Irish poets, learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made.
Yeats’s words have been well heeded. English poetry written by Irish poets has a higher standard of perceived craftsmanship—usually indeed a very much higher standard—than the general run of poems produced today in England itself, or in America. Vernacular English, like old Latin, seems likely at some date to hive off into separate tongues and idioms, as spoken throughout the world, but unlike the Romance languages it will possibly keep most of its present forms. The “best” English, that is to say its choicest and most precise speech, may in the future be spoken or written in Dublin or Edinburgh or Calcutta or New York. Or so people may say who take an interest in the language, read, or write poetry in it. Who knows?
A language widely circulated can have of course no absolute advantage as a poetic vehicle, but it has a practical one. Imitating Horace, Pushkin wrote a poem in which he hoped his poems would be read wherever Russian was spoken, “in the proud speech of the Slavs, and among the Finns and the Tungus and the still savage Kalmucks.” An Estonian poet, say, knowing his own language and Russian equally well, might decide for this kind of reason to write poetry in the latter. Mandelstam, the most cosmopolitan of poets in Russian poetry’s cosmopolitan Silver Age, and the one most indifferent to native nationalism, nonetheless worshiped the language in which he wrote, as any poet must do: for, as Auden says, time too “worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.” Irish poets too are cosmopolitan, and becoming more so, but in the background of their English verse a potent ghost of Gaelic lingers, in cadence and syntax but still more in a rich acoustic selectivity. It lingers above all in the subject matter.
And that is obvious enough; but its importance lies in the natural way Irish poetry now handles its traditional materials: less nationalistic than native ones, as used from way back not only by bards and harpists but by all who gathered to compose poems and invent among themselves new devices of poetic speech; to record legend but, more important, to celebrate the happenings and properties of daily life. In this Irish tradition there seems to be none of the self-consciousness with which native English poets today often try to be “natural” in their poetic speech, as if striving for a “non-poetic” mode of utterance. A purely English poetry today has no quotidian ease of fluency, such as it can possess in an Irish poet’s speech, or in a plain American like that of William Carlos Williams, “which even dogs and cats can understand.” English poetry as such has too long and grand an “upper-class” tradition, Renaissance or Romantic, to sound wholly natural in the everyday uses of poetic eloquence.
This curious fact strikes one when reading a little masterpiece like “Markings,” from Seamus Heaney’s present book, which celebrates the imagined lines drawn along a youthful hurley pitch, the tapes marking out potato plantings; or “The Biretta,” also a masterpiece, about the nature and function of the priestly hat:
triple-finned black serge,
A shipshape pillbox, its every slope and edge
Trimly articulated and decided.
Its insides were crimped satin; it was heavy too
But sported a light flossy tassel
That the backs of my fingers remember well,
And it left a dark red line on the priest’s brow.
Or it could be seen as a boat, medaled in fragile gold, from an Irish bog of the Bronze Age, his reverence wearing a hat as he sits amid the oars, “Sad for his worthy life and fit for it.” Fantasy and the diurnal round are on such easy terms in these poems that activities celebrated merge smoothly into one another.
Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
So that they seemed to row the steady earth.
The price to be paid is that for all their syllabic artfulness the poems can be too natural, too effortlessly a skilled product of the journeyman bard, whose words and temperament are in mellow accord. So easy a background and ritual must appear to diminish that lonely individuality which has seemed to become essential to a poet in the philistine media-dominated wastes of British and American culture. Larkin in England and Ashbery in America were compelled, like Auden and Eliot before them, to exhibit a strangeness, an unusualness in their poetic tones which was of their own singular being, creating a conscious and personal world of its own among the material conditions it perceived and fed on. Larkin’s poems are like persons, unmistakable and solitary in a faceless crowd: Heaney’s are—well—like well-made poems; giving a purer sense to tribal terms but never immodestly or secretively located outside the tribe.
This means, among other things, that Irish poets today, whatever their local or religious affiliations, speak in more collective tones than other poets writing in English. They are Irish almost before they are poets. John Montague’s The Rough Field is a kind of “state of the nation” poem, built up of visions and glimpses of locality, legend, and history, and as such it is astonishingly successful; moving, too, and as soundly crafted as the rosewood fiddle which seems to play with mourning sweetness in its margins. In a brief preface Montague explains how it began in the Sixties, when he went to Belfast to receive a small poetry prize (Irish papers reported “Dublin Poet wins Belfast Prize”), the first of its kind in that part of the world, and at a moment of renaissance for Irish poetry, north and south, but especially in the north.
