Revista Latinoamericana de Poesía
Número 93. Noviembre de 2012.
Offshore on land
Poetry in Irish Now
By Liam Ó Muirthile
If being a poet in Irish feels like living offshore on land, that feeling of offshoreness seems to be the undercurrent of a primary call: of journeying there in order to stay here. A paradox of course, but confirmed and sustained by experience. In the world of poetry in Irish - a compass without co-ordinates - each poet marks out an individual point without making the compass whole.
There have been and are enough poets working in Irish to box the compass - “to know and to be able to recite the points and quarter points of the magnetic compass from north through south to north again, both clockwise and anticlockwise. It is now a lost art….”(The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, 2006). In Irish now, each recites his or her own point outside the hearing range of the other. A strange journey indeed.
It was still possible in or about 1968, with Seán Ó Ríordáin’s (1916-1977) Adhlacadh Mo Mháthar (My Mother’s Burial) and Saoirse (Freedom)embedded in the Irish language syllabus of second-level schools, for poems to have a far-reaching effect on a generation which was entering University. The Irish language itself, as an entity, had a viable currency of thoughtful and coherent expression. Literacy in Irish among a generation of learners was peaking. Literature was still a gateway to the language, with television just gaining a foothold. There was a congruence between education, a first glimpse of economic ease, the community language of the Gaeltacht, and notions of national political aspirations and local cultural identities. The Northern Ireland Troubles were beginning to rock the South to its core. Paris had erupted. World events impinged. Protest was a new religion of the age.
Cork city was to become the main locus for the great burst of poetry in Irish through the poetry journal Innti. The city had an open backdoor to the southwest and the feeling of being a European crossroads-on-sea. It was possible, even in the late Sixties, to imagine an authentic Irish language voice of the English-speaking city. Nowhere else in Ireland had the written text of the language been worked so late into the nineteenth century by dairy farmers, tradesmen, tailors, stonecutters, teachers, Catholic and some Protestant clergy, and professional scribes with commitment and playfulness, and with an enduring sense of regional and local identity. The remnants of a classical tradition had left their tidal mark. Frank O’Connor too, was a fluent Irish speaker who had mediated the world of poetry in Irish through his translations. All this, the strong oral storytelling and seanchas, and much more had contributed to zones of feeling and thinking which could be construed as alternatives to the predominant culture.
The poet Seán Ó Ríordáin shuffled within that nexus, in his forays into the city and in his TB room on its outskirts in Iniscarra. The village of Iniscarra was not only a bus terminal for Sunday afternoon trips to the river Lee, but also a regional symbol of the economic regeneration of Sixties’ Ireland. A new hydroelectric dam had been built there. Ó Ríordáin’s work reflects that renewal, in the shadows cast by the candlelight at his bedside on his poems, and in his diary references to his brother’s hopes for employment on the so-called Lee Scheme.
If we are to believe in any linear descent at all – and it may be doubtful - poetry in Irish became possible for the generation born in the early 1950’s and subsequently, when Seán Ó Ríordáin sat in a sunny apple orchard re-reading a letter from his dead mother in the early 1940’s. The Aran Island poet Máirtín Ó Direáin (1910-1988), too, had attended a lecture on poetry in Dublin by the scholar and Revivalist Tadhg ‘Torna’ Ó Donnchadha from Carrignavar, in the late 1930’s, which kickstarted his work.
The fact that Ó Ríordáin’s mother’s letter was in English, and the resulting poem Adhlacadh Mo Mháthar (My Mother’s Burial) in Irish, is more than an underlying reality. It is integral to all contemporary poetry in the Irish language, which is a poetry of two languages, one on the page, the other crowding the stage. While the dead mother syndrome may be of more enduring interest to psychoanalysts than to poets, nevertheless, Ó Ríordáin’s lifelong mining and sifting in his journals of an authentic language in pursuit of poetry in Irish is one of the most remarkable literary stories of Ireland in the twentieth century. Norman MacCaig’s comment about his fellow Scottish poet Sorley MacGill-Eain writing in Gaelic, firmly applies here: “Nobody does that except for the deepest and most compulsive reasons.”
