There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible.
I put forward this small anecdote as a way of trying to answer Sandra Gilbert’s important question: “Is poetry in fact consoling as a performance of grief—that is, is poetry a genre that helps mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow?”
The answer has to be as complex as the question. All his life my father remembered the keen. But not, I think, as an expression of grief; more likely as a theater of it. It was a ritual that neither resolved nor diminished the anguish of the Irish losing their sons and daughters. But it noted it. The keen’s atonal array of primitive sounds is often mentioned in Irish literature—at the end of Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge, for instance: keening exists there as a rite that gives unquestioned ritualistic and consensual shape to public mourning.
Can poetry do that? This is Sandra Gilbert’s other question: How . . . can our poets formulate public sorrow? I would have to add a further question: Can societies trust any longer to the private imagination of the poet what they once trusted to the public theater of elected actors such as the keeners? It’s a difficult question. But Sandra Gilbert’s formulation of this seems to me to go the heart of a dilemma: if there is not that compact between poetry and society, how can poetry resume and retain its old and hallowed identity as language-maker for essential human feeling?
And here the issue grows more complicated again. A community has little difficulty in agreeing on expressions of grief. The difficulties I feel come in trying to agree on imagining it. The caoine was a customary form: the keeners need only apply the well-made, well-worn acoustic to the occasion, and their job was done. But the poet must imagine it. How can that happen?
When Yeats wrote his essay “The Galway Plains,” he said, “There is still in truth upon these level plains a people, a community bound together by imaginative possessions.” If the poet can stay close to the idea of those imaginative possessions, then undoubtedly he or she can represent their loss. The problem is that poetry has, for almost a hundred years, shown suspicion of those very “imaginative possessions.” It has—at least in some quarters—guarded the rights to the private imagination fiercely, and resisted the obligations of the public one. There are reasons for that. 20th-century poetry, in the aftermath of the modernist initiative, was committed to new idioms of experiment and increasingly skeptical of the popular reader. Was that a mistake? Does the cultivation of the private imagination now seem too willful, too insular?
I have no answers. But I do have opinions. If poetry does not address public grief in some way, it runs the risk of abandoning one of its great roles and one of its great genres, which is elegy. The origins of elegy are not private: they are sacred and public. Those origins shaped the poet and gave poetry one of its historic identities. If poets dismantle that series of references—even in the name of the private imagination—they may well desert a constituency and leave unimagined the adventures and ordeals of their generation. I understand that these things change from culture to culture, and age to age. Nevertheless I, as an Irish poet, would certainly want to be there on that dock with the keeners. I would want to feel that those people—on both sides of those farewells—could count on a language for their loss. And if there’s some aspect of poetic imagination, craft, or art which is compromised by that, it’s not one that I recognize or understand.