Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Contemporary Performance Practice essay, 2004.

'Liminal hegemony is the transitional area at an intersection where power relations shift from one state of being to another. At least, that's one definition.'

I loved writing academic essays on my Writing Studies and Drama BA (2001-4). At the beginning of the second half of the second year a light of life-long learning switched on; after 18 months writing blindly and not knowing if I was deluding myself or not and just trusting in the work-rate I was doing (typical mature student), and that the fact I loved it and it felt instinctively right, would lead to something measurably artistic that would lead to me becoming a normal person happy and contented with what I was doing.

Especially in the creative academic disciplines such as Creative Writing, it's all pretty much bollocks anyway. Some say. A theory that crystalised in one of the final core Drama 3002 Contemporary Performance Practice essays: “Discuss the contention that the work of the artists studied on this module, have value as instruments of epistemology within performance.”


'In keeping with the non-traditional nature of the material under discussion, I have chosen to abandon the Hegelian approach in this piece of writing and will adopt a style of presentation which I believe finds resonance with “qualification descriptor” guidelines, which state we must engage in the study of “cutting edge creative scholarly activity,” and which also issues a challenge to what I consider to be, the essentially meaningless debate surrounding the artists we have studied on this module.
   Performance theory is a new discipline and the current buzz concepts relate to exploring performance within anthropological and sociological contexts. The notion of performance occurring at liminal borders of human activity, which are then “framed” or contextualised as performance, is now dominant within the academic performance field of inquiry, and is directly applicable to the material under debate. Rather than posit thesis, antithesis and synthesis I will present my ideas in an experimental and creative manner, the intention of which is to expose what I have termed a contract of “hoax,” which I will expound on later.   

   The modern concept of what constitutes art, arguably underwent a fundamental shift when Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool, and since that time, in the words of Louise Gray writing in The Guardian “..has grown to revolve around a notion of framing.” This would seem to be the case, certainly in relation to the artists under debate within this essay, who have all attracted a large amount of critical debate from within the academic community. One thing they all have in common is that they are all outsiders in some way, who have channelled their unconventional lifestyles into the arena of performance art. Ex drug addict Ron Athey, was raised by his religious fundamental parents to be the new messiah. Annie Sprinkle graduated from prostitute to porn star to performance artist, whilst Franko B and Orlan would seem to have had the most conventional arts background, although Franco B’s turbulent childhood has been well documented.

   My argument is that, in the clamour for intellectual sophistication within the academic avant-garde of the performance community, the “envelope” of what constitutes serious art is pushed further and further into liminal spaces with an ever-quickening momentum. This is because performance theory is essentially meaningless, in the sense that it has no effect on the material world, and so engages in elaborate “fictions of belief,” in order to justify and bestow a sense of meaning and worth upon the activity of theorizing about performance. When the topic of performance theory is raised in critical discourse the George Orwell quote below springs to mind.

“…the concrete melts into the abstract…. consisting less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” 1

    Much of the debate surrounding this embryonic area of performance engages with a post-modern language in a poetics of justification using fashionable neologisms that have been generated over the last twenty years by the disparate strands of various critical discourse which few outside “lit-crit” university departments understand. Much of the criticism relates the changing role of the body with the decline of traditional Judea-Christian and Cartesian systems of belief and interpretation of the world. Highly intricate and ephemeral logic is employed to demonstrate why a self harmer bleeding in front of an audience, a woman prizing open her vagina for detailed inspection, a woman undergoing cosmetic surgery and a man performing S&M scenes combining religious and gay iconography (which by his own admission are more of a cathartic release of his own inner self rather than for the benefit of an audience) constitute art.
   Obviously, the logical answer to the question of whether or not the performers primary aim is to shock is to research the responses of the artists themselves to that singular question, and the answer generated is a firm, and somewhat unsurprising, no. Franco B, when asked by Robert Ayers if he considers his work shocking stated

“I suppose some people would say that, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I take myself more seriously than that; it’s a waste of time. Also I think people want to be shocked.” 2

   He then goes on to expound his central theory about his work, arguing that people are shocked because of a general sense of guilt surrounding “touching yourself,” which he terms “brainwashing.” His main concern, he states, is to create “beautiful things,” and declares that his art is essentially a public extension of his everyday life.

