Saturday, June 9, 2018

Why I Went to a Poetry Reading, and What I Heard There

In his "Cruiskeen Lawn" Irish Times column of the mid-twentieth century, the humourist and professional cynic Myles Na Gopaleen expressed a typically caustic view of poetry readings:

I was once acquainted with a man who found himself present by some ill chance at a verse speaking bout. Without a word he hurried outside and tore his face off. Just that. He inserted three fingers into his mouth, caught his left cheek in a frenzied grip and ripped the whole thing off. When it was found, flung in a corner under an old sink, it bore the simple dignified expression of the honest man who finds self-extinction the only course compatible with honour.

Very funny, of course. But lampooning poetry readings is the cheapest of cheap shots.

Anyway, today I found myself in attendance at one. In fact, I went considerably out of my way to attend it.

Today (a Saturday) was the day of my university's Festival, a day-long festival which has been held in the university where I work for the last few summers. Various different events are held all around campus. I'd never attended before, and I felt guilty about this.

Why did I feel guilty? Because festivals are supposed to be part of what I'm all about, as a traditionalist conservative. "Curtains make a house a home"...that's the slogan I've often used on this blog, to sum up my social philosophy. It might be a little obscure as a slogan, but basically, it means that the "house" of society can only be a "home" when it's softened and domesticated by ritual, ceremony, tradition, custom, and so forth. Well, festivals are certainly a big part of that "so forth". Festivity is deeply conservative.

Not only that, but I'm all in favour of the Festival on account of its paternalism. I love working in a university, a place that seems a little world of its own. I like the idea that a workplace should be more than somewhere you pick up a pay-cheque, that it should have a social and community aspect to it.

One of the reasons I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was growing up was because the crew always seemed to be attending each other's amateur dramatics, concerts and other cultural activities. It's also why I enjoy reading provincial novels, set in the pre-television era, where everybody always seems to be attending charades or a recital in somebody else's house. It's very appealing to think that a community would get at least some of its culture and entertainment at home, especially in these days when we are all plugged in to television and the internet.

Commander Data in a production of Macbeth

As I said, there were events happening all over campus. There was, for instance, a "philosophical café" event in the philosophy department. However, I decided to stay on my own patch, and attend the poetry reading in the library. (There were some other things happening in the library, too, like a "trip down memory lane" of the library's history, and a manuscripts exhibition in the Special Collections section.)

I feel a kind of protective instinct towards poetry. Not only have I loved poetry all my life, but I always think it's one of the things of which there is always too little, which is always being sidelined.

And thereby hangs a tale... The truth, of course, is that poetry itself (or rather, the poetry "establishment" of our era) is far from blameless in this regard. Poetry has been in a slump, and worse than a slump, for at least fifty years. In my view, the last great English language poet was Philip Larkin, and he himself (along with his contemporary John Betjeman) was a throwback. Free verse has ruled the roost for decades.

Can we exculpate the public for this? I don't think so. If there was a public demand for proper poetry, for traditional poetry that rhymes and scans and makes sense, a supply would undoubtedly have risen to meet this demand. But there isn't. There are still excellent traditional poets, such as this young Catholic Englishman. They deserve better of the reading public. It is very hard to develop as a poet without an audience, an audience that is both appreciative and critical.

I knew full well that I wasn't going to encounter this kind of poetry at the poetry reading. And yet, I wasn't too bothered about this. The truth is, I can often enjoy mediocre free verse. In some ways, mediocre free verse is easier to enjoy (in an immediate context) than good traditional verse. Good traditional verse is always demanding of the poet, and often demanding of the reader. You have to let its rhythms and cadences settle into your mind, swirl around in your memory.

There weren't very many people at the poetry reading, but there was a respectable amount. Many were library staff, of course.

A young man punctuated the poetry with songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I thought he was a hipster, but he mentioned being a member of UCD's Newman Society in his time in the university. The Newman Society is a Catholic society. There were some oblique references to Catholicism in a nostalgic song inspired by the folklore collection. There was also a version of "Down by the Sally Gardens" by W.B. Yeats which included Irish language lyrics supplied by the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock. In my own college years, I had an animated debate with Mr. Rosenstock in a pub, arguing for the need for rules in poetry. His counter-argument-- that free-verse had its own internal rules-- was one that didn't impress me much then, and it doesn't impress me now. But he was a nice fellow.

