The Quest for the Irish Celt

 

celtic

Considering the tools of their trade, should archaeologists surprise us when they become embroiled in old fashioned mud-slinging?

The Quest for the Ancient Celt sheds extensive light on simmering tensions between archaeologists on either side of the Irish border in the 1930s, and has all the elements of a Spielberg adventure yarn.

The search for the genealogical soul of the new Irish nation was spearheaded by an Austrian-born civil servant, later dubbed by the Fianna Fail government which employed and promoted him as the most fanatical Nazi in Dublin.

At stake in the battleground for Irish identity was the original ‘hard’ border: researchers at odds with each other found themselves in a race to find evidence of a cultural frontier from prehistoric times between North and South.

And if, from the vantage of today, the border dispute can feel that old, this academic sniping, while not descending to the blows dished out by Indiana Jones to his nemesis Rene Belloq, was serious point scoring between two fledgling states, the North and the Republic.

The question of the first arrival of prehistoric man on Hibernia’s shores was imbued with political significance: if the earliest bones were discovered in the North, he must have arrived from Britain. But archaeologists were in danger, writes Mairead Carew, ‘of interpreting past cultural worlds and creating new ones simultaneously to reflect their current political realities.’

And the new reality was nationalism in action: countries, because of patriotic fervour, were anxious to trace their pedigree as far back in time as possible.

However, a far sinister background involved the United States and Germany. The Nazis, represented in Dublin by Adolph Mahr, the Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, were confident that Ireland and Scandinavia, having escaped the Roman mould, had pure racial affinities.

Ardent anti-Semite, Mahr rose swiftly through the ranks of the museum until De Valera appointed him Director in 1934. As the numero uno of the Nazi Ausland organisation in Dublin, he openly liaised with fellow expatriate fascists Fritz Brase, head of the Army School of Music and Heinz Mecking of the Turf Board, who would perish in Soviet captivity at the end of the war.

America, which had already dabbled with sterilisation of its most dependable and vulnerable with its ruling on Buck v Bell six years before Hitler became Chancellor, was interested in the racial affinities of the Irish because they made up one fifth of their population.

Historians can over egg the pudding of the importance of minor figures with walk-on roles in history, but Carew doesn’t have to: Mahr’s alliance with Harvard University’s quest for the mystical origin of the Irish, and the subsequent physical examination of thousands across the country, is the gift which keeps giving.

Harvard’s involvement is a curious affair. In 1927, when Mahr first landed in Ireland, the US Supreme Court ruled that Carrie Buck, a young mother described as ‘feeble minded’, should be sterilized by tube litigation, a decision justified by Judge Oliver Wendell Homes Jnr. ‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.’

Siddhartha Mukherjee covered the case extensively in his book The Gene, An Intimate History.  With the sterilization of Buck, ‘the chain of heredity had been broken,’ he noted. The Nazis, lying in wait for power and always mindful of public opinion in America, took heed.

Against this backdrop, the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland was organised by Earnest A. Hooton who viewed the country as culturally ancient but politically new, and he expected that the physical characteristics of the Irish would determine their unalloyed racial affinities.

Why was this relevant to Hooton? Two reasons. A country defined as white European Celt would be economically advantageous with the impending rise of a new political order in Europe, and Hooton, echoing Wendell Homes Jnr, had no qualms – on paper at least – about the legal removal of those doomed unfit from society.

While 12,000 Irish allowed themselves to be measured from head to toe by Hooton’s acolytes to determine their divine providence, the Nazis’ obsession with racial morphology progressed at an alarming rate. Secretly, they prepared the groundwork for Aktion T4, the euthanasia programme to eradicate quarter of a million genetic ‘defectives’.

What segued eugenics research in Germany to produce the Ubermensche befitting a thousand year Reich, and the Harvard Archaeological Mission in Ireland, was an underlying belief that physical anthropology and racial classification could justify discrimination and segregation, rife on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eugenics, coined a year after Charles Darwin’s death by Francis Galton, from the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, and genesis, was intended to mimic natural selection by human intervention. ‘Man has long sought to excuse his disregard of others’ rights by alleging certain biological differences which determine the superiority of his own race or nationality and the inferiority of others,’ enthused Hooton, by now a member of the heinous Committee of the Negro, which used comparative autonomy to divide humanity into races and compared African babies with young apes.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Mission lost no time in getting down and dirty the length and breadth of the country: from Meath to Sligo and from Waterford to Derry, they excavated crannogs and dormant burial sites for five years, in which thousands of objects were unearthed and probed for evidence of Celtic genius. Surveying over 600 artefacts at Ballinderry in Offaly, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, director of the archaeology team and a future American intelligence officer, compared Ireland favourably with Ancient Greece.

The classification of skulls at Knockast was deemed by the Harvard team to be especially significant, writes Carew, as a large cranium once contained a brain which, according to researchers’ notes, ‘from point of size is well above the average for modern Europeans.’

While the Harvard Mission did its best to overturn the Victorian caricature of the Irish as intoxicated simians, old prejudices were slow to change, stateside. Commenting on the discovery of a well-preserved Viking gaming board with ‘iron shillelahs’, the Herald Examiner in Chicago claimed the close proximity of smashed skulls ‘would seem to point at some ancient debate over rules.’

Begorrah.

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Tetraptych

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It is life-affirming to hear four musicians so in tune with each other as they pursue, in the words of Bert Seager, “the higher intentions of our musical purpose”. Tetraptych – Seager (piano/compositions), Hery Paz (tenor saxophone), Max Salinger-Ridley (upright bass) and Dor Herskovits (drums) – may be the latest thing in a long line of modern jazz saxophone quartets but they very much forge their own path.

A tetraptych (pronounced “Te-trup-tick”) is “a four-panelled painting where each panel can stand on its own. Seen together, the panorama of panels gives greater meaning to the interaction of the parts.”

Composer and leader Seager uses the term “collective improvisation” to describe the modus operandi of  Tetraptych. While the quartet may have dispensed with road maps their unity of purpose and shared joie de vivre ensures that we are all happy to go along for the ride.

Under the Bostonian pianist’s light-touch leadership they take their time in laying out their wares. The music unfolds naturally and organically, never forced. They improvise because they can, and they do so in a way that is both seamless and sensuous. Listen to the sultry piano and sax foreplay of Distances and feel yourself slow-falling into the arms of a seductress!

The album opener, Welcoming The Water, is epic in both style and length. At 13.59 minutes it is the longest of the six tracks. It amply illustrates the cooperative and intuitive ethos which binds the four. The piano/sax conversation is one which invites eavesdropping. And what about Herskovits’ drum solo: every time I hear it I want to leap to my feet and punch the air. If this is improv bring it on!

Last Snow, with its tentative piano opening, coming on and falling away, resolves itself in successive layers of pastoral splendour.  The straight ahead bebop of Blues You Can Use and the Star Eyes-inspired Star Wise shows the boys letting loose and having some fun. The latter, with its introductory prelude, shows the quartet’s attention to detail and eschewing of musical cliches even when dealing in well established formats.

Bert Seager wrote all of the songs on this recording except for the free improvisation Equanimous Botch. The band used this one to warm up at the start of the session. It affords the listener an opportunity to peek into the engine room and witness, up close, the inner workings of this fabulous self-propelling apparatus. What the output lacks in focus it makes up for in originality. As Hieronymus Bosch said: “Poor is the mind that always uses the inventions of others and invents nothing itself.”

All told this is a quietly confident opus which insinuates itself with lyrical ease into the deeper recesses of your heart. It will surely inspire others to put aside map and compass and rely, instead, on one’s innate sense of being. (Review: Senan O’Reilly)

Terra Nostra Lecture: Perspectives on Landscape.

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(Painting courtesy of Serena Caulfield)

 

Terra Nostra Lecture at Wexford Co. Library, April 5, 2018 by Tom Mooney.

Unlike a short story, a novel, a libretto or a play, you cannot with any certainty define poetry? Admittedly, we live with more hope than expectation that a poem shouldn’t be dull, especially as the writer is equipped with a vocabulary that ticks all boxes, and yet the molecular nature of poetry is to defy logic.

Simply put, poems are a bead of words, but there is an immeasurable gulf between the day to day use of words and their exploitation, mishandling and misappropriation by the poet, who sees the world slightly off line. If a poet cannot view their vision as unique, even if it is derivative, or needlessly opaque, or uninspiring, they have no business being a poet. Only poetry can encapsulate the frisson of love in two short lines, such as these from Neruda:

As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.

As good as that sounds, you should hear the original in Spanish.