“But really, the idea of doing things I want – beautiful things – I think like everybody else, basically comes down to taste. I dress the way I like, I eat the food I like, I make the things I like. In a way it’s no more than that.” 3

   This seems to be the key tenet on which his artistic philosophy rests, a logic which seems to be saying, “Art is Life,” much like Tracey Eminen seems to. The corollary of this argument therefore is that the whole of human activity, from painting, making music and other traditional art forms, right through to nuclear holocaust, could be legitimised as a work of art. “This is what I do, therefore it is art if I say it is a beautiful thing.” And whilst it is easy to dismiss this response as flippant, we only have to look at Annie Sprinkle’s activities in order to see it is not. 

   Annie Sprinkle’s artistic manifesto is based solely around the body as a sexual instrument and calls for a radical overhaul in sexual relations –

“I have a vision for the future…..Fetish lingerie and sex toys will be freely distributed to all people. …Men will be able to have multiple orgasms…It will be possible to make love anywhere in public, and it will not be impolite to watch.” P172

Needless to say I find it difficult to take Sprinkle artistically serious. Her sole interest being the “artification” of commercial sex in order to materially benefit and gain a place for herself in the avant garde artworld. I believe that the air of critical solemnity she has generated is a result of certain branches of feminist theory attempting to carve out legitimacy of terrain where their own ideas can be aired, rather than any inherent artistic value in Sprinkle’s “work.”

Athey’s reason’s for bringing in an audience to watch his work seems to be to raise the awareness of AIDS, which he equates with being a gay Western disease rather a third world heterosexual epidemic. In an interview with Tom Liesgang the purpose of Athey’s work is described as wishing to raise

“….their audience's consciousness to the plight of people infected with the AIDS virus.” 4

In this interview Athey states that his work is a cathartic way of dealing with the HIV virus and recounts a time –

“Cleo Du Bois, a dominatrix friend of mine, gave me a ritual whipping over grieving. I wouldn't call this masochism. I was filled with so much sorrow because three friends had just died. She beat me for a half hour until I cried, focusing on the loss, not the sensuality of it or the submission - power trip.” 5

As I will explore further, it seems to me that Athey is basically indulging in bouts of child like demands for attention, which performance theorists have hoaxed themselves into studying, for reasons I will develop later. By choosing to appropriate HIV for the gay community, and attempting to take ownership of what is primarily a heterosexual disease worldwide and use this, by his own admission, as a kind of personal therapy, Athey’s initial claim to be interested in raising awareness of people who have HIV, is seen to be palpably false. There are no references to Africa or the terrible suffering there. He is only drawing the audience’s consciousness to the plight of Western gay men who have HIV, which overall, is a small minority of the total worldwide.   

   The real argument, I would suggest, is that the true debate lies not in analysing the artists and their motivations or the content of their work, but analysing why this work receives an audience. Franko B states that, in his opinion, this is fundamental to his work.

“…the work is more about them – the people watching. About their feelings.” 6

   And whilst this is true about all art, the challenging nature of explicit body performance infuses and raises very important questions which could be broadly related to the concept of voyeurism and breaking taboos on one hand, and the theatre of cruelty idea of “freeing the mind through assaulting the senses,” 7 on the other.

   The three words which immediately spring to mind are the last three the Twentieth Century modernist James Joyce allegedly uttered on his deathbed immediately prior to departing this world. “Does anybody understand.”

   As I have never seen any of these performers work, the ideas presented can only be provisional and open to revision. My notes for the first lecture on this module states that we are studying this material due to a government directive which instructs educators to expose third level students to “creative,” and cutting edge research. However, I am of the opinion that these performers, with the possible exception of Franko B, and to some extent, Athey, are a product of the late twentieth century’s avant garde's obsession with self justifying navel gazing, the lineage of which can be traced to 1917 Zurich and Cabaret Voltaire. It was here that young artists engaged in activity, which set the trend for what I have termed “audience masochism,” whereby the audience’s primary aim was not to enjoy themselves in the traditional sense of being entertained, but to gain a masochistic pleasure in being affronted. As a result it is very difficult for me to work up any interest to actively engage in a traditionally prescribed manner with the debate surrounding explicit body performance/modern primitives/surgical performance/body fluid art and the numerous other labels which have been or can be attached to the activities of the four named artists. 

