to address any options the poor have of realistically changing their circumstances- the comical scenario of practicing for a job interview by talking to a banana is as likely – well, talking into a banana.
The hopelessness becomes generational, as the children become the front line of defence- telling the various money collectors that Mammy’s not home – she’s in Space, she’s in Puerto Rico, she’s dead- chidish imagination and fantasy is invested in protecting the family from harassment. The list rains down like short, sharp slaps of belittlement, until the final line, which is the cruellest of them all.
It’s a terrific poem, working on the simple phrase ‘to be’ – go back to Shakespeare again, and you’ll be reminded how ‘to be’ is everything… the condition of humanity should be fair, it should be sparing of a constant string of indignities… and of course, there is the implication that we should not allow these conditions to exist for anyone. Enjoy!
SOME PEOPLE (for Eoin) – Rita Ann Higgins
Some people know what it’s like,
to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light
to be short for school books
to wait in Community Welfare waiting-rooms full of smoke
to wait two years to have a tooth looked at
to wait another two years to have a tooth out (the same tooth)
to be half strangled by your varicose veins, but you’re
198th on the list
to talk into a banana on a jobsearch scheme
to talk into a banana in a jobsearch dream
to be out of work
to be out of money
to be out of fashion
to be out of friends
to be in for the Vincent de Paul man
to be in space for the milk man
(sorry, mammy isn’t in today she’s gone to Mars for the weekend)
to be in Puerto Rico this week for the blanket man
to be in Puerto Rico next week for the blanket man
to be dead for the coal man
(sorry, mammy passed away in her sleep, overdose of coal
in the teapot)
to be in hospital unconscious for the rent man
(St Judes ward 4th floor)
to be second-hand
to be second-class
to be no class
to be looked down on
to be walked on
to be pissed on
to be shat on
and other people don’t.
Mirror in February by Thomas Kinsella
April 17 2020
Hello, and welcome back to the poetry blog. I promised you earlier in this thread that we would have a look at Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, and I had this poem in mind, – it was on the syllabus for the Irish Leaving Certificate, so I had to teach it many times, and I loved it myself, but like many of the prescribed poems I was obliged to introduce to seventeen-year olds, I often felt that it was really difficult for young adolescents to grasp the theme of ageing, – or unfair to ask them to dilute all of their own natural hope, ambition and joie de vivre with musings on the mid-life crisis. I’m assuming that my blog readers are a little older, and more familiar with reflecting on the disappearance of youth, and the need to reconcile oneself with new realities. But essentially, I think the poem is optimistic, and more importantly, forgiving, which I like.
As I write this, we are in the middle of our Covid-19 lock down, and many of us are removed from cosmetic comforts- without access to barbers and hairdressers and beauticians, we may be seeing, or presenting ourselves a little more honestly than usual. On the other hand, I have loved the spirited retaliation of our over 70s citizens, who are fuming at being kept indoors and ‘cocooned’. As recently as yesterday, an eighty-year old woman interviewed on radio said ‘I never think of myself as old. In my mind, I am the same as I was when I was twenty’. I love her, obviously, but we do have epiphanies in our lifetime when we are suddenly aware that our external appearance is no longer faithful to the youth we wish not to surrender. And many of us try, in various ways, to resist that physical betrayal by our own body – but there comes a time, most likely an intensely private revelation, when we see ourselves through the eyes of the world. And it can be painful.
The title of the poem explains the setting – the action is stimulated by a mirror, in February. This is important information. A mirror as metaphor for some inner soul-searching is not difficult to understand, but the time of year is significant too- it is the beginning of Spring, a time of rebirth and reawakening. This suggests that whatever catharsis the poet will endure will bear fruit eventually; and this idea is developed further in the last verse.
The poem opens at dawn, with ‘scent of must and rain/ of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.’ What a magnificent description of the heaviness of the atmosphere, the weight of living, the burden of facing the day. I’ll suggest that the image of ‘opened soil’ is a vague nod to where it is all going to end. Half asleep, perfunctory, Kinsella goes through the motions of shaving without really thinking, and suddenly he sees himself in the mirror and is ‘Riveted by a dark exhausted eye, a dry downturning mouth.’ The repetition of dry and dark connects him to the trees, the bedroom, the pressure that seems to impress itself upon everything alive. It’s a shocking moment – an awakening, an epiphany, a moment of clarity that roots him to the spot; forces him to move from fantasy to precise analytical thought.
The second verse processes this sharp shock. It is time to ‘learn’, he says, which I read as promising, despite his reluctance, He describes the world as an ‘untiring, crumbling place of growth’, which is an interesting way of referencing the constant energy of living and dying – the absolute contradiction of the human condition. However, he does refer to it as a place of growth, not death, so the theme of a revival of some sort is maintained. The reference to Christ also adds a spiritual dimension.
Having faced himself in the mirror and experienced the epiphany, he looks to the garden, and the trees ‘hacked clean for better bearing’. Their savage pruning will yield results. He is offended by the necessity, the punishment and the pain of ageing, and – this is what I like – he allows himself to feel sorry for himself. The processes of growing up, or growing older might make him a wiser, better person- but he doesn’t have to like it. The teenager in us might say ‘It’s just not fair!’ The violence of the verbs here – hacking, defacing, suffering, quailing – is dramatic, and one may expect our poet to punch the mirror to shards in anger – but he does not. Instead, he summons grace – a word with both a spiritual implication and a physical action. The understated, ceremonial folding of the towel seems dignified and measured. Dignity and grace are his response, and I think that it is this small gesture that empowers him toward an unexpected last line – do you hear a whisper of defiance? even triumphalism?
You decide! Stay safe and enjoy.
MIRROR IN FEBRUARY by Thomas Kinsella
The day dawns with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed – my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy-
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.
It seems again that it is time to learn,
To which, for the time being, I return.
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.
Below my window the awakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities,
And how should the flesh not quail that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young and not renewable, but man.
Traditions by Seamus Heaney
April 25 2020
Greetings everyone. Today’s poem is another Seamus Heaney poem, titled ‘Traditions’, which I chose because it was Shakespeare’s birthday earlier this week! I love Shakespeare, and while that is not really a hot take on literature, what really endears me is his subversiveness, especially when it comes to the relationship of the British Empire and her subjects. Shakespeare’s plays, especially Henry V has been championed as a glorious narrative of the great young English king, but in truth, it is a very modern and most contemporary illustration about nation, state and identity.
Heaney references one of the characters from Henry V in this poem, so I’ll give you a little bit of the back story. Keep in mind that Henry V was written in 1599, at a time when English armies under Queen Elizabeth I were furiously occupied with trying to control the Gaelic Chieftains on the island of Ireland. Shakespeare and his audiences would have been well aware of these wars, with thousands of Londoners being conscripted to fight in the bogs and hills of a land considered wild and barbarous. While Shakespeare is entertaining his audiences with a history play about a previous English King, he is also offering a very relevant study on Empire, and how, while in theory, a United Kingdom sounds like a good idea, in practice, it will not work.