Those ‘reasons’ might well be a matter of interesting speculation, and revealing insight, especially around the whole area of mother tongue and father language, and what we now have come to understand by compulsion. Ó Ríordáin’s poetry issues from his exploration of the unnavigated and terrifying depths of the unconscious. All authentic lives are subject to terror, as is clear from his diaries. It is the interpenetration of both languages, synergized in his work as two functioning lungs, which made all the difference.
Innti, the poetry journal first published in 1970 as a broadsheet, owes its title to an adverbial phrase from the speech of an individual in West Kerry. Through Innti, the caint na ndaoine [the talk of the people] slogan of early Revivalist writers was turned on its head to become daoine ag caint [people talking]. Poems for the Innti generation would be grounded in living speech, following more ‘Pound’s’ – as in Ó Ríordáin’s poem An Feairín(The Maneen) - than Ezra Pound’s advice. Both Máirtín Ó Direáin, that great dignified man, and Seán Ó Ríordáin, had poems in the first edition. Michael Davitt (1950-2005), the poet and founding editor of Innti with fellow-poet Gabriel Rosenstock and the musician Con Ó Drisceoil, was the main catalyst of change. He had been at school in the North Monastery, where Seán Ó Ríordáin too had attended. Charismatic, a showman and shaman, he had one foot planted firmly in West Kerry and the other, exploratory, on the campus of University College Cork.
Like many campus initiatives of its time, Innti turned the course of poetry in Irish toward the demotic and formal experimentation. It admitted a frank sexuality, and presented a brazen, youthful face to the world. In time, the Irish language lyric poem would break open on its pages. The initial campus energy was sustained through 14 editions until 1994, and the most important contemporary poets would be associated with it. Michael Davitt’s editorial hand was always firmly on the tiller, but he engaged editorially with others besides Gabriel Rosenstock – Louis de Paor, Proinsias Ní Dhorchaí especially- to bring the journal forward as the national journal of poetry in Irish. It displaced the monthly literary magazine Comhar, as the main publishing conduit for new poetry, but not before Comhar itself had nurtured some of the emerging poets under the editorship of Eoghan Ó hAnluain and threw open its pages later with Proinsias Ní Dhorchaí as editor.
Michael Davitt’s own poetry is marked throughout his work by a cinematic eye, filtered through a varying but intense focus, as if the manner of recording reality were the act of revealing the poetic insight itself. In a style of hyper-realism at times, it has all the elements of the wideshot panorama to the close-up, phrased in an uncompromising, contemporaneous language of the now, humorous, sometimes searing, always adjectivally unfrocked and with a tensile beauty in lines of his own tuning. That tuning is as much a matter of his own inner ear as his unerring instinct for calibrating newly-minted words and terms with the resonance of living speech. His conscious project of emulating Bob Dylan has yet to be examined in any meaningful way – his first collection Gleann ar Ghleann (1982) marks Blonde on Blonde, but his second collection, Bligeard Sráide(1983), which has the look at least of Self-Portrait, has an iconic status in contemporary Irish poetry. There is a metallic, lyrical tension at the core of his work, in the tone beneath his overlying style, which is mysterious - Meirg agus Lios Luachra – and which is possibly never definitively resolved but from which there is a joyful, sensual and easeful respite in the later collections – Fardoras(2003) - and especially in the suite of poems which gives its title to his last collection, Seiming Soir (2004).