This is because I am starting from a position, fundamentally cynical of the artistic legitimacy of these various activities, and whilst I could construct an argument starting with pre Christian body religions and trace it through Plato, Plotinus via Byzantium and Augustine, through Scottus Eriginus and the medievals to touch upon the post Tridentine philosophy before ending up with Renaissance metaphysics in order to contextualise the enlightenment and eventual rationalism of the 18C which post structuralism has displaced, it would be a hollow argument on my part.  Watching people self mutilate, open their vaginas so an audience can inspect their cervix, video themselves when under the plastic surgeons knife or any of the other “art” works under scrutiny in this module add an air of unreality to my whole time studying here. 

The natural logic of this material allows the presentation of virtually any physical act as being labelled art, however ridiculous. For example, it would be legitimate for me to suggest that a staging of myself having sex with a number of prostitutes whilst being tattooed, pierced, having a blood transfusion, defecating, urinating, vomiting, undergoing dental work etc, is not the end result of an indulgent imagination, but true art. Further, I could argue that people should come and see the spectacle to challenge themselves and I could sell raffle tickets whereby the winner could take part in the “performance-orgy.” This is not to say that I am of the opinion that they are not sincere in their actions, as I am of the belief that, as previously stated, the real area of interest lies in analysing the reasons why an audience would choose to attend these events and engage in the “hoax.”

   During the early lectures for this module, we were asked

“When you get angry about this work, what value systems are you demonstrating that’s different from theirs.”

The general tenor of the debate during these sessions seemed to imply that the material warranted serious consideration, but I could not help being reminded that the main reason we are studying this is to comply with the “qualification descriptor” guidelines laid down by the current Labour government, and it was at this point the “hoax” theory started to take shape.      

Northrop Frye famously described academic thesis research as being –

“A documents which is, practically by definition, something which nobody wants to read or write.” A statement which if true goes a long way towards damning the whole system. It may be more true of the humanities than of the sciences and reflect the way in which 20C economic and cultural pressures have forces the former to model themselves on the latter, to eschew their real function in favour of often facetious “research” and prefer quantity to quality.” 8

   I believe that this is the key to understanding the “hoax.” After Descartes separated mind from matter and Newton’s theories began the process whereby the practical results of material science relegated the humanities to a poor second place within epistemology, a mimetic language of psuedo scientific justification has evolved within the humanities in an attempt to compensate this fact. An academic language, which seeks to “technicalize” abstract creative ideas surrounding man’s relationship with and to existence. Prior to the Newtonian universe, abstract ideas were dominant religio-scientific theoretical “fact” which had evolved over centuries and were unquestionably accepted with all due reverence at the time. 

The theorists were a small band of elite knowledge keepers who controlled the masses, much the same as quantum physics does nowadays. The progress of science accelerated the decline of the previously dominant mode of ideas, roughly comparable to the humanities, and proved them as rational fictions created, modified and controlled within a process of religious dominance and power. The magic and Gods which the old order presented have now been displaced with the real magic of technology, which few of us truly understand but accept as not being magic at all because we have shifted our faith to the alter of science. Within the general humanities the gradual response to this development has effectively been to dismiss scientific development as a dehumanising process, with increasing hysteria, very much in the mode of children playing a game of make believe. As the influence of theories generated by the humanities, particularly performance theory, has no effect on the material world, there is a deepening sense of inadequacy and denial in being obsolete, and like the redundant bank manger mental patient pretending s/he’s Napoleon. This analogy is the most extreme and could be applied to the notable theorists and practitioners, whilst the day-to-day performance theory folk are more akin to battle re-enactment enthusiasts engaging in a hobby. On both counts the wider world takes no notice of these people and indulges him in their harmless fantasy, although the bank manger Napoleon draws attention and is worthy of study, much like the cutting edge avant-garde.

   So it is with much of the theory related to performance, which huffs and puffs at the edifice of science, safe in the knowledge that it isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference to events in the real world. This is the essence of the hoax. Those performance theorists huffing and puffing during office hours about the big bad technological world, switch of their “performance of belief” at 5pm and go home via the supermarket in the car, switch the lights on, use all the handy appliances which make modern life so pleasurable and then settle down to be bombarded by images. The following day at 9am they switch on and rage about the terrible effect technology has on man. Everybody plays the game and is encouraged to make believe in the name of art.  Obviously these ridiculous positions mean that the theories are presented in a highly confused and meaningless rhetoric of conspiracy and damnation of the controlling theories, which have displaced them. This confusion is a result of ignorance and fear, borne out in the language, which those entering the humanities are encouraged to learn, although not seriously question or challenge the wider validity of. So when I read Chris Straayer writing about Annie Sprinkle –

