Poetry and the Memory of Fame
I once felt quite famous as a poet. Indeed, now that I think of it, I have felt famous twice. These two periods of really unsettling fame came back to me recently as I dealt with a young poet at the lending desk of the public library where I’ve worked for over thirty years. The young poet had been coming into my city-center branch for over a year, dropping grease-stained envelopes stuffed with five or six poems and then returning a few days later to listen to my responses to his raw and energetic work. But there was this one morning when we’d had a very strenuous, useful exchange of ideas around his improving technique. In that pause when a conversation just ends and an older poet adroitly excuses himself, the young man suddenly said to me: “You know so much about poetry; you read it so closely. Have you ever thought of writing anything yourself?” At first, I didn’t know what to say. Should I recite the titles of my eleven published books, including eight collections of poems? Should I be angry with this world that doesn’t know who I am? What the hell was he doing, handing me these regular tasks in poetry, if he didn’t know that I was already an old codger in the world of Southern Irish letters? But I did ask him why he chose me and he explained that one of my library colleagues told him that I was interested in poetry, that he should show me his work. He turned away and left. Soon after, I was transferred to another branch library in a faraway suburb — my last posting before I retired early to write full time — so we never met again. And he didn’t seek me out, so he must have quickly found another helpful, anonymous reader.
But his lack of recognition, or, rather, my umbrage at not being recognized, has made me think of the way our names ebb and flow, in and out of “fame,” over a lifetime. What does it feel like to be recognized, to be made famous by persistent attention? Yes, I do remember very clearly the first time that I felt carried away, catapulted onward by a force larger than my own life. I was just sixteen years old at the time. It was in the spring of 1970 and I’d had my first poems published in the local high school magazine. I received a letter, sent to me through my English teacher, from a mysterious Anglo-Irish aristocrat who lived in a grand mansion just three miles from my school. The letter praised my poems and invited me to take tea in this gentleman’s library. A chauffeur-driven Mercedes was dispatched to the school gate and I was driven off to my first encounter with the aristocracy, chauffeured by Tommy, who was once a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber. “The master thinks yer poems are grand,” Tommy said to me, “he’s mighty interested in meetin’ a fellow writer from the neighborhood.” I can see now that he was trying not to burst out laughing. I was met at the door of the eighteenth-century mansion by a formally-attired butler and led into a magnificent library that contained twenty thousand volumes of mainly Slavic texts. The literary gentleman was W.E.D. Allen, a former British diplomat and spy-catcher, former Unionist-Conservative Member for West Belfast in the Imperial Parliament of the twenties, former editor of the thirties Fascist magazine The Blackshirt, author of the best history of the Georgian people published in the English language (according to Laurens van der Post in his autobiography, Yet Being Someone Other), author of Caucasian Battlefields, The Ukraine, and Problems of Turkish Power in the Sixteenth Century. This seventy-year-old aristocratic scholar climbed down from the gallery of his two-story high bookshelves and introduced me to his fourth wife, a quiet Australian nurse who’d come to take care of his dying third wife, Natasha Maximovna, who had been the ikon-restorer daughter of a Moscow surgeon. Mr. Allen’s first wife had been the debutante daughter of the Earl of Lovelace, a woman who’d probably been the basis for the globe-trotting character Amber, the love interest in Allen’s pseudonymously published 1936 spy novel, Strange Coast. These details I discovered later.