Poets begin a poem with the best of intentions but the imagination, once awoken from slumber, has the resolute defiance of a cat. Once released, it is inclined to do as it pleases, and go where it chooses.

It pains me to admit, but anyone who writes creatively, or thinks what they have written is ingenious, is more than likely to exact requirements – and the patience – of the reader, than meets their own demands. However, Babette Deutsche’s definition of what constitutes poetry is contrary to the daily function of language, that it should answer your needs.

Deutsche felt that poetry reveals the realities that the senses record. The realities that the senses record. You can spot the get-out clause from a mile away. For, as all students of David Hume appreciate, reason is the slave of the passions. You act according to how you feel.

But Deutsche isn’t done: poetry should also reveal what the feelings salute. The mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders. That’s more like it: anything goes, in other words, just don’t let the it be dull.

If you cannot grasp the concept of what the mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders, you will not make head nor tail of this couplet:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Even declaimed thus, and declaimed poorly, as the words were conceived to be sung, you can feel the rhythm rise to the surface. Why is that? The building blocks of poetry, that’s why. And unique to poetry. Let’s eavesdrop again and listen to the last words of each sentence and see what they have in common:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Diplomat and Siamese cat. Three syllables each and they rhyme, but that’s not rocket science. But using an anapaestic structure, two short syllables and a stressed third, is. The last syllable of each is cast off into the ether by your tongue. Mat and cat.  And the lengths of the sentences are almost equal: 13 and 11 syllables.

Does it matter that, in this instance, Bob Dylan is obscure. I don’t believe so. It’s his imagery, as valid as when T.S. Eliot introduced three white leopards in Ash Wednesday. I still don’t know what they are doing there, but deploying symbolism in a poem can be like moving up a gear.

And when a predecessor to Dylan wrote in a hurry, many centuries earlier,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

He also knew what he was doing. Both lines have ten syllables each, organised as a metric foot, as does each line in the fourteen-line sonnet. And not alone that, the stress on each foot of two syllables is placed on the last throughout.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

But speak it fast, and the line has voltage:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

Shakespeare’s two syllables, with the stress on the second, called an iamb, is multiplied by five, so you end up with an iambic pentameter line. Imagine the precision he invested into each line. He wrote 154 sonnets, so he repeated this formally organised rhythm across 2,156 lines.

Iambic pentameter was also the ideal mnemonic aid to (a) help actors remember their lines and (b) help the audience hear what the actors are saying, which is why many of Shakespeare’s plays are primarily lines with five metrical feet and strong stresses.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Because a soliloquy is the actor’s inner monologue, Shakespeare doesn’t make rhyme a slave to a strict five-foot beat.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and the mnemonic purities of T.S. Eliot’s delightful couplet, with resonant vowels, are self evident.

In the room the women come and go

Talking about Michelangelo.

So, the beauty of English is its very elasticity. When Shelley sought to capture the power and pantheism of nature, the iambic pentameter fell short. He therefore switched the stresses around, and the iamb became a trochee:

O wild West Wind thou breath of autumn’s being.

O wild West Wind: the stress is on the first syllables of the coupling, O and West.

Or is it? Perhaps he used an anapest, three syllables, with the stress on the last one.

O wild West, Wind thou breath…

His compatriot and friend Byron was far bolder and experimental, in his poetry as in his life: he adds two extra feet, so the pentameter becomes a hexameter, the darling of the French, and now the line has the pace his description requires:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold

Spoken thus, you have a symphony in words, a Wagnerian overture. That’s what an understanding of scaffolding under poetry achieves. Illumination. Appreciation. It just doesn’t pour onto the page. A perfect score of ten from diving from a height doesn’t happen by accident. And so it is with the writing of poems. In any language.

You don’t have to understand the following couplet from La Bateau Ivre by Rimbaud to hear the music of the flowing dozen syllables.

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs

However, landscape as a subject matter for poets, is the equivalent of watching paint dry. The emphasis is not on pace, but stasis. Inertia. The heartbeat is not that of a howling wind, a smitten heart or a ravenous wolf, but of a glacier in retreat. The pedestrian thaw and not the adventurous blizzard. With landscape poetry, you need Hamlet in your corner, not Casanova.

In landscape poetry, no one can hear you sing.

One of the constant features of Irish painting, since the mid-18th century, is landscape, itself a commentary on the Irish obsession with land ownership. Walking the hallowed corridors of the National Gallery recently, I was struck that in the early years of the new Irish Free State, landscape becomes increasingly allegorical at the hands of Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats and of course Sean Keating. It is both womb and tomb.

Contemporary painters have not forsaken landscape as the gift which keeps giving, but Irish writers, particularly with novels, short stories, plays and screenplays, have steadily moved from the field to the street, from the colourful to the monochromatic, from the rural to the cosmopolitan.

John McGahern’s The Country Funeral leapfrogs the concerns of those preoccupied with escaping the claustrophobia and poverty of the farm, such as Paddy Kavanagh, by showing with finesses how the urbanisation of the country has started and is irreversible.

An urbanisation bookended by, first, the introduction of electricity followed by television, and finally social media. Today, you can simultaneously hear the bees buzzing on Innisfree while watching Netflix on your Android phone or tablet.

We have developed the technology to reduce the landscape to a two second selfie, not as a means of contemplation before the wonder and grandeur of the natural world, but as a vanity project.

Painters and poets, however, are hanging on. Landscape is more than a backdrop. Landscape cannot be delineated by a frame. It cannot be tamed by selfie-snapping obsessives. You will be familiar with Catherine’s dying wish in Wuthering Heights, to be released upon the heather and the hills, and poets too maintain an intense identification with landscape’s role as the canvas of the natural world, awaiting the spillage from the palette of emotions.

Writes Rosita Boland:

We have been islanded while we slept

In a white sea of snow

The leaves are rinsed from the trees

And the fields drift on past sight.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape.

Her lines surfaced recently as my train began to slow on the approach to Enniscorthy, the trees crowned by snow and flanking the Slaney near Blackstoops.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape. Here the poet perceives a single moment through a lens of feeling, achieving what Ted Hughes, who sought solace and sanctuary in Ireland, viewed as the encounter between elemental things, and the living.

Words render the feeling. What the feelings salute.

Returning to her desk after seeing Skellig Michael for the first time, Emily Lawless writes of:

Rocks gaunt and grim as the halls of death

Sculptured and hew by the wind’s rough breath.

No writing about landscape therefore is alive, which is merely written, without the singularity of the poet’s voice, without the sentient identification of place. Baudelaire gave us analogie universelle, where the poet forms his own image and stimulates a relationship between different senses.

Archibald MacLeish nailed it down to a tee: the poem will carry not only the image but the impulse which produced it. From school, you will remember Wordsworth’s ‘inner eye.’ And Yeats’ purpose, one of many, was to make every mountain and lake that you can see from your own door an excitement in the imagination.

The landscape, its history – political, social, cultural, geographical – how we work it, how we divide it, how we segregate it, how we abuse it, is always, always elusive, the salmon which throws the hook, and the poet instinctively knows better than the cartographer that no ordnance survey map can bridle the landscape’s pulse.

In Ireland, poets know they bestride a layered landscape: the karst vista of the Burren, the granite hills of Wicklow, the basalt plateau of the north east, the sandstone of the south and, significantly, the bogs and lakes of the central limestone lowland. Explains Michael Viney in A Living Island: ‘this small island offers change at each new turn in the road, change too, in weather, hour by hour.’

Layers in the land equate to symbolism: the polarity between the use of English and Irish has been feasted upon by poets drawn like moths to the phonetic allure of old Irish, or Irish translated into English.

Consider Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish.

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow.

Heaney celebrates the topographical inheritance of his childhood stomping ground, the Arcadia of his earliest memory, touching seamlessly on the senses I referenced earlier with Baudelaire, feelings triggered by phonetic stimuli, such as:

My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass.

My place of clear water is an English transliteration of the Gaelic etymology of Anahorish which, oddly, doesn’t appear on any ordnance survey map. It is Heaney’s contention that, in the vernacular of Irish poets writing in English, place poems are etymological daydreams. On the same track, John Montague paraphrased the Irish poet’s predilection for establishing identity between the linguistic and the archaeological of his or her locale, as ‘the primal Gaeltacht.’