Innti was at its core, a non-academic initiative. While there are no absolute breaks with the past, Innti was in many respects sui generis. Gabriel Rosenstock’s wide reading of literature, his editorial involvement with Motus, the English-language literary magazine, and his mediation of the world of English poetry through Innti had a major influence on Innti’s initial development. But Innti owed more to Gaeltacht-speak, rock ’n roll and the Sixties’ folk revival, the cinema and whatever- you’re- having- yourself, than to any early reading of William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara or Robert Frost if not Eliot or e. e. cummings and French poetry. Sean-nós too [unaccompanied singing], an art form in itself at its best and brought alive by Seán Ó Riada both on disc and in his invitations to singers to perform on campus, was a further important point of entry into the language.
The Seán Triumvirate in University College Cork – Ó Riada, Ó Ríordáin and Ó Tuama – created an atmosphere in which exhuberance, at least, could thrive. Seán Ó Tuama’s An Grá in Amhráin na nDaoine and Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire(1961) seemed to have a synchronicity with the age. But in many respects it was Ó Riada, like Hamlet’s ghost, who had the most profound influence. As if he were playing not only the language of music, but the music of a language on a national and world stage. It was Ó Riada who had clasped the classical heritage of poetry and song of a language-community, and it was he who forged his own vital linkage with a community which allows artistic work to truly come alive and thrive. It is through Ó Riada that poets in English and in Irish, can legitimately claim that heritage as their own. It was highly ironic that Seán Ó Riada, who travelled the world, had made his home in Cúil Aodha, while the Sixties’ generation of learners of Irish and their teachers from Cork city headed west past his door to Kerry.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and the Donegal poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, who is as much an Innti poet in spirit as any, have stayed close to their own language communities. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s voice is as much her own as ancestral, surging through the marvellous psychic drama of her poems especially in An Dealg Droighin(1981) and Feis(1991). Her outpourings on the page are seemingly unmediated by formal rigours as we knew them, before Nuala, or might have wished them, but are turbo-driven by a more immediate urgency. It is as if an ancestral community were not so much thinking through her as feeling through her, in the poem’s present tense, with the authentic voices of mná ag caint[women talking]. She, indeed, is the inheritor of banseanchas [lore of women] with the great heave of her poems washing up on the bare page. She achieved an untrammelled, almost industrial access to the unconscious through her hard work on folklore and storytelling and through her wide reading. She has great humour and handles the big themes as assuredly as the everyday, household traumas of suburbia which can also of course become big themes. She refeminised the territory, and swept away much of the aridity of the Revivalist spirit. The whiplash of some of her lines is her own making as much as the pickled variety of Corca Dhuibhne [West Kerry] speech. It is understandable that many contemporary poets in English would have wanted to translate her work, Michael Hartnett early on and Paul Muldoon later in The Astrakhan Cloak (1992). However, the handing over of the original work has major consequences, one of them being John McInnes’s quip, as quoted in An Tuil(1999), the anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Poetry, by the editor Ronald Black: “It loses something in the original”.
It is perhaps, a matter of how we believe a poem might live a life. Either in terms of its own integrity, hoping that it might make room for itself, or with the help of others. There is not much, now, to support the belief that an Irish language poem might live a life through that natural flowing into a common stream. It is not entirely injudicious to think that it might be through translation into English that the original might bounce back in unexpected ways. However, translation into English of contemporary Irish language poetry can selectively reduce the poem itself and undermine the possibilities of forms of further evolving life for the original poem. A recent commentator suggested, while reviewing a collection in Irish, that the originals might have been written in English and subsequently translated into Irish. This might well be true, but is a masquerade, a subterfuge too far for any intelligent engagement with real poems in Irish.
