Terra Nostra lecture:Perspectives on landscape.


(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.