Shakespeare includes four minor characters in his play, – four captains, one Scottish, one Welsh, one English and one, a roguish chap by the name of Mac Morris, from Ireland. Shakespeare writes them accents or brogues so thick and idiomatic that they can barely understand each other – (so much about English being a common language). They also don’t trust each other, and spend most of the time aggressively arguing and threatening each other. The Welsh captain snidely observes that there are not many people of Macmorris’ nation taking part in the war. This provokes an outburst from Macmorris, who launches into a feverish retort;
Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?
Shakespeare is exploring the idea of nationality and identity here. Even the Captain’s name, ‘Macmorris’ is very interesting. ‘Mac’ is the Irish word for ‘Son’, Morris is a Norman (French) name – the Irishman’s own identity is a combination of Irish and French, as he fights for an English King. He is resented by his fellow soldiers, but it’s very likely he wouldn’t last too long in the mountains with the Gaelic Chiefs either. He doesn’t know who he is supposed to be.
Many people think the scene in which the four captains argue and fight (Mac Morris threatens to decapitate the Welsh man) is meant for comic relief, but it is politically prescient and loaded; Shakespeare was once described as a man for all seasons, but surely for all history? The phrase ‘What is my nation’ becomes a catch-call for Irish men and women, as the process of colonization continues for centuries. From the date of this play onward, there is a consistent, aggressive project to destroy Irish culture and language, and force upon it the English tongue. There is a physical human plantation of English and Scottish people, to coerce these changes – but it is only partly successful – the language of English becomes mainstream, but Irish culture does not disappear – bringing forth generations of Irish people who, like Macmorris, are linguistically and culturally liminal, confused and unclear about identity.
This is where Heaney begins. He opens with a horribly violent image- that of his muse being ‘bulled’ (raped) by the ‘alliterative tradition’. (The alliterative tradition is the English style of poetry – as I mentioned during the Austin Clarke blog, Irish language poetry focused much more on assonance).
In the second section, Heaney is angered that his natural voice has been disabled, rendered archaic by colonization, and warped by the influences of Scottish and English language which artificially distort. He is rejecting all forms of English; the highbrow and the low.
In the third section, Heaney refers to our pal, Macmorris, ‘gallivanting around the Globe’ (nice one, Seamus!) spewing out this conundrum of nationality. And in the final verse, Heaney resolves the problem. He leaps from the 16th century to one of the greatest characters in Irish writing, James Joyce’s’ Leopold Bloom (from the novel Ulysses). Bloom, half-Jewish, a convert to Catholicism, a very liminal individual himself. ‘What is your nation, if I may ask’, says the Citizen. ‘Ireland’ says Bloom. ‘I was born here . Ireland’.
While Bloom, in the novel, refines his definition of nationality more particularly, Heaney does not. Heaney very deliberately stops the poem there. He seems to have found a satisfactory resolution. By contrast to the furious and unstable movement of the other verses, the last verse is solid, calm, assured.
Now, for those of you who are thinking of reading Joyce, I have to say that I’ve always found Ulysses hard work, and reckon that Joyce, who shared Heaney’s frustration with being deprived of his native language, decided to punish generations of English scholars with a book that is extremely difficult to read! Revenge of the Irish writer takes many forms, and while there is no doubt that Joyce is the master of the art, I do prefer Heaney’s approach. Heaney’s poem, although deceivingly simple and sparse, traces unstable Irish identity from its first literary expression by one great English master, to perhaps its greatest literary expression by the one great Irish master, and by borrowing from both, he carves out something for himself. I love it!
TRADITIONS by Seamus Heaney
For Tom Flanagan
Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows
like the coccyx
or a Brigid’s Cross
yellowing in some outhouse
while custom, that “most
beds us down into
the British isles.
We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
“varsity”, for example,
is grass-roots stuff with us;
we “deem” or we “allow”
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.
Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
between bawn and mossland.
around the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us
as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
“What ish my nation?”
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, “Ireland,” said Bloom,
“I was born here. Ireland.”
It’s a Woman’s World by Eavan Boland
April 29 2020
Hello everyone. You probably heard that Irish poet Eavan Boland died this week. It is a terrible loss, she is among the most important Irish poets, and her legacy is enormous. May she rest in peace.
I will do several of her poems in the course of this blog, but I have chosen It’s a Woman’s World to introduce her.
As I have discussed before, there is a yawning, gaping hole in Irish literature where the women’s voices should be. Not just the voices, but an accurate account of the experiences of the women of Ireland. Boland, who was publishing from a very young age, established herself as a conduit for the unsung voices of generations of lives. If, as I suggested, Patrick Kavanagh was the Irish poet who elbowed elements of the literary tradition aside to make space for the ‘ordinary’ rural voices from the Irish landscape, it was Boland who grabbed the thick spade from Kavanagh’s hands, and dug out lonely furrows to sow seeds of a new element of the literary tradition. She was fierce and precise in her analysis of how women poets could and must fit into the literary landscape, and waged an intellectual war on those who were unwilling to make these spaces. She insisted on the legitimacy of the experiences of women -the mothering, the labouring, the housekeeping, the relationships, the sex, the health, – the interior lives of women that were either non-existent, or egregiously represented in the Irish literary tradition.
Boland did not just write poetry-throughout her academic career she demolished critics who maintained that domestic events did not transcend the ordinary to the realm of the poetic. She demonstrated, through her skill and delicacy as an artist, that the currency of women’s lives was as valuable a source of poetry as any other. And she railed, not only at the invisibility of women in Irish writing, but at the misrepresentation of women by men, who kept the gates to the Irish literary tradition firmly closed. Through a lifetime of work, she not only burst through these gates herself, she oiled the hinges, and made sure that generations after her would find it so much easier to push through, and inhabit the spaces she had claimed.
I say claim, and not reclaim, because one of Boland’s achievements was to show that nothing need be lost or diminished by new territories of poetry. She did not attempt to dismantle the reputations of the poets who were already up on the mountain, she simply climbed up beside them and took her place. ‘I’m not a separatist – I’ve never believed that women poets can walk away from the body of poetry that exists…the real opportunities for women in poetry lie in destabilizing the canon, not separating themselves from it.’
It’s been said that many of Boland’s poems are ‘deceptively simple’ – I listened to one commentator say yesterday that her poems were perfect for teenage students because they could understand them – and I thought to myself, whose idea was it that poetry should be difficult? Teenagers are not stupid, and far more likely to be exposed to poetry than most adults, so I decided that the comment was rather condescending to both poet and scholar! And the phrase ‘deceptively simple’ also seems to me to be rather curious – why should it be implied that simplicity infers a lack of weight. Think about some of the simple things we say – ‘I do’ – ‘I love you’ – ‘It’s a girl’ … very often, when we are at our most emotional, our language is spare, stark, essential. It takes courage as a wordsmith and an academic, to permit the little words to do the heavy lifting, when the temptation is there to be more ostentatious. Back to this idea soon.
