Another Ireland: Part Two
I began the first half of this article (Notre Dame Review #4) by mentioning some of the limits to the legendary hospitality Ireland has shown to its poets. If you arrive in Ireland from any point of departure outside of Eastern Europe, you will indeed find a public far more willing than the one you left behind to grant poets the recognition all but the most ascetic secretly crave. However, this hospitality has never extended to Irish poets who seek to write too far outside of the dominant tradition of nationalist- regionalist aesthetics, and the considerable achievements of those poets who have ventured outside this tradition have yet to come to light outside of a very small circle of British and Irish enthusiasts. American experimental poetry, even in a country renowned for ignoring its poets, is supported by a fairly strong network of journals, small presses and sympathetic academics. In contrast, Irish experimental poets like Billy Mills, Randoph Healy, Trevor Joyce and the three poets reviewed here have survived in the shadows of near total obscurity, with virtually no support from the institutions of Irish literature that havenurtured such talents as Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Eavan Boland.
In an interview for the 1991 book Prospect into Breath: Interviews with North and South Writers, Catherine Walsh quotes the critic Jim Mays on the dilemma facing poets in Ireland: "You need to be incorporated into the tradition to be an Irish writer and you exist as an Irish writer on those terms or you might as well not exist." Walsh goes on to add that, as a poet, "you are only supported if you are part of that tradition, that same tradition that must celebrate above all else your sense of Irishness and your sense of being part of an ongoing linear tradition of Irish writers, writing out of bondage, almost." It was Walsh's desire to break free of this bondage that attracted her, early on, to the experimental work of Billy Mills and Maurice Scully, the only poets she knew who "aspired to anything other than to be a part of that establishment."
Walsh's first book, Making Tents, came out with Mills' hardPressed Poetry in 1987, and was followed by Short Stories (1989) and Pitch (1994), both published by English presses. Her most recent book, Idir Eatortha and Making Tents, juxtaposes a new series of poems with a reprinting of Walsh's first book, also an assemblage of linked pieces. The two works make apt companions, as both take up themes of dislocation and the finding of one's way in unfamiliar places and unfamiliar languages ('idir eatortha' means 'between two worlds'). The two series have a further affinity in that, at times, each makes use of a radically disjointed syntax, in large part as a means of expressing dislocation formally. In these as in her other works Walsh explores not the sense of belonging, community, tribe and tradition that she found so binding in Irish poetry, but a sense of unbelonging and of being in between.
The poems of Making Tents, as the title indicates, concern themselves with the ways we can make ourselves, however provisionally, at home in the world and in language. Written while Walsh was living in Barcelona, these poems can be quite lucid and poignant in depicting personal and linguistic alienation:
When the syntax of Making Tents breaks with convention and makes this sense of dislocation manifest at a formal level it does so in a number of ways, some of which can be interestingly reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's experiments with repetition:
In Idir Eatortha Walsh explores similar thematic terrain, but with a more refined sense of sound, both as a way of experiencing an environment and as a medium for poetry. Some of the strongest sections of the piece consist of a kind of aural landscape, in which Walsh captures with remarkable accuracy the disconnectedness of the urban soundscape. Snippets of half-heard steet conversations and sudden, unidentifiable background noises combine to suggest, but not to reveal, a possible linking narrative:
Walsh's attentiveness to the aural dimension of poetry has made her a remarkable performer of her own works, and Idir Eatortha includes several reading cues - [horrified], [singing] - as well as a number of spacing and typographical techniques loosely derived from the oral poetics outined in Charles Olson's seminal essay "Projective Verse." For all these cues, however, much of the poetry remains indeterminate in meaning until voiced. In the following passage, for example, it is impossible to say whether the revisiting of a familiar landscape while coming home is meant to be a positive or a negative experience until we hear the nuance of the voice reading the poem aloud:
Is this a turning away in disgust from the familiar, and therefore an embracing of cosmopolitan wandering, or is the sky of home soothing, and homecoming welcome? On the page alone one cannot tell. Some readers may find this to be a fault, or a technique more interesting in theory than in practice, but it is just this kind of indeterminacy that Walsh celebrates when she calls for the breaking of interpretive limits in "the endless strata of / conceptual errors." With this poetry of fragmented experience, disjointedness and not-belonging we find ourselves never quite sure of where we stand, always on the verge of making ourselves at home in poems that won't quite allow themselves to be domesticated.