Gabriel Rosenstock is the great innovator of his generation, and his first collection Suzanne sa Seomra Folctha (1973) still has great charm – it already marks out the course that Gabriel’s path through poetry would take, original work and translations forming part of the whole. It bridged the generations and brought the Irish language poem into domains it had never known. His Laoi an Rua-Indiaigh Dhíbeartha stands totemically on its own. Deireadh Seachtaine na Martinis Dry still has that wonderful tone of world-weariness and urbanity of an underrated film noir. His prodigious if not bewildering output can at times mask his achievements. He has translated from many languages into Irish and has developed the haiku. His poetry and books for children are often a collaboration with visual artists, and he more than anyone has actively sought to engage others in the world of the poem in Irish. He has a mordant wit and a scarifying lyricism. Inclined to the Gothic, his greatest gift to the Irish language poem is his stance as outsider. He has turned the poem in Irish inside out, and outside in – Conlán, a selection of Heaney poems – and has often left his contemporaries scorched in his slipstream. In many respects, Rosenstock’s achievements have exposed the threadbare texture of the range of writing in the Irish language. At times our hope for him would be that he would have more stamina in pursuing the possibilities of individual poems. It could well be that, in time, the language itself might catch up with him. It is more likely that, in some future domain, his work will be seen as how poems in Irish might have been.
The form of what constitutes a poem, whatever its mode, is of fundamental importance to the essential life of the poem. A poem must be able to hold its own ground. It is very difficult to see, now, how any poem in Irish might hold its ground. In Irish, because of a residual collective neurosis serving the cause of the language and active individual neuroses serving the cause of poetry, together with little or no critical judgement and uninspired academic performance, the health of the poem itself is indeed precarious. The first responsibility of the poet is to serve the poem itself. The matter of translation downwards, as in Seamus Deane’s phrase in reference to Joyce, and translation inwards into the internal dynamics of the poem itself, is a process that can take a lifetime but it is what serves the poem. In an age which serves the poet more than the poem it is difficult to sustain the work which, in its own time, results in real poems.
Cathal Ó Searcaigh’s joyous celebration of his own people and place in North West Donegal, his buoyant homo-eroticism, is both convincing and infectious. He has a geographic range from Mucais to Nepal. Reading the bulk of his poems in the original Ag Tnúth Leis an tSolas [Anticipating the Light], something happens. A boyishness comes alive in his imaginative landscape, marvelling at the humanity of it all, which affirms a boyishness in ourselves. This can be easily and unjustifiably misconstrued. If there is harshness there - Gort na gCnámh[Field of Bones] - it is in the suffering inflicted by human beings through an inability to love and receive love. His portraits of older people are superb, and awaken us to our own intimacy by our participation as listeners to, and readers of his own relationships. One of the consistent aspects of his work is his musical phrasing, broken in unexpected places to arrest the ear. His emotional range gathers us in with its unadulterated exhuberance, especially in his love poems. His earlier work struggled with the displacement to the city from his native Donegal Gaeltacht, in pursuit of his beloved beats. While he resolved the matter in his grounding of the work in his own place it has also kept the development of a broader emotional range in check. It is not merely an issue of sentimentality, but more of growing away from the fold, from being, literally, penned in.
The relationship between the poem in Irish and music has never been properly explored, due in no small measure to the scholarly obsession with the fractured text of the language and semantics. Language carries meaningfulness beyond semantics, perhaps into some area of the collective unconscious. The Gaelic poets of Scotland understood this far more clearly than their brothers and sisters in Ireland. In Ireland, we have nothing to rival Moladh Beinn Dobhrainn, Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill or Somhairle Mac Gill-Eain.
The sounds of Irish poetry move us in mysterious ways. The language itself has a strange hold on us, beyond reasonableness. It is possible to view the vast panoply of Irish poetry, for example, as a language with an unwritten musical notation, the music of itself. One of the tasks in dealing with it is to absorb it aurally as much as to read it. The result of this is a translation into itself. In that way, the Irish language can become a ‘foreign language’ of unimagined richness.