Anyhow, this poem is written in very direct and simple language, drawing from two sources- a long overview of human history – it begins with the invention of the wheel, and fire – and the second source is the domestic- the cash register, the washing powder, the recipe for soup. The poet asserts that women’s lives appear to be unchanged through time; absorbed by the daily chores of mothering, caring, nurturing. As far as history goes / we were never on the scene of the crime. The bloody image of a King’s head in a basket is a reminder that the exciting, violent, salacious, energetic stories in recorded history do not include women’s lives.
The power of this poem is in the hint of a lurking force that while unseen, is palpable – almost a supernatural threat that is suggested by the references to star gazers and fire eaters. Despite what appears to be a defeatist tone here, the poet is offering us two views – that of the ignorant observer, who sees women as practicable, functional and reliable, and the second view is that low music of outrage (I love that line) that gets louder as the poem progresses. The irony begins with the title, of course, and extends through the poem, despite the passive narrator. This woman here, ‘that one there’ – you know that this not the poet’s voice, it’s what she, and we, are used to hearing.
I hope you’ll like it – although I did see a ferocious attack on this poem online, which concluded with a list of thirteen famous women from Irish history, allegedly disproving Boland’s thesis. I’m not going to trouble you with my response; but it did remind me that opinions vary widely, and good poetry should be provocative and disturbing. So the rest is up to you! Enjoy!
IT’S A WOMAN’S WORLD by Eavan Boland
Our way of life
has hardly changed
since a wheel first
whetted a knife.
burns more greedily
and wheels are steadier,
but we’re the same:
living by the lights
of the loaf left
by the cash register,
the washing powder
paid for and wrapped,
the wash left wet:
like most historic peoples
we are defined
by what we forget
and what we never will be:
It’s our alibi
for all time:
as far as history goes
we were never
on the scene of the crime.
When the king’s head
gored its basket,
we were gristing bread
or getting the recipe
for a good soup.
It’s still the same:
moth our children
to the flame
of hearth not history.
And still no page
scores the low music
of our outrage.
that woman there,
the starry mystery,
is merely getting a breath
of evening air.
While this one here,
her mouth a burning plume –
she’s no fire-eater,
just my frosty neighbour
Quarantine by Eavan Boland
May 3 2020
Today, Sunday May 3, I took a walk up to St. Anne’s Church in the town of Ballyshannon. Ballyshannon was established as a plantation town during the early 17 century, and St. Anne’s Church was built on a hilltop known as ‘Mullach Na Sí’ or the Hill of the Fairies, in 1841, just at the beginning of the decade that would bring the catastrophe or ‘Great Hunger’ or 1845-1850.
St. Anne’s Church has a beautiful setting, high on the hill, and is visible from almost every approach to Ballyshannon. Spotlit at night time, it is a familiar and iconic landmark, and surrounded as it is with the magnificent backdrop of the Erne Estuary and Donegal Bay, it is always worth visiting.
The graveyard to the front of the church has many impressive plots, vaults and carved monuments, from as early as the 16th century. Carved on these stones are the names of many prominent families of Ballyshannon, including that of well known poet, William Allingham (Allingham is the nephew of poet, MaryAnn Allingham, -see poem 2 on the blog – the whereabouts of her grave is unknown). It was a fabulously sunny morning, with astonishing clarity of view across the Erne river and down to the Dartry mountains, and it was made all the more moving by an hour of bell-ringing in honour of all those who have died from Covid-19. ‘Amazing Grace’ pealed out from the bell tower and carried over the Mall Quay, and out on the waters into the Atlantic.
On the other side of the church wall, there is a patch of land; a field, somewhat overgrown with long grasses, briars and accessible by a winding pathway from the road. This is known as the Paupers’ Graveyard, or the Union Burial Ground, and it is the final resting place for about 1000 poor souls who died during the Great Hunger 1845-1850. There are no records of their names, nor are there any markers in this field, except for a memorial plaque erected in 1995. One can see from this viewpoint, both the Ballyshannon Workhouse, where many of the paupers would have died, and the Mall Quay, where Famine Ships would have taken the luckier survivors out of this hellish time in Irish history.
We often talk about this period of Irish History as ‘The Famine’ – but it was not a famine. There was no shortage of food in Ireland between 1845-1850, there was a failure of the potato crop, and this was the main source of food for the poor. Centuries of legal and economic strategies that enriched a small minority at the expense of a nation culminated in a catastrophe of unimaginable horror. Over a million people died, and to this day, most of them are nameless, forgotten people. Too poor for headstones, too unimportant for records, too inconvenient to rescue.
Eavan Boland’s ‘Quarantine’ is set during this time, and the poem itself was written long before we could even imagine our current situation; this global pandemic named Covid-19. But there is something uncomfortably familiar about the poet’s extraction of a couple- a man and a woman- from the anonymous stockpile of statistics of ‘the worst year of a whole people’. Their cause of death is ostensibly ‘of cold, of hunger’, but then she says, (prophetically) ‘the toxins of a whole history’. This poem is designed to remind us that behind every headline of disaster, there is humanity. She is absolutely resolute in telling us both their stories- she insists on their equality in the narrative – ‘ He was walking – they were both walking’. Their story is heart-breaking; the husband surrendering ‘the last heat of his flesh’ to his wife does indeed turn the vocabulary of romance into a merciless truth.
Boland’s death last week was untimely – this poem, set in 1847, published in 2005 could not be more timely. It demonstrates how truth is often absent from history. Histories becomes distilled into a timeline of political events, peppered here and there by a hagiography or hamartography of select individuals. Truth-seekers must dive deep into the darknesses to discover what there is.
Enjoy the poem!
Quarantine by Eavan Boland
In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking — they were both walking — north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.
Nude by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (translated by Paul Muldoon)
May 9 2020
Hello everyone. As you probably know by now, my choice of poems is quite random- I’ve no real plan here, other than to pick poems by Irish writers that I love, offer you a little context and direction, and then I leave it to you to see what you think! Today’s choice was prompted by a conversation I heard on the radio, about the T.V. series of Sally Rooney’s novel, ‘Normal People’. I haven’t seen it myself, but apparently some of the good folk of Ireland have been offended by the scenes of intimacy – particularly, it seems, by the male (or ‘full frontal’) nudity. Straight away, I was reminded of a poem by Irish writer Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, titled ‘Gan do Chuid Éadaigh’, which translates directly as ‘without your clothes’. This poem was translated from Irish by Paul Muldoon, and given the title ‘Nude’.
Before we get to the poem, we have to consider that the original text is written in Irish language, and a second poet has been involved in its transition into a different language. So you might wonder how that alters the poem, in terms of rhythm, theme, meaning, and imagination. I feel very lucky that I am able to read both texts, and I think that Muldoon did a great job preserving the coquettish sense of fun and mischief that Ní Dhomhnaill laces through each line. And to quote Ní Dhomhnaill, ‘It doesn’t really matter if the words mean different things. The important thing to get is the voltage that is behind the words’. So if you don’t read Irish, you’ll have to take my word that the translation is faithful. I’ll also include the Irish language text here for you.
