Download PDF Here 13th Anniversary
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Three December 2022.
Poetry and the anxieties of our world, Guest editorial by Thomas McCarthy.
There was a time when every poet had to wait for bad news. Long ago if you lived on an island like Ireland or Japan or Hawai’i all the bad news of the world had to come to you by sea. During the Great European War of 1914-1918 the inhabitants of the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland became eerily aware of a great submarine war in the Atlantic when corpses and timber spars from sunken warships washed up on their islands.
War brought them its bounty, lots of fresh timber for fishermen to burn as firewood, and, once, the floating corpse of an officer from the Lusitania whose coat pocket contained three silver coins. In Maurice O’Sullivan’s island memoir, Twenty Years A-Growing, Mick, the islander, is allowed to keep the coins. Young Maurice spends the rest of the Great War sitting on a Western headland of the island, watching the wide sea beyond Ireland, but the sea brought him no more corpses with silver coins.
So it was with the old island people, the anxieties of elsewhere did not interest them. Why should they be anxious about other people’s conflicts, and the suffering of persons who were not related to them by blood or marriage? In the years before mass communication and twenty four-hour television, this island self-interest was shared even by the more educated and literary class.
In her memoir Privileged Spectator, the now-forgotten novelist Ethel Mannin describes a painful encounter between the poet W.B. Yeats, who was a Nobel Prize laureate, and the German poet Ernst Toller. Toller was pleading with Yeats at a dinner-table in Claridge’s Hotel, London, having way-laid him at the door of the Savile Club. Toller pleaded with Yeats to nominate the pacifist writer Carl von Ossietzky for the Nobel Peace Prize. Von Ossietzky was languishing in a Nazi jail, suffering tortures from which he would eventually die in 1938. But the great poet Yeats was un-moved. Mannin describes the scene:
‘I knew before Toller had finished that Yeats would refuse. He was acutely uncomfortable about it, but he refused. He never meddled in political matters, he said; he never had. At the urging of Maud Gonne he had signed the petition on behalf of Roger Casement, but that was all, and the Casement case was after all an Irish affair. He was a poet, and Irish, and had no interest in European political squabbles. His interest was Ireland, and Ireland had nothing to do with Europe politically; it was outside, apart. He was sorry, but this had always been his attitude.
Toller and I looked at each other. Toller’s eyes filled with tears. Perhaps, he said, with emotion, perhaps one felt differently about these things if one had been in prison oneself. This, he urged, was not a political matter; it was an affair of life and death, a question of a man’s life. He, too, was a poet, but life was bigger than all the poetry ever written. My own eyes filled with tears. I cannot honestly say whether it was my feeling for Ossietzky, or whether because I was moved by Toller’s emotion, or whether it was merely the vodka; it was probably a combination of all three.’ (Privileged Spectator, Hutchinson, 1939, p83/84)
Yeats’ stubborn indifference to the fate of a fellow writer would shock a contemporary Irish poet. Just now, there are more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees admitted into Ireland, despite the fact that Ireland, with its native population of only five million, has a housing crisis and can’t manage to house thousands of its own citizens. Yet, there is universal support across the country for our refugee programmes; and a universal sense of pity and empathy for Ukrainian suffering. We have little shelter to give Ukraine, but we’ll share what little we have; that seems to be the attitude of Irish people and Irish government.
This changing response over the generations is part of an earth-wide empathy and anxiety about the state of the world. Conflict and crisis gets reported within minutes; reporters on the ground vie with each other to bring us images of suffering and reports of terror. In almost every case, war becomes personal. This is a new situation for the poet, a new situation that has arisen after, perhaps, three thousand years of poetry written at a distance and written at ease. There is no easiness left in the poetry world, now there is anxiety.
Seventeen hundred years ago, Ausonius, the famous poet of the Western Roman Empire, could teach his students Rhetoric and Greek at old Bordeaux University and supervise his huge vineyard in peace, reflecting only now and again on the vicissitudes of war. He was really only interested in the domestic ordinariness of his own life. News was too slow to come to him, so that he couldn’t see the catastrophe that was about to fall upon an entire world, the collapse of the thousand-year Roman hegemony.
