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Islands Apart: A Notebook

Oliver Goldsmith, Charlotte Mew, and the definitions of a poet.
"There has been a gradual, perhaps calcifying professionalism which requires of a poet a standard of behavior and communality which poets were once exempted from. I was never uncritical of that exemption. But now, somehow, I wish I saw more of it."

I live in Dublin and California. In both places, on both sets of shelves, I keep the same book. It was published in Ireland in the twenties. Like anyone with a similar passion, I’ve given up asking people if they have read it — or asking those who have read it if they remember it.

The book is called The Hidden Ireland. It’s about a townland in Ireland called Sliabh Luachra, a mountainy, rushy district on the Cork-Kerry border. In the eighteenth century it was the home of native-speaking Irish poets such as Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. The book tracks their struggle in a dark time.

The author was Daniel Corkery. He was a fierce, contrarian writer from Cork, born in 1878. He regarded Yeats and Lady Gregory with an equal and angry suspicion. He rejected the Irish Revival. “Though we may think of this literature as a homogeneous thing,” he wrote plaintively, “we cannot think of it as an indigenous thing.”

The Hidden Ireland is an unrepentant elegy for that “indigenous thing.” He mourns and celebrates those hard-pressed, Irish-speaking poets of the eighteenth century. He looks back to their dying language, to the lost Gaelic order and writes with a scalding bitterness about that loss.

When I was a teenager, trying to hear other voices, I heard his. Now, when I go back to Ireland and see the new prosperity there, I still hear that voice. Maybe no passage when I was young — not Synge, not Joyce, not even Yeats — moved me more than his furious insistence that a group of ruined Irish poets could remain an inspiration:

In reading those poets, then, we are to keep in mind, first, that the nature of the poetry depends on the district in which it was written — if in Munster, it is literary in its nature; if in Ulster or Connacht, it has the simple directness of folk-song. Then we must also remember that the poets were simple men, living as peasants in rural surroundings; some of them, probably, never saw a city; not only this, but they were all poor men, very often sore-troubled where and how to find shelter, clothing, food, at the end of a day’s tramping. Their native culture is ancient, harking back to pre-Renaissance standards; but there is no inflow of books from outside to impregnate it with new thoughts. Their language is dying: around them is the drip, drip of callous decay: famine overtakes famine, or the people are cleared from the land to make room for bullocks. The rocks in hidden mountain clefts are the only altars left to them; and teaching is a felony.

Not to excuse, but to explain them, are these facts mentioned; for their poetry, though doubtless the poorest chapter in the book of Irish literature, is in itself no poor thing that needs excuse: it is, contrariwise, a rich thing, a marvelous inheritance, bright with music, flushed with color, deep with human feeling. To see it against the dark world that threw it up is to be astonished, if not dazzled.

* * *

Who exactly is a poet? How do we recognize one, even when circumstances seem to deny the possibility of such an existence? Once I thought Corkery had the answer. Now it looks far less simple. When I try to think these days about what Corkery meant, I keep colliding into other definitions. Nothing about the poet’s identity or survival looks as clear as it did when I first read The Hidden Ireland. And of course nothing looks as singular. It seems to me now there are many definitions of the poet — some of them contradictory to each other.

Maybe it’s that I live in two places, or went to school in different countries, or come from an island where two languages produced two very different versions of the poet — whatever it is, these ideas of the poet’s identity and existence keep coming to me, keep asking for a clearer definition. And if I can’t exactly provide it, I still keep thinking I should try.

The truth is, different ideas of the poet have always existed. Different circumstances make the ideas change, clash, and evolve. I love the story, for instance, of the Irish-born Oliver Goldsmith. To the naked eye, he was an eighteenth-century English poet. He signed up for everything from the civil couplets to the Augustan grace. The British claim him for their own. But he was also the son of a farmer in Kilkenny. He was a student at Trinity College. He left Ireland and went to London and Scotland. He apprenticed himself there to a different way of being a poet. It all shows up in his headlong and haunting poem The Deserted Village.

What I relish most is Goldsmith’s own story of his return to Ireland and just how astonished and put off he was by the Irish bards of the time. Those were Corkery’s poets, historically adrift, Irish-speaking, and disinclined to take the slightest interest in London. Their public stance and communal acceptance were still there, as well as the fragments and ruins of their language. Goldsmith, who comes upon them as they service a birth or death, is bewildered and fascinated: They are, he writes, “still held in great veneration    ...    those traditionary heralds are invited to every funeral in order to fill up the intervals of the howl with their songs and harps.”