Though the penniless son of a country postman, I wasn’t in the least intimidated or impressed by this ménage. After all I was a poet from a small town that was famous for its poets — “Ah, Cappoquin of the poets,” was how the venerable Máire Mhac an tSaoí addressed me when we were first introduced. I assumed instinctively all the social status that the title “poet” confers in Ireland. I argued furiously about Irish history and poetry with the assembled company that included two Russian scholars and two directors from Barings merchant bank in London (my Mr. Allen, as I discovered from various editions of Who’s Who in the local library, was a director of several public corporations and a member of gentlemen’s clubs, including Bucks and Cavendish in London, the Kildare Street Club in Dublin, and Cercle d’Orient in Istanbul). After several lively hours I left the house with a borrowed leather-bound copy of Lermontov’s poems. In the years that followed I was chauffeured back and forth across the Irish countryside, carrying manila folders full of handwritten poems, as if to the manor born. Although I didn’t even possess a typewriter I thought it the most natural thing in the world for a poet to be chauffeur-driven, pampered by butlers, petted by elderly aristocratic ladies with bald Chihuahuas in their handbags. The novelist Muriel Spark, a houseguest, set fire to one of my execrable poems with her long cigarette. She kissed me and begged forgiveness. A few years later she had a falling-out with her publisher over the ownership of a horse. The novelist Molly Keane, another expert on Irish horses who was then quietly accumulating the material for Good Behaviour, the novel that would make her famous for a second time, listened respectfully while I dissected the politics in her forties Irish novel, Two Days in Aragon. At the dinner table, a director of the National Gallery sought my opinion on Paul Henry’s paintings. I informed him that Mr. Henry was color-blind. The daughter of a former British ambassador to Moscow presented me with a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl: it was a most singular introduction to American culture. All assembled agreed that America under Nixon had gone to the dogs, that Vietnam would fall to the friends of Claud Cockburn, a Communist gentleman who lived in another mansion in a little village nearby; and that Russian tanks would reach the outskirts of Paris before the winter of 1974. All were convinced that the future of civilization lay in some small, tax-efficient European principality like Monaco or, perhaps (if Tito could become agreeable), in the apartment of some exiled princess in Montenegro. Dry martinis and old-fashioneds, peach champagne and Hennessy Cognac all floated around the lacquered Russian antiques and Ottoman prints: this was certainly the life for a poet. My imagination became saturated with the materials of their cosmopolitan politics. If this was the life of a writer I was signed up for the duration.
Also a houseguest in this lovely, not at all crumbling, Anglo-Irish mansion was Terence de Vere White, literary editor of the venerable Irish Times. By the time I was seventeen years old I had my first poem published in the Irish Times’ famous Saturday Page. After that I became insufferable and unteachable with vanity. My school grades went slowly downhill as I studied less and less — I was simply too busy in the high society now offered by the life of a poet. A drying wind of fame blew and blew and blew: my name was called again and again in the most seductive aristocratic voices. I was a poet who had risen from the serfs and they were all smitten like Moscow boyars. To be petted continuously was simply adorable and I fell languidly into undergraduate life in the nearest city, Cork. I tried to do as little as possible and succeeded. But Mr. Allen died suddenly while I was at college and his house and library were auctioned off to strangers before I could claim back the two books I’d lent him. By then I’d found another poet-adoring aristocrat, the grandson of Ireland’s premier peer, the Duke of Leinster. I moved my books into a wing of his beautiful shooting lodge inside thirty acres of woodland, organized the garden, the kitchen, the rental payments from a tenant farmer, the hanging and lighting of priceless Jacob Bogdani paintings. I held my own court for poet-friends by the Adam chimneypiece, beneath the beautiful portrait of his mother, Inez, Lady FitzGerald. My poems were dispatched regularly to the London offices of the exclusive stockbroking firm of Panmure Gordon where he was a partner. They were typed in triplicate by a secretary called Miss Kent and returned to me. Lloyd’s Log of underwriting names as well as the Times Literary Supplement became my weekend reading. My manuscripts, at least, were having an international life. All went well. I tended the gentleman’s acres and wrote poems — poems that were slowly, very slowly, becoming less and less terrible.
