Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Oscar Wilde Centre in Trinity College is holding a series of nine lectures, readings and discussions themed around Poetry and Politics. The events are every Tuesday - start at 7.30pm and are an hour or so long. The third one is next week.

Among the poets listed to read are Sean O'Brien, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and George Szirtes. On Tuesday evening I went to listen to the Head of Trinity's English Department, Stephen Matterson deliver a lecture on The Poetry of WH Auden.


Auden is a poet whose full ouevre I am yet to ingest. If the truth be known I have read only a handful of anthologised poems from the four hundred he wrote, and of his four hundred prose pieces, virtually none. So Matterson's address was the perfect prelude and primer for an Auden-ignorant like myself to attend, as he sketched the basic autobiographical and critical outline of a poet who inherited the shadowy laurel crown of intellectual English language verse after Yeats - to quote Kavanagh -

"Handed in his gun."

Now I've been at the writing lark for five years and the skeletal shape of my research interests (the history of Irish poetry and Ireland's four mythological cycles) has accurately ossified, a sense of clarity and cognisance of how the long haul in one's poetic learning pans out, is becoming apparent.

And the central poetic philosophy contained in the the Amergin poem heading the Auraicept Na N-eces, Auden discovered for himself. (see - Ireland's True Poetic - link on the right)

The Amergin text - which explains exactly what the poetic gift is and how it works - states that only those who have experienced the widest extremities of joy and sorrow will progress to Ollamh status. An Ollamh is a professor of Poetry in the Irish bardic tradition and Amergin's logic is basic common sense. The wider the gap between and the more intensley you have known love, grief and loss, the higher the poetical streams you will be able to reach or draw from. Auden mirrors this thinking in his essay on Frost.

"A poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly..."


When I fell into writing - more by accident than design at the age of 34 - I breathed a huge sigh of metaphorical relief, as I had finally - on the cusp of middle age - stumbled across the path I knew was "the one;" as throughout my adult life there had always been a nagging awareness that I had not acknowledged, addressed or developed what I instinctively understood to be my true self-Oomphalos. Something Auden described the location of -

"The centre that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind."

Instead of ending up with a wife and kids, I found an inner vocation.

Until this time I had chanced my hand at many different and varied jobs but had never settled on any of them and I was rapidly approaching the middle years of life with an ever deepening sense of frustration and failure - facing the prospect of sliding into my forties as a career-less bum. It was as though the voice of Plato in Yeats' poem was growing ever more audible and insistent.

"What Then?" Sang Plato's ghost, "what then?"


I read somewhere that a writer is someone who is fit for nothing else, and for me it had become the only realisitc option left available. What better way can one who is without qualifications or capital present themselves to the world than as an artist? No more embarrassing introductions or need to gloss reality and manufacture ambition for an audience when the question of work arises.

But how would I know if this decision was a realistic or rational one and not a self decieving fabrication? What better way to carry on being a slacker once youth has faded than sitting in coffee shops with an open notebook, broadcasting to the world that you are not a middle-aged layabout, but a thinker? A man of words? I may be able to fool myself, but would I be successful at fooling others should this change of direction be only a charade?

Would I be merely digging a deeper hole for myself by avoiding conventional employment? What if a few years down the line of written engagement I were to unmask myself and find I was lumbered with a life of regret? Maybe even suffer a complete mental collapse as the conceptual foundations of my existence became exposed as a mirage supporting only fictions? These were fears I'd have to work through and hope were unfounded. Better to try and fail I reasoned, than never dare to chase the dream.


Like many, my first artistic awakening began with a part in the school play. Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, which brought accolades and plaudits and - as one of my pals reckons - was the cause of unfulfilled aspiration that set me on the road to ruin. If this event had not occured and the theatrical door had remained unopened, I would not know the addictive thespian twang of public warmth and may have been content to uncoil my years as a builder retailing sharp one liners. My natural stage the pub tap-room and construction site.

However, once tasted I wanted a real relationship with the slippery imaginitive gods, immediately and without any effort on my part. I demanded the muse pay court to me like a Big Brother TV contestant, whose ego far outweighed my ability, demanding instantaneous reward and paying zero regard to mental effort. Too much unwarranted belief in my ability. I was too daft and too young to grasp an accurate and nuanced understanding of life, and this - coupled with an un-containable imagination - made for a highly delusional mix.

As though the physical reality of one's self is enough. An expectation easily borne at such a tender age - when the future stretches beyond our horizon like the limitless pages of a blank manuscript book we can never hope to fill. And this confidence - wedded to an endless supply of arrogance only the untried and unexperienced possess - was the fuel of my unbridled youth, creating a cocktail of laughably unrealisitc ambition. In short I was a powerful dreamer whose art was never articulated beyond the first stage of mental rehearsal.

On this long and ironic journey to poetic enlightenment the years had gradually turned me from a heavy weight verbal star in the teenage arena - with an innate and unconscious ability to toss off one-liners and slaughter all at will who dared joust with me - to a washed up has-been even the dimmest of my peers could land their spoken blows upon, wounding me at will to stutter a feeble response as they laughed at the once swift joke king toppled to a barstool clown.


I started this piece with the intention of sounding knowledgable and clever about a poet who it is de riguer to profess an understanding of, but I suppose what it is I'm really trying to get across is the notion that there is always hope. The most rewarding discovery I made in writing (after all but myself had written me off) is understanding how a marriage to the imagination is for life, and so there's no great urgency to get hold of Auden's psyche as he will come in time.

As long as we plod away in print, joy and success can only follow. The hard part for me was finding what it was I should be doing and learning how to create the environment and processes in which I could write successfully. And by success I mean what Amergin calls -

"the joy of the binding poetic principle and wisdom which comes after (good) poetic construction."

This is the contentment we get after writing a piece we consider successful, using the sole rule and measure we have - the self made one Heaney describes in his prose, and which is effectively the final arbiter and only guarantee a poet can ever possess.

And one aspect of Auden Matterson successfully got across was his attempts at re-casting his earlier works during his later years, ditching all notion that a seperation exists between the private and public self and surrendering to the idea that honesty is the essential thing in Art.

In the forward to his 1966 edition of Collected Poems he dropped some of his best known work, writing -

"Some poems which I wrote and unfortunately published because they were bad-mannered or boring, I have not included here."

He ended up U turning on many of the lines written in his twenties, when he was viewed as the political poet writing public verse which might change reality. That a sense of civitas rather than direct action is one the poet should cultivate.

He came to believe that the long poem which came out of his time in Spain during the civil war; "Spain" - who many consider the greatest anti war poem of the 30's - was a "dishonest" poem and dropped it from the collected version of his ouevre.

"A dishonest poem is one which expresses - no matter how well - feelings or beliefs which it's author never felt or entertained. Shamefully I once wrote

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon

That I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective, is quite inexcuasable."


This is arguably his most oft quoted and well known line and Matterson said that the whole lecture series is about exploring the impact and legacy of this line.


Eamon Lynskey was in the audience and afterwards we went to warble at the Write and Recite open Mic in Cassidy's on Westmoreland street, the only two from the lecture to do so. These are the most instructive nights I have experienced. When a bit of high brow theory is followed by the actuality of the art. Well worth the 5.50 euro. And the line of the night which sums up Auden at the end of his journey?

Never greening for the big money
Never neighing after a public image.

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