“I would like to be able to make use in sexual-political thinking of the deconstructive understanding that particular insights generate, are lined with, and at the same time are themselves structured by particular opacities,” p164

I am reminded of Orwell’s henhouse metaphor, as the opacity which immediately springs to mind is the language of the above sentence and the argument presented is “by gumming together long strips of words….and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” 9

Sheer humbug, therefore is what I consider the majority of explicit body performance, and the theory surrounding it to be. The audience are “challenged” and view “powerful” material, in much the same way as watching a car crash, or being an observer at the gynecologists would be “challenging” and “powerful.” If I wanted to view material of this nature I would go the whole hog and station myself at the local A&E department, join a swingers club, befriend a plastic surgeon or start a drama therapy group for those seeking to act out fantasies within performance. As previously stated, in my opinon  the real debate lies with the motivation of the audience not the performer.'


7 Campbell, P & Spackman, H    1998    The Drama Review: Winter 1998    New York     MIT Press
Gray, L    1996    The Guardian: Me My Surgeon and My Art P8    London    Guardian Newspapers Ltd
1, 8, 9  Neal, R    1992    Writers on writing: an anthology    Oxford    Oxford University Press
Straayer, C    1994    The Seduction of Boundaries: Appeared in: Dirty Looks Women Pornography and Power.     London    BFI
   2 , 3,  6-   http://www.liveartmagazine.com/core/index.php
    4, 5      www.fadmag.com/items/athey/athey.html

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Trembling of the Veil

'When I look back among my propaganda of those years I can see little but its bitterness. I never met with, or but met to quarrel with, my father's old family acquaintance; or with acquaintance I myself might have found, and kept among the prosperous educated class...and this I did by deliberate calculation...and was presently to discover that one can grow impassioned and fanatical about opinions which one has chosen as one might choose a side upon the football field...

....The one house where nobody thought or talked politics was a house in Ely Place, where a number of young men lived together and, for want of a better name, were called theosophists...The house had been taken in the name of an engineer to the Board of Works, a black bearded young man, with a passion for Manachaean philosophy, and all accepted him as host; and sometimes the conversation, especially when I was there, became too ghostly for the nerves of his young and delicate wife and he would be made angry...

....At the top of the house..in the same room as the Scotsman, lived Mr George Russell (A.E), and the house was divided into his adherents and those of the engineer; and I heard of some quarrelling between the factions. The rivalry was subconscious. Neither had opposed the other in any matter of importance.

The engineer had all the financial responsibility and George Russel was, in the eyes of the community, saint and genius. Had either have seen that the question at issue was the leadership of mystical thought in Dublin, he would, i think, have given way...I used to listen to him at that time, mostly walking through the streets at night, for the sake of some stray sentence, beautiful and profound, amid many words...he had become, i think, to all his fellow-students, sacred...We derided each other, told absurd tales to one another's discredit, but we never derided him...He wrote without premeditation or labour.

It had, as it were, organised itself...he saw visions continually, perhaps more continually than any modern man since Swedenborg...One might not think him a good observer, but no one could doubt that he reported with the most scrupulous care what he believed himself to have seen...Also at the top of the house, lived a medical student who read Plato and took hashish, and a young Scotsman who owned a vegetarian restaurant, and had just returned from America, where he had gone as the disciple of the Prophet Harris, and where he would soon return in the train of some new prophet...

...When he had gone his room was inherited by an American hypnotist..he professed to talk the philosophy of the Zani Indians, but it seemed to me the vague Platomism that all there talked, except that he spoke much of young men passing in sleep into the heart of mountains; a doctrine that was presently incorporated into the mythology of the house, to send young men and women hither and tither looking for sacred places.....

....I get in talk with a young man who had taken the orthodox side in some debate. He is a stranger but explains that he has inherited magical art from his father, and asks me to his rooms to see it in operation. He and a friend of his kill a black cock, and burn herbs in a big bowl, but nothing happens except that the friend repeats again and again, "O, my God", and when I ask him why he has said that, does not know that he has spoken...I have a young man with me...and I leave him in the reading room with Russell...I return after some minutes to find that the young man has become a theosophist.'