On a simpler level, if we listen to two songs by Elizabeth Cronin, Uncle Rat from the English tradition and the milking chant Raghadsa ó thuaidh leat, a bhó [I’ll go notth with you, cow] we may experience almost two universes, one in the parlour and the other in the cowshed. They probably met in the kitchen. On another level, of equal simplicity, we could read aloud the wonderful, witty, Agallamh na Seanórach, the medieval colloquy of Oisín and Pádraig, and experience the text in its full instrumental range with all its clashing symbols. Old Irish could well be heard as heavy metal, the Court Poetry as baroque, the Love Songs as R&B with its development into sean-nós as blues, and contemporary poetry since the early 1970’s as rock ’n roll and jazz! It may be only through an exploration of its own music, now, that the poem in Irish might have a real life of its own. This seems to have been firmly grasped by Louis de Paor and the Belfast poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn.
One of the primary characteristics of poetry and song in the Irish language, as long as it has been produced on and off the island of Ireland has been a love of small things. It is as if the Irish always knew that it could never be otherwise, and then got on with fully inhabiting their imaginative world. Whether composed by named authors or anonymously, it has issued from a collective, intimate consciousness, earthed in the ground of collective values but often with an unearthly reach. Its unfailing appeal has always been to affirm humanity, the human dimension of our being in this world and more often than not of our being in an otherworld. The mainstay of the poem in Irish may not be to wear the world’s cloak through whatever means, but to wear its own cloak as a loose garment. This is not an appeal for ‘nativism’ or even atavisim, merely a statement of belief in the intrinsic value of the poem itself.
Louis de Paor has reversed the usual relationship of the text in Irish with its translated version - Ag Greadadh Bas sa Reilig/Clapping in the Cemetery(2005) - by placing his original poem on the facing right page, and his collaborative English versions on the left. This is an important statement of intent. Interestingly, for an Irish langauge reader the translations offer extended glosses on the originals. A ‘second-wave’ member of the Innti generation, together with Colm Breathnach, he has a painterly eye and an acute intelligence. His sensual imagery is easy on the eye – Aonach na dTorthaí - and his poems are remarkable for their shadings and colours. His inversions, or new connections – Fabhalscéal – release a whole new way of seeing through the Irish language. He, too, has undertaken his own filtration of home, spending time in Australia, and has further extended the range of the city in Irish language poetry. His brilliance is, literally, dazzling. If that leads at times to what can seem like rhetoric or overstatement, it may be because the poem powers ahead leaving the original impetus stranded. But invariably, he manages to retrieve it – Corcach – as if he knew best himself that he needed to take the long way around, home.
Colm Breathnach is the most grounded of the contemporary poets in the classical South Munster mould. The beat and measure of his lines dance off the floor to tunes we think we know. While his imagination travels by shadow and often through undergrowth, there is an enduring solidity at the core of his work which is the true mark of a master craftsman. He is honest and direct, never an actor in his own poems. His tone is restrained, never pushing the decibel level beyond the limiter, and he delivers his work with what can seem like forensic detachment at times. A form of understatement, it is also the mark of true feeling. His collection Scáthach (1994) still reads like one seamless poem in many voices, both male and female. His organisation of the collection would seem to wish it to be so. Fáschoill is a poem of great integrity to return to, again and again. He, too, has journeyed towards that sublimation of the male and female form, mother and father, into the one form. His An Fear Marbh (1998) is a heartbreaking collection for his dead father, full of regret, but a relationship resolved. Some of those poems, at least, have gone into the common stream. For a poet of great integrity who has stayed close-hauled to the original call, it is time for himself, perhaps, to allow versions in English translation to take him on a broader reach.
