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Irish poets learn your trade

On being thought an idler by the noisy set

Poets are banished from Plato’s ‘Republic’ where the philosopher king is the sole guardian of Truth. Their lyrical distortion is identified as a revolutionary threat to the singular established idea. This was recognised by James Joyce who wrote: “Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality”.

Joseph Stalin was unnervingly conscious of the capacity of poets to undermine Communist ideology, describing them as “engineers of the soul”. He treated some such as Mikhail Bulgakov as a cat would a trapped mouse, to be disposed of when he felt bored. Others including Anna Akhmatova were harassed and not allowed to work.

Nevertheless as a determined witness she wrote: “Terror fingers all things in the dark, / Leads moonlight to the axe. / There’s an ominous knock behind the wall: / A ghost a thief or a rat”.

Eventually she was compelled by the imprisonment of her son to produce patriotic verse, but she was freed from constraints after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Another Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam argued that a civilisation should be measured by the number who read poetry. He died in a gulag in 1940.

Poetry eschews convention and draws vitality from rebellion. Yet paradoxically adherence to form seems essential for the mystery to be effectively conveyed.

Where an ideology, whether Nazism, Communism or Irish Catholicism, becomes ascendant poets are usually censored and persecuted. But in this capitalistic age, the poet is often corrupted by market conditions, and imagination is not given free rein in a Zeitgeist of high rationality where authenticity and irony are prized above form and transcendence.

Poetry is located beyond poems and is the source of literature. It is also vital to the evolution of language. Walter Benjamin provides a broad definition of language, arguing that: “all communication of mental meanings is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry or whatever underlying it or founded on it”.

Poetry is found in film and, notably, music. Indeed the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler observed: “One must beware of overestimating orchestral music and considering it the only high art. Music without words gained its great importance and its full extent only under capitalism”.

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

It appears that poetry and music evolved together and it is only in the early modern period that we see a significant rupture. But it is often to the detriment of classical varieties of both, which are increasingly marginalised and growing inaccessible to a general audience.

We find in WB Yeats a strict adherence to a form that give his words a musical ring. Although it is believed he was actually tone deaf, he used a metronome to measure metre and usually adhered strictly to rhyming sequences. His method, allied with intense sensitivity, brought great popularity, and he revolted against an empire to sing his nation into existence. In his parting poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’ he urges:”Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made”.

Contrary to the stereotype, the poet is no dilettante, far from it. As Yeats asserts in ‘Adam’s Curse’: “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”.

It is the trick of great poetry to sound as if it has rolled off the tongue, but the apparent simplicity is the product of hard application. We might recall Pascal’s apology for not having the time to write a shorter letter.

The initial inspiration, or donné, for a poem gives way to the slow labour of moulding coherence, like a potter shaping clay on a wheel into a recognisable object. Slightly melodramatically Yeats says:

“Better go down on the marrow bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these”.

And the reward is only to “be thought an idler by the noisy set”.

That is not to say that poetry simplifies, quite the contrary, as the poet and critic Kathleen Raine asserts: “With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge”.

Unfortunately in Ireland, as elsewhere, poetry is today largely removed from a popular audience. Seamus Heaney received widespread acclaim and a Nobel Prize in 1995 but his verse while rich in metaphor and word play does not flow like the greatest poetry: hardly a line of his has entered popular speech.

There is also a suspicion that as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94) he was not at heart a rebel, and grew comfortable with his accolades. Recall that Yeats thrived on the tension of being an outsider: a Protestant, (usually) liberal in a conservative Catholic Ireland; an Irishman pining for Sligo in London; a Fenian when the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics.

A rousing anger is rarely heard in Heaney; though the collection ‘North’ (1975) is an exception, written at the height of the Troubles. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland he writes: “Speaking broad Devonshire / Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / And drives inland”.

The words have a frisson often missing from his oeuvre; perhaps he recoiled from a capacity to foment violence contenting himself with often obscure metaphor and personal recollection. But by generally removing himself from workaday politics did he also hold back from challenging Ireland’s conservatism to the extent that Yeats had?

Led by TS Eliot, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the retreat of poetry from a popular audience. A morass of formless post-modern experimentation has followed, that usually alienates the listener.

However, poetry reasserted itself in a different form with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s, when rhythm and blues and jazz combined with the folk revival. Accompanied by the essential instrument of the guitar, words were flowing again and a generation was almost stirred into global revolt.

Simultaneously in the Soviet Union Russian chansons, simple songs also usually accompanied by guitar, emanating from the criminal underworld and the gulags challenged the authority of the state.

Elsewhere, Bob Marley became a prophet to many in the Third World.