For example, when Montague writes:

In high summer, as the hills burned with corn

I strode through golden light

To the ogham script of the burning stone

He is fascinated by how early Irish embraces even earlier traditions. To take this one step further, he uses the word Knockmany, which can mean either of the following: the hill of the Menapii, a tribe of the Belgae, or Ania’s Cove, Ana is the Danaan mother goddess. An Irish place name can net a world with its associations, and Montague called on the poet to contact what was left of the common tradition in their area.

The Irish poet’s strong sense of place is indisputably mixed with identity: the Greeks have a word for it. Topophilia. Topos for place and philia for love. The ancient indigenous poets of Australia would navigate their way across vast expanse of land by repeating the words of songs and poems. They are called Songlines, or Dreaming tracks

There was a time when the best of our novelists and our playwrights chose exile from Ireland, but – in general – not among their numbers are Irish poets. Why would they move abroad when they can inhabit as many cultures at they want in their own county?

And yet Irish poets have long paid homage to the deep-seated influence of European culture: Heaney and Miloz, Montague and Aragon, Seamus Deane and Mandelstam, Harry Clifton and Char, Paul Durcan and Lorca. There might be an obvious explanation for this: unlike English poets, Europeans are taught first to think, then feel.

No Irish writer is as European as Beckett.

Beckett had a lifelong passion for Irish painting and before he debunked to Paris, was a regular visit to the National Gallery. He was an aficionado of Jack B Yeats, whom he knew, and Paul Cezanne, whom he didn’t. His comments about Cezanne’s series of Montagne Sainte Victoire paintings prefigure his attitude to landscape writing, later borne out in his stage directions.

Beckett had no time for the attribution of human characteristic to a place devotion of the earlier Romantic poets, anthropomorphism, and felt that the depiction of a landscape should be ‘incommensurable with all human expression whatsoever.’ Thus, Waiting for Godot is set on a country road.

Simon Schama took a different view: we make room for the sacredness of nature, even veneration, and we interpret nature as either bucolic leisure or primitive panic. It seems a simplistic duality, almost rooted in Freudian semantics, good versus evil, etc.

The veneration of nature in literature, particularly by poetry, is ascribed to the rigid dichotomy between the Classical, viewed as orderly and rational, and the Romantic, subjective and daemonic. Industrialised England in the early 19th century altered the dynamic between the rural and the urban, where the working man and woman became an impersonal unit of factory labour. Poets, predominantly, took up the mantle of asserting individual consciousness. If Shakespeare enjoyed nature, the Romantics idealized it in all its forms, both near and far.

In A Syrian Evening, Thomas Moore writes:

Now, upon Syria’s land of roses

Softly the light of Eve reposes

And like a glory, the broad sun

Hangs over sainted Lebanon.

His fellow Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, goes further afield, and deploys the Romantic arsenal of melancholy, regret and nostalgia.

In Siberia’s wastes

Are sands and rocks

Nothing blooms of green or soft

But the snow peaks rise aloft

And the gaunt ice-blocks

And why nature specifically? The answer underscores thematically and philosophically the raison d’etre of much writing influenced by nature ever since. And it is simple: as the age of the metropolis took hold, wild nature held firm and allowed writers and painters to exalt the imagination as the most noble of faculties, and in doing so, exalt the individual.

Michael Longley, two centuries later, in The Hebrides, shows how poets value what they fear they are in danger of losing:

Now, buttoned up, with water in my shoes

Clouds around me/ I can, through mist that misconstrues

Read like a palimpsest / My past – those landmarks and that scenery

I dare resist.

 

The celebration of nature today by poets need not be enmeshed in thematic convolutions. Two of our local poets convey the uncomplicated pleasure of nature at work, by capturing the first retinal sensation, like the Impressionists.

Or join me at Tacumshin

Lake, writes Joe O’Neal,

To drink my Muscadet

And watch arctic terns

Dip and flake the surface in display.

 

How about these lines for brevity from Mary O’Brien:

A winter evening

On the road to Gorey

Low sky luminous

With pinks and peaches.

They continue the observation of the brilliant but doomed Edward Thomas, who, in Tall Nettles, wrote

As well as any bloom upon a flower

I like the dust on the nettles, never lost

Except to prove the sweetness of a shower

Least I forget, there is no significant presence of God, or a god, in contemporary Irish poetry which takes its cue from nature and landscape – Hopkins aside -and I suspect that the influence of the Romantics and early 20th century modernism continues to prevail: that belief in a Christian God, in the words of Shelley, was an insult to reason and belief.

However, though the edifice of the Catholic Church in this country has been crumbling in slow motion for some time, John F Deane and Wexford poet Philip Quirke have written eloquently and perceptively of the virtues and personal importance of the spiritual perspective.

It is plausible, when you consider the fecundation of the Irish identity, from the Celts forth, from the time we used myths to make sense of a chaotic world, from the development of the imagination and cognition to rearrange experience within the confines of mythology and its boundaries, the landscape, like the collective unconscious, has its own primordial images and buried archetypes, so it should come as no surprise that poets find in landscapes portals to the past.

And what will you find there? Perhaps nothing more meaningful that a sensation, or a bridge to bring the past closer into view, or a cathartic release. Why shouldn’t the land be the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, I can hear the Kerry philosopher John Moriarty argue.

Cynicism, or savea indignatio, permeates the rural soaked poems of the most iconoclastic 20th century Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who turned his back on the saccharine pastoralism of his youth in favour of harsh naturalism. He never ceased to expose the falsity of the Irish pastoral myth. Some of you will remember these lines from the classroom:

O stony grey soil of Monaghan

The laugh from my love you thieved

You took the gay child of my passion

And gave me your clod-conceived

Stoney Great Soil, a short poem, is the precursor to Kavanagh’s epic, The Great Hunger, in which the soil of the former, which clogged the feet of his childhood and where the first gay flight of his lyric got caught in a peasant’s prayer, becomes more dispirited in the latter. In both, Kavanagh taps into a displaced sexual frustration, not atypical of rural Ireland at the time (1940), and bitterly compares the pull of the land as a scheming woman, who uses her sexuality to hold onto her lover and trick him out of self-fulfilment.

The land seduces the young poet like the sirens who called out to Ulysses. Both Kavanagh and Ulysses are slaves to the lure of sensual delights. John Keats memorably concludes Ode on a Grecian Urn with the couplet, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Towards the conclusion of Stony Grey Soil, Kavanagh summons the ghost of Keats and bitterly remonstrates with his native soil:

You flung a ditch on my vision

Of Beauty, love and truth

But with Kavanagh, there is always an air of unpredictability. He could, when the mood took, sheath the rapier, and acknowledge the charms of the land that he had previously castigated. It is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and all his contradictions about the lure of the land are encapsulated in his short but superb poem Epic. In eleven of the poem’s fourteen lines, he baits the reader to indulge in mocking the provincial life of squinting windows and feuds, before turning the poem on its head, and wiping the grimace from your face.

Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row, Gods make their own importance.

Kavanagh’s resolution is the tip of a metamorphic iceberg. The Latin word for the inviolable sacredness of place is cultus: it can also mean the power of meditation, or cultivation, and today it is the root of culture. Revisiting Kavanagh’s poetry about the soil and the field and the country, we would do well to remember that the definition of culture is of humble origin, for cultus or the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things, and the ancient Greek definition of poet was rooted in the ordinary, to make.

Poetry predates writing, and was clearly dependent on an oral tradition for survival, so that the greatest destiny of a poem, such as Homer’s The Illiad, which was not written down, was usefulness for the tribe, like the first cave paintings.

To this day, the eye is taught by the painter, the ear by the composer, and language refined by the poet. What I would like you to glean from Kavanagh is how poetry, before it is woven or hewn or forged, take your pick, is conceived in the maelstrom of strong emotions.

Occasionally, the secret of a poet’s power is what is left unsaid: in an introduction to his short book about Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Toibin said that growing up in Enniscorthy, language was also a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.

And poetry written in the light of this knowledge had to be led by clarity, by precise description but by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling. This precision, adds Toibin, could result in a soaring energy for the writer when it was required.

There is such a fluorescence of language in the last paragraph of The Dead, by James Joyce, and his description of the landscape is as vivid and as sharp as a photograph: My only wish is that Donal McCann was among us to recite it.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The city of Joyce was compact and complex, and though Dublin has changed considerably since his time, his ghost lingers; poets view it as an alternative but viable landscape. Beckett’s preferred view of Dublin was from a distance, Feltrim Hill in Kinsealy, and Louise MacNeice alludes to its proximity to the Wicklow hills in his poem, Dublin, in which the city, like the history of the country, continues to absorb all alien influences.