Then, in late 1977, the second blessed wind of fame blew open the windows of my writing life, which had become more settled and routine. It was a phone call, as often happens. My parents, like many working-class couples in seventies Ireland, couldn’t afford a phone, so the call came to me through a neighbor who was the local fire-chief. I jumped over three garden walls to reach his hallway and heard, for the first time, the voice of an excited journalist. “Congratulations! You’ve won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. The judges, Seamus Heaney, John McGahern, and John Ryan, loved your work. We need to get a photographer to you straight away. Would you be prepared for interviews before five this evening? We want to run it in the Sunday papers, in all editions.” A full-page broadsheet feature interview with me on my twenty-seven poems was published in that Sunday Independent, followed by my photograph in every national newspaper on Monday morning. This was the very beginning of seven years of sheer wonder, years that would be full of interviews and photographers, of invitations and introductions, of readings and wild reviews — and of three collections, The First Convention, The Sorrow Garden, and The Non-Aligned Storyteller that filled my youth with undeserved honor. Less than a year after the first award I was descending the steps of a United Airlines jet into the suffocating heat of an Iowa August, a sojourn where I would share an apartment with the legendary Pakistani Lenin Peace Prize-winner, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the Greek short-story writer Dimitris Nollas. I walked up and down South Dubuque Street with Paul Engle as he reminisced about the Irish poets he’d hired for his famous workshop, the gifted and unreliable, the puritan and the licentious. In Prairie Lights bookstore I found two American books that would set my heart ablaze with envy of their beauty, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery and Stars Which See, Stars Which Do Not See by Marvin Bell. I came back to Ireland to write the poems that only Ireland can force one to write: the grandson of the Duke of Leinster sent a car to Shannon to collect me. But in Iowa, at the International Writing Program, I had encountered the modern and this had punctured the balloon of the hermetic aristocracy. I tried to settle down to a more modern and humiliating ordinary life in the city library. But in those years, when I was still only in my mid-twenties, work was just an interlude of rest between flights; for when you’re young and suddenly visible the world absolutely adores you. It literally wants to eat you. I fell into bed each night shredded by attention. It is truly impossible to explain, but it is bigger than any personal strength that one can muster against it; one is simply carried along and constantly, youthfully, so ungrateful.
Those were my two great encounters with fame: seven glorious years that have been followed by over two decades of a productive quiet. There is a time for everything, I think, and life is generally very wise. It comforts the poet who will listen. In general, most poets’ lives are lived in a measured obscurity, punctuated by the brief frissons of published books. That long quiet through middle age is like the reemergence of white space around the very first poems. That quiet brings wisdom and turns many lyric poets into novelists because they begin to see, as the late Frank O’Connor pointed out, those patterns of injustice and intrigue that fill even the most banal life. Early encounters with an aristocracy taught me that one can write poetry devoid of social purpose — that certain poetic projects can be sheer self-indulgence. Left alone, I fell into a companionship of eccentric reading, collecting every edition of a forgotten priest-writer of the nineteenth century — Francis Sylvester Mahony, or Father Prout, as he styled himself in his great published work, The Reliques of Father Prout, a book of essays that was reprinted every seven years throughout the nineteenth century. This priest’s most famous poem is “The Bells of Shandon,” sung by every sentimental Irish exile for over a hundred years — what the Irish exile did not know was that the work was part of a complex linguistic attack on Ireland’s national poet, Thomas Moore of Moore’s Irish Melodies. Mahony hated Moore and hated Daniel O’Connell, the two national heroes of Ireland. Hating them, and their fame, became his life’s work. You will find Mahony all over Joyce and Beckett — Stephen Dedalus’s father sings his praises and his songs in Portrait of the Artist; and Beckett sets the seduction of Miss Counihan upon the tomb of Father Prout in Murphy. The last thing Beckett did before he left Ireland was visit the tomb of Mahony in Shandon churchyard in Cork city.
“I shall always be grateful to Father Prout, always,” as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Miss Mitford in October, 1848. This was the kind of company my obscure Cork balladeer and essayist kept in London, Paris, and Florence. He was independently wealthy, fluent in French, Italian, Greek, and Latin, and he could do what he liked — which he did, between bouts of singing and whiskey drinking. How can knowing any of this be of any use to any poet of today, to any earnest contemporary reader of Poetry? I can only answer: Why, in the name of God, should everything be useful? Is it not possible for me and for you to make poems out of completely useless information? These elements of useless information, these aristocracies of self-indulgence have filled over two decades of my quiet life in the public library; giving me two books of poetry that I am so proud to have written, Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer. Both books were beautifully designed by the late Tamasin Cole and exquisitely edited by Peter Jay at Anvil Press Poetry. “You do realize,” my wife Catherine warned me again and again, “that no one will understand a word of this stuff. There seems to be no purpose to it when every Irish poet is trying to address Ulster’s problems.” She was right — neither book climbed to the lower reaches of a national short list, never mind a literary prize. Oh, but the company I kept while they were being written!
