Prose from Poetry Magazine

You're Not the Outlaw You Think You Are

Remembering Michael Hartnett.

by Conor O'Callaghan

In 1987 our local authority had a poetry competition. A linen porter in London, I handwrote two entries on A4 refill pad. One got second prize. The night of the ceremony the judge was locked in the administrator’s office with a quarter bottle of whiskey until a final decision was reached. A disgruntled also-ran snored theatrically in the front row and stopped only when the judge—a sparrow-like man with the mother of all comb-overs—informed him that he was a black belt in karate. In the pub, the judge cashed a bad check for £50, attempted to woo an ex-nun, and sang to my mother when that hadn’t worked. He ended the night holding my hand and assuring me it was nothing homosexual.

Michael Hartnett was born in West Limerick in 1941 and reared in part by a grandmother who was a native Gaelic speaker. He had no academic background. He was a tea boy, a telephonist, and a security guard. He published a few acclaimed books before announcing, in 1975, his intention to write solely in Gaelic with the beautiful collection A Farewell to English. His resolve lasted ten years. He returned to Dublin and the “language to sell pigs in,” dying a minor celebrity in 1999.

Every poet, to continue being one, has to work with the delusion that s/he is a one-off, an autonomous sui generis maverick undermining the hypocrisies of society from its lawless fringes etc. I know I do, and I’m not. You’re not either. And by “you” I mean you. Yes, you . . . you’re not the outlaw you think you are. Sure, you make the occasional eccentric life-choice that serves only to flatter your sense of otherness. But when the dust settles I bet you go back, as we all do, to your patio furniture and your pension plan and your DVD collection.

Hartnett lived the dream, or the nightmare it increasingly looked. Neither wholly admirable nor wholly laughable, he could be glimpsed in a hostelry, comb-over askew, in some amorous affray. He kept informal office hours in Humphrey’s of Ranelagh, where pretenders had their latest drafts dismissed for a round of drinks. He did that thing we all fantasize but never do: he famously stopped a reading that was too long and too boring. A three-hander in Sardinia or Majorca or another oddly exotic location to where the local burghers sometimes invite Irish poets. First up was a provincial modernist who read for an hour and ten until Hartnett stomped down the center aisle like Moses in the Red Sea, halting proceedings on the grounds that it was all one big fiasco. Amen.

Favorite Hartnett yarn? Sometime in the nineties an Irish Studies conference was hosted by the University of Limerick. The local laureate gave a plenary reading. The speaker immediately preceding had used an old-fashioned overhead projector that Hartnett, not big on technology, mistook for his lectern and microphone. He laid his pages on the magnifying glass panel and spoke his poems into the projector’s lamp. A combination of its bulk and his diminutive stature meant that not only was the plenary reader mostly inaudible, but he was mostly invisible as well. Whenever it came to lines of importance or of particular emotional intensity, he would lean into the projector’s bulb and whisper. A collective giggle began murmuring around the audience. Eventually Hartnett peered from behind the apparatus and asked rhetorically of the darkened auditorium, “What the fuck are you laughing at?”

I last saw him read in the Abbey Theatre in 1995, a gala reading hosted by Seamus Heaney only months off the Nobel Prize. Our president was guest of honor. Hartnett made several barbed asides towards the MC and poets masquerading as diplomats, intent on making it a heavyweight contest. Heaney correctly pointed out his glaring historical inaccuracies and the Irish Times poked fun at Hartnett’s expense the following morning. It was kamikaze, a David-and-Goliath mismatch in which David hadn’t a prayer. But you had to warm to him. Nobody else would have had the balls.

When he died, the scribblers of Ireland tripped over one another to elegize him. Two anthologies of poems and memoir appeared. The handful of sweet things he left—love lyrics, Bardic translations, scurrilous satires—got prattled up into a major body of work. Someone once told me that he boasted of having discovered me. He had, but there are innumerable greater boasts and Hartnett could have laid claim to a few. Someone else said that he died of cirrhosis of the liver, the condition all poets kid one another about but never develop. I thought of checking that out, and then thought again. It seemed too apt, too poetic, to research into error. So let’s just say that and leave it there. Let’s say he died of cirrhosis of the liver, and that if he didn’t he certainly should have done.

