Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

I start with a little criticism before I get into rhapsodies. For a venue to prohibit a band from playing any covers during a performance strikes me as misguided. I commend encouragement of artistic creation, but this rule offends my Romantic sensibility; it could encourage a breakdown of hallowed musical and poetic form.

Experimental music has its place, even at a concert, but there is ample room for creativity within established patterns; nothing is ever entirely original, only the muse brings inspiration. It came as a surprise to scholars who discovered that the Homer poet – whoever that is – relied on stock epithets like ‘rosey-fingered dawn’, to build strict hexameter verse. These folk expressions were recited from memory before the arrival of writing, and joined with the poet’s own invention, to the accompaniment of strings.

We should remain wary of lapsing into cliché, as George Orwell sagely noted: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. But idioms that have been handed down bring colour to our speech and writing: tropes connect us to our ancestors in sound. It is the devotion that we give to the Word that is important, and this protects us from sounding hackneyed. The first syllable in ‘rhapsodise’ refers to stitching in needlework, the second to song; so it involves threading songs together, which is the stuff of epic.

Even the arch-Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who overthrew conventions such as belief in an almighty god, relied on poetic forms inherited from past masters such as Spencer, and Milton especially. Creativity is evident in the integration of new ideas into old structures. Thus, Homer’s genius in the Iliad was to develop a short episode within the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. This gives his tale a compelling energy, and encapsulates the longer struggle, which an expansive account cannot achieve. Each age plays with legends that have been handed down.

Café Blum in Berlin’s Neukölln, is a gorgeous old-worldly venue that was filled to capacity for the Loafing Heroes first concert in Berlin for six years. It’s a sign of their stellar quality that two Berlin members could slip seamlessly into the collective.

An exquisite array of instruments were in evidence: Bartholomew Ryan with voice and guitar, Giulia Gallina with voice, concertina and dulcimer; Judith Retzlik on violin, viola, trumpet and a little piano; and Fenster’s Jonathan Jarzyna on percussion, along with a mysterious electronic instrument.

Having organised a few Irish tours for the band I am accustomed to audiences – especially in pubs – occasionally not being respectful to their ethereal music which lilts, rather than declaims; especially Giulia’s haunting voice – and she doesn’t appreciate shouting over a crowd… But this Berlin crowd was almost meditative in its attention: a sturdy forest of straight backs that I viewed from my latecomer’s vantage.

And yet such respect seemed alien to me. I yearned for a drop of devilment, so an inner Irish gremlin compelled me to breath a few heckles for the amusement of an Irish mate who staged some in return. Out of earshot we mouthed barbed comments between ourselves, honouring the sacred craic: ‘Jaysus would you look at your man!’

At the end of the performance the audience clapped for a good five minutes. This was deep appreciation, if not the rapture of an Irish crowd that has been tamed. The band weren’t going to get away without an encore. But the hard-pressed musicians had only a day to prepare, and it took a little while for them to settle on which of their back catalogue to play.

In the meantime I started raucously shouting for covers I know they play, and would usually intersperse through a set. But my cries went unheeded, for the reason I discovered afterwards.

Yet they had just finished with their old favourite, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, in which Bartholomew recites the poem to a familiar melody, out of which the band improvise on their assorted instruments. I have heard Judith wind a moistened finger around the top of a wine glass giving a high-pitched hum that somehow worked for the song; here she chose the piano as her weapon. It was a pity not to have Jaime McGill’s usual bass clarinet, and arsenal of peddles, but
Jonathan was making deranged noises on his electronic contraption to compensate. No performance of the song is ever the same – not least because members come and go – but it operates within an established pattern, as an evolving legend.

The poem is a classic statement of the modern condition: ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.’ But I think the main reason it goes down so well is because it is so rare for poetry to be recited nowadays, and especially where the speaker really inhabits the verse, leaving an audience spellbound.

There is an amusing story to the recording that is now up on Youtube. A few minutes in you can make out the sound of phone ringing, which was Jaime McGill trying to say she was running late. Sometimes out of seemingly ugly imperfection something new and beautiful arises, and it now seems obvious that a phone should start ringing in the middle of Prufrock.

If a band includes a spoken word recital of a poem is that a cover?! The mind boggles. The distinction between song and poetry is artificial, to some extent a legacy of Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot. Having mastered lyrical verse, he moved away from established forms, favouring enjambments, whereby one line merges with another, and a consistent rhythm is not developed. Eliot did this with a deep knowledge of the poetic tradition, and the Wasteland is still beautiful on the ear: ‘April is the cruellest month … ‘. But poets since the 1950s have strayed into more dangerous waters, where the past is ignored, leaving a boring narcissism instead.

Of course post-modern poetry can work splendidly, as with Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

It also permits some of the worst excesses of self-indulgence at ‘dreaded’ poetry readings. It is hard to avoid an inclination to return to W.B. Yeats, and submit to the hard labour of learning the poetic trade, while occasionally giving vent to a post-modernism that has seeped into our bones.