The first poet was a young American woman, a black lady with a shaven head. She was one of the "featured poets" at the reading. (The featured poets were those who had been invited to the festival, poets who had achieved some kind of public profile. But anyone could apply to read.) 

Philip Larkin

I didn't enjoy her poetry at all. Even mediocre free verse is only enjoyable if you can follow it, but her poetry was a potpourri of random imagery and phrases. Some of it made some sense-- the first poem gave advice on how to help a depressed "partner". Perhaps this is prejudiced of me, but when I saw her cropped hair I expected she would have nothing good to say about men. However, the poem was quite warm-- it even spoke of "mothering" him. Later on, however, there were some angry feminist moments.

Her other poems included one on the subject of synaesthesia-- in particular, her tendency to associate particular colours with particular people and ideas. A promising idea, but the poem was a mess. Then there was a poem about writer's block. I think it's always a mistake for writers to write about writer's block, and this particular work showed a rather annoying resentment towards the audience who were patiently listening to her and applauding her.

After that, a mature student stepped up to the podium-- a housewifely kind of lady. (Indeed, she arrived with her children.) Her appearance endeared her to me, and I hoped the poetry might be a little more...well, bourgeois. However, I was disappointed. There was one poem about a traffic jam which was coherent enough, but a poem on the theme of "nature" repudiated (rather predictably) the whole idea of nature, and especially of femininity.

Then a young male student stepped up. His first poem was the only decent poem of the day, a work in which he imagined somebody (a woman, I assume) walking towards him. In each verse, she walked towards him on a different "level"-- molecular, historical, romantic, etc. In the last few lines of the poem, the refrain (which was something like "You walk towards me") was shortened word by word, until the final line was simply: "You". That was quite heartfelt and simple, though not at all accomplished. The use of repetition gave it more structure than any of the other poems. However, his other poems were poor.

The last poet I heard was an established Irish poet, an elderly man whose poetry had been published by The Irish Times and Carcanet Press. He began by announcing that he belonged to an older generation and he wrote an older sort of poetry than the previous poets (towards whom he was most complimentary), but to my ears it sounded like just the same sort of free verse, undergirded by the same sort of social and cultural attitudes. As an old fogey, he was a disappointment.

His poetry had, at least, an interesting gimmick-- to my mind, at any rate. All his poetry was about party politics. He announced himself as a partisan of Fianna Fáil, the party who dominated Irish politics until very recently. He claimed that "hegemony" was necessary to culture, in that it provoked a reaction against it. It was the most interesting thing said on the podium all afternoon. (At the same time, it should be borne in mind that party politics in Ireland are rather meaningless-- the two major parties are centrist parties, and the centre has been shifting in a socially liberal direction for decades. So a Fianna Fáil hegemony was certainly not a "conservative" hegemony.)

One of the poems drew heavily on the image of election posters-- and, indeed, I think election posters are very poetic, since they capture a particular moment and atmosphere. The day after the abortion referendum, I heard several of my colleagues agreeing that they should be banned. I can't even understand that attitude.

At this point, there was a sort of half-time break, and I decided I'd had enough. Although the poetry was disappointing, I was still glad I came.

Before I went, I stepped into Special Collections to look at the manuscript display. They were manuscripts from Ireland's Gaelic tradition. They were all written in the Irish language, or at least in Irish and English, and they were very elegantly handwritten. Looking at them, I felt a familiar pang for my own cultural traditions-- but, recently, I've come to the very reluctant conclusion that national traditions are doomed, and that only Catholic traditions are worth actively holding onto.

I walked back through the campus towards the bus-stop. It was a very sunny day and the campus had filled up. Food tents were selling ice-cream, burgers, and other treats. Some children were playing a game of life-size chess. National flags from every country were festooned between the lamp-posts. (One previous year, I noticed the Vatican flag, though I didn't see it this time.) I found myself reflecting, far from the first time, on how I love everything which provides a background; elections, Christmas, Halloween, snow, the Catholic liturgical year...

I'm sorry if this seems a mean-spirited post. I can't pretend that the stuff I heard today is poetry, in the way I understand the term.'s something like poetry. It's better than nothing. And, yes, I'm glad I went.

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