Originally Published: July 1, 2009

COMMENTS (3)

On July 2, 2009 at 9:50pm Desmond Swords wrote:
I am the voice of Scalljah, a penniless poet in Dublin, who committed suicide as the ultimate career move and I'm addressing you from the post-life writers waiting area awaiting the Irish language god Ogma to give my earthly works a nod of acceptance or red card barring me from entry to the afterlife's bash of poesy in Tír na nÓg . Do not be afraid or freaked out by this strange sense dear Reader, as love is the code I wish only to gift with a giggle and bring titters to your day as you deport elsewhere in search of double glazing, astrology, bomb making recipes, porn and online romance.

At the end of life is silence and a return to light, which is where I now am, flitting as optical data bits traveling through fibre to gozzy gawp gawk fests yet to begin.

However, now and again, for special occasions we can return to Gaia, and on the night of Wednesday 15 February 2006, I reconfigured out of light and back into an earthly shape, at the Thomas Davis lecture theatre in Trinity College with a full cohort of blatherers from 8pm onwards, with Seamus, Paul, Brendan and numerous others, in attendance to hear Paul Durcan deliver an hour and a half on Michael Hartnett's 190'ish line poem Sibelius in Silence, which he argued is

"One of the major poems in the Irish poetical topography of the last 200 years."

This was in his capacity as Ireland Professor of Poetry, Ard Ollamh, and a job previously held by John Montague and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill.

That night I was an audience member sitting on the top tier with a few well-knowns I failed to recognise, but who were close enough to smell, touch or even violently assault with verbal rantings should I have forgotten to take my tablets. But there were no outbursts or tantrums demanding access to public subsidies, as I had drunk only five cans of Hackenberg premium and had injected my medication a short while before leaving the ward at St Brendan's, so by the time it all kicked off I was in optimum mode for sleeping should Paul have failed to keep me awake.

My arse was parked sandwiched in a study chair next to Ciaran who was in a thin pinstripe linen ensemble, and as he casually draped the well tailored designer crumpled jacket over the back of a seat in the row below us, the waffle began with a warm up act by Head of English Terence Brown, who introduced Durcan as a "necessary voice" whose work has "mesmeric rhythms."

He also threw in a few ordinary "gorgeous"s, as one would expect at such a hot air event; but the man executed his role with aplomb, laying off ladling too many clichés, and he torqued the audience’s anticipation for a top drawer word juggler to entertain, inform, enlighten and deliver the goods bang on the moany mohn: which is exactly what happened.

When Paul took possession of the lectern there was a palpable sense of tension, and he entered the ring of poesy all guns a blazin', with a few well crafted combos aimed straight for the jugular from the off. He and Hartnett were pals for 40 years and Durcan was there to redress the misbalancing of his reputation as "an existentialist leprechaun....doomed hobgoblin" and "performing chimpanzee of the bar stool.

Durcan was, to quote Howard Beale (Peter Finch character in the 1976 movie Network) "mad as hell", and for a man nearing pension age he gave a very impressive display of the rage possessed poet railing against a shadowy force emanating from armchair suburbian artists conspiring to misplace Hartnett in the chart of Irish poetry greats.

I guessed that there were some scribes in the audience that night who Durcan had no time for, such is the nature of Irish poetry, where the facade of bonhomie and back slapping often conceals darker, less savoury sentiments, essentially comedic but which i the thick of the fray feel oh soo serious, where all are gourmets gorging on blather in one united assortment of sound - from the quick smooth swoosh of solid reliable speed hulks hurtling into a deep unconscious order of unknowable tune, to freight laden trucks labouring in gridlock on clogged access routes to a sublime fleeting energy -- whose jolts can compact galaxies to black holes packed with an absence of time tracing as one with the infinite mind, a thrumb-seer gift of prophetic possession.

Durcan claimed to have met only one other person who had read the poem in question, the poet Harry Clifton; and his contained outrage at the Irish poetry establishment's failure to recognise Hartnett's greatness, was the fizz that kept his lecture bouyant.