Fort of the Dane

Garrison of the Saxon

Augustan capital

Of a Gaelic nation

Appropriating all

The alien brought.

It is narrow minded to view the city and what it has to offer as the repudiation of nature, for poets have shown that the state of exile to a city can, in the imagination, bring about a veneration for what is absent. Being without becomes a spark for thinking anew. For many whose childhood was Dublin, or in my case Bray, arcadia was the blue hem of the mountains in the distance in the morning, or cantering among the verdant town parks after school, a line from Dylan Thomas, spoken by a teacher, ringing in my ears: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age.

From Exploring English 3, edited by Augustine Martin, we were told that God, nature and man permeated the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur, but to a boy in our class at Greystones CBS we were intoxicated by the carefree but ingenious rhythm, assonance, consonance and alliteration of Hopkin’s ode to a patch of land, Inversnaid.

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in
comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home

Poets whose vision is not dominated by the archetypes of nature, have been free to celebrate the less colourful but enchanting minutiae of city live: it would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is ostensibly about the sacrifice of cultural identity after the horrors of the Great War, snared in the void between unspoken reality and the unseen city. It is viewed as one of the first truly modern poems in English, a poem of brutal intent: Eliot’s opening salvo, ‘April is the cruellest month’, is a stinging retort to centuries of poetry in which April was thought anything but.

A poet of honest substance whom I recommend is Dubliner Paula Meehan, who traces the essence of place in poetry back to the Dinnseanchas, an ancient history of how places acquire their names, very much an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next, much like the griots of West Africa do today. Meehan believes that poetry can provide a mapping, not dissimilar to the Songlines of Aboriginals, of a spirit of place, as opposed to a sense of place, or putting someone in their place. This theme is developed in Eavan Boland’s Once from her collection, A Poet’s Dublin, she imagines:

Irish wolves. A silvery man and wife

Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.

They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.

Paul Meehan contends that the wolves emerge from the ghost forest of Boland’s home, Dundrum, as if the city is subject to the same forces and lore as the country, the city moving through consciousness.

Perhaps, but Derek Mahon, in a recent volume, An Autumn Wind, believes

We tire of cities in the end

The whirr and blur of it, so long your friend

Grow repetitious and you start to choke

On signage and carbon monoxide.

In Chile and in Argentina, they are known as Los Desaparecidos. In Ireland, the disappeared: mothers and fathers and sons murdered by the IRA and then furtively and cruelly dissolved in the vast expanses of our beaches and bogs.

Shortly before he died, Seamus Heaney gave permission for his poem, The Bog Queen, to be used in a television documentary about these disappeared. He recycles the metaphor of the bog as a repository of our history, that human sacrifice and the deposition of the victims is related to sovereignty and kingship rituals during the Iron Age.

A warehouse for the sacrificed or the murdered, such as Cashel Man, butchered in 2000 BC and laid in a pool alongside two hazel rods, and Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother, shot in the back of the head by the IRA in 1973, and buried in an unmarked pit so her family of ten children could not find her.

Heaney has the body in The Bog Queen address us directly:

My body was braille, for the creeping influences

Which conveys an interaction between the landscape and the living – dead, but despite her perilous state, she remains undefeated, and her consciousness, or soul, is described as

A jar of spawn, fermenting underground.

The poem concludes – quite movingly – with Heaney’s very acute image, that you can vicariously imagine, having survived our recent Arctic spell.

I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs.

Another September, a poem by Thomas Kinsella, was conceived not a million miles away from here, in a bedroom, beside an orchard, near the Slaney, at Lucas Park near St. John’s Manor outside Enniscorthy, described by Colm Toibin, who knew it well, as a place where mysterious images can appear from the part of the imagination most open to symbolic suggestion.

In Another September, the poet’s peaceful morning is disrupted by the long pitch black breaths outside his window, where the natural world

Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall

Another September because of the wealth of images is about love, about mortality and above all about loss, real or imagined. Who among us has not woken abruptly at dawn and envied your partner’s deep sleep? Kinsella writes that his wife, the unspeaking daughter in the poem, must to be in perfect union with nature to sleep so soundly, and that he therefore is not.

The landscape is often like a time-machine for poets, a conduit to another time and another place, the past, which we are reminded is a different country, because they do things differently there. I think all poets who are smitten or intrigued by the landscape experience what Yeats called ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and the ancient humming of the landscape can make you confront the arithmetic of your life, well spent, or not.  Yeats’ pilot, fighting in the Great War, believes that when the inevitable happens, it will balance the wastage of his past and his future.

The years to come seemed waste of breath

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

In conclusion, the systematic interrogation of your own unconscious and terra nostra may not necessarily put a smile on your face, but sometimes the poet has no choice but to walk the dark corridor in search of their Holy Grail, a true poem.

 

Terra Nostra lecture:Perspectives on landscape.

jazz-a

(Painting courtesy of Serena Caulfield)

Terra Nostra Lecture at Wexford Co. Library, April 5, by Tom Mooney.

Unlike a short story, a novel, a libretto or a play, you cannot with any certainty define poetry? Admittedly, we live with more hope than expectation that a poem shouldn’t be dull, especially as the writer is equipped with a vocabulary that ticks all boxes, and yet the molecular nature of poetry is to defy logic.

Simply put, poems are a bead of words, but there is an immeasurable gulf between the day to day use of words and their exploitation, mishandling and misappropriation by the poet, who sees the world slightly off line. If a poet cannot view their vision as unique, even if it is derivative, or needlessly opaque, or uninspiring, they have no business being a poet. Only poetry can encapsulate the frisson of love in two short lines, such as these from Neruda:

As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin.

As good as that sounds, you should hear the original in Spanish.

Poets begin a poem with the best of intentions but the imagination, once awoken from slumber, has the resolute defiance of a cat. Once released, it is inclined to do as it pleases, and go where it chooses.

It pains me to admit, but anyone who writes creatively, or thinks what they have written is ingenious, is more than likely to exact requirements – and the patience – of the reader, than meets their own demands. However, Babette Deutsche’s definition of what constitutes poetry is contrary to the daily function of language, that it should answer your needs.

Deutsche felt that poetry reveals the realities that the senses record. The realities that the senses record. You can spot the get-out clause from a mile away. For, as all students of David Hume appreciate, reason is the slave of the passions. You act according to how you feel.

But Deutsche isn’t done: poetry should also reveal what the feelings salute. The mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders. That’s more like it: anything goes, in other words, just don’t let the it be dull.

If you cannot grasp the concept of what the mind perceives and the shaping imagination orders, you will not make head nor tail of this couplet:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Even declaimed thus, and declaimed poorly, as the words were conceived to be sung, you can feel the rhythm rise to the surface. Why is that? The building blocks of poetry, that’s why. And unique to poetry. Let’s eavesdrop again and listen to the last words of each sentence and see what they have in common:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat

Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese cat.

Diplomat and Siamese cat. Three syllables each and they rhyme, but that’s not rocket science. But using an anapaestic structure, two short syllables and a stressed third, is. The last syllable of each is cast off into the ether by your tongue. Mat and cat.  And the lengths of the sentences are almost equal: 13 and 11 syllables.

Does it matter that, in this instance, Bob Dylan is obscure. I don’t believe so. It’s his imagery, as valid as when T.S. Eliot introduced three white leopards in Ash Wednesday. I still don’t know what they are doing there, but deploying symbolism in a poem can be like moving up a gear.

And when a predecessor to Dylan wrote in a hurry, many centuries earlier,

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

He also knew what he was doing. Both lines have ten syllables each, organised as a metric foot, as does each line in the fourteen-line sonnet. And not alone that, the stress on each foot of two syllables is placed on the last throughout.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

But speak it fast, and the line has voltage:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.

Shakespeare’s two syllables, with the stress on the second, called an iamb, is multiplied by five, so you end up with an iambic pentameter line. Imagine the precision he invested into each line. He wrote 154 sonnets, so he repeated this formally organised rhythm across 2,156 lines.

Iambic pentameter was also the ideal mnemonic aid to (a) help actors remember their lines and (b) help the audience hear what the actors are saying, which is why many of Shakespeare’s plays are primarily lines with five metrical feet and strong stresses.

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Because a soliloquy is the actor’s inner monologue, Shakespeare doesn’t make rhyme a slave to a strict five-foot beat.

Fast forward a couple of centuries and the mnemonic purities of T.S. Eliot’s delightful couplet, with resonant vowels, are self evident.

In the room the women come and go

Talking about Michelangelo.