The poem is a celebration of the male body, and it is very much subject to the gaze of the female writer. This, of course, is a (welcome) change; gender roles are swapped, and the poet opens with a blunt, explicit admission addressed directly to the subject of a poem, a man, which is that she prefers to see him naked. Even before we go any further, this is quite shocking! It’s an overt statement, loaded with raw desire. I think it does one of two things to the reader – it either makes you feel acutely aware that you are eavesdropping on an intensely private conversation, OR it immediately pulls you in to the dialogue as the speaker – giving you the vicarious thrill of indulging yourself as a lusty, sexually charged voyeur, and admitting it. I think this is a very clever manipulation of the traditional male gaze, and its honesty in risqué is totally refreshing – especially considering the historically censorious and judgmental culture in Ireland towards women and sexuality.
The poet then has some fun at the man’s expense- detailing very specifically how he is dressed. He’s a bit of a dandy, with a three-piece suit, a hat at a just-so angle, gloves and an umbrella under his arm. Muldoon translates this as ‘a brolly under your oxter’, which suggests a mocking tone – for all this man’s finery and almost feminine garb, the poet doesn’t seem that impressed. She describes his clothes as ‘the icing on the cake’. She becomes more intense as she describes what she knows is underneath. The language changes from comic to feral, from cartoonish to powerful, physical and sensual.
She’s not afraid of the penis either – describing it as ‘the pleasure source’, and detailing its texture and scent. She acknowledges, refreshingly, that sensuality and sexuality impacts not only on men, but also on women.
The poem concludes with a leap to a date the couple will have later, when they will dance together. She wants him to know she’d prefer him naked, but to keep the other women at bay, she suggests he keeps his clothes on. I love this, because it implies confidence, intimacy, and security.
While there is a communion between the poet and subject here, more powerful is the intimacy between the poet and the reader, especially the Irish woman reader. Very few public texts I’ve ever read have articulated this raw joy and celebration of the male body, but it’s not an unusual conversation among girlfriends, where the space to be bawdy and explicit exists. It’s interesting to contemplate the difference between men lusting over womens’ bodies and vice-versa; if this poem were written by a man, in this era of #metoo, how would it translate? My response to this is that the subject of this poem is never threatened or vulnerable; there is no implication of possession. But that’s my response! Have a read, and see what you think. Enjoy!
Nude by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
(trans. Paul Muldoon)
The long and short
of it is I’d far rather see you nude —
your silk shirt
tie, the brolly under your oxter
in case of a rainy day,
the three-piece seersucker
suit that’s so incredibly trendy,
your snazzy loafers
a pair of gloves
made from the skin of a doe
then, to top it all, a crombie hat
set at a rak-
ish angle — none of these add
up to more than the icing on a cake
For, unbeknownst to the rest
of the world, behind the outward
show lies a body unsurpassed
for beauty, without so much as a wart
or blemish, but the brill-
iant slink of a wild animal, a dream-
cat, say, on the prowl,
leaving murder and mayhem
in its wake. Your broad, sinewy
shoulders and your flank
smooth as the snow
on a snow-bank.
Your back, your slender waist,
and, of course,
the root that is that very seat
of pleasures, the pleasure-source.
Your skin so dark, my beloved,
as silk with a hint of velvet
in its weft,
smelling as it does of meadowsweet
that has the power, or so it’s said,
to drive men and women mad.
For that reason alone, if for no other,
when you come with me to the dance tonight
(though, as you know, I’d much prefer
to see you nude)
it would probably be best
for you to pull on your pants and vest
rather than send
half the women of Ireland totally round the bend.
Gan do Chuid Éadaigh le Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Is fearr liom tú
gan do chuid éadaigh ort —
do léine shíoda
is do charabhat
do scáth fearthainne faoi t’ascaill
is do chulaith
trí phíosa faiseanta
le barr feabhais táilliúrachta
do bhróga ar a mbíonn
i gcónaí snas,
do lámhainni craiceann eilite
ar do bhois
do hata crombie
feircthear fhaobhar na cluaise —
ní chuireann siad aon ruainne
le do thuairisc,
mar thíos fúthu
i ngan fhios don slua
tá corp gan mhaisle, mháchail
lúfaireacht ainmhí allta
cat mór a bhíonn amuigh
is a fhágann sceimhle ina mharbhshruth.
Do ghuailne leathan fairsing
is do thaobh
chomh slim le sneachta séidte
ar an sliabh;
do dhrom, do bhásta singil
is i do ghabhal
go bhfuil barr pléisiúrtha ann.
Do chraiceann atá chomh dorcha
le síoda go mbeach tiús veilbhite
is é ar chumhracht airgid luachra
nó meadhg na habhann
go ndeirtear faoi
go bhfuil suathadh fear is ban ann.
Mar sin is dá bhrí sin
is tú ag rince liom anocht
cé go mb’fhearr liom tú
gan do chuid éadaigh ort,
b’fhéidir nárbh aon díbháil duit
gléasadh anois ar an dtoirt
in ionad leath ban Éireann
a mhilleadh is a lot.
A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford by Derek Mahon
May 14 2020
Hello everyone. Welcome back to the poetry blog. I hope you are all doing well. Our next poem today was prompted by various conversations I’ve witnessed on twitter lately. Social media appears to be a see-saw dialogue of acts of enormous kindness, and acts of unbelievable self-interest. You may have seen (and many people sent me the New York Times link) that a fund set up to support the Navajo Nation was inundated with donations from Irish donors, who remembered that during the Great Hunger in Ireland, the Choctaw nation sent a donation of $170 to the starving Irish. It was an incredible gesture from one nation to another, during very hard times for both. Here’s the link if you haven’t read it
I was profoundly moved, and proud of this generosity, but please believe me that there are plenty of people in all of our communities that are spewing out despicable sentiments, and following them up with dangerous and provocative actions. It’s hard to understand why people become clustered into blinkered and inhumane mobs, but they do, and we all seem to be getting so bogged down in the fight, we are not really exploring why it is that this situation has come about.
One of the reasons that I will always advocate for the importance of the humanities in education (it will be the hill on which I’ll die!) is that history and literature can often help us make sense of our own world, in a way that is less aggressive or confrontational. When I say history, I do not mean the very narrow narrative we learnt at school, which was mostly a sequence of kingship and wars, I mean an understanding of the broader past, and how we might use it to navigate the present. Most people love history, when they don’t think of it as a school subject, and it lurks around everywhere, hiding in novels, TV and movies, your grandmother’s pearls, the tree with your parents’ initials carved into it. Poetry works the same way, although people seem even more afraid of it. I have gotten lots of emails saying ‘I don’t do poetry, but I like your photograph blogs’ and quite frankly, I don’t buy it. If you sigh at a sunset, or gasp on a starry night, you do poetry. Like history, poetry can be a scary label, but it’s waiting right there when you’re ready to embrace it.