There was some gnashing of teeth in literary circles when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Songs are often inextricably bound to musical compositions, and when you just read them song lyrics have nothing like the same force. Interestingly Paul Simon dismissed the connection between his song-writing and poetry in an interview in 1968:

‘I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs … But the lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet, then people think you are putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.’

Simon was right that a lot of derivative nonsense has been passed off as poetry in song, and that a great tradition was often sadly ignored, but that should not obscure how the songs Bob Dylan have entered the poetic canon, and even lyrics of his own.

Dylan was the leading light – though not my personal favourite – among a generation that developed poetry out of Rock n’ Roll and the folk revival. The prize seems appropriate to me if I ignore the etymology of the word literature, which means writing formed from letters. A Nobel Prize for poetry rather than literature would be more appropriate, which would include all forms, including the novel.

Dylan was of course also iconoclastic, going electric to the horror of some folkies. Labelled ‘Judas’, he responded: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ He had learnt at the feet of great ballad singers such as Liam Clancy and Woody Guthrie, but wanted to expand into new domains. This is the dangerous breaking of boundaries that re-connect with what has come before so as to avoid incoherence. Now, millions strum and sing the songs of Dylan, who took words and melodies from others in turn. That’s how the Songlines flow.

Ewan McCall who led the folk revival in Britain, and composed the classic Dirty Old Town, which is mistakenly assumed to be about Dublin (it’s about Salford in England), had another unbending rule in the folk club he founded that artists could only sing songs from their native countries. But as a Communist he should surely have realised that identity has an evolving plasticity, and anyway nowadays many bands, such as the Loafing Heroes, have multi-national casts.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious Irish streak – I’m still hoping to meet my orderly inner German – but I am wary or rules dictating what a poet can or cannot sing.
So when is a song, or a recital, a cover? There is no firm dividing line, and it becomes a matter of taste. Nothing is truly original, it is all adaptation out of a familiarity, and serendipity is evident too – like a phone ringing in the middle of a recording.

Imagining Ireland

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1827) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and sometimes frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland stands accused.

Scientific reasoning for all its astounding capacity is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. Thus Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course.

The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the medieval. In his autobiography Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by C. G. Jung ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. To do so we must move beyond the wisdom of Ireland’s leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The utility of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own;’

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls ‘moral imagination’; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who: ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

Further, he distinguishes between poetry which ‘in the restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’; and poetry located in other forms such as the story or novel: ‘The parts of the a composition may be poetical without the composition as a whole being poetical’. He adds that ‘all the great historians were poets’ and that ‘poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man’.
Seen in this light poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland in 1812 where he wrote a pamphlet An Address to the Irish People urging non-violent resistance: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’ He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs.

But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark arts. Audiences were mesmerized by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This is quite urgent considering Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this the Anthropocene. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as addressing hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

It is assumed that we in Ireland are of little relevance to the wider world. But that is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of fields from artists of the Book of Kells, to Swift’s satire and Joyce’s iconoclasm that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising for all its flaws was the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for ‘no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland.’ Instead: ‘Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech.’

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to Ulysses in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from by saying: ‘Ireland … I was born here, Ireland.’

That ‘Ireland of the imagination’ awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas after independence its animating spirit W.B. Yeat retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion.

But before then Joyce anticipated that: ‘The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop.’ And was sure that: ‘No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.’
Eireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence. Leaving in Joyce’s words: ‘The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites.’

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: ‘I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul.’

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power remains suspect. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century who bemoaned the apocryphal ‘gift of Constantine’ which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!’

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his Dreamtime: ‘In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect.’ A stateless Christianity, rejecting the papacy with clear water between itself and state institutions, that identifies human beings as living among a wider natural constellation needs poets such as John Moriarty to sing into being.

Since independence most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.
Only in music which at times rivals, but really compliments the animating effect of poetry, has great expression been preserved. But even here, with notable exceptions, the originality of the lyric has declined: the absence of poetry is felt. Just as words without music do not create the greatest poetry, similarly music without words fall short of the highest artistic expression. Recall that Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony, widely regarded as the greatest composition in history culminates in a choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

We have seen a grubby culture grow up in Ireland, leaving its mark on a landscape of one-off incongruous bungalows and groves of clear-felled Sitka spruce; in lurid sports apparel that serves as fashion and the sordid drunkenness that haunts every city and town. Worse: gangland murders fuelled by middle class recreational drug habits and nonsensical laws; approaching the highest rate of obesity in Europe; and a cruel and self-centred agricultural industry. All this alongside a bewildering level of homelessness.

The wounds of the “double yoke” run deep, and are compounded by a collision with the zombie-culture of our smart-phone post-modernity. Ever extreme in virtue as in vice: the Irish are the biggest phone-internet users in the world.