So, the beauty of English is its very elasticity. When Shelley sought to capture the power and pantheism of nature, the iambic pentameter fell short. He therefore switched the stresses around, and the iamb became a trochee:

O wild West Wind thou breath of autumn’s being.

O wild West Wind: the stress is on the first syllables of the coupling, O and West.

Or is it? Perhaps he used an anapest, three syllables, with the stress on the last one.

O wild West, Wind thou breath…

His compatriot and friend Byron was far bolder and experimental, in his poetry as in his life: he adds two extra feet, so the pentameter becomes a hexameter, the darling of the French, and now the line has the pace his description requires:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold

And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold

Spoken thus, you have a symphony in words, a Wagnerian overture. That’s what an understanding of scaffolding under poetry achieves. Illumination. Appreciation. It just doesn’t pour onto the page. A perfect score of ten from diving from a height doesn’t happen by accident. And so it is with the writing of poems. In any language.

You don’t have to understand the following couplet from La Bateau Ivre by Rimbaud to hear the music of the flowing dozen syllables.

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus guidé par les haleurs

However, landscape as a subject matter for poets, is the equivalent of watching paint dry. The emphasis is not on pace, but stasis. Inertia. The heartbeat is not that of a howling wind, a smitten heart or a ravenous wolf, but of a glacier in retreat. The pedestrian thaw and not the adventurous blizzard. With landscape poetry, you need Hamlet in your corner, not Casanova.

In landscape poetry, no one can hear you sing.

One of the constant features of Irish painting, since the mid-18th century, is landscape, itself a commentary on the Irish obsession with land ownership. Walking the hallowed corridors of the National Gallery recently, I was struck that in the early years of the new Irish Free State, landscape becomes increasingly allegorical at the hands of Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats and of course Sean Keating. It is both womb and tomb.

Contemporary painters have not forsaken landscape as the gift which keeps giving, but Irish writers, particularly with novels, short stories, plays and screenplays, have steadily moved from the field to the street, from the colourful to the monochromatic, from the rural to the cosmopolitan.

John McGahern’s The Country Funeral leapfrogs the concerns of those preoccupied with escaping the claustrophobia and poverty of the farm, such as Paddy Kavanagh, by showing with finesses how the urbanisation of the country has started and is irreversible.

An urbanisation bookended by, first, the introduction of electricity followed by television, and finally social media. Today, you can simultaneously hear the bees buzzing on Innisfree while watching Netflix on your Android phone or tablet.

We have developed the technology to reduce the landscape to a two second selfie, not as a means of contemplation before the wonder and grandeur of the natural world, but as a vanity project.

Painters and poets, however, are hanging on. Landscape is more than a backdrop. Landscape cannot be delineated by a frame. It cannot be tamed by selfie-snapping obsessives. You will be familiar with Catherine’s dying wish in Wuthering Heights, to be released upon the heather and the hills, and poets too maintain an intense identification with landscape’s role as the canvas of the natural world, awaiting the spillage from the palette of emotions.

Writes Rosita Boland:

We have been islanded while we slept

In a white sea of snow

The leaves are rinsed from the trees

And the fields drift on past sight.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape.

Her lines surfaced recently as my train began to slow on the approach to Enniscorthy, the trees crowned by snow and flanking the Slaney near Blackstoops.

Everything is stated twice over in this landscape. Here the poet perceives a single moment through a lens of feeling, achieving what Ted Hughes, who sought solace and sanctuary in Ireland, viewed as the encounter between elemental things, and the living.

Words render the feeling. What the feelings salute.

Returning to her desk after seeing Skellig Michael for the first time, Emily Lawless writes of:

Rocks gaunt and grim as the halls of death

Sculptured and hew by the wind’s rough breath.

No writing about landscape therefore is alive, which is merely written, without the singularity of the poet’s voice, without the sentient identification of place. Baudelaire gave us analogie universelle, where the poet forms his own image and stimulates a relationship between different senses.

Archibald MacLeish nailed it down to a tee: the poem will carry not only the image but the impulse which produced it. From school, you will remember Wordsworth’s ‘inner eye.’ And Yeats’ purpose, one of many, was to make every mountain and lake that you can see from your own door an excitement in the imagination.

The landscape, its history – political, social, cultural, geographical – how we work it, how we divide it, how we segregate it, how we abuse it, is always, always elusive, the salmon which throws the hook, and the poet instinctively knows better than the cartographer that no ordnance survey map can bridle the landscape’s pulse.

In Ireland, poets know they bestride a layered landscape: the karst vista of the Burren, the granite hills of Wicklow, the basalt plateau of the north east, the sandstone of the south and, significantly, the bogs and lakes of the central limestone lowland. Explains Michael Viney in A Living Island: ‘this small island offers change at each new turn in the road, change too, in weather, hour by hour.’

Layers in the land equate to symbolism: the polarity between the use of English and Irish has been feasted upon by poets drawn like moths to the phonetic allure of old Irish, or Irish translated into English.

Consider Seamus Heaney’s Anahorish.

Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow.

Heaney celebrates the topographical inheritance of his childhood stomping ground, the Arcadia of his earliest memory, touching seamlessly on the senses I referenced earlier with Baudelaire, feelings triggered by phonetic stimuli, such as:

My ‘place of clear water,’
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass.

My place of clear water is an English transliteration of the Gaelic etymology of Anahorish which, oddly, doesn’t appear on any ordnance survey map. It is Heaney’s contention that, in the vernacular of Irish poets writing in English, place poems are etymological daydreams. On the same track, John Montague paraphrased the Irish poet’s predilection for establishing identity between the linguistic and the archaeological of his or her locale, as ‘the primal Gaeltacht.’

For example, when Montague writes:

In high summer, as the hills burned with corn

I strode through golden light

To the ogham script of the burning stone

He is fascinated by how early Irish embraces even earlier traditions. To take this one step further, he uses the word Knockmany, which can mean either of the following: the hill of the Menapii, a tribe of the Belgae, or Ania’s Cove, Ana is the Danaan mother goddess. An Irish place name can net a world with its associations, and Montague called on the poet to contact what was left of the common tradition in their area.

The Irish poet’s strong sense of place is indisputably mixed with identity: the Greeks have a word for it. Topophilia. Topos for place and philia for love. The ancient indigenous poets of Australia would navigate their way across vast expanse of land by repeating the words of songs and poems. They are called Songlines, or Dreaming tracks

There was a time when the best of our novelists and our playwrights chose exile from Ireland, but – in general – not among their numbers are Irish poets. Why would they move abroad when they can inhabit as many cultures at they want in their own county?

And yet Irish poets have long paid homage to the deep-seated influence of European culture: Heaney and Miloz, Montague and Aragon, Seamus Deane and Mandelstam, Harry Clifton and Char, Paul Durcan and Lorca. There might be an obvious explanation for this: unlike English poets, Europeans are taught first to think, then feel.

No Irish writer is as European as Beckett.

Beckett had a lifelong passion for Irish painting and before he debunked to Paris, was a regular visit to the National Gallery. He was an aficionado of Jack B Yeats, whom he knew, and Paul Cezanne, whom he didn’t. His comments about Cezanne’s series of Montagne Sainte Victoire paintings prefigure his attitude to landscape writing, later borne out in his stage directions.

Beckett had no time for the attribution of human characteristic to a place devotion of the earlier Romantic poets, anthropomorphism, and felt that the depiction of a landscape should be ‘incommensurable with all human expression whatsoever.’ Thus, Waiting for Godot is set on a country road.

Simon Schama took a different view: we make room for the sacredness of nature, even veneration, and we interpret nature as either bucolic leisure or primitive panic. It seems a simplistic duality, almost rooted in Freudian semantics, good versus evil, etc.

The veneration of nature in literature, particularly by poetry, is ascribed to the rigid dichotomy between the Classical, viewed as orderly and rational, and the Romantic, subjective and daemonic. Industrialised England in the early 19th century altered the dynamic between the rural and the urban, where the working man and woman became an impersonal unit of factory labour. Poets, predominantly, took up the mantle of asserting individual consciousness. If Shakespeare enjoyed nature, the Romantics idealized it in all its forms, both near and far.

In A Syrian Evening, Thomas Moore writes:

Now, upon Syria’s land of roses

Softly the light of Eve reposes

And like a glory, the broad sun

Hangs over sainted Lebanon.

His fellow Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan, goes further afield, and deploys the Romantic arsenal of melancholy, regret and nostalgia.