Anyhow, this brings me to the next poem, which is another one by Derek Mahon, and the poem that came to mind when I read about the Navajo. This is an absolutely beautiful poem, and as Irish as a poem can be, – and yet, it is not about Ireland at all. It is loaded with images of nature, wild plants, fungi, – but it’s not about any of these things. This is a poem about humanity, and it is riveting.
Let’s start with the title. A Disused shed in County Wexford. I don’t think we have to explain what a disused shed is, but for non-Irish readers, Wexford is a county on the east coast of Ireland. It’s not (with apologies to Wexford people) a county known for dramatic land or seascapes, – it’s not on the Wild Atlantic Way, or associated with the ‘to hell or to Connacht’ counties – it’s relatively benign as a location. So- the entire title, paraphrased, might read ‘ an old outhouse somewhere nobody is excited about’. What is this poem going to say, then?
We have a quote after the title, which may be to encourage us to read on, in spite of the title. There’s a mention of ‘weak souls among the asphodels’. Asphodels are lilies, with associations to the underworld. But even if we don’t know that, the poet is hinting that the disused shed story might be about something more profound than the title suggests.
So- the first verse is just a masterclass in setting a mood. Old places, that are deserted, abandoned, forgotten by time and progress. Look at the sentence ‘a slow clock of condensation’. Not only does the image suggest the stuporous pace, but the long vowel sounds and consonant combination of ‘slow’ and ‘clock’ literally drags our eyes / tongue along the line. Same with ‘an echo trapped for ever’ ‘wildflowers in the lift-shaft’ – the sounds are languorous and evocative, and the mind’s eye is transported to scenes of dereliction, silence, an interminable vacancy of action. And what about the line that says ‘a door bangs with diminished confidence’ ? Isn’t that a hell of a sentence? And finally we get to the shed.
It’s on wasteland, ‘on the grounds of a burnt out hotel.’ And amongst all of the clutter and rubbish, there is a clutch of mushrooms, all straining to a keyhole for light. They become the story now- a thousand sweaty fungi that nobody loves, or cares about. The poet wants you to start thinking about this cluster of ugly little fellows as human – he does this by attributing human qualities to them – they have learnt to be patient and silent. They listen to the birds. They are waiting for something to happen. We learn that a mycologist – a mushroom scientist, if you like, – once came to see them, but we hear about his ‘gravel crunching departure’. He closed the door on them after taking a look – he closed the light on them.
Stop here, and again, luxuriate in the way the poet describes the desperation and the loneliness of being forgotten. Once a day they hear something- a noise that signals hope- but it turns out to be nothing. ‘A lorry changing gears at the end of the lane’ – is it- is it someone coming?
As you read on, you see where the poet is going now. People who have suffered, and have been forgotten. Victims of circumstance who cannot help themselves. People who are not seen, and depend on others to act on their behalf. All they are able to do is survive, and wait.
There are so many lines here that continue the plant metaphor, but are loaded with horror and distress, torture and torment. The last verse is a desperate appeal for empathy and activism. Look at the way we have moved from torpidity to turmoil. What appeared to be inert and invisible reveals itself to us to be immediate and urgent.
Read the poem a few times, and let the imagery and the language do its work. See how you feel when you finish it. Then do something kind for someone who does not have a voice.
A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford
by Derek Mahon
Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels.
— Seferis, Mythistorema
(for J. G. Farrell)
Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a ﬂutter
Of wildﬂowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished conﬁdence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rain barrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,
Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their ﬁrmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.
They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, ﬂies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.
There have been deaths, the pale ﬂesh ﬂaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken pitchers, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.
A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges; magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like trifﬁds, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the ﬂash-bulb ﬁring-squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.
They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’
The Lake Isle of Inisfree by W.B. Yeats
May 21 2020
Hello again everyone. I hope you are all doing well. Today’s poem is one of the most popular Irish poems, and written by probably Ireland’s best known poet, William Butler Yeats. If you’ve read the earlier poems, you’ll have already been introduced to W.B., he was a bit of an odd fish, but when it comes to love, or landscapes, he is definitely one of the best. All of the Yeats family – Jack, Susan, Elizabeth and William were somewhat peripatetic and outside of the safety of the cultural cocoon that most people land in, and stay in. Their family circumstances were unusual, and their ‘outsider’ status is often expressed through their respective art forms. William, in particular, always seemed to be searching- literally and artistically, for an ideal, or an answer, or for respite, or release.
The fact that there is a region in Ireland known as ‘Yeats Country’ testifies to the time spent, and inspiration borrowed, by the Yeats family in the counties of Sligo and Leitrim. It is truthfully, a staggeringly beautiful and dramatic landscape, with an abundance of heart-stopping scenery. In a relatively compact area, the glens of Leitrim are snugged into the Dartry Mountains, which in turn sweep down to the exhilarating, ragged Atlantic coastline. Irish weather is well-known for its rainy reputation, but the plentiful water supply gives us acres of lakelands, waterfalls, streams and hidden loughs, draining the boglands and gurgling down into the sea. There is a very low population density in this area of Ireland, a legacy of famine and emigration, and the absence of industrial development, so you can truly travel for miles through the landscapes, uninterrupted by modernity or technology. The sturdiest buildings in the valleys are often stalwart towerhouses of long-since deposed chieftans, the crumbling ‘big houses’ of the Anglo-Irish, and the deserted, roofless cottages of the evicted peasants. The scars of the history are everywhere, and while the narrative is relentlessly grim, the ability of nature to grow through and over and above and below these places, polka-dotting a door frame with wild daisies, or quilting an old wall with ivy, creates this unique palimpsest, a tapestry that links history, culture, folklore, ritual, pagan, Christian, conflict, community, geography, weather, beauty and loss.
‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ is W.B. Yeats attempt to channel the healing and therapy that a landscape like this can provide. His dream-space is called Innisfree. ‘Innis / Inis ’ is Irish for island, it’s a common prefix for Irish places, in fact, there are a few Inisfrees around, but the island he’s referring to is a very small, overgrown hillock in a large lake nestled between the counties of Sligo and Leitrim. The Lake itself is called ‘Lough Gill’, in Irish, ‘Lough Geall’, meaning bright, shiny – and it really is – there is extraordinary light and shade across the lake, in all seasons. Perched on the shores of Lough Gill is the old castle of the O’Rourke chieftains, later, the home of the English Parke family. The O’Rourkes contribute many dramatic historical stories to the area, not least the hospitality offered to a lost Spanish sailor, and the subsequent hanging at Tyburn of Brian O’Rourke for his generosity. Up to, and including Yeats’ own time in the Sligo area, stories, legends, myths, and anecdotes abound, immersing the lake and its islands in a cultural mist that is inseparable from the terrain.