In other words, these two types of poets — just islands apart — could neither recognize each other, nor share the definition of their calling. Their oppositional lives as poets, however, continuing to puzzle all these centuries later, remain a rich and contradictory thing.

* * *

This year, for instance, back in Dublin for Christmas, I went into Grafton Street. It’s the old, central meeting place of the city, the backdrop of many lives. “Met her today point blank in Grafton Street. The crowd brought us together. We both stopped,” writes Joyce at the end of  Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Now it’s a pedestrian area — a bustle of mime artists and shoppers. It was perfect winter weather. In Ireland, the pre-Christmas weeks can be a small season of light before the January onslaught.

The old city is a ghost haunting the new, more prosperous one. The same buildings are there, the same cobbled alleys. But the ethos has changed. This is a place that talks success, money, and travel. Its youth is more cosmopolitan, more contemporary.

Not far from the city center, and just three miles from our house, is Merrion Square. There in Oscar Wilde’s old neighborhood are the Georgian houses of the old Ascendancy. When I was young many had become shabby and were subdivided into flats. In one basement, opposite the gates and gardens of the square, was the Lantern Theatre, a venue for plays and arts events. There I began covering poetry readings for the Irish Times.

I covered them for years. I did it faithfully and without too much introspection. I was in my early twenties — the right age for it. The reading might be slated for 7:00 pm. I would turn up on time at the theater, the pub, the Arts Centre, the secondary school, the Gallery. The poets might be there. They might equally not be there. The reading would begin. On time. An hour late. Two hours late. I would listen for the poems. I would shape my piece as I listened — quoting, referring, scribbling.

Then some time around midnight I would climb the stairs of the old Irish Times building in Westmoreland Street. And if nothing on the night editor’s face suggested that he had been waiting for this arrival, nevertheless I was given a chair and a typewriter. I would type out my article, hand it in and drive home in a city laundered by quiet and moonlight.

Occasionally at those readings I would be enchanted and stirred by what I’d seen. Occasionally I would think I had the answer — or part of it — to that perennial question about the poet’s identity. One night in the Peacock Theater I saw Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scottish poet. He was elderly, dressed in a cord jacket, utterly in the moment. When he read about “the white rose of Scotland,” when he said out the lines “So I have gathered unto myself  /All the loose ends of Scotland,” something seemed to shimmer and open behind his frail figure: a place itself being burned into metaphor.

What stirred me most was not the poetry. I certainly relished his work. All the same, I heard an earnestness in the Marxism and nationalism that now and again shouted down the lyric tact. What moved me was something else.

That something else was hard to define but similar to what I felt recently when I managed to find a first edition of Kenneth Rexroth’s In What Hour, published in 1940, and ordered it online. I opened the book parcel eagerly in the copy room at Stanford. Straight away, in “Autumn in California,” Rexroth’s words made the landscape around me more legible. “The sooty green” eucalyptus and the way the aspens “glitter like goldfish.”

The freshness and insistence of those poems were immediately obvious; also the failures. But the truth is, I saw the first and cared little about the second. In Rexroth’s book, a California springtime of the late thirties — fragrant, menacing, lost — mingled with his activist imagining of the Spanish Civil War. In MacDiarmid’s work, outrage and music were bedfellows.

The truth is, in the case of both MacDiarmid and Rexroth, what struck me was Corkery’s essential point: the witness of the poet. I could feel it in the encounter with their work, listened to and read. Not that it left no questions behind. As for instance — is there such a thing? If there is, how much of it is shaped by externals — by place and displacement rather than by inward freedoms and the act of writing?

Whether or not those question are answerable, one thing is certain: Both Rexroth and MacDiarmid provided that essential thing, hard to define, but familiar when seen: a wider, more generous meaning to the definition of poet. I took away with me and keep still Rexroth’s words: “This is perhaps the primary function of  the poet, to give life convincing meaning.”

* * *

And I needed those words the summer before last when I finished editing a small book — an introduction to the work of Charlotte Mew — for Carcanet Press in England. Mew is a British poet. She was born in 1869 in London. She died there in 1928.