In Siberia’s wastes

Are sands and rocks

Nothing blooms of green or soft

But the snow peaks rise aloft

And the gaunt ice-blocks

And why nature specifically? The answer underscores thematically and philosophically the raison d’etre of much writing influenced by nature ever since. And it is simple: as the age of the metropolis took hold, wild nature held firm and allowed writers and painters to exalt the imagination as the most noble of faculties, and in doing so, exalt the individual.

Michael Longley, two centuries later, in The Hebrides, shows how poets value what they fear they are in danger of losing:

Now, buttoned up, with water in my shoes

Clouds around me/ I can, through mist that misconstrues

Read like a palimpsest / My past – those landmarks and that scenery

I dare resist.

 

The celebration of nature today by poets need not be enmeshed in thematic convolutions. Two of our local poets convey the uncomplicated pleasure of nature at work, by capturing the first retinal sensation, like the Impressionists.

Or join me at Tacumshin

Lake, writes Joe O’Neal,

To drink my Muscadet

And watch arctic terns

Dip and flake the surface in display.

 

How about these lines for brevity from Mary O’Brien:

A winter evening

On the road to Gorey

Low sky luminous

With pinks and peaches.

They continue the observation of the brilliant but doomed Edward Thomas, who, in Tall Nettles, wrote

As well as any bloom upon a flower

I like the dust on the nettles, never lost

Except to prove the sweetness of a shower

Least I forget, there is no significant presence of God, or a god, in contemporary Irish poetry which takes its cue from nature and landscape – Hopkins aside -and I suspect that the influence of the Romantics and early 20th century modernism continues to prevail: that belief in a Christian God, in the words of Shelley, was an insult to reason and belief.

However, though the edifice of the Catholic Church in this country has been crumbling in slow motion for some time, John F Deane and Wexford poet Philip Quirke have written eloquently and perceptively of the virtues and personal importance of the spiritual perspective.

It is plausible, when you consider the fecundation of the Irish identity, from the Celts forth, from the time we used myths to make sense of a chaotic world, from the development of the imagination and cognition to rearrange experience within the confines of mythology and its boundaries, the landscape, like the collective unconscious, has its own primordial images and buried archetypes, so it should come as no surprise that poets find in landscapes portals to the past.

And what will you find there? Perhaps nothing more meaningful that a sensation, or a bridge to bring the past closer into view, or a cathartic release. Why shouldn’t the land be the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences, I can hear the Kerry philosopher John Moriarty argue.

Cynicism, or savea indignatio, permeates the rural soaked poems of the most iconoclastic 20th century Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, who turned his back on the saccharine pastoralism of his youth in favour of harsh naturalism. He never ceased to expose the falsity of the Irish pastoral myth. Some of you will remember these lines from the classroom:

O stony grey soil of Monaghan

The laugh from my love you thieved

You took the gay child of my passion

And gave me your clod-conceived

Stoney Great Soil, a short poem, is the precursor to Kavanagh’s epic, The Great Hunger, in which the soil of the former, which clogged the feet of his childhood and where the first gay flight of his lyric got caught in a peasant’s prayer, becomes more dispirited in the latter. In both, Kavanagh taps into a displaced sexual frustration, not atypical of rural Ireland at the time (1940), and bitterly compares the pull of the land as a scheming woman, who uses her sexuality to hold onto her lover and trick him out of self-fulfilment.

The land seduces the young poet like the sirens who called out to Ulysses. Both Kavanagh and Ulysses are slaves to the lure of sensual delights. John Keats memorably concludes Ode on a Grecian Urn with the couplet, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ Towards the conclusion of Stony Grey Soil, Kavanagh summons the ghost of Keats and bitterly remonstrates with his native soil:

You flung a ditch on my vision

Of Beauty, love and truth

But with Kavanagh, there is always an air of unpredictability. He could, when the mood took, sheath the rapier, and acknowledge the charms of the land that he had previously castigated. It is an understatement to say he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and all his contradictions about the lure of the land are encapsulated in his short but superb poem Epic. In eleven of the poem’s fourteen lines, he baits the reader to indulge in mocking the provincial life of squinting windows and feuds, before turning the poem on its head, and wiping the grimace from your face.

Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row, Gods make their own importance.

Kavanagh’s resolution is the tip of a metamorphic iceberg. The Latin word for the inviolable sacredness of place is cultus: it can also mean the power of meditation, or cultivation, and today it is the root of culture. Revisiting Kavanagh’s poetry about the soil and the field and the country, we would do well to remember that the definition of culture is of humble origin, for cultus or the sacred was the vernacular ordinariness of things, and the ancient Greek definition of poet was rooted in the ordinary, to make.

Poetry predates writing, and was clearly dependent on an oral tradition for survival, so that the greatest destiny of a poem, such as Homer’s The Illiad, which was not written down, was usefulness for the tribe, like the first cave paintings.

To this day, the eye is taught by the painter, the ear by the composer, and language refined by the poet. What I would like you to glean from Kavanagh is how poetry, before it is woven or hewn or forged, take your pick, is conceived in the maelstrom of strong emotions.

Occasionally, the secret of a poet’s power is what is left unsaid: in an introduction to his short book about Elizabeth Bishop, Colm Toibin said that growing up in Enniscorthy, language was also a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.

And poetry written in the light of this knowledge had to be led by clarity, by precise description but by no open displays of anything, least of all easy feeling. This precision, adds Toibin, could result in a soaring energy for the writer when it was required.

There is such a fluorescence of language in the last paragraph of The Dead, by James Joyce, and his description of the landscape is as vivid and as sharp as a photograph: My only wish is that Donal McCann was among us to recite it.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The city of Joyce was compact and complex, and though Dublin has changed considerably since his time, his ghost lingers; poets view it as an alternative but viable landscape. Beckett’s preferred view of Dublin was from a distance, Feltrim Hill in Kinsealy, and Louise MacNeice alludes to its proximity to the Wicklow hills in his poem, Dublin, in which the city, like the history of the country, continues to absorb all alien influences.

Fort of the Dane

Garrison of the Saxon

Augustan capital

Of a Gaelic nation

Appropriating all

The alien brought.

It is narrow minded to view the city and what it has to offer as the repudiation of nature, for poets have shown that the state of exile to a city can, in the imagination, bring about a veneration for what is absent. Being without becomes a spark for thinking anew. For many whose childhood was Dublin, or in my case Bray, arcadia was the blue hem of the mountains in the distance in the morning, or cantering among the verdant town parks after school, a line from Dylan Thomas, spoken by a teacher, ringing in my ears: The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age.

From Exploring English 3, edited by Augustine Martin, we were told that God, nature and man permeated the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur, but to a boy in our class at Greystones CBS we were intoxicated by the carefree but ingenious rhythm, assonance, consonance and alliteration of Hopkin’s ode to a patch of land, Inversnaid.

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in
comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home

Poets whose vision is not dominated by the archetypes of nature, have been free to celebrate the less colourful but enchanting minutiae of city live: it would be remiss if I didn’t draw attention to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is ostensibly about the sacrifice of cultural identity after the horrors of the Great War, snared in the void between unspoken reality and the unseen city. It is viewed as one of the first truly modern poems in English, a poem of brutal intent: Eliot’s opening salvo, ‘April is the cruellest month’, is a stinging retort to centuries of poetry in which April was thought anything but.

A poet of honest substance whom I recommend is Dubliner Paula Meehan, who traces the essence of place in poetry back to the Dinnseanchas, an ancient history of how places acquire their names, very much an oral tradition, passed on from one generation to the next, much like the griots of West Africa do today. Meehan believes that poetry can provide a mapping, not dissimilar to the Songlines of Aboriginals, of a spirit of place, as opposed to a sense of place, or putting someone in their place. This theme is developed in Eavan Boland’s Once from her collection, A Poet’s Dublin, she imagines:

Irish wolves. A silvery man and wife

Yellow-eyed. Edged in dateless moonlight.

They are mated for life. They are legendary. They are safe.

Paul Meehan contends that the wolves emerge from the ghost forest of Boland’s home, Dundrum, as if the city is subject to the same forces and lore as the country, the city moving through consciousness.

Perhaps, but Derek Mahon, in a recent volume, An Autumn Wind, believes

We tire of cities in the end

The whirr and blur of it, so long your friend

Grow repetitious and you start to choke

On signage and carbon monoxide.

In Chile and in Argentina, they are known as Los Desaparecidos. In Ireland, the disappeared: mothers and fathers and sons murdered by the IRA and then furtively and cruelly dissolved in the vast expanses of our beaches and bogs.