In terms of nature, the lake and its islands are ambrosial, teeming with verdant, prolific growth almost all year round. And so it is not surprising that Yeats’ concept of a personal utopia is set in this remarkable place. What you might note though, is that the poet writes about his intention of escaping to the lake isle- it is all in the future tense. He’s not actually there. He will arise and go. And this is why I like the poem – similar to Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, the poet is not actually living in the place he describes- but he uses the memory of it as a mental salve, as an antidote to anxiety and stress. I think it’s a very human trait (especially in these lockdown days) to dream of escaping to an beloved location – and to idolise its virtues and imagine it as the perfect space. Yeats writes that he will build a cabin for himself, and have beans, bees, and all the eco-friendly, self sufficiency of the hippest hipster ever.
I’m going to come back to this thought shortly – but suspend it briefly, and allow yourself to luxuriate in the sounds and the imagery of the second verse. Look at the repetition of the words ‘peace’ and ‘dropping’, with their long vowel sounds, look at the ‘l’ sounds of ‘veils’, ‘glimmer’, ‘linnet’ and ‘purple’, and the sibilance ( the ‘s’ sounds) of peace, veils, slow, sings, and how these sounds are folded into words describing a day on the island- misty mornings, starry nights, birds and insects and every hour more lovely than the last. The line ‘Peace comes dropping slow’ is delicious – its going to ooze through like the honey from the hive, its going to be pervasive, steady, enduring.
In the final verse, the poet snaps out of his reverie, and we see what’s really going on. He’s in a place of roadways and grey pavements. Real life feels colourless and tiring, mitigated only by imagination, the sensations prompted by memory, the power of the inner self to transport itself to somewhere else when necessary.
At the risk of spoiling what is undoubtedly a beautiful poem, I do want to raise two talking points with you. First of all, it is highly unlikely that W.B. Yeats would abandon his social circuit and perquisite lifestyle to go and live on an island by himself – and secondly, this romantic and fanciful idealisation of the simple, country life smacks somewhat of privilege. This poem was written in the 1880s, – Yeats would have been in his early twenties, so hardly beaten down by the world quite yet, it is thirty years after the famine, and it is still a period of atrocious poverty in Ireland, in both the city and countryside. Now obviously, everyone has the right to a fantasy where the insects don’t sting you, and you don’t become sick of beans and honey – but the invisibility of hardship, or the transformation from poor to ‘rustic’ and ‘simple’ in Anglo-Irish literature is problematic for me- a type of colonial blindness, that can extract – borrow, really, the aesthetic without any responsibility to the social, the economic, or the cultural.
However, my gripes aside, escapism is wonderful, and we all do it, – and the fact is that the corner of the West of Ireland that Yeats is describing is as beautiful as is suggested by the poem. But you’ll have to come and see for yourself ! Enjoy the poem!
The Lake Isle of Innisfree By W.B. Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Iniskeen Road: July Evening by Patrick Kavanagh
June 8 2020
Hello again. There was a few things that inspired the choice of poem this week. I was speaking to a colleague about the importance of bicycles as a means for escape for people in rural Ireland- not just travel or transport, but actually a means of liberation. I had read, in particular, about the freedom the bicycle gave women, in various ways- they were able to go places alone, fashion evolved to allow for more practical clothing, and it allowed suffragettes to campaign effectively. So I had bicycles on my mind. The second thing that we all probably have on our minds these days is isolation, and perhaps, the anger and frustration you might feel if you are excluded from ‘normal’ social interaction. I, and half the world have either read, or are watching, Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’, and the inarticulacy of the Irish male is explored- and this is an oft-visited theme in Irish literature; perhaps the best example of this is the character of Gar in Brian Friel’s ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ – Friel actually has two actors play the part of one man – the inner self is loquacious, witty, garrulous – and his external self is thick-tongued and awkward. Both these thoughts took me straight to Patrick Kavanagh, and this terrific sonnet about the isolation of the rural Irish lad. However, this poem takes a very interesting twist in the second part; I want to see what you think about it. But let’s look at the opening.
The title tells us very specifically where the poem is set. It is on Iniskeen Road, on a July evening. Iniskeen is the tiny rural town where Kavanagh lived, and we know it’s the summertime, when darkness does not fall until the small hours. The days are long. In the first four lines, we hear about lots of activities – those bicycles appear, not singularly, but in ‘twos and threes’ – there’s a dance, and people are chatting and signalling to each other using ‘the wink and elbow language of delight’. Isn’t that a fantastic way to suggest the fun, innuendo and double entendres of a gang of teenagers on their way to a party. This is a club, a closed group of happy people who can communicate with each other in intimate and confident ways.
In the second quatrain, we learn that the narrator of the poem must still be by the roadside, because he describes it as utterly empty. There’s not even a hint of a person, or the sound of a person. So he is not part of the codes or secrets of the passers-by. He is left behind, on a mile of road, alone.
Pause for a second to see how the poet uses language to make the first half of the octet full of motion and noise. There’s a lot of alliteration, short vowel sounds and the ‘ands’ convey a sense of breathlessness and excitement. By ‘half-past eight’ the poet changes the sound, using long vowel sounds – ‘mile’, ‘road’, ‘shadow’ ‘thrown’ ‘stone’ – he slows everything down, enhancing the sense of loneliness and isolation.
So we’ve learnt a lot in those two short verses. There’s great craic happening somewhere, everyone in the village is going, except for one fellow, who is left behind. And we wonder why? The explanation is, I believe, not what we expect.
In the second part, we get more information about the narrator. We learn he is a poet, and he is conflicted about what this gift brings to him – he mentions the ‘solemn talk and contemplation’, presumably about art, or the artist – one gets a whiff of disdain here, perhaps for academia, or intellectual society, (which would fit with Kavanagh’s experience- there is always, in this rural poet, signs of self-consciousness about his lack of formal education; read ‘Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan’ for a poignant and vehement expression of this condition). He does not find an equivalent with another writer or artist, so he rejects any philosophical argument about artistic sensitivity being some kind of exclusive privilege – he compares himself to Alexander Selkirk, an eighteenth century privateer, who was marooned on a desert island for four years. It is a very interesting association, with lots of implications; the obvious one being the unwanted isolation visited upon him; but Selkirk not only survived the island experience, but became resourceful, skilful, and more at peace with himself. The captain who rescued Selkirk observed “[O]ne may see that solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of life as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.”
So in the last few lines, when Kavanagh declares himself ‘King/ of banks and stones and every blooming thing’, I do think he recognises that it is not the talent itself that isolates the artist, it is the responsibility it brings- in other words, (Shakespeare’s words actually,) ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. ’ It is also worth noting that Kavanagh once again contrasts movement and inertness – but he reverses it this time; he speaks of talk and contemplation, (I feel he really wants to say ‘bullshit’) and then moves to Selkirk, a man who busied himself building and hunting, and mastering his territory in measurable and visible ways. So it makes me think that this little poem, far from being a pity party for a lonely poet, is a much more important reflection on art and the artist. It is also gloriously dressed in the Irish landscape, and speech rhythms, and folkish locality, which in itself distinguishes it from more ‘solemn’ reflections, (Yeats anyone?) and once again, Kavanagh demonstrates a way of performing inside the lesser-celebrated spaces of Irish culture that is as meaningful and successful as any other.