I stole time for the preface and editing from another project — a wonderful and heartening collaboration with Edward Hirsch on a collection of poems called The Making of a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology. During the daylight hours a river of e-mails — and sonnets — went back and forth. Day after day, it was a surefire thrill to see the sheer rightness of fourteen lines after fourteen lines emerge unscathed from electronic mailboxes and burned-up mail servers.

But when the day ended, when the time zones folded back into themselves, I went to the Mew book. I sorted it — for the time it took to do — in that Irish summer interlude which happens between 11:00 pm and dawn in late June, when the sky never actually gets dark.

It was a strange transit. There was a charm and promise about the sonnets which seemed to vanish as soon as I opened Mew’s poems. Going from one to the other felt like a descent. A figurative darkening, as well as a real one. A climbing down from possibility into tragedy.

Mew’s life was terrible. Her daily existence was one of bitter gentility, freelancing articles and occasionally publishing poems. In Victorian and Edwardian London it was impossible to express a different sexual choice — and Mew was lesbian. Her friends were few. One sister and a brother were institutionalized for mental illness.

In the early weeks of 1928, she entered a London nursing home. She stayed there a short time. Finally she went out one spring morning and bought a bottle of creosote. She drank it and died foaming at the mouth a few hours later. At that point in the preface, in the presence of that event, I wrote in frustration, “there is no bleaker death in the history of poetry.” Perhaps there is. But at that point I couldn’t imagine it.

And yet Mew’s poems are much more than a fever chart of a harsh existence. They are also a powerful and dissenting conversation with English poetry. She was a rhetorical maverick, with little loyalty to narrative or lyric. Her tone owes almost nothing to the Victorians. It unfolds through big, willful lines that are always on the verge of a prescient, pre-Modernist fragmentation.

Most of all, Mew suggests a different way of being a poet. After the nineteenth-century subplot of poetesses, with their restrictive assignments of religious and domestic themes, here was a total subversion of the category: a poet with so little investment in the society that created the poetess that she could break the mold.

* * *

Recently I took a long plane journey and brought a book on tape to go with it. It was an obscure Trollope novel called An Old Man’s Love. I don’t associate Anthony Trollope with concerns about poets or poetry; nevertheless, the plot of this book dropped me suddenly and unceremoniously back into that shadow world of competing definitions.

Mr. William Whittlestaff — the central character — is an aging Victorian anti-hero. We learn that he’s had two great reverses in his life. He’s been jilted by his first love, and his attempts at writing poetry have failed. Both feel like disgrace to him. Trollope, perhaps wisely, doesn’t quote the unsuccessful work. But he makes his failed poet a sympathetic character — growing older, remote from reality, embarking on a last attempt at love.

The novel may be little known, but I suspect Mr. Whittlestaff — or his ilk — was a familiar enough figure at the end of the nineteenth century. I imagine there were plenty of them. Gentleman amateurs. Sheltered men who idealized the role of the poet but couldn’t enact it. It might be that no one wanted to read their work. But they had recognized virtues. They hadn’t been atheists or vegetarians or stirrers-up of European revolutions, or prone to elope with poetesses.

I sometimes wonder these days whether there is a new Mr. Whittlestaff  in existence. But a reverse of Trollope’s template. Society now — to use the term loosely and inaccurately — is insistent that poetry is of little use. By a strange irony this seems to have led to the demand that actual poets, as against their work, be more visibly useful than ever before.

* * *

Whether we like it or not, the contemporary poet is increasingly skill-based. Or expected to be. He or she can — or should — lecture, lead a workshop, run an introductory class, teach composition, write a review, give a conference paper. In pursuit of all this, they are also expected to travel neatly, punctually, and soberly.

I should add that I don’t mean to confine this at all to American terms. I mean it in Irish and British terms also. I think it is a development that is peculiar to the art rather than to any national version of it.

I want to be clear here. These are not negligible skills for the poet in the world. I certainly wanted to acquire them when I was young. All of  them seemed to me a way of  talking about or living with poetry. They still do. And I still believe many if not most poets engage them for exactly that reason.

Nevertheless, I’m nagged at by the thought that many of the poets I admired when I was young were not skill-based. The opposite in fact. To think of Patrick Kavanagh or Charlotte Mew leading workshops or flying to a strange city to give a reading is to stumble straight into anomaly.

And yet skills are an integral part of the poet’s world — and prospects — today. The Stegner Fellows in poetry at Stanford, for instance, are working writers, and many have gone on to become very fine poets. Many of them also go on to teach, to edit, to coordinate, or to administer.