Unfortunately the music of the 1960s was sullied by its commercial success and descended into narcissism, drug addiction and obscene materialism. There was also a racist dimension to its decline.

In an interview last year Bob Dylan talked about starting off:

“I was still an aspiring rock ‘n’ roller. The descendant, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ‘n’ roll – who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of these guys, to strike down rock ‘n’ roll for what it was and what it represented – not least of all being a black and white thing”.

He concluded that a bifurcation was orchestrated whereby “the black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop”. Audiences were manipulated by big labels which asserted control over disc jockeys, and some black stars were persecuted. At the height of his fame in 1962 Chuck Berry was arrested on spurious charges, specifically “for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act”. This came shortly after he had established a racially integrated night-club in St Louis.

The exuberant poetic rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll was contained within music, that most ancient and ideal of artistic forms. According to Raine:

“Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself”.


Also, instructively, a number of more traditional poets shot to prominence in the 1960s including Alan Ginsburg. It was as if a generation was listening, but it soon closed its ears.

Nevertheless hope will out, and since the 1960s countless individuals have been stirred to strum a few chords and, often clumsily, express themselves, questioning perceived ideas and trawling their experiences as poets do.

Importantly, the accessibility of lyrics does not require strict adherence to a form that we associate with classical poetry, as music has its own timeless patterns. A sweet melody hooks the listener as in, for example, Van Morrison’s words in the song ‘Rave on, John Donne’, where the romantic vision of the poet or holy fool is set up in opposition to industrial civilisation.

Each generation must recast an art form, breathing fresh life into it and questioning the assumptions of its elders; new technology also spurs adventure, but sometimes ruptures can carry a movement down blind alleys.

Since the 1970s the integration of music with the lyric has been on a downward spiral. Popularity is now overwhelmingly dictated by a resourceful industry that in recent times overcame the loss of revenue from direct sales of CDs and records by ratcheting up the prices of concerts and using television shows to generate publicity. It has reached a nadir in the diabolic X-factor shapings of Simon Cowell.


Moreover, since the 1980s electronic music has reinvented itself – Terminator-like – assuming monstrous guises that have overwhelmed the human interaction with instruments. In the past an individual would spend the famous 10,000 hours learning her instrument; all too often today the melodies are sampled. Just as the hard labour of developing rhyme and metre imposed a discipline on poets that made their work accessible, the challenge of using fingers to point to the right intervals inculcates a deep appreciation of music.

The best passage towards great art is often the slowest.

Now, the beat is all important, at the expense of melody and emotion. The word is sometimes an afterthought and the facility of the laptop allows experimentation ad nauseam producing bewildering arrangements that fail to evoke emotion.

In ‘Emotion and Meaning in Music’ the musicologist Leonard B Meyer argues that the arousal of emotion through music is the product of surprise after repetition:

“The customary or expected progression of sounds can be considered as a norm, which from a stylistic point of view it is; and alteration in the expected progression can be considered as a deviation. Hence deviations can be regarded as emotional or affective stimuli”.

Measured dissonance is key to the exercise, but excessive deviation nullifies the effect.

Of course subtlety is not entirely absent in modern electronic music but generally the subservience of the melody to the beat leads to a loss of emotional arousal, seen in the robotic dancing of individuals in clubs around the world. Is it any wonder that a generation get its greatest ecstasy from drugs?

The decline of emotion in music finds a parallel in the fetishisation of authenticity which in literature has found its apotheosis in the dreary autobiographical tomes of Karl Ove Knausgaard who subjects readers to the minutiae of his every experience as a microscope does a petri-dish. This might be situated in the tradition of Marcel Proust but he sought transcendence in the quotidian. Knausgaard simply grinds the reader further into the putrid details of his life as a dog-trainer compels a puppy to smell his shit.

In Michel Houellebecq’s last novel ‘Submission’, the prizing of authenticity above other qualities is explained by the main character, François, an academic critic.

He says:

“An author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them”.

In recent music, we observe something of this in Amy Winehouse whose great talent was squandered in autobiographical recitation part-leading to her tragic self-immolation.

We fail to devote sufficient attention to the imaginative possibilities of the unconscious mind. Yeats’ poetry emerged through interaction with a fairy realm which he believed in profoundly. As Micheál Mac Liammóir points out: “Yeats’ belief in ‘that nonsense’ was the most fundamental thing in his nature: it was at least as passionate and unshakeable as the faith of any devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Mohammedan; if a little more restless in its search for some permanent shape”.

Indeed his decision to self-identify as Irish, when he could easily have seen himself as English, was grounded in a “conviction that Ireland had preserved … among less admirable things … a gift of vision”.