We seem to be lurching from the Celtic Twilight towards Flann O’Brien’s Celtic Toilet. And each of us bears responsibility in the sense understood by Dostoyevsky in his novel Devils. In this Stavrogin reveals his appalling crime to the elder Tikhon, who responds by asking the forgiveness of Stavrogin: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin. I’m a great sinner, perhaps greater than you.’

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review: ‘For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fail.’

But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to anticipate that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book Ship of Fools: ‘skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro.’

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place predicting
‘a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’; that ‘reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff’.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s limitations: ‘In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.’
The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fail methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Fein waits in the wings alongside a raft of parish-pump Independents. His own flirtation with seeking political office as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

It is revealing that O’Toole’s strident left-wing voice is used to sell a paper such as the Irish Times which nurtures a consumer society through the contagion of a Saturday magazine that has spilled into the rest of the paper. Increasingly scant space is devoted to writing unconnected to selling one thing or another be it property, food, sport or increasingly the arts.
Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

It is also apparent that there is a serious gap in O’Toole’s coverage of the environment: he has never had a raised ecological awareness. Of course no columnist can cover every issue but occupying such an influential position as an almost weekly op-ed contributor it is surely incumbent on him to pay more attention to the most pressing concern for a wider humanity.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present.” Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books, and it is to an example of this coverage that we turn.

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet W.B. Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic views. But distilling O’Toole’s criticism to its essence we are left with him honouring the poet as ‘magical, strange and transcendent’; ‘with vestiges of the marvellous’. Without elucidation these encomiums are however superfluous.

O’Toole has Dante’s Paradise in sight but we do not taste oblivion from the waters of Lethe, or the river of Eunoe where the memories of good deeds in life are strengthened. These we find in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as ‘the artifice of eternity’ and as the golden bird who sings to ‘lords and ladies of Byzantium’ of ‘what is past or passing or to come’.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is as Robert Durling puts it: ‘a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death’. Yeats developed a similar symbolic system and unless we absorb this we only skim the surface of his vision.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare, Militon through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests this is a two way process: ‘Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth.’

The ‘timeless’, ‘transcendent’ and the ‘remarkable’ that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’s poetry are glimpse at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance,’ but the historical accuracy of that statement in a European context is difficult to counter. In Defending Ancient Sacred Springs she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drinks from these waters.
Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

Poetry has a wide variety of devices. According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) ‘has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators … he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths.’ We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, a muse to the Greeks, faeries for the Irish, but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty.

The poet-philosopher John Moriarty was one such visionary. He imagined ‘another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland.’

That surely female Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practice yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this lady will carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that ‘God and the imagination are one’.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/imagine-2/)

‘Irish poets learn your trade’

Poets are banished from Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-king is the sole guardian of Truth. Their lyrical distortion is identified as a revolutionary threat to the singular established idea. This was recognised by James Joyce who wrote: ‘Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality’;

Joseph Stalin was also unnervingly conscious of the capacity of poets to undermine Communist ideology, describing them as ‘engineers of the soul’. He treated some such as Mikhail Bulgakov as a cat would a trapped mouse to be disposed of when he felt bored. Others including Anna Akhmatova were harassed and not allowed to work but as a determined witness she wrote: ‘Terror fingers all things in the dark, / Leads moonlight to the axe. / There’s an ominous knock behind the wall: / A ghost a thief or a rat.’ Eventually she was compelled by the imprisonment of her son to produce patriotic verse but was freed from constraints after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Another Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam argued that a civilization should be measured by the number who read poetry. He died in a Gulag in 1940.

Poetry eschews convention and draws vitality from rebellion. Yet paradoxically adherence to form seems essential for the mystery to be effectively conveyed. Where an ideology becomes ascendant whether Nazism, Communism or Catholicism in Ireland poets are censored and persecuted. But in this Neoliberal age, the poet is often corrupted by market conditions and imagination is not given free rein in a zeitgeist of high rationality where authenticity and irony are prized above form and transcendence.

Poetry is located beyond poems and is the source of literature, it also vital to the evolution of language. Walter Benjamin provides a broad definition of language, arguing that: ‘all communication of mental meanings is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry or whatever underlying it or founded on it.’

Poetry is found in film and, notably, music. Indeed the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler observed: ‘One must beware of overestimating orchestral music and considering it the only high art. Music without words gained its great importance and its full extent only under capitalism’. In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

It appears that poetry and music evolved together and it is only in the early modern period that we see a significant rupture. This is often to the detriment of classical varieties of both which are increasingly marginalised and inaccessible to a general audience.

We find in W.B. Yeats a strict adherence to a form that give his words a musical ring. Although it is believed he was actually tone deaf, he used a metronome to measure metre and usually adhered strictly to rhyming sequences. His method, allied with intense sensitivity, brought great popularity, and he revolted against an empire to sing his nation into existence. In his parting poem Under Ben Bulben he urges: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made.’