Over the years, I’ve seen their zest for doing this, their pleasure in finding the right job, the right role. I’ve seen the contributions they’ve made. And the fact that they are motivated to make those contributions. I’ve no doubt the motives derive from the reasons I’ve mentioned: because it widens the conversation about poetry, and allows them — as many young poets want to be — to be part of it.

But there is always a fraction — even if it’s just a small minority — of poets out in the world who don’t want to do any of these things. If there’s a conversation, they’re having it with themselves, with their own poems. They don’t want to extend it, share it, structure it. They are private, inward, and dissociated from the skills on offer or in demand.

Once I thought there was a broad tolerance for this. Now I’m not so sure. In Ireland, or the us or the uk, the tilt is towards the poet who can navigate the worlds of the university, the institution, the community, the reading series, the community workshop, the literary festival. There has been a gradual, perhaps calcifying professionalism which requires of  a poet a standard of  behavior and communality which poets were once exempted from. I was never uncritical of that exemption. But now, somehow, I wish I saw more of it.

* * *

“When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes,” wrote Dylan Thomas. It’s a winning statement, suggesting the kind of disregard for convention and orthodoxy poets were once associated with. But his statement has to be weighed against Patrick Kavanagh’s words, published at the start of the 1964 edition of his Collected Poems. In his author’s note, Kavanagh comments that the only true tragedy for the poet is poverty. “On many occasions I literally starved in Dublin,” he writes. “I often borrowed a ‘shilling for the gas’ when in fact I wanted the coin to buy a chop.”

That chill reminder of economic vulnerability puts skills in a different light. It doesn’t seem right to forget that often they are a lifeline for a poet — a way of buying time and living with dignity.

And yet it seems right to ask — if the skill-based poet is a contemporary figure, then who or what is the antithesis? Who, in other words, is losing out? Is it possible to suggest a category, a grouping, even an individual poet who might be marginalized by such an emphasis? It’s a rhetorical question. But here, at least, I can think of some answers.

I think the genuinely avant-garde poet, even in this time of widespread institutional support for “experimentalism,” might well find a world of skills onerous. Their work, perhaps more often in process than not, might not be easily available to an audience. Or even to a workshop.

The down-to-earth question of availability might affect women poets. For instance, a younger writer with children might well look with dread at the opportunities offered by scheduled readings, believing that she herself might just not be able to manage the fixed times or even the travel.

The shy poet, the private poet, the antisocial poet, the curmudgeon, the introvert, and the fastidious craft worker — I could see all of these, in various degrees, at various times, looking with skepticism on a world of skills.

And to press the point a bit further: is there a series of shelters, reprieves, spaces of quiet that also offer an unpressured lack of expectation which could suit these poets? The answer has to be partly and quickly in the affirmative. In the us and — increasingly — outside it, there are generous prizes and fellowships. They buy time. They create a buffer zone. They are often judged by poets. They allow the less skill-based poet to resist performance and competence with safety.

That’s as it should be. It’s always seemed to me right that one side of  the poetic world should try to protect the other. Public poets draw sustenance from private ones. Formalists are nourished by experimentalists. But it has become easier and harder to do, to offer that protection. And yet I like to think that in today’s climate of debate and questioning, there might be a zone of comfort for a Patrick Kavanagh. And even — who knows? — a Charlotte Mew.

* * *

Still, though it’s useful and even essential to think about alternatives, the truth is that there have always been quirks and absurdities about the poet’s fit in the world. There probably always will be. And maybe some of them we wouldn’t want to do without.

I.A. Richards, for instance, in an essay on T.S. Eliot, cannot resist retailing his conversation with a bank supervisor he met on holiday in Switzerland who worked at that time in Henrietta Street. A fellow employee was the young Eliot who was then a diligent, if misplaced, bank official.

Mr. W., the bank supervisor — as he is described in the anecdote — is neither imaginative nor aware of his coworker’s prospects. In fact, at one point he asks Richards if  he thinks his young colleague is a good poet. Richards says, well, yes he is. Then Mr. W. responds:
You know, I myself am really very glad indeed to hear you say that. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t agree at all. They think a Banker has no business whatever to be a poet. They don’t think the two things can combine. But I believe that anything a man does, whatever his hobby may be, it’s all the better if he is really keen on it and does it well. I think it helps him with his work. If you see our young friend, you might tell him that we think he’s doing quite well at the Bank. In fact, if he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager.
Originally Published: May 21st, 2008

Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. The daughter of a diplomat and a painter, Boland spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and later university at Trinity College in Dublin. Though still a student when she published...