Shortly before he died, Seamus Heaney gave permission for his poem, The Bog Queen, to be used in a television documentary about these disappeared. He recycles the metaphor of the bog as a repository of our history, that human sacrifice and the deposition of the victims is related to sovereignty and kingship rituals during the Iron Age.

A warehouse for the sacrificed or the murdered, such as Cashel Man, butchered in 2000 BC and laid in a pool alongside two hazel rods, and Jean McConville, a recently widowed mother, shot in the back of the head by the IRA in 1973, and buried in an unmarked pit so her family of ten children could not find her.

Heaney has the body in The Bog Queen address us directly:

My body was braille, for the creeping influences

Which conveys an interaction between the landscape and the living – dead, but despite her perilous state, she remains undefeated, and her consciousness, or soul, is described as

A jar of spawn, fermenting underground.

The poem concludes – quite movingly – with Heaney’s very acute image, that you can vicariously imagine, having survived our recent Arctic spell.

I knew winter cold like the nuzzle of fjords at my thighs.

Another September, a poem by Thomas Kinsella, was conceived not a million miles away from here, in a bedroom, beside an orchard, near the Slaney, at Lucas Park near St. John’s Manor outside Enniscorthy, described by Colm Toibin, who knew it well, as a place where mysterious images can appear from the part of the imagination most open to symbolic suggestion.

In Another September, the poet’s peaceful morning is disrupted by the long pitch black breaths outside his window, where the natural world

Rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall

Another September because of the wealth of images is about love, about mortality and above all about loss, real or imagined. Who among us has not woken abruptly at dawn and envied your partner’s deep sleep? Kinsella writes that his wife, the unspeaking daughter in the poem, must to be in perfect union with nature to sleep so soundly, and that he therefore is not.

The landscape is often like a time-machine for poets, a conduit to another time and another place, the past, which we are reminded is a different country, because they do things differently there. I think all poets who are smitten or intrigued by the landscape experience what Yeats called ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and the ancient humming of the landscape can make you confront the arithmetic of your life, well spent, or not.  Yeats’ pilot, fighting in the Great War, believes that when the inevitable happens, it will balance the wastage of his past and his future.

The years to come seemed waste of breath

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

In conclusion, the systematic interrogation of your own unconscious and terra nostra may not necessarily put a smile on your face, but sometimes the poet has no choice but to walk the dark corridor in search of their Holy Grail, a true poem.

 

 

The Scourge, Wexford Arts Centre

A michelle

 

 

Have words, will travel.

Before the premiere of Under Milk Wood in New York, Dylan Thomas chided his fraught cast. ‘Love the words.’ Michelle Dooley Mahon loves words. Her eponymous book, from which The Scourge is adapted, is a paean to language.

Given free rein, her verbosity has the cyclic rate of fire of a Kalashnikov. The Scourge that we know is an unbridled pyrotechnic flow of metaphor and onomatopoeia, bookended by covers.

But she had to up her game remoulding The Scourge for the stage, because this is not a play. This is real life. The quotidian morsels of everyday living laid bare.

The curtains pulled back.

Hesitancy occurs in the writer’s performance at Wexford Arts Centre, but that’s natural. She can’t help but smile at her own humour, and then remembers she’s on stage. Playing a part. Or is she?

Ben Barnes’ biggest challenge as director must have been curbing that infectious enthusiasm, like lunging a horse before hacking out.

The wardrobe is Narnia’s portal, from which the paraphernalia associated with the theme of The Scourge, a long day’s journey into death, emerge.

They are Dooley Mahon’s Songlines, a personal braille to maintain the confluence of her story, and time.

And yet I could picture her sitting on a stool, like Dave Allen, alone under a light, glass of whiskey in hand, but without the props and the Desert Island discs, and being demonstrably as effective.

Because Dooley Mahon, in a hugely courageous performance, reminds us that art and life co-exist and emerge from a single source to assemble coherence. To stand guard against chaos, said Kenneth Tynan.

This is flesh and blood writing, sentient and animate, rooted in grief. And as Dooley Mahon knows only two well, grief has two acts: loss, followed by the remaking of a life.

‘What good amid these?’ asked Whitman. Dooley Mahon provides an answer, ensuring that the powerful play goes on.

Walton at Greenacres

conor x

Walton at Greenacres Art Gallery

 

 ‘I wanted to learn the skills that I felt I needed to learn and the avant garde simply were not offering it,’ reflects Conor Walton on his time at the National College of Art and Design, from which he emerged, defiantly, with a Joint Honours Degree in History of Art and Fine Art, in 1993. ‘So I thought, give me the skills and I will decide what to do with them.’

Between graduating from NCAD, gaining an MA in Art History and Theory from the University of Essex in 1995 and his first solo exhibition at Jorgensen Fine Art in 1999, Walton received a rigorous training in the practice and tradition of drawing and painting from life at the Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence: sight-size as a portrait technique has its origins in the practice of Titian, Van Dyck and Velazquez.

In the celebrated Las Meninas, Velazquez documents himself at his canvas, the orchestrator of a conceptual profundity of mise-en-scene and several people – the artist, the subject, the viewer – and in doing so initiated a multiplicity of relationships which will be emulated by artists through the ages. Walton’s self-portraits similarly invite you to draw your own conclusions regarding substance and intention. ‘There is a concern for me to get, at some level, significance or meaning,’ he explains. Velazquez broke with the traditions of his time to allow the outside world in, to give a ‘behind the scenes’ view of the painter at work.

This light-heartedness and openness is often replicated by Walton: you can watch a time-lapse video on Facebook of the evolution of his self-portrait, Push Over, which will be on show at his solo exhibition at The Greenacres Gallery. Equally compelling is the footage of Rest, in which the artist’s handling is direct and fresh, and the viewer is privy to a private symbiosis in which artist and subject are fused.

Walton – born in 1970 – is a figurative painter in the European tradition, pursuing his craft at the highest level, pushing the envelope in his desire to answer the three questions in Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’ Walton concedes that some of his work is ‘very big and complicated’ – An Ape’s Limbs Compared to Man’s – with a mesh of narrative, philosophy and references to current affairs. This in turn is balanced by a need to ‘be simple and matter of fact, if I can be. It has developed into a yin yang thing, my work as a whole. The complicated pictures to some extent leave me very dissatisfied and it is hard to make them work. On the other side I will try to do something as simple and as basic as I can, which allows for a small achievement.’

His oeuvre, therefore, is breath-taking in its reach: portrait, self-portrait, landscape, still life and allegory, a fluid accentuation of the questions posed by Gaugin. ‘A work of art should tell something of who we are,’ adds Walton. ‘The function of art should give us some insight into what we are.’ It has been said of him that he can be politically conscious without being sanctimonious, but beneath the surface of the larger work is a confrontation of the human and the mythical: The Barbarians At the Gates is a wry multi-layered observation of a mistrustful Europe under siege. But this is Walton standing on his own two feet, creating a world as distinctly his at those of his contemporaries.

His attention to detail has a clinical purity, and in his epic allegories you will encounter the consistencies and discontinuities of life, because each single painting, irrespective of size or ambition, is the spawn of a multitude of perceptions. The exhibition at Greenacres is the work of an artist determined to be faithful to his vision, pursued in the secluded independence of his studio overlooking Wicklow town, where he lives with his wife, Jane, a mountaineering instructor, and three children.

Sean Hillen exhibition, Kamera 8, Wexford

pyramids

There hasn’t been a photography exhibition of the ilk of Sean Hillen at Kamera 8 in Wexford before, for one reason. Nobody captures his sense of history in reverse, or the cultural filter he deploys to segue pictorial elements from diametrically opposed sources, and deliver a composition.

Consider The Great Pyramids of Carlingford Lough: pure montage, but with a distinctive Hillen trope. I use ‘trope’ deliberately, because the metaphor is more figurative than narrative. So Hillen requires you to look beyond or, better still, look beneath.

Light is a keyhole rusting gently after rain, wrote Derek Mahon in A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford, and time is the undiscovered country in this work. Elsewhere, peruse Trouble With Glacier in Henry Street, Dublin, or The Lia Fail of Wexford, and perhaps Hillen is suggesting that photographic clichés exist to enable us to reconsider reality.

The news photographs rooted in Northern Ireland should have one function: arouse conflicting emotions, and they do, but our empathy is framed by detachment, and perhaps war fatigue. This is no fault of Hillen. With Ecstatic Nuns Outside the Casino at Powerscourt, the montage has the joie de vivre of collage, as if Truffaut is directing from the wings.