Contrary to the stereotype, the poet is no dilettante, far from it, as Yeats asserts in Adam’s Curse: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’: it is the trick of great poetry to sound as if it has rolled off the tongue, but the apparent simplicity is the product of hard labour. We might recall Pascal’s apology for not have time to write a shorter letter.

The initial inspiration, or donné, for a poem gives way to the slow labour of moulding coherence, like a potter shaping clay on a wheel into a recognisable object. Slightly melodramatically Yeats says: ‘Better go down on the marrow bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these.’ And the reward is only to ‘be thought an idler by the noisy set.’ That is not say that poetry simplifies, quite the contrary, as the poet and critic Kathleen Raine asserts: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

Unfortunately in Ireland, as elsewhere, poetry is today largely removed from a popular audience. Seamus Heaney received widespread acclaim and a Nobel Prize in 1995 but his verse while rich in metaphor and word play does not flow like the greatest poetry: hardly a line of his has entered popular speech.

There is also a suspicion that as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94) he was not at heart a rebel, and grew comfortable with his accolades. Recall that Yeats thrived on the tension of being an outsider: a Protestant, (usually) liberal in a conservative Catholic Ireland; an Irishman pining for Sligo in London; a Fenian when the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics.

A rousing anger is rarely heard in Heaney; though the collection North (1975) is an exception, written at the height of the Troubles. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland he writes: ‘Speaking broad Devonshire / Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / And drives inland.’

The words have a frisson often missing from his oeuvre; perhaps he recoiled from a capacity to foment violence contenting himself with often obscure metaphor and personal recollection. But by generally removing himself from the cut and thrust of politics did he also hold back from challenging Ireland’s conservatism to the extent that Yeats had?

Led by T.S. Eliot, the second half of the twentieth witnessed the retreat of poetry from a popular audience. A morass of formless post-modern experimentation has followed that usually alienates the listener. But poetry reasserted itself in a different form with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s as rhythm and blues and jazz combined with the folk revival. Accompanied by the essential instrument of the guitar, words were flowing again and a generation was almost stirred into global revolt.

Simultaneously in the Soviet Union, Russian chanson, simple songs also usually accompanied by guitar, emanating from the criminal underworld and the gulags challenged the authority of the state. Elsewhere, Bob Marley became a prophet to many in the Third World.

Unfortunately the music of the 1960s was corrupted by its commercial success and descended into narcissism, drug addiction and obscene materialism. There was also a racist dimension to its decline. In an interview last year Bob Dylan talked about starting off:

I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendent, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ‘n’ roll – who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of these guys, to strike down rock ‘n’ roll for what it was and what it represented – not least of all being a black-and-white thing.

He concluded that a bifurcation was orchestrated whereby ‘the black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop.’ Audiences were manipulated by big labels who asserted control over disk jockeys, and some black stars were persecuted. Chuck Berry at the height of his fame in 1962 was arrested on spurious charges, specifically ‘for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.’ This came shortly after he had established a racially integrated night club in St Louis.

The exuberant poetic rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll was contained within music, that most ancient and ideal of artistic forms. According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’

Also, instructively, a number of more traditional poets shot to prominence in the 1960s including Alan Ginsburg. It was as if a generation was listening but they soon closed their ears.

But hope remains, and since the 1960s countless individuals have been stirred to strum a few chords and, often clumsily, express themselves, questioning perceived ideas and trawling their experiences as poetry does. Importantly, the accessibility of lyrics does not require strict adherence to a form that we associate with classical poetry as music has its own timeless patterns. A sweet melody hooks the listener as in, for example, Van Morrison’s word-in-song “Rave on, John Donne”, where the romantic vision of the poet or ‘Holy fool’ is set up in opposition to industrial civilisation.

Each generation must recast an art form, breathing fresh life into it and questioning the assumptions of their elders; new technology also spurs adventure, but sometimes ruptures can carry a movement down blind alleys. Since the 1970s the integration of music with the lyric has been on a downward spiral. Popularity is now overwhelmingly dictated by a resourceful industry that in recent times overcame the loss of revenue from direct sales of CDs and records by ratcheting up the prices of concerts and using television shows to generate publicity. It has reached a nadir in the diabolic X-factor shaping of Simon Callow.

Moreover, since the 1980s electronic music has re-invented itself – Terminator-like – assuming monstrous guises that have overwhelmed the human interaction with instruments. In the past an individual would spend the proverbial 10,000 hours learning her instrument, now all too often today the melodies are sampled. Just as the hard labour of developing rhyme and metre imposed a discipline on poets that makes their work accessible, the challenge of using one’s fingers to point to the right intervals inculcates a deep appreciation of music. The passage towards great art is usually the slowest.

Now the beat is all important at the expense of the melody and emotion. The word is sometimes an afterthought and the facility of the laptop allows experimentation ad nauseum producing bewildering arrangements that fail to evoke emotion.