WB Yeats. 1890s Dublin. Autobiographies: The Trembling of the Veil, Chapter XIII

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Freinds 101: Michael Hartnett & Paul Durcan.

Looking forward to A Rebel Act: Poems That Shaped The Nation, on RTÉ tonite. 

The title comes from Pat Walsh's biographical book published by Mercier press: A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett's Farewell to English.


I stumbled across a small compact online collection of Limerick, Newcastle West, poet Michael Hartnett's utterances and quotes. And a very memorable one jumped out at me. Hartnett wrote that the authentic genuine voice of the writer is when it is recording and speaking at its most successful and superlatively in print on the page mapping the most accurately and closest to thought the poetic contours of a writer's own individual mind. This is the most natural pattern and process cerebral activity can literately make. Making the voice distinct, its own and no other's.

Into which category Hartnett's falls, it is generally agreed by those in the know and the ollúna that would exist, if would-be verse-smiths today were encouraged, and led by example, to look for challenging interactive poetic inspiration in, for example, making an effort at engagement with the one-hundred and twenty line title-less 7C Old Irish ars poetica and founding critical text of the Gaelic literary tradition. What's striking about it is the gender-neutrality poetic at its core. A 50/50 s/he text of brilliant druidic simplicity detailing the authentic ars poetica of the bardic/filidh poetry tradition.

The one text that eluded Robert Graves all his life. A handy how-to guide unlocking 'the language of true poetry — 'true' in the nostalgic modern sense of 'the unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute'; written in a mix of ancient iarni-bérla ('iron speech') prose; and rosc (pl. roscanna), an almost impenetrable druidic earliest Old Irish verse-form. Found in the 14C Book of Ballymote, and translated into English in only 1979, by the world's preeminent Old Irish language expert, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies Professor, and Ériu Editor, Liam Breathnach. 

Introduced to the newly arriving word-weaving beginner and grade one foclóc turning up at Samhain to begin the first six-month semester of a dozen semester course that would turn them out a Doctor of Poetry, six attainments, grades, levels, and qualifying hurdles later; on the twelve year bardic syllabus of yore and reality. Not the mythical wafty bardic Game of Thrones one we can all make up in varying shades and degrees of creative competently comedic BS. 

And returning to their tuatha, tribe and clans back home in their local kingdoms at the first call of the cuckoo, heard in the poetry schools breaking up at Beltaine, when the students went home for the light half of the year, on May Day. And then at the beginning of autumn they returned to learning and began their next semester at Bard School; spending the dark half of the druidic year studying filíocht; the craft and art of word-knowledge and poetry. 

Continuing the long qualifying process, taking on voluminous amounts of information by catechistic rote repetition; spoken out loud in front of a higher qualified poet taking the class; or, as the ecclesiastical Edmund Campion noted in 1571, students at singing school sang out their lessons piecemeal using a technique called 'cronan' or crooning. From which the modern understanding originates, I think.

And returning every Halloween. A second year MacFirmid ('son of composition'), third year Dos (bush/tree-shelterer), fourth Cano ('whelp'/dog), fifth Clí ('ridgepole'), sixth year Anruth ('great/noble stream'), and Doctor of Poetry 'ollamh'; after a final five year stretch spent sensing the spiritual poetic form imbhas forosnai ('imbas', great knowledge, poetic talent, inspiration; 'forosnai', that illuminates); along with its two mantic sub-divisions tenm laida and dichetal di chennaib, translated by German Celtisist Kuno Meyer and quoted by noted Medievalist and Lancastrian Celtic Scholar Nora Chadwick, in the definitive paper on Imbas Forosnai in Scottish Gaelic Studies, vol 4, part 2, pp. 97-135, Oxford University Press (1935); as 'illumination of song,' and 'extempore incantation' respectively.

Practical literary techniques that construct a system of self-supported learning 'on, under, out of, through, past them. These are the staves of words with the poet'; we learn from the genuine poetry Scholar's Primer, Auraicept na n-Éces, core material of the bardic syllabus first translated in 1917; by just banging the head against it repeatedly getting nowhere and a slow twelve year-plus process not unlike sieving your mind thru a tea strainer and taking on a silo of mythic-informational grain; until we eventually discover how, more by effort than anything else, to effect the correct spiritual poetic divisions that channel dán díreach down strict and straight onto the page in print, during a five year Great Stream of learning and verse flowing out from the student doctor creating her and/or his own s/he system of language, taught and learnt for 1200 years of uninterrupted literary tradition, and founded on the s/he principle introduced on day one; before, finally, securing the conferral of ollamh and the apical poetic ennoblement of a Bardic PhD. La viva voce. Not by watching episodes of Simpsons and South Park, or learning how to write free-verse by playing Mortal Kombat fantasy games on electronic screens; but by studying the material on the course training them to be the literary and linguistic equivalent of brain surgeons.