This high companionship of self-indulgence is hugely underrated in modern teaching. It needs to be taught again. Poetry, the best poetry, the most purposeful poetry, arises out of the fullness of the self. It is not the result of a given program, an agenda, a canon. The dynamic noise of a poetry workshop, its communal imperative, does compel young poets to be clear rather than complex, to be social rather than desolate. But the best education in the poetic art must oscillate between the two — between the need to dream fiercely and the need to communicate. Our personal temperament is an essential part of our technical equipment as poets: it is the one part of our equipment that we cannot teach to others, though many of us yearn to do so as we grow older. Our temperament is the thing that will die with us, leaving traces only in the best work. Technically — I mean from the standpoint of writing new poems — all the historic suffering of the Irish nation has no more moral weight than the anonymous cadaver on the dissecting table of Gottfried Benn. The materials available to a new poet are that simple, that open, that personal. Have courage, I would say to any new poet; have courage while your poem invites you into itself. This fullness of being — the vain clarity before a poem begins — must have been what the twenty-five-year-old André Gide meant when he wrote in his Journals:
The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes. Essential to remain between the two, close to madness when you dream and close to reason when you write.
In other words, the fullness of your self is available from the start: dig into it with your pen, exploit it. For poetry’s sake, keep dissecting the self until you find the infection that is interesting. Be open to technique, I advise younger poets; by all means, learn everything new that can be learned about a poetic effect, about what the phrases do when they are layered together on the page. Understand that a poetic tone shared and recognized across the English language is part of the Esperanto of our modern era — we search for a tone that reassures us of the author’s modernity. Far from avoiding new work from young writers, most editors yearn to find something new, yet something with an assured and seriously polished tone. But temperament, the personal atmosphere of your life as a poet; that is something the gods have given you at birth — throw a security cordon around it — it is yours for life, through all the fame and, more usually, the persistent absence of fame.
These matters of poetry and fame, of indulgence and willful obscurity, seem to be in the air again as I travel throughout Ireland. This year, 2015, has been designated by our government as the year to celebrate William Butler Yeats on the 150th anniversary of his birth — “Oho, noho,” as Samuel Beckett said to the Cork beggar who’d promised to say a prayer for him. Not that again. Not that there’s anything wrong with Yeats — his work is exquisite and his fame is legendary. It’s just, well, you know ... What about encouraging a few people to read living poets, to buy books by the living? Yeats’s death in a bleak year (1939) reminds me not of Yeats, but of another Irish poet who was wandering around the East Coast of the US at that time — the Ulster poet Louis MacNeice. I’ve been carrying a copy of MacNeice’s collection of that time, Plant and Phantom, in my satchel these last few months. I love his plain company. I love that he was wandering. I love that he wrote this, in “Plain Speaking” — “Definition is tautology: man is man, / Woman woman, and tree tree, and world world.” At a time when Yeats died, when Ireland and Europe were falling apart, it was important to state plain facts. MacNeice would elaborate further just a few months later in his magnificent critical study The Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Here he is on the art of Yeats’s poetry:
The thought taken from its context is esoteric and, indeed, unsound, but that does not matter for it is perfectly fused into the poetry. Diction and rhythm are happily wedded to their subject. Yeats was always a great trickster with words, but now there is something more solid beneath the gilding.
MacNeice had arrived at his chapter on Yeats’s masterpieces, The Winding Stair and Other Poems and The Tower. MacNeice overcame his and Yeats’s melancholy by studying it. Overcoming it gave him prodigious moral strength, enough strength for him to return to England and engage in the great war against fascism; a war that was, at that moment, being fought for the very survival of English civilization. Morally, poets seem to wander from moments of dread to moments of dread.
As we wander today, for example, right now, in Ireland. For many months after Seamus Heaney’s death in Dublin I felt a catatonic sense of melancholy. It’s no exaggeration to say that many poets felt that a second Yeats had died — that Ireland, once more, would struggle on in that long, familiar Yeatsean shadow. An atmosphere of foreboding had already been in the air, in the very bones of poetry, after the death of Dennis O’Driscoll a year earlier — Dennis, so loved and such a lover of every kind of poetry, had been both a superb poet and Irish poetry’s number one cheerleader. Their deaths have created a singular, catastrophic sense of absence. That anything else might get written seems like a miracle. Heaney’s fame displaced so many other brilliant careers in the public imagination of Ireland — Thomas Kinsella, Mhac an tSaoí, John Montague, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley — that many Irish endings seemed to fold into his spectacular trajectory. The funeral itself, broadcast live on national television, with presidents, ambassadors, nuncios, actors, and rock stars, was as close as a non-president might ever get to a state funeral. And, in typical Irish fashion, it was a funeral of two parts: the Dublin part and the Ulster part. In Ireland, the integrity of our historic quarrel is always captured at a burial.
