Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Adventures in Irish Verse, and Thoughts on Verse in General

I'm still reading Irish language poetry. I've just been leafing through a couple of "slim volumes". I can read Irish prose without a dictionary, but I need a dictionary for Irish poetry. Poets seem more likely to use rare or literary words, or to use ordinary words in an altered form.

The last volume I dipped into was called Gainneamh Séidte (meaning Blown Sand) by Jackie Mac Donncha, published in 2003. The cover has a very nice picture, all in a light brown monochrome, of some long grass surrounded by sand.

I couldn't make much sense of the first poem, in which the poet was addressing another person, and urging them not to hurry out a gate. But I liked the second poem, even though I wasn't able to understand that one too well, either. It was about a place where a dead person had smoked, outdoors-- a ditch or hollow or something. (A "dimple" was the literal translation.) I'm not sure how the poet knew the smoker was now deceased, but the smell of tobacco apparently lingered-- metaphorically, perhaps.

For all that I'm making it sound enigmatic, the language is very simple and direct, which I like.

Here is the thing about poetry and me. I think I have pretty good taste in poetry. I have a tin ear when it comes to music, but I have pretty good taste in poetry. At least, I've always taken an intense pleasure from "classic" poets such as Yeats, Tennyson and Larkin. Even where I don't particularly like a 'classic' poet, as with John Donne, I can see why it's considered outstanding. (As opposed to when I listen to classical music, and it all just sounds equally pretty to me.)

But in recent years-- for more than a decade, in fact-- I've felt that I'm not going to discover any more truly sublime poetry. I'm never going to discover a new poem that gives me the same sort of pleasure as "Locksley Hall" by Tennyson or "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon. This wouldn't be a problem if I enjoyed long poetry-- there are hundreds of long poems by classic poets which remain unread by me-- but I don't enjoy it. I've read that poets such as Keats and Shelley believed that their long works were their important works, and expected to be remembered for poems such as Hyperion and The Triumph of Life rather than "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and "Ozymandias". Well, maybe they should have been. Maybe our age is philistine for its lack of interest in long poetry. But I can't feign an enjoyment I don't feel. Short lyric poetry is what appeals to me. In my experience, the best poetry provokes such an intense response that it simply can't be sustained for pages and pages.

Anyway, the point is that I've given up looking for "classic" poetry. It's possible I'll encounter some new poems that move me as much as "Locksley Hall", but I don't expect to. Nor am I particularly sad about this. As Chesterton said, the world will never starve for want of wonders but for want of wonder. There are plenty of other wonders out there.

I could go looking for "just OK" poetry-- by which I mean, technically accomplished and fairly profound, but lacking the indefinable something that elevates the best poetry (or my favourite poetry, since a lot of this is subjective). And I'm sure I will do more of that, in years to come.

At the same time, I admit that my interest in poetry now has less to do with excellence than with the very fact of poetry. I've developed an appetite for poetry which doesn't demand the sublime or even the accomplished. In fact, I have quite a taste for the naive and the artless. I think anyone could write a poem that would please me, as long as it was heartfelt and sincere, and adhered to some specifics I'll mention in a bit.

To put it another way, I'm no longer so much interested in poetry considered as one of the summits of cultural achievement. Now, I'm more interested in poetry considered as an expression of the human spirit, and as a haven for the human spirit. At this point in my life, a poem by an ordinary teenager (or pensioner) seems to me as wonderful a thing as a poem by a Kipling or a Betjeman. Maybe even more wonderful, because an ordinary teenager or pensioner has a greater need of it.

Along with my ever-burgeoning opposition to political correctness and progressivism, and along with my determination to be completely uncompromising towards these things, I've felt an increasing craving for something I can only call softness. I think modern life is terribly hard. Maybe all life is hard. Maybe life has always been hard. Anyway, I find myself craving softness and tenderness-- not shown towards me, necessarily, (though I'll take that!), but in general.