During the 1920s Yeats drew inspiration from the automatic writing that his wife George undertook, as a medium. The investigation of the unconscious was also central to the Surrealist movement. In its 1924 manifesto, André Breton referred to “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought”. Breton believed that surrealism should be “dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.

Reversing Stalin’s dictum, Breton attributes many of the great scientific breakthroughs to the harnessing of the poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking”.

Today much art, including poetry, is overthought and self-referential. But ‘True art’, wrote Yeats, “is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence”. Contemporary art often lapses into the irony which pervades contemporary ‘hipster’ culture, where meaning is conveyed by using language that expresses the opposite. Raine contends that: “Above all, the voice of true imagination is never ironic; that is the mark of a divided mind, whereas the imagination is above all at one with itself, the principle of unification and harmony”. Ironic art is art that does not believe in itself and runs contrary to the poetic surrender to the imagination. Irony can only poke fun and subvert form.

Irony is the dominant note in a recent short film ‘Our Kind’ by Alan Phelan, that is currently exhibited in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The film is a counter-factual rendering of the life of Roger Casement which finds him in Norway in 1941 having survived the 1916 Rising. Instructions are required to understand its ‘meaning’.

The artist writes:

“There are few historically correct elements in the story presented. Instead we are given a very different scenario which in itself reflects the flaws common in the genre of historical drama for film, with its need to find drama in history, resulting in stories that speak more of the present than the past. Much of the scholarship surrounding Casement is similarly muddled, caught between interpretative approaches, political prejudices and at times an inverted homophobia that cannot come to terms with Casement’s personal and public lives. Several of these angles are woven into the story, often mis-represented and incomplete”.

It is a film made to look like a pastiche: a deadpan dismissal of the genre of historical fiction without value in itself. He continues “Our Kind cannot be viewed at face value. The meaning lies between the lies”. Or rather the meaning is in the accompanying notes. The film has no ‘vision’ or value in and of itself.

Critical ignorance is conveyed, for instance, in one review written by Aidan Wall in Totally Dublin. He says that “The surreality of this fictionalised situation is heightened by the evershifting cinematography which refuses to settle into one coherent style”. The film actually runs contrary to the surrealist project which surrenders to an imagination which is never ironic. But by now surrealism is debased coinage.

That is not to say that Ireland has lost its ‘vision’ entirely. Irish music often maintains a vibrancy and Dylan Tighe’s recent album ‘Wabi Sabi Soul’ reveals a poet with a rebellious spirit. The singing is at times jarring and declamatory, but a powerful lyrical effect is loosed by the sweetness of the accompanying melodies that include contributions from the clarinet of Sean Mac Erlaine. Tighe raves on with references to mental health and a medical establishment which pathologises behaviour that might actually prompt artistic output. There is also a judicious sampling of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Phoenix Park in 1979, for completeness.

Tighe could easily write commercial songs that would not confront his listeners but he chooses to confront Ireland with its patriarchal legacy, countering that “women are healers”. In Cult Leader – the song featuring the Pope – he vows to “start my own religion” with love as “the only weapon to fight the death of time”. It will be interesting to discover what direction this mercurial talent will take next.

Today poetry operates within the confines of a Neoliberal (the word itself is trying) system which demands, no matter the occupation, that we constantly sell ourselves. Of course artists have always struggled to earn a living – it has become a cliché – but rarely has there been an era which has placed greater emphasis on selfpromotion through a litany of on-line platforms, identities and imperatives.

Writing in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz argues that:

“We have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the ‘entrepreneur’: the ‘selfemployed’ (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self”.

This, he argues, has come about because “The internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution”.

He asserts that: “What we see in the new paradigm – in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity – is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth”.

Thus it is more important for an artist to be able effectively to fill out a grant application than actually produced a compelling piece of work.

Deresiewicz concludes that in an environment where the customer is always right: “It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please – more like entertainment, less like art”.

But actually what we define as ‘art’ might become increasingly confined to the elite environment of initiates with access to the notes accompanying the product. These ‘artists’ make their way by securing grants from public funds whose paymasters are persuaded by the strength of the proposal. Abstruseness seems to be prized based on an assumption that if it is inaccessible then it is worthwhile. As ‘difficulty’ becomes a criterion for success, the appeal of accessibility – that Yeats argued required the hardest labour – is ignored, as it would be dismissed as a ‘lower’ art form.

Society at large is left to stew in X-factor detritus and dance mechanically in ecstatic parody. In these circumstances it might be argued that commercial failure is a poetic form of success. But there are undoubtedly audiences out there for true poetry. It is crucial that its dissonance and disjunction endure.

Otherwise the creative possibilities of the imagination retreat and a crucial form of rebellion is not advanced.