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 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.