I hope you enjoy the poem.
Inniskeen Road: July Evening -Patrick Kavanagh
The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.
I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.
Snowdrops by Paula Meehan
June 18 2020
This is a delicate poem – delicate in subject, in language and in form. Snowdrops are tiny white flowers, usually the first to appear after winter, telling us that Spring, growth, renewal, warm weather- all the pleasant resurgence of nature is on its way. Meehan takes this idea and juxtaposes it a very opposite reality – a friend is dying, poised to leave the world and enter the realm of the unknown. We don’t find this out until the end of the poem, so she is gently and carefully leading us to this revelation, with a study of the little flowers; a forensic investigation ‘under the hood’.
The title of the poem sets up what will become a deception. The reader is lured into believing the poem is about snowdrops, and the first two lines reinforce our assumption with the word ‘them’ – it must be the eponymous flowers. She has been grappling with their form, with reproducing them – not the flower itself, but their ‘shadows on the concrete path’. Therefore, the snowdrop is not a simple thing, nor is it independent of its situation or its place in time; there is a concrete path nearby, there is a shadow cast by a moving, low February sun.
She continues her inspection: they are not really white flowers either. The poet gets on her knees now, to get closer, and her investigation ‘under their petticoats’ reveals surprisingly wonderful riches and excitements. Her imagery here is suggestive of both the religious and the erotic; obedient and licentious, civilization and circus. It is a surprise that the obeisant little flower can contain such a ‘frantic small scale festive air’.
And then, the poet locates herself in time and place- shadows and concrete. We learn she is directly addressing a dying friend. This has become a private and intimate conversation, and we have become eavesdroppers. Loss is on her mind as she studies the snowdrop, and so now we must contextualize her discoveries. Her friend, we are told, prefers to leave the spring flowers to endure, die, and ‘wither back into the earth’ as nature intended. In a powerful last line, we learn of her friend’s philosophical outlook on allowing nature to take its course. It is then I understand the snowdrop to be a metaphor for what I might call the ordinary person’s life – it may appear fragile, or simple, or fleeting, but it is not what it seems, and holds within it extraordinary riches, and contradictions, and secrets, and excitements. And ultimately, our lives are never wasted or forgotten; in some way, in mysterious ways, our small lives add, contribute, nurture, enable that which comes after us.
Everyone has their own preference when it comes to poetry, and language. I love poems of comfort, and it is interesting here, and not uncommon, I think, that it is the poet-friend who is interrogating the natural process, and the dying friend who supplies the comfort. I think anyone who is dealing with the imminent death of a loved one is often much more challenged by its reality than the person facing the journey. In my experience, it is the stoicism of the dying that give strength and courage to those who will be left behind. I am not sure, despite the best attempts of the poet, that she really believes that bereavement can be kind. ‘You tell me’ is indeed, telling.
I do love Paula Meehan’s poetry, and she is well worth reading; I will return to more of her poems in due course. In a shameless exercise of name-dropping, I will tell you that I know Paula, (although we have never discussed this poem – she might say I am not even close to interpreting it as she meant it!) But that doesn’t matter either – a poem, like the snowdrop, is for us to examine, and see it as we see it. This is a lovely, gentle, conflicted goodbye for a friend, and one I hope you enjoy reading.
Snowdrops, by Paula Meehan.
So long trying to paint them, failing
to paint their shadows on the concrete path.
They are less a white than a bleaching out of green.
If you go down on your knees
and tilt their petals towards you
you’ll look up under their petticoats
into a hoard of gold
like secret sunlight and their
three tiny striped green awnings that lend a
kind of frantic small-scale festive air.
It is the first day of February
and I nearly picked a bunch for you,
my dying friend, but remembered in time
how you prefer to leave them
to wither back into the earth;
how you tell me it strengthens the stock.
Kilmainham Gaol Dublin 1991 by Theo Dorgan
His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more.
Hello everyone, and welcome back to the poetry blog. Today, I want to tackle the subject of commemoration of historical figures and events. Ireland is currently moving through a period of centenary commemorations- our evolution to political Independence (technically) began with the 1916 Rising, followed by the War of Independence (1919-1921), and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. As is common to most conflicts, there is no single narrative that can comfortably and calmly embrace the memories, sensitivities, and legacies of what happened, and this can make commemoration complicated and divisive.
Most recently and dramatically, we have seen a type of reversal of commemoration – statues torn down, flags and emblems removed, buildings un-named. This suggests a fluidity of history that, while controversial, implies that the honour or reputation of significant persons of the past depends on their presence in the minds of those here now. The fragment above is by a nine-year old James Joyce, and it refers to Charles Stuart Parnell, a celebrated Irish politician, whose memorial sculpture was begun in 1890. Joyce’s take on Parnell’s immunity to the ‘rude din’ of public opinion seems gravely misjudged – the pedestals on which we hoist our heroes or heroines are neither timeless nor immovable.
Civic duty is in the eye of the beholder.
This brings me to the poem ‘Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin 1991’ by Theo Dorgan. Kilmainham Gaol (pronounced ‘Jail’) opened in 1796 and closed in 1924. It is now synonymous with the struggle for Irish Independence. Almost anyone who was engaged in militant or constitutional nationalism spent some time in Kilmainham, (including Joyce’s buddy, Parnell). Its deleterious impact was brought to its apogee in May 1916, when, following the Easter 1916 Rising, 14 men were executed by firing squad in the Gaol courtyard, including all seven signatories of the Irish Proclamation of Independence.
1991 was the 75th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, but it was also a fraught period in Anglo-Irish relations. The Irish government, fearful of political sensitivities, abdicated any responsibility for an official commemoration. It fell to independent committees and organisations to arrange events, and one such event, ‘The Flaming Door’, (yes, from a Yeats poem, of course), was curated by a group of artists, poets and musicians, including Theo Dorgan. They hired out Kilmainham Gaol and held a concert in the very venue in which so many Irish men and women were incarcerated, and in which the founding fathers of the Irish state were executed.
Dorgan’s poem begins with the construction of the set – the preparation for illusion, for spectacle. His description of roadies, beers and sound-checks creates a festival feel to the event- this is the circus, this is performance, smoke and mirrors, sound and vision. Excitement is added to by the gathering crowd, ‘the hum of expectation’, although the reference to the narrow gate below the gallows hook suggests that the people filing in and ‘becoming an audience’ are passing into an underworld, one that can accommodate the living and the dead. There is a palpable sense of pre-performance adrenaline, anticipation, anxiety – and a suggestion of eroticism as ‘before the lights go down, we examine each other, shyly’.
I love this introduction, because it captures the spirit of theatricality, and the tension between failure and success that always exists in any performance. ‘Break a leg’, say actors, a traditional shibboleth that recognises superstition as an ingredient of performance; rehearsal, ambition, talent, and skill will dissolve in the darkness, and luck becomes the defining factor. Dorgan also recognizes that the gathering of individuals will merge into oneness in the darkness, ‘an audience’ that will share the experience and offer a collective response. Any collective of people is a daunting prospect for the performer; you win the room, or you lose the room. It is all up for grabs.