Troubles can and do produce poets as well as fanatics, as Yeats knew (“out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry”) and the poets of varying religious and national identities in this renaissance give the feeling of coming together in what they write, merging their being in a common Irishness, in a way that the fanatic cannot and will not do. One of the ironies hanging like smoke in the margin of this marvelous sequence—margins that are filled with historic notices and quotations, somewhat in the manner in which Coleridge glossed “The Ancient Mariner” in prose—is that the days of the “United Irishmen,” redivided by religion in the nineteenth century, might yet come again. Their old logo, with a harp in the center bearing the motto “It is new strung and shall be heard,” is stamped on the side of the page bearing Montague’s new poetic version of an old Ulster prophecy, beginning “I saw the Pope breaking stones on Friday,” and ending with “a curlew in flight,” over an undivided Ireland.
Much of the poem was written on the Berkeley campus, and Montague recalls the inspiration received from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, from Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, and from Hugh MacDiarmid’s extended Scottish rhapsody “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.” But The Rough Field is a poetic sequence as wholly original as it is heartening and powerful. Its title translates the Irish garbh achaidh, anglicated as Garvaghey, the small township in County Tyrone where Montague spent his childhood. It was in this area that the great Chieftain O’Neill contended successfully against Elizabeth I’s captains until the final “Flight of the Earle” in James I’s time, when the native aristocracy left for overseas and Ulster was colonized by Scottish and English settlers. The Rough Field is decorated with woodcuts taken from John Derricke’s A Discoverie of Woodkarne, a doggerel poem of 1581 with pictures depicting the life of the Irish in Ulster from the gruesome standpoint of Sir Henry Sidney’s troops, who were endeavoring to pacify the province. A woodkern was their term for an Irish peasant and freedom fighter. Shakespeare was as familiar with it, and with the Gaelic word “Gallowglass,” for a more regular heavy-armed type of soldier, as we are today with Kalashnikovs. He shows off his knowledge in Macbeth, just as he refers in the Henry V prologue to the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated expedition to subdue the O’Neills, a few years before the death of Elizabeth.
The editors have provided this new American edition of The Rough Field with notes formerly made for a critical edition of the poems by Thomas Dillon Redshaw; and these, together with the references in the poem itself, supply a vivid kaleidoscope of Ulster’s and of Ireland’s history. First printed in 1972, the poem has also in its time been adapted for reading, presented at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin, and filmed for Irish television. That shows the closeness of the new Irish poetry to the performance arts; and to read the poem is, in one sense, to hear it spoken. But performance, whether of voice or imagined instrument, is not all. As the poet Celan observed, there is in poetry something that surprises itself rather than proclaims itself; and Montague’s shows this gift often enough, as in his evocation of a forbidden Roman Catholic service in a cold valley lair, with the furtive congregation, “long suffering as beasts, / But parched for that surviving sign of grace, / The bog-latin murmur of their priest.”
A crude stone oratory, carved by a cousin,
Commemorates the place. For two hundred years
People of our name have shel- tered in this glen
But now all have left. A few flowers
Wither on the altar, so I melt a ball of snow
From the hedge into their rusty tin before I go.
The communality of feeling that comes naturally to contemporary Irish poetry is sober, deliberately forgoing the Celtic rhetoric of Yeats; but the sobriety includes, as the rhetoric does in Yeats’s poems, an explicit sense of relationship with the folk and family of the land. Yeats made legends as well as rhetoric out of this relationship, stating with some grandeur of the church at Drumcliff that “an ancestor was Rector here.” In more sober fact his great-uncle had been curate.
But the legend that remains potent in this verse of Montague’s is content to be homely too; reducing itself to the moving precision of the few flowers on a rustic altar, and the snow gathered in reverence to melt into their rusty tin.
Yeats’s people were Protestant, as it happens; and poets in Ireland today have returned silently to what he took for granted: the assumption that Irishness does not depend upon religion. The fixation about stating one’s credentials is fading away. My mother, from a Catholic family in Tipperary, name of Heenan, used to be amused by Elizabeth Bowen’s comment that some Irishmen were Irish when it suited them and English or American when it did not. That was probably true of the Ascendancy Protestants and the “castle Catholics” of her generation, but it is true no longer: all classes, if they live in the country or not, can feel Irish and without concern, and any way they want to. But on second thought the taking for granted is not necessarily silent. There is a splendid poem in John Montague’s new collection, Mount Eagle, called “A Real Irishman.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, Billy Davidson cried,
Big and blubbering, by the rock garden.