Maurice Scully's poetry, too, revels in indeterminacy. Influenced early on by such American poets as Williams, Pound and Zukovsky, and impatient with what he saw as the inherently conservative nature of the Irish poetic establishment, Scully has, more than any other Irish poet of his generation, acted the part of the avant-garde impressario. Hosting readings and performances in Dublin in the 80s, publishing poetry by Randoph Healy and other Irish experimentalists, and bringing English alternative writers like Tom Raworth to Dublin, Scully has been a dynamo of literary energy. This energy extends to his own poetic output, which, along with the books Love Poems and Others (1981), Five Freedoms of Movement (1987), Priority (1994) and the soon-to-be-released Zulu Dynamite includes pamphets and chapbooks too numerous to list.
Hyper-conscious of the conventionality of poetry and of all art, Scully is at his best when he demonstrates the inner workings of such conventions. In a pastoral setting he adopts a mock-pedagogical voice, drawing attention to the conventions with which neo-pastoral poetry treats nature when he writes that:
And, when Scully shows us the old poet-pedagogue's audience, he draws attention to the convention of the poetic audience's expected reaction "I see! nodded each student in the dance." To instruct and delight, Horace's command to the poet, comes echoing down to us in that students' dance.
Like Walsh, Scully writes in sequences of linked poems in which the connections between pieces are not immediately apparent. Scully's paratactic and disjointed poetry comes out of an aversion to the idea of the poem as closed system, an aversion that is, in turn, the product of his very Heraclitean view of the world. "There is nothing static in the world," writes Scully, and in this fluid world "a poem is beautiful to the degree it records an apt humility in face of the complexity it sees but fails to transmit." In the linked sections of The Basic Colours (a book that is itself part of a planned series of books called Livelihood) Scully retains just such an attitude of humility toward a world to which poetry can never be entirely adequate. He begins with a scene that sets literature up against a world that, in its loudness and urgency, overwhelms it:
But there are moments when literature feels adequate to the world-in Scully's Heraclitan world even scepticism about language and literature ebbs and flows:
In full recognition of the flowing impermanence of the world and of the inability of the mind to grasp it, Scully delivers that last line, an unambiguous affirmation of the written word.
Geoffrey Squires is perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the poets writing outside the Irish mainstream. While Walsh and Scully write a poetry that is a not-too-distant-cousin to American experimental poetry, Squires' work has few relations on either side of the Atlantic. Born in Derry in 1942 and raised in County Donegal, Squires was educated at Cambridge, lived for extended periods in Greece, Iran, France and the United States, and currently lives and writes in Hull, England. Squires' poetry has always had an experimental bent, as "Summer," his 1971 BBC sound-poem for three voices makes plain. His first significant publication, Drowned Stones, appeared in 1975 with Dublin's New Writers' Press, then as now one of Ireland's few venues for formally innovative poetry. With its mix of collage, different voices, found text and cosmopolitan references, Drowned Stones bore all the hallmarks of the modernism the press was promoting as an alternative to the more traditional Movement-based poetics Philip Hobsbaum had brought to Belfast and that had such an influence on the young Seamus Heaney.
Squires was not, however, to develop into a modernist in any conventional sense. In 1976 he went into a kind of retreat from the English language, living in an isolated village in Crete with no access to the media and almost no access to reading material of any kind. This year-long retreat, along with a growing interest in the phenomenological philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, was to lead Squires out of the modernism of ellipsis, collage and the interrogation of language into another poetic territory altogether. This new poetics, which Squires began to explore in Figures (1978) and XXI Poems (1980) and refined in A Long Poem in Three Sections (1983), is a poetics of perception, concerned not so much with the inner workings of language as with the play of consciousness in the world. As such it represents a kind of road not taken in postmodern poetry, at least not in America, where early calls by critics like Ihab Hassan for a postmodernism based in a "literature of consciousness" were to be all-but-forgotten with the subsequent emergence of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets as the dominant alternative to mainstream poetics.