In Emotion and Meaning in Music the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer argues that the arousal of emotion through music is the product of surprise after repetition: ‘the customary or expected progression of sounds can be considered as a norm, which from a stylistic point of view it is; and alteration in the expected progression can be considered as a deviation. Hence deviations can be regarded as emotional or affective stimuli.’ Measured dissonance is key to the exercise, but excessive deviation nullifies the effect.

Of course subtlety is not entirely absent in modern electronic music but generally the subservience of the melody to the beat leads to a loss of emotional arousal, seen in the robotic dancing of individuals in clubs around the world. Is it any wonder that a generation turns to drugs for the ecstatic?

The absence of emotion in music finds a parallel in the fetishisation of authenticity which in literature has found its apotheosis in the dreary autobiographical tomes of Karl Ove Knausgaard who subjects readers to the minutiae of his every experience as a microscope does a petri-dish. This might be situated in the tradition of Marcel Proust but the latter sought transcendence in the quotidian. Knausgaard simply grinds the reader further into the putrid details of his life as a dog-trainer compels a puppy to smell his shit.

In Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission the prizing of authenticity above other qualities is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In recent music, we find that in Amy Winehouse her great talent squandered in autobiographical recitation linking to her tragic self-immolation.

We fail to devote sufficient attention to the imaginative possibilities of the unconscious mind. Yeats’ poetry emerged through interaction with a fairy realm which he believed in profoundly. As Micheal Mac Liommar points out: ‘Yeats’ belief in ‘that nonsense’ was the most fundamental thing in his nature: it was at least as passionate and unshakable as the faith of any devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Mohammedan; if a little more restless in its search for some permanent shape’. Indeed his decision to self-identify as Irish, when he could easily have seen himself as English was grounded in a ‘conviction that Ireland had preserved … among less admirable things … a gift of vision.’

During the 1920s Yeats drew inspiration from the automatic writing that his wife George undertook as a medium. The investigation of the unconscious was also central to the Surrealist movement. In its 1924 manifesto, Andre Breton referred to: ‘psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.’ Breton believed that a surrealist should be ‘Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’.

Reversing Stalin’s dictum, Breton attributes many of the great scientific breakthroughs to the harnessing of the poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking.’ Today much art, including poetry, are over-thought and self-referential. But ‘True art’ wrote Yeats ‘is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence.’

Contemporary art often lapses into an irony which pervades contemporary ‘hipster’ culture where meaning is conveyed by using language that expresses the opposite. Raine contends that: ‘Above all, the voice of true imagination is never ironic; that is the mark of a divided mind, whereas the imagination is above all at one with itself, the principle of unification and harmony.’ Ironic art is art that does not believe in itself and runs contrary to the poetic surrender to the imagination. Irony can only poke fun and subvert form.

Irony is the dominant note in a recent short film Our Kind by Alan Phelan that is currently exhibited in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The film is a counter-factual rendering of the life of Roger Casement which finds him in Norway in 1941 having survived the 1916 Rising. Instructions are required to understand its ‘meaning’. The artist writes:

‘there are few historically correct elements in the story presented. Instead we are given a very different scenario which in itself reflects the flaws common in the genre of historical drama for film, with its need to find drama in history, resulting in stories that speak more of the present than the past. Much of the scholarship surrounding Casement is similarly muddled, caught between interpretative approaches, political prejudices and at times an inverted homophobia that cannot come to terms with Casement’s personal and public lives. Several of these angles are woven into the story, often mis-represented and incomplete.’

It is a film made to look like a pastiche; a deadpan dismissal of the genre of historical fiction without value in itself. He continues ‘Our Kind cannot be viewed at face value. The meaning lies between the lies’. Or rather the meaning is in the accompanying notes. The film has no ‘vision’ or value in and of itself.

Critical ignorance is also conveyed in one review written by Aidan Wall in Totally Dublin who says that ‘The surreality of this fictionalised situation is heightened by the ever-shifting cinematography which refuses to settle into one coherent style’. The film actually runs contrary to the surrealist project which surrenders to an imagination which is never ironic. But by now the term surreal is debased coinage.

That is not to say that Ireland has lost its ‘vision’ entirely. Irish music often maintains a vibrancy and Dylan Tighe’s recent album Wabi Sabi Soul reveals a poet with a rebellious spirit. The singing is at time jarring and declamatory but a powerful lyrical effect is produced by the sweetness of the accompanying melodies that include contributions from the bass clarinet of Sean Mac Erlaine. Tighe raves on with references to mental health and a medical establishment which pathologies behaviour that might actually prompt artistic output. There is also a judicious sampling of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Phoenix Park in 1979.

Tighe could easily write commercial songs that would not confront his listeners but he chooses to confront Ireland with its patriarchal legacy, countering that ‘women are healers’. In “Cult Leader” – the song featuring the Pope – he vows to ‘start my own religion’ with love as ‘the only weapon to fight the death of time’. It will be interesting to discover what direction this mercurial talent will take next.

