Between music and prose

By Frank Armstrong

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

In a recent book of prose essays, ‘Say But The Word: Poetry as Vision and Voice’, leading Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail also explores the point of poetry.

He writes: “The role of poetry is often seen as that of guardian of a language. However, I would like to extend this somewhat to include the more dynamic concept of an ecology, which stresses both a mutual responsibility and a continuing process of renewal”. Poets assert authenticity in the languages of the dynamic societies they inhabit.

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

Even if poetry is not overtly political it may still perform a vital role in creating a dissonance that subtly subverts power structures. O’Siadhail approvingly quotes Vaclav Havel from ‘An Anatomy of Reticence’: “even a word is capable of a certain radiation, of leaving a mark on the ‘hidden consciousness’ of a community …. it is vital that we remind ourselves that whether there is a visible political content or not is irrelevant. At a much more fundamental level, any poet who unswervingly pursues an artistic truth, is potentially political”.

Under Communism in Czechoslovakia poets like Havel resisted the totalitarian regime by bending the language of authority. O’Siadhail wonders “whether Osip Mandelstam did know what he was talking about when he said that he measured a civilization by the number of its poetry readers”.

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection on the work, a child’s search for meaning, might then be conducted in a more personalised, instinctual, rather than as a crash-course in understanding for the sake of an examination demanding the often cynical obligation to deconstruct.

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

Ultimately O’Siadhail does not assert the superiority of any one among them, stating:

“My own feeling is that both the howls of the Beats and the ‘open field’ of the Black Mountain Poets may have done us all a great service on both sides of the Atlantic. It may have been necessary for a while to move away from the perceived stuffiness of formality, to leave the stanza behind and to give free rein to a line based more on breath and utterance”. He concludes that: “the use of form is now a matter of choice … It is like a move from an arranged marriage to a life of voluntary commitment”.

As a poet trained in linguistics he adumbrates rare insights into the archaeology of languages and the challenge of translation. He quotes Dante who declared that “nothing harmonised by a musical bond can be transmuted from its own speech without losing all its sweetness and harmony”; although adding that:

“For all the well-known dictums about the failure of all translations, from time to time the magic happens and the meaning and form combine in English to catch the wonder and spirit of a poem”.

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

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

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

O'Siadhail in a vertical moment
O’Siadhail in a vertical moment

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

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

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

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

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

He regards Yeats as “the absolute master of the sonorous line that drums into our memory. No poet, in any language that I know, can compare with him for this reverberating tone that he had right from very early on”.

But he says that the poems of Rilke “are for me even more memorable that those of Yeats. The pitch of intensity is achieved not along the battlements of argument but rather by the firm, suggestive yet gentle tone of a friend who insists we never lost sight of ultimate meaning”.

O’Siadhail is appalled by the politics of Yeats who dabbled in fascism and eugenics. He says: “for all the outstanding gifts of the great master of sound, he remains at heart an escape artist, a lover of might-have-beens, of imagined grandeurs, of vast theories and myths”.

But this seems unduly harsh on Yeats whose politics shifted considerably over his lifetime. We need not excuse his flirtation with fascism but it should be viewed in the context of an inter-war era when competing ideologies held sway and without hindsight of the genocides that followed.

A poet with such a vast body of work as Yeats and who brought such jarring honesty to his work might be forgiven for some excesses.

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

In O’Siadhail’s view poetry will continue to be a vital aspect of our culture, and poets will always be confronted by: “the terrible inadequacy of words always falling short of desire.

The ungraspable joy, the un-communicable sorrow. And even here there is another paradox. The drift and shortcomings of language. This causes us to fail again and again and also urges us to begin afresh, poem after poem, generation after
generation”. •