Decimus Magnus Ausonius, when he was a tutor at the Imperial court of Triere, or Trèves, had once taken part in a military mission in the northern reaches of that Empire, a punishment expedition by the Roman legions against troublesome Germanic tribes. Unlike Yeats who only pretended not to be involved in politics, Ausonius was truly uninterested in the destiny of other humanities. Out of that great Legionary military expedition where many poor Germanic riverside villagers must have died, or been taken as slaves, Ausonius wrote an epic poem about fish, celebrating all the fish of the Moselle river. Mosella became his most celebrated poem for at least a thousand years:
‘Nec te puniceo rutilantum viscere, salmo,
Transierim, latae cuius vaga verbera caudae
Gurgite de medio summas referunter in undas,
Occultus placido cum proditur acquire pulsus’ (lines 97-100)
which roughly means:
‘Nor will I pass you by, O salmon with flesh of rosy red, the random strokes of whose broad tail from the mid-depths are reproduced upon the surface, when the still water’s face betrays thy hidden course’ (trans: Hugh G. Evelyn White, Heinemann, 1919).
The poem continues in like manner for four hundred and eighty-three lines. In its crowning ordinariness it is Ausonius’s major achievement, exciting his contemporaries so much that between AD350 and AD390 they compared him to Virgil. As Gibbons commented in his Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, that Ausonius’s companions thought so highly of his work does condemn the taste of his Age.
Ausonius also wrote excitedly about oysters, childbirth, medicine (his father had been a physician), and the great cities of the Empire. Untroubled by the world, the poet lived a long life, cultivating his magnificent wine estates north of Bordeaux and writing inoffensive if technically perfect lyrics. He died in his late nineties at the beginning of the Fifth Century AD. His ordinariness and domesticity has been condemned by European scholars for more than one and a half thousand years. His career, therefore, is a unique achievement in sustained critical abuse.
But in the world we now find ourselves living in as poets, there are no mediating distances. The life of others is immediate. There are no ‘orientalising’ excuses – or ‘making strange’ in this world, as the poet Seamus Heaney used to say. In this era of high anxiety, of CNN, Al Jazeera and France24, is there something the contemporary poet can learn from the indifference of poor islanders and the political silence of a Classical poet? Perhaps there is. It may be this – or, let me put it this way, a poem is not a representative viewpoint: it is a thing made from an inner compulsion. There is a whole cadre of well-meaning, kind-hearted people who think poetry should advance their causes.
The fact is, causes destroy poetry more quickly than almost anything else, more quickly, even, than Fascism or tyrannies of any kind. Dear God, protect poets from Causes. They are worse than alcoholism in the decline of a poet’s mind.
Causes, Fascism and Tyranny all belong to the same category of action, the public realm. I’m not saying they’re morally equivalent. They are not. But they are technically equivalent. In recent months of self-isolation, I’ve been tidying and culling my library. I intend to throw out at least a thousand books before I’ve done with the job. I’ve been checking-through, therefore, a whole sequence of turgid anthologies of Irish nationalist poetry; all those beautiful, expensively-bound green anthologies of Irish poetry published from 1848 until, roughly, 1924. Why 1924, I wonder? Ah, Yes! Yeats’ Nobel Prize and the teaching instrument that was the Nobel Prize in serious Irish literary discourse at that time.
In 1924 a worldly, calm Swedish mirror was held up to Irish poetry, causing the second-rate and the provincial to be burned off. The ballad-makers fell away, those patriotic second-rate purveyors of group feeling, and only poetic art that was personal, urgent, immortal, came to the forefront. After Yeats, Irish poetry had to become personal. In the following decades Irish poets and would-be writers left their country in droves, escaping not physical tyranny, but an oppressive and stifling national orthodoxy that encouraged patriotic and group-think.