In Landscapes and Silences, a book-length poem of untitled short sections, Squires continues to develop a poetry concerned with the minutia of perception, and his greatest strengths lie in an intense attentiveness to how we see, hear and are conscious of phenomena:
Often what we get in Squires' poetry is not so much a hearing or watching of the world, but a watching of the self in the act of watching, as in the following passage:
The whole thrust of this kind of poetry is to bracket off memories and personal associations in order to emphasize being-in-the-moment. Even those metaphors we habitually use to humanize experience are stripped away in order to leave us more directly in the position of a consciousness confronting the radical otherness of the world. When Squires writes that "the small cries in the darkness" are "noises rather than cries" he is taking us one step farther from a world humanized and made familiar and one step closer to a world alien, other and bodied against us.
This is clearly not a poetry of mythic or historical consciousness (there are no Bog Queens lurking in Squires' landscapes). It is, rather, a poetry of immediate consciousness; and if there is a memory at work in the poetry, it is not tribal memory but the memory of the body, a memory that lives in every moment of our daily lives:
It takes a poet as attentive as Squires to show us the workings of such a memory.
American experimental poets often demonize the concern with the personal that has characterized mainstream American poetry since the confessial verse of the 1960s, and support a poetry that aims to make the reader more aware of the broad social and historical injustices that confessional poetry tends not to address. Squires, coming from a country where historical injustice is poetry's constant concern, turns away from history in order to affirm the realm of personal experience. If there is an ethics to his poetry, it is an ethics concerned not with historical injustice but with an awareness of the world that, in its intensity, becomes a kind of reverence. For Squires, what is to be regretted is not so much the nightmare of history -the subject at the heart of mainstream Irish poetry-but the moment lived without attentiveness. We need to wake, not from history, but from the sleep of unawareness that steals from us our lives:
There is a preoccupation with death behind Landscapes and Silences, and not merely an abstract one. In the only passage of the poem where a figure recognizably that of the poet himself appears, we hear of new frailties to which he cannot quite reconcile himself: "Stumbles he does sometimes now a little/these days when he is walking in unfamiliar places/ . . . he should get a stick that would be the answer." But along with this preoccupation with mortality there is a surprising, though tentative, intimation of immortality or transcendence at the end of the poem:
What vision of transcendence could be more right for a poet so deeply concerned with the attentive eye?
It is certainly possible to sense, while reading Squires, Walsh or Scully, the presence of the nationalist-regionalist tradition, if only as a force to which the poets react. Squires' concern with immediate consciousness, Walsh's poetics of unbelonging and Scully's interest in American experimentalism from Pound through Charles Bernstein can all be seen as paths around the monolith of Irish literary tradition. In seeking such paths these poets are far from alone-Trevor Joyce's cosmopolitan poetry and the scientific/epistemological poetics of Billy Mills and Randolph Healy are trails blazed around the same mountain. But perhaps the metaphor of the trail-blazing pioneer is a misleading one, as this kind of reaction to the nationalist-regionalist tradition has gone on for generations. In the 1930s poets like Brian Coffey and Thomas MacGreevy, along with Samuel Beckett, wrote a radically modernist poetry, in no small part out of disaffection with the dominant poetic tradition. Inasmuch as the current generation of Irish experimentalists has read and been influenced by the generation of the 30s-and all of them acknowledge the influence-what we have is not merely a precedent, but a tradition. One of the many things we can learn by giving poets like Walsh, Scully, Squires, Mills, Healy and Joyce the attention they deserve is that the monolith of the nationalist-regionalist tradition, with all of its very real glories, is only a part of the whole tradition of Irish writing. There is not only another Irish poetry, but another history of Irish poetry, and that history has only just begun to be told.