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  1. July 17, 2008
     Therese Flanagan

    You've given me so much to think about in this rich essay. Thank you.

  2. February 26, 2009
     Thomas Jobs

    Often I find myself fending off the concrete nausea of over-professed poetry. WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS: A VIVISECTION OF THE RED WHEELBARROW.

    What? A wheelbarrow is not alive. Ah, but the wheelbarrow is the chicken. The chicken-alive we will dissect.

    Or a triple dissection of the confessional.

    If the poem is not read fresh, is not first regarded with the care of love, then it becomes a thing alone and not of the blood of the poet. The loaf of bread is kneaded after baking; manhandled, flattened, extruded, reduced to inedible, uneaten.

    If we are subsumed in professionalism first, we risk this predisposition to undo, to apply the acids and tongs of criticism/analysis. All poets should take at least one "hard" science course, so as to be convinced of limits.

    Otherwise we will sail a wan sea of our own creation.

    Having Said This, I add that I am very fond of your various and rather profound observations in this piece.

  3. June 14, 2009
     Kathryn Stripling Byer

    Eavan, thank you for this beautifully written and thought-through essay. I have been NC's Poet Laureate for 4 years and the public persona it requires has made me want to flee to a cave in the mountains nearby. Not that I don't value being out there talking with students, readers, "ordinary" folk about poetry and making a case for reading it, I do. A well-done reading, especially, can be crucial to a listener's reawakening to language and inner voice. And yet, I feel so strongly the need now for that contrarian, lock the door, leave me alone role, if that's what one should call it. I have done the public role, written the occasional poems--which I enjoyed and did well, I believe--and I even maintin a blog to showcase NC poets and reach out to students. But now that my term is nearly over, I want MY poem again, my landscape to enter, my way of being in what you have called, if memory serves, the center of the lyrical moment. And I am glad that I live far from the literary centers of this country and can go about my way without the pressure I felt when younger.
    I hope to see you again someday.
    Yours, Kay (Kathryn)

  4. July 22, 2009
     Nicholas Shea

    "O poet! a new nobility is conferred in groves and pastures, and not in castles or by the sword-blade any longer. The conditions are hard, but equal. Thou shalt leave the world, and know the muse only. Thou shalt not know any longer the times, customs, graces, politics, or opinions of men, but shalt take all from the muse. For the time of towns is tolled from the world by funereal chimes, but in nature the universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy. God wills also that thou abdicate a manifold and duplex life, and that thou be content that others speak for thee. Others shall be thy gentlemen and shall represent all courtesy and worldly life for thee; others shall do the great and resounding actions also. Thou shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this is thine: thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his well-beloved flower, and thou shalt be known only to thine own, and they shall console thee with tenderest love. And thou shalt not be able to rehearse the names of thy friends in thy verse, for an old shame before the holy ideal. And this is the reward; that the ideal shall be real to thee, and the impressions of the actual world shall fall like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and the rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord! Wherever snow falls or water flows or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds or sown with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love,—there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble."
    Ralph Waldo Emerson -- The Poet (Essays - Second Series).

  5. April 5, 2010
     Shannon Hickey

    I am a recent English graduate, and a
    sometime poet. This essay seems to be
    right on - there isn't a place for the poet
    who writes all day in coffee shops or the
    Mary Oliver's who wander nature,
    seemingly without being held to bills and
    social responsibilities. So for those of us
    first encountering this world, both that of
    poetry and literature, is there no option but
    to wear so many hats and juggle so much?
    I wonder if our poetry suffers for it.

  6. May 19, 2012
     SM Ullis

    Poets come in all personality types. The academic/social will
    undoubtedly continue to promote their works through their energetic,
    outgoing natures. That doesn't diminish the value of their work. More
    power to them.
    We know there are treasures to be found elsewhere. How poetic to
    find a delicately embroidered, slowly decaying portal in the back
    corner of a second-hand store.
    It is good to hope that poets of one dynamic might support those of
    another. Politics is a big part of life, and might include the securing
    of grants.