The master had ordered him to play outside,
Snapping, “You’re not a real Irishman,
You’re a Protestant.” I slip out to comfort
Big Billy, chance an arm around him.
“What does it matter, your religion—
Some people still call me the American!”
Montague in fact was born in Brooklyn in 1929, but came back, as it were, to County Tyrone at the age of four. He graduated from University College in Dublin and taught in both French and American universities before being offered a chair at University College, Cork. At the end of “A Real Irishman” he encounters a bit of trouble with Protestant law-and-order forces in his home town, and hears a reassuring voice roar “John Montague is my old friend and neighbor; / Lay a hand on him and you deal with Billy Davidson.”
Many of the poems in Mount Eagle slide between delicate images of a remembered Ireland and comparable legendary matters among American Indians, or with Pacific birds and fishes. There are well-wrought pieces such as “Springs,” dedicated to Ted Hughes, himself a great poet for beasts, which imagines the salmon in a now polluted stream. The poem makes its point, and beautifully, although I fancy Hughes might have to point out that a salmon on its final spawning run is often a kelt, afflicted with sores and fungus which are the result of natural causes rather than befouled water. Crafted with an equal care, and touching both for that and for what they tell us, are poems on the rituals of children, “ploutering” in their rubber boots through “the shallow Pacific rain pools,” or imitating tea-parties in the woods near the airport, where a climbing jet “filtered through the apple blossom” sounds “as distant and friendly as the hum of a honey-seeking bee.”
James Joyce once remarked that the Irish possessed above all other peoples he had met a gift for the ceremonies and graces of domesticity. It is a gift exhibited by a tenderness of workmanship in each of these three poets; and it is a kind of compliment to them to find poems of precisely the same kind and quality in each of their collections. The muse has wished for them, as for Yeats’s daughter, a natural and native mode of being and writing, “where all’s accustomed, ceremonious”—although today it is not the ceremony of the great house but of the pub, the campus, and the suburban dwelling. In this very uniformity of courtliness there might seem to lurk the danger of something potentially neo-Georgian, the celebration of beech woods and weekends and milk for the cat that Harold Monro, the publisher of the Georgian Poetry series, and his peers went in for in the days of the Poetry Bookshop. But in all the new Irish poetry there is an iron fist somewhere inside the velvet glove, a recognition of horror and trouble which comes as naturally as the good manners. Among the flower names and ship names in Michael Longley’s Gorse Fires, even lines that set to metric music the flavors of ice cream—“rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach”—the ice-cream man is murdered somewhere off the Lisburn Road, and carnations are placed beside his barrow.
A marvelous poem of Longley’s examines the X-ray of the poet and his twin brother inside their mother’s womb, and after the scrutiny “prescribe[s] in the dark a salad of land-cress, / Fennel like hair, the sky-blue of borage flowers.” But the jewel of his collection (not an unapt word either) is a longer poem in eight short parts, “Ghetto,” and the single couplet that prefaces it, “Terezín,” two lines that might have been written by Celan himself. (A line of his acts as epigraph to Longley’s collection.)
No room has ever been as silent as the room
Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison.
In the German-run death camps like Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, hair, dolls, and musical instruments were methodically stacked in huge storerooms, as they also were after the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Crossing Poland by train Michael Longley imagines one of the diminutive victims.
I see him for long enough to catch the sprinkle of snowflakes
On his hair and schoolbag, and then I am transported
Away from that world of broken hobby-horses and silent toys.
He turns into a little snowman and refuses to melt.
The philosopher Adorno, and George Steiner after him, suggested that the language of art today must be totally inadequate to convey the experience of the Holocaust, to which only silence can be a fitting tribute. This implies some misunderstanding of poetic tradition: the language of poetry has never claimed to convey the nature of such horrors but more simply its power to transform them: paradoxically a more modest task. Celan, a Jew from Romania whose parents were liquidated in the German camps of the Ukraine, wrote poems in German like “Espenbaum,” in memory of his mother, that do just this. The same time-honored role comes naturally to Irish poets like Longley and Montague, as it once did to bards and harpists with a tradition of gravitas which they had no need to cultivate or assume, and which honored language at the same time that it honored the dead.
June 25, 1992