Monday, March 27, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.


A keen-eyed reader has pointed out to me that this year, I have broken one of the customs I have observed ever since I started this blog nearly six years ago. On the week which includes St Patrick’s Day, it has always been my custom to have something Irish in this “Something Old” slot. Thus in past years I have considered James Joyce’s Ulysses, Darran McCann’s After the Lockout, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer and The Black Soul, and Terence de Vere White’s The Distance and the Dark. I’ve also posted such bits of Irishry as Me and James Joyce in That Order and Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 RIP and The Wearing of the Green and so forth and Yeats the Art of Being a Fool.
St Patrick’s Day 2017 was the week before last and, said my observant reader, I had ignored my own custom.
To atone, I therefore present, two weeks late, three outstanding pieces of Irish poetry by three very different Irishmen. First is “Epic” by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) who, more than anyone else, captured in great poetry both the loneliness and the inspiration of the Irish countryside. In many ways, this twentieth-century poet was heir to the soul of Irish Catholic peasants from an earlier age. Kavanagh’s masterpiece is “The Great Hunger” – not a poem about the Famine, but a poem about the lovelessness of an isolated life. Unfortunately it is too long for me to reproduce here, as is Kavanagh’s “Prelude” (which can be found in Brendan Kennelly’s Penguin Book of Irish Verse), one of the sanest apologia yet written for the craft of a poet. Length, by the way, was one reason I did not include in this week’s bouquet two of my favourite Irish poems – James Clarence Mangan’s translation of the Gaelic “Dark Rosaleen”, and John Montague’s thoughts of a deracinated priest “Soliloquy on a Southern Strand” (which can be found in Paul Muldoon’s anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry).
So here is “Epic”, a loose sonnet by Patrick Kavanagh, with its true perception that real epics grow from the small and the local:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The blasphemous, railing doctor and raconteur Oliver St.John Gogarty (1878-1957), sometime pal of James Joyce until the two of them fell out, was a very different kettle of cockles from Patrick Kavanagh. He was urban rather than rural (spending most of his life in Dublin and then New York). He wasn’t interested in tragedy and he fancied himself as a wit. Nor was he a prolific poet. Yet one of his poems turns up in nearly every anthology of Irish verse and for good reason. “Ringsend” manages at one and the same time to be a roistering kick in the pants to romanticised concepts of urban bohemia, and yet a sly justification for such bohemianism. The last two lines are an amazing reversal of sentiment:

                  RINGSEND (After reading Tolstoi)

I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore,
And the fan-light gone in
Where it lights the hall-door;
And listen each night
For her querulous shout,
As at last she streels in
And the pubs empty out.
To soothe that wild breast
With my old-fangled songs,
Till she feels it redressed
From inordinate wrongs,
Imagined, outrageous,
Preposterous wrongs,
Till peace at last comes,
Shall be all I will do,
Where the little lamp blooms
Like a rose in the stew;
And up the back-garden
The sound comes to me
Of the lapsing, unsoilable,
Whispering sea.

And finally, the great unignorable voice of late 20th and early 21st century Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), Nobel Prize-winner and “famous Seamus”. Heaney was a Catholic from the North, a man who wrote about the urban (Irish, English and American) scene as often as he wrote about the rural scene. I could dip into any collection of his verse and find something I’d be happy to reproduce here, but I have chosen one of his earlier and more rural poems “The Outlaw”, primarily because I remember once the giggles and titters it aroused when I discussed it with a senior form at a girls’ school where I once taught.

            THE OUTLAW
Kellys kept an unlicensed bull, well away
From the road: one risked a fine, but had to pay 
The normal fee if cows were serviced there.
Once I dragged a nervous Friesian on a tether
Down a lane of alder, shaggy with catkin,
Down to the shed the bull was kept in. 
I gave Old Kelly the clammy silver, though why
I could not guess. He grunted a curt "Go by.
Get up on that gate." and from my lofty station
I watched the businesslike conception.
The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall 
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward unexpected jump, and
His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.
Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.
“She‟ll do,” said Kelly and tapped his ash-plant
Across her hindquarters. “If not, bring her back.”
I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack
While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw
Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.

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