If an angry progressive were to demand that I acknowledge his grievances as a transgender queer liberal Catholic who's been oppressed because of his mixed race ancestry, I'd decline quite pointedly. But if he wanted me to read a poem expressing his human yearning and confusions, I would feel quite tender towards that. Heck, even if he wanted me to read a poem expressing his grievances as a transgender queer liberal Catholic who's been oppressed because of his mixed race ancestry, I'd be quite tender towards that-- and even interested. The feelings themselves have a certain validity, even if they are not justified. (I'm thinking about an interpersonal encounter, here. If I were presented with such a text on a syllabus or a poetry anthology, I would be less receptive. There are already far too many of those.)

Poetry seems to me like a haven where the student, the worker, the mother, the consumer, the prisoner, the patient, can transcend whatever roles they happen to occupy and simply be a human soul whose yearnings and memories and imagination stretch to a far-distant horizon, and beyond. Poetry is one of the things most affirmative of the human spirit that I know.

This is not an entirely new feeling on my part, since a few of the entries in my purple notebook also reflect it. One of the entries refers to a scene in Star Trek where the android Data (who is trying to be more like humans) writes a poem about his cat Spot, and then discusses it with another crew member. Another relates to an anthology I read, many many years ago, in which teenagers choose a favourite poem and then comment on it. One poem-- I think was 'Eldorado' by Poe-- was chosen by a teenage girl who wrote out the poem on nice paper, put a decorative border around it, and put it up on her wall. I was delighted by this story, as I still am. (Apologies to readers who have heard me mention both of these little recollections a million times, but it's relevant again here.)

This desire for "softness" isn't new, either, because it's always been part of what drew me to Ireland's Catholic past, especially its recent Catholic past. People think of Catholic Ireland as harsh-- harsh on women, harsh on homosexuals, harsh on Protestants, harsh on single mothers, etc. Even assuming all that is true (which I don't), I still think Catholic Ireland was gentler, softer, and more humane than contemporary Ireland. This is hard to prove in any measurable way, as it comes down to many intangibles-- language, facial expressions, even things like colour schemes. But look at any outdoors Marian shrine in Ireland, most of which went up in the 1954 Marian year. Or, indeed, look at any statue of Our Lady. There's something softer and gentler in that image than anything that secular Ireland has to show.

But let me return to poetry, and particularly the simple, artless poetry that appeals to me these days. The kind of simple,artless poems I'm looking for tend to have certain characterstics.

First of all, I like them to fit on one page.  

I also like poems that dramatize the human condition, and the condition of the poet. I like poems that take some definite situation or image, rather than poems written from a "God's eye" point of view. This is the kind of thing I mean:

A poem about someone taking a box of old stuff from the attic, going through it, and thinking about the past.

A poem about someone in a traffic jam.

A poem about an empty room after a party.

A poem about somebody listening to a radio interview with a politician at election time.

As opposed to:

An oblique poem full of mysterious imagery, whose meaning is not obvious.

A poem describing the growth of a town over centuries.

A poem about some abstract concept such as planned obsolence.

A poem playing with language.

There's nothing wrong with the second bunch of themes-- anything can make a poem, in my view-- but it's not the sort of poem I'm thirsting for these days.

"Contemplation" poems are my favourite-- one in which somebody (either a character within the poem, or the poet outside the poem) is contemplating something. Like somebody staring into the flames of a fire, or the steam rising from a cup of tea. Or somebody standing in a busy shopping centre, and watching the crowds. Or simply the image of a child falling asleep, and the poet's thoughts on it.

The glamour of language and the glamour of writing is such that I only ever feel something is really real when someone has written about it-- and especially, written a poem about it. At particular moments, I find myself thinking: "This is the kind of thing someone might write a poem about". In a strange way, a four-line poem that a sixteen-year-old writes has more reality and potency than the international airport he writes it about. It makes the international airport more real, in a way that an article or a video could never do. Because it has passed through the filter of a human soul.

Well, if anyone has some short, artless, situation-based poems (of their own) to send me, I''d happily receive them. But I've probably damned them with such dubious praise that nobody would want to!


  1. My favourite poems are those I learned long ago at school - 'the poplars are felled, farewell to the shade and the whispering sound of the cool colonnade..." and
    "He comes upon an evening clear, my blackbird bountiful..."

    1. I remember liking those particular Cowper lines you quote very much when I read them as a teen.