Today poetry operates within the confines of a Neoliberal system which demands, no matter the occupation, that we constantly sell ourselves. Of course artists have always struggled to earn a living – it has become a cliché – but rarely has there been an era which has placed greater emphasises on self-promotion through a litany of online platforms and identities.

Writing in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz argues that: ‘we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.’ This, he argues, has come about because ‘The internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

He asserts that: ‘What we see in the new paradigm – in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity – is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth.’ Thus it is more important for an artist to be able effectively to fill out a grant application than actually produced a compelling piece of work.

Deresiewicz concludes that in an environment where the customer is always right: ‘It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please – more like entertainment, less like art.’

But actually what we define as ‘art’ might become increasingly confined to the elite environment of initiates with access to the notes accompanying the product. These ‘artists’ make their way by securing grants from public funds whose paymasters are persuaded by the strength of the proposal. Abstruseness seems to be prized based on an assumption that if it is inaccessible then it is worthwhile. As ‘difficulty’ becomes a criterion for success, the appeal of accessibility – that Yeats argued required the hardest labour – is ignored as it would be dismissed as a ‘lower’ art form.

Society at large is left to stew in X-factor detritus and dance mechanically in ecstatic parody. In these circumstances it might be argued that commercial failure is a poetic form of success. But there are undoubtedly audiences out there for true poetry. It is crucial that its dissonance and disjunction endures. Otherwise the creative possibilities of the imagination retreat and a crucial form of rebellion against the Neoliberal project is not advanced.

(published in Village Magazine, May, 2016)

Song is Existence

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2015)

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.
Sean O’Faolain

Donal Dineen recently described this as a ‘golden age’ in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. Nonetheless it is worth assessing this creative outpouring in our midst, track its merits such as they are and even plot future directions.

Any golden age in music cannot be divorced from the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians are not free floating forms insulated from broader currents. If this is a golden age for Irish music then to some extent it extends to Irish life at large, or at least there’s a cloud with a very silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has maintained its population unlike after other historical crises albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under-25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome does not mask genuine warmth.

In the sphere of music many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah could enjoy a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively. A unique history in European terms of colonization, suffering what has been defined as the worst famine in human history then emerging at the end of the nineteenth century as a noisy underclass uncomfortably situated near the centre of an empire where the sun never set. An accident of geography gave the Irish population a modern education and substantial equality in the United Kingdom.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified ‘conjunctures’ or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the meeting of a peasant society with an advanced industrial society generated an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish acquired the language of the colonizer but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing Positivism of the period. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In Songlines the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the Aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sung their land into existence. He writes: ‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’ He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life.’ Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’ meaning ‘song is existence’.

Songs are of course both music and words, but the inspiration for song seems to originate in a different part of the brain to speaking. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the lifeblood of poetry.

But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is in the responsibility of the practical left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, echo and embellish them. This coordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially singing in combination with instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: ‘both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately.’

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organized religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from an exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbade the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung was the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of Political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist.
Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music ‘has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together’.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the Songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many return to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of Modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance in collective Irish hemispheres.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys who lives in Dublin recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the Songlines.

A recent album An Interview with Mr Yeats (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s work into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration evident in other work. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and our ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish Songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we pereive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album Crossing the Threshold concerns Roger Casement: ‘A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name’. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeat’s poetic homage to Casement in the Ryan’s lines: ‘There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door.’ Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: The Songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: ‘Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start’.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our Songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering. Our great music can make words dance.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/song-is-existence/)

The Easter Rising 1916

(Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2016)

The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles; a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.

Without the Rising ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf to be worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.

It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.

Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen less pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.

Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.

The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.

In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seventeenth when the population declined from about two million to approximately five hundred thousand was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Albeit if the Crown had risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his officials treating it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.

The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English; a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.

More than James Joyce whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W.B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’

Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmuid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.

For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Padraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens.

More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity seemed applicable.

In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were fired in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.

Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of blood-minded cruelty.

But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach Eamon de Valera escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader the Countess Markievicz was spared due to her gender.

It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by firing squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Padraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Fein, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.

In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.

But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.

Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.

My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Padraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913: ‘Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.’

Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism exposes, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest flowering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.

The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood; and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound with his ideal of the nation.

A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the fight that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew.’ There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.

Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Fein’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.

I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.

Independence was important for Ireland however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.

Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds for each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-looking: a pale reflection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.

One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be profitable. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservativism of Pearse’s ideology?

It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.

The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank that has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/the-easter-rising/)

Grace Gifford and the Abortion Debate

(Unpublished, 2016)

Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985 and sung by the Dubliners among others, listening to Grace for the first time might bring you to tears. It recalls the circumstances of the marriage between 1916 revolutionary and poet Joseph Mary Plunkett and the artist Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail on the eve of his execution.