Jason Yeager/Randal Despommier

Once
When New Orleans-born jazz alto saxophonist and classical composer Randal Despommier moved to New York City in the summer of 2013, he teamed up an with award-winning jazz pianist/composer from Boston, Jason Yeager, to explore improvisational arrangements of classical repertoire.

During the jam sessions, they would mess around with jazz standards, preludes by Scriabin, and folk songs and arrange, rearrange, and sometimes ‘de-range’ pieces, like two Rimbaud hipsters.

Some of these “derangements” include Despommier’s Cherokee-meets-Le Sacre du printemps (entitled “Rite of Cherokee”), described by the saxophonist as something of a primal Bop dance.

Yeager’s version of Danse de la fureur is a fiery, adventurous atonal saxophone and piano/rhodes duet that draws from the sixth movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. These high-octane fusion works on All At Onceness are counterbalanced by two original compositions: Despommier’s The First Flowers, an ethereal, lyrical setting of a poem by Hermann Hesse, and Yeager’s Telekinesis, a playful, Kafkaesque jazz vocalise interpolated with collective improvisation from the ensemble.

Critical to the standout originals are the contributions of vocalist Aubrey Johnson, whose exquisite tone and deep improvisational prowess are particularly strong on the closing track, Despommier’s arrangement of Bartók’s Bagatelle Op. 10 No. 4.

In this work, following a scintillating solo by Johnson, Despommier joins the fray as a vocalist, in the majestic choral section that closes out the album. Lighting a creative fire under the front line is the top-notch rhythm team of drummer Jay Sawyer (Freddy Cole, Itamar Borochov) and bassist Danny Weller (Jason Palmer, Radio City Music Hall Christmas Orchestra), who contribute imaginative musical commentary to Telekinesis, Bagatelle and Rite of Cherokee.

Martin Wind

 

Martin Wind’s Light Blue features old friends: Anat Cohen (clarinet), Ingrid Jensen (trumpet), Matt Wilson (drums), Scott Robinson (multi-reeds), Bill Cunliffe (piano), Gary Versace (piano, organ), Duduka DaFonseca (drums) and Maucha Adnet (vocals).

There are milestones in a musician’s career, and life for that matter, which pass without acknowledgement. What with rehearsals, travel, and recording sessions, a busy professional rarely has the opportunity to note a watershed moment.

With Light Blue, Wind registers the significance of this moment in time. This recording comes some 25 years after recording his first release as a leader, Gone With The Wind, and Light Blue is being released shortly before he turns fifty. Since that initial outing, Wind has released another 18 albums as a leader or co-leader and he has become one of New York’s most in-demand bassists.

Wind recorded Light Blue with engineer Matt Balitsaris at Maggie’s Farm in April 2017 in between a myriad of gigs including backing singers Dena DeRose and Ann Hampton Callaway, Ted Rosenthal’s Monk Project, showcasing his quartet in Los Angeles, and performing with Pat Metheny and Matt Wilson at the Wichita Jazz Festival.

The remainder of the year found him touring with Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family (performing Honey And Salt, the poetry of Carl Sandburg), presenting Schubert’s Trout Quintet and the premiere of his composition Looking Back with the American Chamber Ensemble, and performing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Ted Rosenthal and Phoenix Symphony.

Besides being a master musician, Wind penned the ten compositions heard on Light Blue. There are seven new pieces and three that are new versions of some of his classic compositions, such as 10 Minute Song and Cruise Blues, both from his quartet recording Salt ‘N Pepper (2008), and A Sad Story from Gone With the Wind (1993). His skills as an arranger are evident here, as they were on the critically acclaimed Turn Out The Stars, on which Wind performed music written or inspired by pianist Bill Evans with his quartet, plus the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana

The Rivers of Dublin

liffeyiffey

One of the more memorable photographs of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach features him, grim-faced in his wellies, braving the flood waters of the Tolka River. Although Tolka derives from the Gaelic, An Tulca, meaning flood, the ill-omened name never quite deterred residential and industrial development along its hazardous banks.

The lesson of natural history is that you ignore portentous warnings at your peril: the Tolka’s flat catchment of 58 squares miles and a narrow drop of 460 feet in just under 20 miles, is a recipe for a long history of flooding of Dublin’s north side, with frequent calamitous costs: the deluge of November 2002 which Ahern braved up to his knees, resulted in E20 million spent on flood alleviation.

This is just one of many interesting asides in a newly revised edition of the late Clair L. Sweeney’s The Rivers of Dublin, a labour of love for the Dublin Corporation engineer who devoted most of his life to tracing and walking, above ground and under, the estimated 60 watercourses circumnavigating and penetrating the city.

As an engineer, the author had unparalleled access to tributaries, creeks, brooks and streams which thrived in isolation. As the city and its population expanded in the last century, they became hidden from view and were largely unknown to many, though not from the persistent explorations of Sweeney.

He wasn’t averse to getting his hands dirty or his feet wet in reconnoitring some of the network of 1,300 miles of sewers under Dublin, advanced in 1810 because the over flooding of rivers like the Poddle, used by the labouring poor of the Liberties, caused dysentery, typhoid and cholera. ‘Ten to sixteen people of all ages and both genders were in a room not 15 feet square, in filthy conditions, with thirty to fifty people to one house,’ writes Sweeney.

The Poddle was also known as the Sologh, meaning dirty, at a time when the putrefying effect of waterborne sewage of the Liffey was dreadful.

Hence the moniker, dirty old town.

Sweeney, raised in the Liffey Valley when Palmerstown was a village remote from the city centre, sought out tributaries incorporated into the claustrophobic subterranean channels and tunnels. Delving like Indiana Jones into murky depths, he made important discoveries, such as finding the site of St. Winifred’s Well, near the junction of Eustace and Essex Streets, lost since the Middle Ages.

Norman Maclean memorably concluded his famous fishing fable, A River Runs Through it, with an admission that he was ‘haunted by waters.’ So too was Sweeney. Though without Maclean’s poetic flair for description, he can be as evocative and perceptive with his industrious arsenal of words. In Sweeney’s company, it is a given that all running water, in its natural form and before it is spoiled by pollution, is beautiful.

Unlike Orpheus, he does succeed in bringing the dead to life from the underworld: he enters the stygian darkness under Kevin Street via a manhole, walks for three quarters of a mile through a maze of culverts, some as low as five feet, encountering history at every turn: he details the exact spot where Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison in 1591.

Sweeney believed that the long history of Dublin, like many of the old capital cities of Europe – Paris, London, Rome – was best understood through its rivers, and because many were hidden from view, he was motivated to breathe life into these alternate maps of Dublin. Imagine filling an abstruse crossword by candlelight and without the aid of clues: this is Sweeney’s achievement, and each paragraph liberates another watercourse from the hibernation of neglect.

Consider his investigation into the Bradoge river: it has had many variants – Bradok, Le Rughdich, Glascoynock, St. Michael’s streams – with each rooted in the colonisation of Dublin: the stream Michan is rechristened Glasmacanog by the early Christian Norse after they are persuaded to move to Oxmanstown, north of the Liffey, by the Anglo Normans. This could be the beginning of the recorded history of a stretch of water whose descent eastwards from its humble source, a ‘cow-drink pond’, is as adventurous and as colourful as the boat in Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre.

You can sense Sweeney’s excitement as the river, forever escaping the clutches of warring tribes and rerouting by monks, is both a witness to and a participant in the nascent city’s growth. He is the ideal chronicler of every nook and cranny lapped by the Bradoge which flows resiliently through the ages until it is, eventually and inevitably, tamed by the public drainage system.

Books about rivers are ten a penny, but I doubt if you will find one with a comparable plenitude of minutiae as Sweeney’s, who connects vital gobbets of folklore and enumerated facts to create layers of story and meaning.

Sweeney is both detective and pathologist, who segues what rivers and their etymology have in common, how form and meaning change over time.

This is his great gift and his legacy: The Rivers of Dublin not alone charts the history of these vital arteries into the city, but does so with scintillating storytelling and meticulous illustrations, excavating entire societies and resurrecting ancient conduits.

The five main rivers of the Ancient Greek myths were associated with death, but Sweeney’s myriad of arteries throughout Dublin, brim with life. The Dodder, he reminds us, down to the end of the 19th century, turned mill-wheels all along its course – corn mills, cloth mills, flour mills, tuck mills, saw mills, paper mills, iron mills, calico print factors – but were ‘erased and forgotten by the grandchildren of yesteryear’s generation.’

The history of Dublin is that of its rivers, but until the sheer passion and hard work of Sweeney, it was a history in danger of remaining underground.