After the general introductory and eloquent rant he read the poem with an appropriate arch poet delivery, his voice like silken water draped moire and rippling mournfully smooth through the speakers, hinting of the magus behind the elf like hue. Durcan is definately a magician of verbal music and song strangely painted, and as I closed my eyes, surrendering to his spell, the hypnotic weave of Hartnett's words, expertly laced and braided by the podium god, caused a connection to come o'er mine ear like sweet sound that breathes upon a bank of violets and my own poetic frenzy stirred within as a mood of syncretic collaboration siezed my being and awoke the muse, who got to work with a mechanical pencil -

The top flight of poetry
vehemently wise
melodious it opens
slumps a guarding edge
of consequence
longing to sing a simple song
strangely painted language
in mythic insistence.

Drink the grammatical fluency
found in verbal freedom
hatching in a crescendo of love
shaken from flight
spilling a rainbow-quiver
arched across river swans
weeping the bark of trees.

And when PD's reading ended he got a well deserved round of applause and began his autopsy on the compositional method Hartnett used to create the poem.

Hartnett was 51 when he wrote Sibelius in Silence, the same age as Sibelius was when he wrote the fourth part of his fourth symphony. Durcan dipped below the surface of the poem to reveal the main biographical features binding Sibelius and Hartnett together; their dependancy on alcohol and how it affected their work. It would appear that Sibelius was the less senior alcoholic of the two or had twice the constitution, because he died around the age of 80. Whoever held the belts, Hartnett, Durcan was convinced, had -

"made a secret pact with his own soul to drink copious amounts of alcohol".

He read extracts from Sibelius's diaries to illustrate his point and gave a detailed account of Hartnett having detailed first hand knowledge of the said diaries, along with a swathe of primary material surrounding the Finnish composer's life and work.

Durcan read from the Sibelius diaries:

"I have been engaged in furtive drinking to get my nerves in better condition........I am curing myself with whisky....black sobriety.....I need a regular intake to steady the tremors."

The gag that got the biggest laugh of the night, and was my first indication of how bottomlessly dark Durcan's humour is, came as he had been reading a few diary entries in what I took to be a serious and sombre register. Professor Paul's scale of comic or tragic had not yet come down on either side until he ended with the entry -

"Cheer up, death is round the corner"; delivered deadpan, almost shocking the audience to laughter, and revealing in that moment the essential comedian behind Durcan's straight man act. The various strands he wove and ground he covered, plotted and plaited a detailed sweep of how Hartnett's relationship with the legacy of Sibelius gifted him the raw material he created a work of art with, which Durcan argued, goes right to the heart of what it means to be human.

I may detail this part of his lecture at a later date, as it is now late here in my sweet shop office on Dublin quays, and I must leave for my residency on Hapenny bridge where i sit with a cup and pained epression, a knocker upper tapping on the window pane of language, fitting up the page of poesy with lit in all genre and form, from recognisably life affirming, to the unrecognisably banal barren mind-space of knowing if a singular discharge un-owns creation.

And between these two extremities, life itself replicating and assembling its note of business, demanding access to profess that i wander round the kitchen like a two bit twot, till all from Ballymun to Ballsbridge sing

"The salmon you seek swims ineluctably upstream to bind complete the continuum's principle, returning through a labyrinth imitative of bioscape brainshapes, recording the pictorial quiver flue of a life force whose impulse unborn is spawning all wisdom"

Shall we look into beyond, for the faithfully inclined unhearing what tune of belief to sing as they rise to begin their song?

On July 7, 2009 at 8:49am Rosendo M. Makabali wrote:
An omnibus commentary for all gone poets we might have known however which way:

THE DIFFICULT SUBJECT OF BURYING A POET

First we sift through his things, say a comb
Toothbrush that beg notice from disuse
Next we plumb the family for truths
Lies: what about his fetish for bugs?
Did he do drugs? Did he do what at
All? Then we dig into his life's work
(We prefer having never read him)

On July 14, 2009 at 12:14pm shinosa wrote:
Is it proper for a comment to be longer than the article it's commenting on? especially one so flatulent, and poorly spelled, as that first one?

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2009

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 Conor  O'Callaghan

Biography

Conor O’Callaghan is an Irish poet who teaches at Wake Forest University and Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. His most recent collection is Fiction (Wake Forest University Press, 2005).

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