Plunkett explains to Grace how love of country and comrade compelled him to rise from his sick bed and join the Rising. He reflects on its failure, but consoles himself with the momentary bliss of their romance in a churning chorus: ‘Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger’.

The song changes key in the last verse as Plunkett is left alone with his thoughts. Overwhelmed he closes with the lines: ‘I loved so much that I could see His Blood upon The Rose’, a reference to a religious poem written by Plunkett: ‘I see His Blood upon The Rose’.

Just as the song ends on a religious note similarly the Irish revolution developed a decidedly Catholic hue after 1916, with the leaders soon being hailed as latter-day saints. In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 Roy Foster writes: ‘Very rapidly, the language of mystical Catholicism fused with national purism in a new – or ancient – revolutionary rhetoric.’

Revealingly, inside the GPO rosaries were said communally every night and confessions heard. In the aftermath independent-minded figures such as James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement converted to Catholicism. This had important repercussions for the feminism, secularism and socialism that animated participants in the preceding cultural revival.

Moreover, women who had previously played prominent roles were reduced to subservience during the Rising, an ominous foretaste for their position in the independent state as both Cuman na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail usually acceded to the wishes of the Catholic Church on moral questions.

By the early 1920s observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms. His 1937 Constitution (and ours) commits the state to ensuring ‘that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.

Today the constitutional issue of most concern to many feminists and others is the prohibition against abortion on demand which leads on average to twelve women travelling to Britain every day for the procedure.

The story of Grace Gifford might prove instructive on this issue. After her fleeting marriage Grace seemed to have led a fairly lonely and impoverished existence, illustrating cartoons for fringe Republican publications. Her husband’s family refused to recognise the validity of Joseph’s will, and only in 1932 when de Valera’s government granted her a pension was she able to live in a measure of comfort.

It is possible that the animosity of the family can be traced to Grace being pregnant with a child other than the infirm Joseph’s before her marriage. She may have had an abortion.

In her private papers Joseph’s sister Geraldine reveals that ‘Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America} because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal.’

The Castle had informed her that Grace was pregnant but that Joseph was not the father. She visited Grace and found she was in bed and beside her ‘a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc.’

No words were passed between the two women but Geraldine consulted another visitor who agreed with what she had seen but ‘did not know if Grace had induced or not’. Geraldine also claimed that Grace and her sister had shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend a night with them.

It is plausible that the Castle were attempting to cause a rift between Grace and the Plunkett family but there is no reason to disbelieve the account of the abortion or miscarriage. The shame of illegitimacy might have caused Grace to expose herself to the danger of an abortion.

The sex lives of the participants in the 1916 is not a subject-matter that is commonly exhumed, but the prevailing mores did not preclude extra-marital encounters. As Ireland digs deeper into the revolutionary shrine more unwelcome skeletons might emerge.

In particular there has been debate around the sexuality of the leader of the uprising Padraig Pearse. There is a prevailing view among historians that his orientation was homosexual which was obviously not alluded to for most of the state’s history.

But of grave concern is that he may have used his position as a school headmaster in St Enda’s for exploitative behaviour. There is what Roy Foster describes as ‘a disturbing implication’ in the final verses of his poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ that an encounter with a student perhaps occurred. The poet addresses a ‘child of the soft red mouth’ and found that ‘there is fragrance in your kiss / That have I have not found yet / In the kisses of women.

It is said that you should avoid meeting your heroes. One wonders whether this will be the case as Ireland confronts the human frailties evident in the birth pangs of this state.

Between Music and Prose

(Published in Village Magazine, April 2015)

In her recent Michael Littleton lecture for RTE ‘Has Poetry a Future?’ Eavan Boland identifies the ‘vertical’ audience it has enjoyed through history. Many hallowed poets, such as Keats, did not find a public in their own time but their words may echo across the ages unlike other forms of culture which may have a short-lived or ‘horizontal’ appeal. She argued that those who assert poetry’s present irrelevance are hopelessly myopic.

In a recent book of prose essays: Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry. He writes: ‘The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal.’ Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

O’Siadhail identifies a confluence of the language of heart and mind in poetry that serves as a refuge from daily corruptions where: ‘our core words – ‘motherhood’, for example – are daily exploited and polluted to tempt us to consume.’

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail quotes Vaclav Havel from An Anatomy of Reticence approvingly: ‘even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the “hidden consciousness” of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political.’ Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted a totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders ‘whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers’.

But O’Siadhail does identify a danger lest Modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot have indeed developed a self-absorbed and potentially redundant poetry. He explains: ‘The clear danger of this interiority is an opting out of society and a refusal to take any responsibility for shaping a wider meaning. Apart from the risk of solipsism and plain self-indulgence, there is the risk of turning poetry into a kind of private piety, which ends up marginalising poetry or branding it as some kind of academic pursuit not appropriate to the ordinary reader of books’.