I want to pause here, just to draw the comparison between Dorgan’s construction of the audience, and the volatility of the commemoration process. Joyce, above, calls Parnell’s contemporaries a ‘rude din’. I also thought of Yeats’ address to the audience who rioted at the performance of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre – ‘you have disgraced yourselves again.’ Both Yeats and Joyce see the audience as a congregation, with one collective response, one in which the individual may disappear. Can an audience be trusted? Can audience approval or opprobrium be meaningful, or is it simply subject to the vagaries of taste, timing, and tone? The reluctance of the Irish Government to arrange a formal commemoration for the 75th anniversary of 1916 was because they feared that events might be hijacked for propaganda purposes by various organisations, and so they chose not to arrange anything. They, like Yeats, had no faith in a collective Irish audience, and that says something about the government at the time – Haughey led, of course, so no shocks there.
Dorgan has created a suspenseful opening, and now the performance begins. The stage is decorated with two flags, the Irish tricolour, and the Starry Plough. The presence of two flags reminds us that the Rising meant different things to different participants, and this is a salient point when we consider the whole concept of commemoration. This is not the place to debate the entire premise of the 1916 Rising, but I feel safe in telling you that there were several differing agendas on the minds of the participants – some prioritised workers’ rights, some were involved for women’s’ rights, some fought for idealistic principles- but there was a collective belief among the insurgents that Ireland should be self-governing. We will return to this point later.
The singer is on the stage, the heat rises up from the audience, and the show begins. The first song is a lament for James Connolly, written by Patrick Galvin. Connolly was one of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army, one of the signatories of the proclamation, and one of the men executed in the Gaol.
As the song is performed, Dorgan, almost casually, declares
‘We are joined by the dead’.
Dorgan has brought us through a narrow gate, and under the gallows. He remains calm but insists that the spectres of the dead men of the prison have appeared, ‘shirtsleeved, disbelieving’.
Once more, I have to stop here, and think about what the poet has just done. He has brought in ghosts. Theatrical magic – and I cannot help but think of the most famous ghost of them all, in Act 1, scene 1 of Hamlet. A ghost who is restless and perturbed, who will not be at peace until his son rights the wrongs. Is something rotten in the Free State? It seems so.
The poet tells us that ‘the guards had long since vanished’ – British rule is long gone – but the ghosts are gaunt, pale, and still traumatised by the violence of the rising. (Dorgan’s pale warriors also brought to mind Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ and Yeats’ September 1913 – the notion of being ‘in thrall’ or ‘maddened’, or ‘faoi geasa’ (under a spell); there’s a bookcaseful of Irish poems that use the female as a cypher for patriotic fervour, and ‘pale’ triggered this for me).
Dorgan reminds us that these men suffered. Their last living memories were filled with pain and fear. Dorgan imagines their confusion as witnesses to the hateful gaol now filled with lights, music, action. Flags last seen on bomb sites are now backdrops on a stage. WTF, you imagine them think.
And then comes that phrase, (every good poem has that phrase,) that does the heavy lifting –
Only the dignity of the singer’s art had power to release them.
Oh God. What a line. What a word! Dignity.
Let’s unpack this. I think that Dorgan is telling us that respect and honour is manifest in the artist’s treatment of the subject. Art is where truths are revealed, and reputation resides. Returning to my point about commemorative hijacking, I think Dorgan is landing a very interesting idea here. He appears to trust neither audiences, nor governments, to commemorate. He trusts Art. To quote Mandy Rice Davies, ‘well he would, wouldn’t he’ – but in fairness, in this instance, Dorgan is reporting as a witness, as one who ‘felt it’, one who ‘saw it’, one who would never be the same again.
The dead depart, and let me digress here for a second. The audience came into the gaol in twos and threes, and the dead men depart in twos and threes. And sitting on a wall in Inniskeen, (see my blog post on Inniskeen Road; A July Evening), poet Patrick Kavanagh describes the happy teenagers of Monaghan go by in twos and threes, as he, by virtue of being a poet, remains alone, but gifted with an artist’s sensibility. Another vindication of the role of artist, methinks. Anyhow, returning to Dorgan, as the dead depart, he sees their souls ‘fan upwards, like leaves from a dry book’. Is this a jab at historians, who, in the least imaginative way possible, have rendered these men as slim, two-dimensional footnotes to a process? Dorgan says it again; ‘That soft-footed gathering of the dead into their peace was like something out of a book’. But not a dry book this time. A novelist’s creation, perhaps? A poet’s?
There is a profound sincerity and honesty in the last line of the poem, completely antithetical to any hint of appropriation or chest-beating. Dorgan has successfully documented a moment of transcendence, delivered by a singer on a stage. His message seems to be that commemoration need not be discordant, if one can reach beyond politics, to humanity. The boatmen and boatwomen who can take us on this journey are the artists, and the transport is the dignity of art. If we trust this, we will pay the due respect to the dead.
Does this offer us any solution to the issue of statues, flags, and buildings? Well, it may be useful to borrow Dorgan’s repeated insistence on calmness and kindness, for starters. It may be useful to distinguish between the political and the artistic. It may be constructive to seek out where dignity lies. It might be wise, before the lights go down, to examine each other shyly.
Enjoy the poem!
( For a reading of this poem by Theo Dorgan, please visit here )
KILMAINHAM GAOL, DUBLIN, EASTER 1991 by Theo Dorgan
Roadies in ponytails stringing lights and cables,
a beer can popped in the corner, echo of sound check.
Outside in the filling yard, hum of expectation.
We pour through the narrow gate under the gallows hook
in twos and threes, becoming an audience.
Before the lights go down we examine each other shyly.
The singer surveys his audience, heat rising
to the tricolour and Plough overhead.
As the first words of Galvin’s lament climb to invoke
James Connolly’s ghost, we are joined by the dead.
I say this as calmly as I can. The gaunt dead
crowded the catwalks, shirtsleeved, disbelieving.
The guards had long since vanished, but these
looked down on us, their faces pale.
I saw men there who had never made their peace,
men who had failed these many years to accept their fate,
still stunned by gunfire, wounds, fear for their families;
paralysed until now by the long volleys of May so long ago.
I think that we all felt it, their doubt and their new fear,
the emblems so familiar, the setting, our upturned faces,
so unreal. Only the dignity of the singer’s art
had power to release them. I felt it, I say this calmly.
I saw them leave, in twos and threes, as the song ended.
I do not know that there is a heaven but I saw their souls
fan upward like leaves from a dry book, sped out into the night
by volleys of applause; sped out, I hope, into some light at last.
I do not know that I will ever be the same again.
That soft-footed gathering of the dead into their peace
was like something out of a book. In Kilmainham Gaol
I saw this. I felt this. I say this as calmly and as lovingly as I can.
for Frank Harte