I miss Heaney’s voice on Irish radio and television; and I miss those distinctive, bold, black-inked letters and postcards from O’Driscoll. A poem published in some far-off place or a poem broadcast on radio was sure to elicit a postcard from Dennis; it was as if one was being minded. Now there is no big-hearted creature left to watch over us and to praise us so intimately. Was Ireland ever so silent? In truth, for my own generation at least, the deaths of these poets may mean the end of greatness. While they lived, the plot of poetry thickened: poetry had an urgently visible, public, even political, role. While they lived, we were all attending their extraordinary poetry workshop invented by Yeats and directed adroitly by Heaney; a workshop called Irish life. Leaving Dublin after the funeral cortege headed north, I felt as I felt when I was a twenty-four-year-old boarding the plane at Cedar Rapids airport, leaving Iowa and the companionship of serious mentors and literary scholars. A sense of hope or political intensity is always left behind on the hot tarmac of experience. Now, poetry has become very private again, very urban and European; as hermetic as the private life in Beckett’s letters or in the lyrics of Benn. Instead of catching the fruits of an outdoor Ulster poetry in Heaney’s profuse orchard, we must now scurry like true Europeans along the backstreet pavements and hard cobblestones, like refugees clutching our little green ration-books. We must write with the guilt of ordinary survivors.
Yet, the idea that in poetry there is only so much oxygen to go around is a mistaken one; an erroneous proprietorial and peasant point of view; as if Irish poets had to draw lots to divide the encumbered estate of a dead landlord. Poetry is truly an anaerobic creature, creating the atmosphere to sustain itself from the very atmosphere of itself that it creates. It is foolish to look outside the act of making poetry for that oxygen. One’s personal poetry, the fruit of one’s temperament, is an unassailable realm. Its success or failure has hardly anything to do with anyone else in the deepest sense. There is, of course, the post facto politics of published texts, the world of reviews and awards, yet this world is but a distant rumble of thunder barely audible in the realm where poems get written. So often one meets very new poets who are obsessed with the “politics” of poetry and its trivia: they make the heart sink because you feel that they may never arrive at that point of repose where their deepest work will get written. The place where poems get made is much quieter than the place of fame. You want to tell these youngsters to slow down, not to rush at that first rung of Cavafy’s ladder or they may miss it. In the Irish context, it is important to recall not just the illustrious career of our lost Nobel Laureate and the sixties careers in poetry that may have been pushed sideways by the force of Heaney’s fame, but those other talents and careers that flourished in the long Heaney Era during the eighties and nineties. There have been significant, even illustrious, other careers in contemporary Irish poetry — think of the work of Eavan Boland and Paul Durcan, of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon, of Paula Meehan, Theo Dorgan, and Harry Clifton, of Medbh McGuckian and Matthew Sweeney. While the greater public realm rained Heaney achievements upon us, all these other Irish poets went out into the sodden garden and grew a harvest of their own making. In their now long careers they have been exemplary. Beyond them, in the 2000s and 2010s, another generation flourishes, youthful, exotic, dramatic, filled with purpose and uncanny professionalism. Names like Alan Gillis and Leontia Flynn, Leanne O’Sullivan and Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh come to mind: their newness and exuberance is simply magical. These poets endure both inside and outside of fame: their permanence is already an inner permanence. Fame may come up noisily to meet them, but if it doesn’t, what matter; their work is a thing of beauty. When you meet poets who are so young and so patently gifted, really burnished for fame, you want to do something — to push them on, to shove them into the arms of excited reporters, photographers, award givers. You want them to have that lovely feeling of being carried away by fame, if only for the first few years. After that, when the chauffeur-driven Mercedes and butlers carrying dry martinis have disappeared, when things become calm in that long inertia of mid-career, they can reap a more mediated harvest of desolately beautiful later poems.
Thomas McCarthy’s last collection, Pandemonium (Carcanet Press, 2016), was short-listed for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Award. His new collection, Prophecy, is due out in April, also from Carcanet Press.