A further question to ponder is whether contemporary poetry should be embraced at the expense of the old: most obviously in the secondary school syllabus. Should teenagers be asked to engage with and perhaps recite older poems if the subject matter seems remote to their experiences, and even if the views of a poet would seem outmoded in the science classroom next door?

Seen through the lens of its ‘vertical’ influence, educators should be hesitant to alter the canon in the interest of inclusiveness, or of according a rapid recognition to poets who have attained popularity in their lifetimes. Engaging with old masters might give students a better sense of the contingency of established ideas.

Unfortunately this gives rise to gender imbalance, but there is little point including unremarkable poetry for the sake of political correctness. Moreover a more nuanced view of gender might allow us to identify a feminine voice in any verse notwithstanding its author. Poetry is more than a personal undertaking but a common inheritance of a language. O’Siadhail quotes Edward Sapir who wrote in 1921: ‘Every language is itself a collective art of expression … An artist utilises the native esthetic resources of his speech. He may be thankful if the given palette of colours is rich, if the springboard is light. But he deserves no special credit for felicities that are the language’s own.’

Boland’s distinction between the vertical and horizontal might also apply over the course of an individual’s lifetime: when he first encounters a poem a student might find little beyond conjunctions of words with a musical ring to them but over the course of a lifetime they may begin to inhabit the ideas expressed. In that sense the old method of teaching poetry as an oral form where lines are learnt by heart to be recalled in future seems worthwhile.

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctive, way as opposed to developing an understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

In this collection that spans many years of reflection, O’Siadhail, an intensely gifted poet, addresses the tension between form and content laying bare his artistic process with great clarity. He examines the workings and appeal of the sonnet, the haiku, of Dante’s terza rima and the free form of the Black Mountain Poets and Beats.

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating: ‘My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance. He concludes that: ‘the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment.’

As a poet trained in linguistics he offers rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that ‘nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony’; although adding that: ‘For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem’.

As a linguist he draws from a rich array of sounds and meanings and is unhesitant about using them in his verse. He writes: ‘It is by no means necessary for a poet to be aware of the dynamic layers of language rules and developments, no more than a musician need be a mathematician or a sculptor a geologist. Yet is fascinates.’

He also explores the inspiration for his work: ‘I never know what it is that chooses the form. Sometimes it is the donné, the line that comes from nowhere as a surprise and offers a rhythm and pattern.’ The sonnet feels appropriate when he is ‘multiply overwhelmed’ in the words of his long-time intellectual interlocutor and one of the editors of this volume theologian David F. Ford.

O’Siadhail does not identify an explicitly religious dimension to his work, although his affection for the poetry of George Herbert is revealing and he quotes Patrick Kavanagh approvingly to the effect that: ‘poetry has to do with the reality of the spirit of faith and hope and sometimes even charity. It is a point of view. A poet is a theologian.’

Another subject that O’Siadhail explores is the relationship between poetry and music. Regarding the latter he remarks slightly dismissively: ‘I remember how surprised I was, when I took lessons in classical harmony, at how mathematical and arithmetic it seemed.’ He situates poetry ‘in the middle of a spectrum, which stretches between music and prose. The pulse and delight of rhythm, the varied pitch of a sentence and the sheer bodily sound of ‘voluptuous words’ have many of the physical qualities of music’.

But poetry also encompasses ‘the dimension of the concept and metaphor which music evades. The endless intrigues, the delights, the insistences and inadequacies of language, the vagaries of words.’

Unfortunately O’Siadhail does not discuss the merit or otherwise of balladeers who have for long used language in song to convey emotions and ideas. Certainly it is through the lyrics of songs that most people encounter poetry today. Admittedly the extensive horizontal audience of a crooner like Hozier seems likely to fade away but others such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan may enjoy that cherished vertical audience. A question to pursue might be whether music enhances the linguistic content of poetry and vi-se-versa?

In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

Finally, O’Siadhail engages with poets he admires or have exerted an influence on him. In one particularly stimulating essay he compares the respective oeuvres of W.B. Yeats and Rilke.

He regards Yeats as ‘the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on’. But he says that the poems of Rilke ‘are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning’.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: ‘for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths.’ But this seems an overly harsh commentary on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over the course of his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without the hindsight of the genocides that followed. A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

He also explores the poetry George Herbert, Samuel Beckett, Denise Levertov, Kavanagh and Mary O’Donnell who he magnanimously declares to be the outstanding poet of her generation.

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture and poets will always be confronted by the ‘terrible inadequacy of words – always falling short of desire. The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after generation.’ Or to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘fail again fail better’.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/between-music-and-prose/)

 

Informing Beauty

(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)

Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.

Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.

Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.

At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.

Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’

According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.

Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.

According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.

But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.

Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by  then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’

“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.

But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’

She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.

The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.

But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’

But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.

Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’

Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.

I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.

In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:

‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’

The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.

Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.

(http://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-london-magazine/20160201/281676843945517/textview)