As the writer Seán O Faoláin once observed, an Irish writer’s personal life began on the Ferry between Dublin and Holyhead in the UK. That journey into a private realm, away from the public urgencies of Ireland, is well documented in the work of Joyce, Beckett, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern. Yet, don’t think I am canvassing an indifference to the world, or an indifference to suffering.
We share a common humanity and the exercise of pity in the face of suffering is one of the very things that distinguish human life from mere animal life. Human empathy makes us what we are as humans and poetry emerges from this human zone. Poetry is that sentient part of being-in-the-world. Poetry, though, is urgently an aesthetic thing, a response to urges within us to complete our reality; to be confirmed in our existence by the art we make.
The most compelling aspect of the poetic impulse is its urgency to be created. It yearns to be written within us, it is an act of completion in that truly psychic sense. But isn’t it amazing how we still canvass poetry as if it should represent persons other than the poet? I have constantly done this, in review after review after review – Reading my reviews over the last forty years I can see that I often named a cause or a public purpose in praising some poet when I should have concentrated on the text at hand, the materials inside, the pigments that made the poem. There is no end to it, and I probably won’t stop now, at this late stage in my life.
When reviewing, you make an effort to canvass support for some poet you admire, a poet you wish to see praised more widely, a poet you hope might be ‘taken up’ more by an indifferent world. We all do this, but this is our inner politician at work. The fact is, the aptness, the excellence, the private greatness, we find in really good poems by others is so intimately a personal thing that it can’t be advocated on the level at which it’s been written. Its privacy defies publicity. Poems defy the kind of rhetoric we want them to have. Poems represent themselves before they represent anything else.
It is difficult to see the privacy of the poetic impulse in some poets, such as Neruda or Seferis for whom public suffering was a very real private suffering, but you can see it plainly in Pasternak or Sylvia Plath. Poets sometimes become the embodiment of a cause, the voice of a cause or a national movement. But this embodiment is always the result of a conscription drive within the literary ranks: the poem has become needed by a public urgency. But the poem was always private before it became public. Hard to make good people, highly motivated people, aware of this. And when you do make them aware they think you’re being selfish, self-serving, bourgeois.
Poets don’t have this honest conversation with enthusiastic, well-meaning people. It is too painful, and the young especially come away from such conversations feeling betrayed. There is a kind of frenzy abroad in poetry, and in the arts generally. It is comparable to the Communist frenzy among young writers in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties: is your poetry for us or against us, are you part of our Popular Front or is your poetry an enemy of history? My reply: Hey mister, is the milkweed that feeds the butterfly for us or against us, is the stonechat turning stones in its search for insects for or against history? Poetry is for all of it, butterfly, stonechat, history; but, let’s be honest, like the music of Mahler, it is mainly for itself. And it constantly yearns to be first-rate, this is its urgent mission.
Just remember this – and don’t forget it, ever — poetry is an urgently personal thing long before it enters any public realm
© Thomas McCarthy
Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated locally and at University College Cork. He was an Honorary Fellow of the International Writing programme, University of Iowa in 1978/79. He has published The First Convention (1978), The Sorrow Garden (1981), The Lost Province (1996), Merchant Prince (2005) and The Last Geraldine Officer (2009) as well as a number of other collections. He has also published two novels and a memoir. He has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry as well as the Ireland Funds Annual Literary Award.
McCarthy worked for many years at Cork City Libraries, retiring in 2014 to write fulltime. He was International Professor of English at Macalester College, Minnesota, in 1994/95. He is a former Editor of Poetry Ireland Review and The Cork Review. He has also conducted poetry workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Molly Keane House, Arvon Foundation and Portlaoise Prison (Provisional IRA Wing). He is a member of Aosdana.
His Pandemonium was published by Carcanet Press in 2016, and hs latest collection, Prophecy, was published by Carcanet in April, 2019. Gallery Press, Ireland, has just published his journals, Poetry, Memory and the Party, in 2022. It is available here: https://gallerypress.com/product/poetry-memory-and-the-party/