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.