Much the same applies to Biddy Jenkinson, who draws together in her Fantasia Entymologiae et Zoologiae, as it were, that offshoot stream of Innti and what could be called the textual literary tradition of Leinster and other territories. She too has resisted the pull of translation. Her poems can go off like fireworks, or ground us – Eanáir 1991; 15 Eanáir 1991 – in the locally globalised inhumanity of the now. Biddy Jenkinson, for all her seemingly impromptu references to sexual organs, is a deeply moral poet, as for example, was Eoghan Ó Tuairisc. In many respects, she is working out of that important literary branch of writing in Irish – represented by Ó Tuairisc, Rita Kelly, Conleth Ellis, Mícheál Ó hUanacháin and others – which can be as difficult to reach as to fix in place. She is playful and has an exhuberant lightness of touch, with that specific humour of the poem as almost a found object. The Biddy Jenkinson character is as interesting in the poems as her flights of fancy and her
close-up observations of the natural world. If the thinness of her lines is sometimes problematic, she mostly manages to bring off the poem with great panache and that leavening of the spirit which is the hallmark of her work.
Many others’ poems need to be looked at, and addressed, especially Gearóid MacLochlainn’s work. If there is a vibrant, new contemporary voice in Irish language poetry, Gearóid’s is it. Aifric MacAodha’s first collection is also due, and much expected. However, pressure of space will not allow such a review for now.
Much has been achieved in the poetry of the past forty years in Irish. It has seen much individual achievement, international performance and recognition. While the main focus in that period has been on the poets of Northern Ireland, a coherent and highly significant body of work continued to evolve in Irish, giving voice to another very contemporary Irelandness. It would be interesting, too, to explore the range and nature of that voice through the poets who work out of that same Munster tradition in the English language.
An Irish language poet may perform to an audience of five thousand in Medellín and fifteen - on a lucky night – in Ballyhaunis, more if the work were in Polish or Portuguese. Poetry itself has become marginalised, its status diminished on the outer edge of our field of vision. Much of our hopes for what the poem in Irish might achieve, in its further evolutionary forms, are groundless. The ground itself has shifted and even opened up under the poem. The poem in Irish is in freefall. Literacy in the language has all but collapsed in that same period since 1968.
Broadcasting and newspaper journalism are now working the oral and written text of the language to the degree that a public just about tolerates and enjoys, and the broadcasters are the contemporary storytellers and seanchaithe [storytellers]. In many respects, this is quite healthy. But there is little room for the real poem, that form of emotional and intellectual engagement with the world that can change our lives. A new home must be found for the poem in Irish. Translation outwards, is of course, a reality of our lives. But the poem in Irish now must be constructed out of thin air. Some of the best of the lyric poems in Old Irish, too, were also plucked out of the air. As the possibilities of a poetry in contemporary Irish have diminished completely, a new interest emerges in the soundscapes of the classical language, of unchanging forms. This is a sort of evolution backwards. The ancient vernacular has extraordinary endurance.
Even if the poem in Irish has become an anchronism, the original call still rings true. The Blasket Island writer Tomás Ó Criomhthain in Allagar na hInise, a true offshore man and probably aware of the initial paradox in reverse, says on one of the days of his life:
“Tar éis dinnéir dom, buailim siar chun an ghoirt úd go mbraithim pé díth sláinte a bhí orm ag dul ann dom, ag scaradh liom le linn é fhágaint dom, buíochas mór le Dia.” (“After dinner I head back to that piece of ground where I feel any ill-health that I had going there lifting from me as I leave there, great thanks be to God.”) The ground of the poem has always been the key.
If what heeding the call can seem, in hindsight, “a need for legitimate foolishness” in a phrase of the psychoanlyst Otto Rank, what sustains it is the ongoing revelation in poems of the truths of our lives. Why would we then, in further foolishness, not proceed further out of the original daze? The Anglican theologian, H.A. Williams, refers in his work The Joy of God to something very close to what happens in the world of the poem: “The joy of God lies waiting with infinite patience for the appointed time, working continuously with every kind of recalcitrant raw material, until it deliver as golden what formerly was brazen.”
The original promise of the poem still rings true.
Draft of an essay that was published in
A New View of the Irish Language
Ed. C. Nic Pháidín & S Ó Cearnaigh
(Cois Life, 2008, ISBN 978-1-901176-82-7)
Publicado en noviembre de 2012