I bought A Rebel Act in Cork when it was first published and on the train back to Dublin got half way thru it, and, yet to return, I look forward to resuming the rest of Walsh's literary labour of love when dán executes the two or three hours of return it will take to finish it. 

Like most Irish poets who are not up there with Yeats and Heaney, or their favoured acolytes, attack-dogs, cheerleaders, disciples, and assorted close personal followers; Hartnett very much viewed himself as an outsider poet. Though when alive he was writing in the shadow of such globally eminent dead poets as the Coole-Dublin-Sligo-London Dreamer, and a living oak of the Mossbawn Magus and Ballaghy Bard; he did have a few friends and supporters, and did get his poems published and discussed in the national press.

His first poetry collection Anatomy of a Cliché, was published by Poetry Ireland in 1968 to critical acclaim whilst he was living in London; and he returned to Ireland to take his place in the pantheon of the then contemporary working published poets chasing the small amount of money to be had by their labours at home in 60s and 70s Holy Catholic Ireland.

Bi-lingual in Gaelic and English he grew up in grim, grey poor and priest-ridden 1940s & 50s rural Ireland, in similar conditions of bleak  social poverty that his fellow Limerick writer, Frank McCourt, reveals in hi-definition on the pages of his globally successfully memoir Angela's Ashes.

His relationship with the Irish language was born from the tongue of someone who local legend claimed was the last native speaker in Limerick (though a Kerry woman herself), his maternal grandmother, Bridget Halpin; into whose home he was fostered at the age of four. And who, along with her 'cronies', as Hartnett labelled them, did not speak Irish amongst each other in front of her own children but were more relaxed about speaking it in front of her grandchildren. 

She was of a generation born to parents who survived the immediate aftermath of the Famine. After being visited by such an economically-induced holocaust the surviving population of Ireland that had not fled or died of starvation, collectively committed to following what the then recently deceased (1847) Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, had advised during the heady days of mass organised civil-social rights movements, Monster Rallies; and the Catholic Emancipation, that O'Connell's leadership brought to Ireland and got wrought into law after the breaking of the final hold of the remaining Penal Laws, that resulted in the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829. 

Two decades before the holocaust struck in the blighted potato harvests of 1845 & '47. 

O'Connell's Advice to a poor, rural Irish peasantry, was to do whatever it took to get society, via the children, speaking English, as an act of economic necessity, by which (I paraphrase) to 'sell your produce, pigs and chickens'; and without which, the consensus amongst them was that the people of Ireland could not realistically take control of their own sovereign, social and economic destinies.

In the immediate post-Famine apocalypse the people who'd survived the holocaust, understandable in the circumstances, came to the cultural conclusion that there was no choice other than to adopt the English language as our own. Over the course of the following one, two and three generations, people began dropping Gaelic and doing all they could to get their children to speak English. Including not talking to them in Irish. 

In the mind of the Irish speaker a cultural, economic and social necessity (and historical realty); but for the more theatrical members of the generations feeling especially excluded and cut off from our grandparents' mother tongue; there is an awareness of an absent spirit, duality, and instinctive knowing that one's identity is defined as much by a profound poetic absence and things that no longer exist, as what reality does actually exist and is the one we experience. 

And a scenario that describes the imaginative condition perfectly, I think. Alternate complex and compelling intellectually created fictional realities composed of things that are not here. Non-existent people as powerful as any living, who live vividly on the page, and exist  in our own readers' minds. After being conceived, born, and coming successfully to life and living in the mind of their authors' first. Loved, loathed, celebrated; and assembled from an imaginative pick and mix of reality woven to literary and verbal art. 

When at its finest balanced the equally successful words are working superlatively both on the page as a cerebral and conceptual electromagnetic and neurological performance of 'reality'; and in the spoken recital of them by the living literate act a human being in physical reality performing dán and éigse; creates when speaking spoken song, and making poetry happen with the voice alone. Knowing the difference between the five divisions of the Selected Language found in the bardic filidh Scholar's Primer, and the reality one mind makes when not in possession of the codes to Seamus Heaney's 'golden circle' halo lifting all boats, and the ogham cynosure flowing out from a supreme Socratic love.


Hartnett learnt Irish by hearing the live language spoken as a young boy, listening to the oldest people in the community speak it, animated by all the earthly wit, love, and human passions that gave full life to the rule-leaden and dead language that Hartnett's generation was being taught to despise as an impenetrable unspoken written language in school. This official 40s/50s republican state Irish language held none of the appeal that the Irish of those whose minds were formed first by it, exerted on Hartnett's own imagination.

Filled with two languages and tongues he knew well and loved; tucked up in his loft listening to the gurgling and murmuring of Munster Gaelic spoken in low voices and out of hearing. That the annals say 'has the music', whilst Ulster Irish 'has the lore.'; as the reader will learn in Padraic Colum's Dedicatory Poem, to George Sigerson, Poet and Scholar; on the first page of what many consider the unsurpassed and groundbreaking standard bearer Anthology of Irish Verse, Boni and Liveright, New York, 1922.

Hartnett very publicly swore off writing in English when the carnage in Ulster was at its most murderous and fervent; announcing this intention in his fifth book and second poetry collection, published by Peter Fallon's Gallery Press in 1975, A Farewell to English: where 'he declared his intention to write only in Irish in the future, describing English as 'the perfect language to sell pigs in'.  

A poetic spin on O'Connell's advice to a world that had been speaking Irish unbroken since before the introduction of literacy. As this website of the annual ('Poetry') Éigse Michael Hartnett Festival in Limerick informs us, legend has it:

Hartnett's grandmother foretold his future as a poet when a fledged nestful of wrens alighted on him one day — thus ultimately inspiring the poem ‘An Muince Dreoilíní / A Necklace of Wrens’.

Later still, Bridget Halpin (‘who never came to terms with the twentieth century’) would be lovingly immortalised in ‘Death of An Irishwoman’.

One of the most memorable poetic events I have 'experienced' was Paul Durcan's ninety minute tour de force defence of his friend Michael Hartnett's 190'ish line poem, Sibelius in Silence, in which he argued, at his first Ireland Poetry Professor lecture in the Jonathan Swift Theatre Trinity College Dublin, Feb 2006:

" ... is one of the most important poems of the last 200 years." Not only in the Anglo-Irish poetical canon, but world literature, Durcan steadfastly boasted/claimed.

Claiming also to have met only one other person in Ireland who'd read it, Harry Clifton, who became Ireland Poetry Professor some years later. He came out swinging and it was a real privilege to be one of the lucky few people on planet earth that night there experiencing a truly otherworldly vibe. Vatic Durcan at his very best. It may have been the best he ever did. Certainly the biggest gig of his life to date. Redressing the mis-balancing of Hartnett's reputation as "an existentialist leprechaun....doomed hobgoblin" and "performing chimpanzee of the bar stool"; that Durcan cracked out as soon as he opened his gob."

After a mesmeric reading of the poem Durcan began his autopsy on the compositional method Hartnett used to create the poem, and drew out from the work a subliminal performance of the critical text. 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 feature binding Sibelius and Hartnett together; their dependency 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 both men's diaries to illustrate his point and gave a detailed account of Hartnett having detailed first hand knowledge of Sibelius's diaries along with a swathe of primary material surrounding the Finnish composer's life and work.

When they were both in the grip of booze benders the entries could have been interchangeable for either man:

"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-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 of the fence, until he ended with the Hartnett entry:

"Cheer up, death is round the corner"; delivered deadpan, shocking the audience into a gulp of involuntary 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 with which Hartnett created his superlative work of verbal art; that Durcan argues, goes right to the heart of what it means to be human. 


When I originally wrote this piece, before the expansion to its current state, I was living in the Iveagh Homeless Hostel, were I was happily resident for 18 months before moving out to Kilmainham. Four years later I returned back to the Iveagh Trust social housing and educational complex in Dublin city-centre south; blessed with the offer of an apartment here, top floor, feeling very lucky and grateful for my first real home in Dublin. I signed off the original piece saying 'it is now late here in my (internet) sweet shop office on Dublin quays, and I must leave.