Monday, September 17, 2018

The Spoken Word

Back in February, a script I submitted was broadcast on an Irish radio show. I'm not going to name it, as I'm going to be mildly critical of it here, and I don't want its staff coming across this blog post. I'm not going to give my piece's title or link to the recording, for the same reason.

I reproduce the script below, in the form I submitted it. (It's very short). But before you read it, I want to say that this is a very heartfelt piece. The ideas and emotions it expresses are very strongly held. In fact, this is why I've been thinking about the subject today-- the atmosphere of the sort of shop I'm describing here keeps coming into my mind. Well, goes:

The term “Hallmark holiday” is a term of disparagement. So is the term “chocolate box”, when it’s used as an adjective—“chocolate box emotions”, for instance. And yet, for all that, I never walk into a greeting card shop without falling into a mood of deep serenity, or even of tenderness. I think they are much underpraised, and deserve to be defended.




The aroma that fills the air of greeting card shops is the most immediately distinctive thing about them—an aroma of scented candles. Scented candles are funny things. They don’t actually give off much scent when they are lit—when you are trying to smell their scent, it’s hardly there. But when they catch you by surprise—like when you walk into a greeting card shop, or when you remember some moment you spent in a greeting card shop—the scent seems overwhelming, flooding your memory and soul. This could be a metaphor for so many things, from national character to romantic love. 

I like greeting card shops because I like looking at the shelves and reflecting that every single purchase in them is going to make somebody feel happy, or loved, or at the very least remembered. Even people who pretend to be indifferent to birthday cards, to Valentine’s cards, to Christmas cards, or to Thank You cards, are—I firmly believe—lying, even if they are lying to themselves.

Gestures are the currency of love, the currency of respect, the currency of belonging. I remember, in my teens, crying over a passage in Oscar Wilde’s essay De Profundis, when Wilde wrote about the occasion—after his conviction—when he was surrounded by a hostile crowd, in the midst of which one loyal friend raised his hat to him. Years later, when I read King Lear, I felt a ferocious sympathy with Lear himself, when he divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and asks each of them to tell him how much she loves him. His youngest daughter Cordelia, not wanting to flaunt her love for the sake of reward, refuses to match her sisters’ extravagant claims—and the entire tragic series of events that make up the plot of this darkest of plays is set in motion. Cordelia is the play’s heroine, but I think that generations of readers have wondered why she had to be so cruel, why she couldn’t just give the old man the words he craved.

Of course, there are more than greeting cards in greeting card shops. There are teddy bears, chocolate boxes, mugs, helium balloons, and all manner of merchandise which a cynic could call overpriced trash. Many of the trinkets bear mottoes or quotations of the inspiring kind: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, “Believe in the magic of your dreams”, “Love me when I really need it, because that’s when I most deserve it”.

Now, I love classic poetry. I love Lord Alfred Tennyson and Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats. I realise that subtlety and restraint and ambiguity are the stock-in-trade of the poet, that the poet strives to communicate timeless ideas in a fresh and original way. I realise that there is a difference between “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” and “believe in the magic of your dreams.”




 

But I can’t help it—in fact, I don’t really want to help it. The slogans that I encounter in greeting card shops often reduce me to tears. Whenever I’ve admitted this to anyone, they think I’m being provocative or ironic or contrarian, when I’m telling the God’s honest truth. And I think there’s an important point at stake.

Here is the important point. It’s understandable, and it’s desirable, that poets and writers and others should wish to express themselves in an original way, and that they should seek original ideas to express. But I think that we are in a perpetual danger of straying too far from the primary emotions, the simple truths, the obvious sentiments—what I might call the daily bread of humanity. This isn’t just a danger for poets and writers, but for all of us.

Greeting card shops seem to me like a huge fireplace where we can warm ourselves on that obviousness, that simplicity, those elemental emotions. Yes, they deserve far more praise than they get.


Well, there is the script.

My father encouraged me to submit scripts to this show. I was rather reluctant. He said: "Do it for six weeks and, if nothing happens, you can say you tried." So I did pretty much exactly that. Most of my scripts weren't very good. It was many months later that I got a call from the show. They asked me to come in (the next day!) and record it.

I was very excited. I'd never been inside a working radio studio and it was an experience I felt I'd missed out on. I'd been in a few television studios in recent times, but no radio studio. Also, I was pleased at the idea of having my work broadcast on a national broadcaster-- it was a confidence booster. 

The studio was only a short walk from my workplace, so I took a few hours off and headed down.

I sat behind a glass window, with the producer and the sound engineer sitting opposite to me, and the producer speaking to me through headphones. (Actually, at one point she advised me to take the headphones off, since I would still be able to hear her voice coming through them, and wearing headphones impedes how we speak.) And so we fell to recording the script.


We did take after take. Sometimes the producer asked me to repeat particular paragraphs or sentences, over and over again. And her directions were always the same; speak faster, use more emphasis, highlight the humorous passages with a more comical tone.

I admit I was a bit disappointed. It might be a bit vain to write this, but people have often complimented me on my voice. Once, at Mass, a woman turned around in the pew in front of me and said: "You have a lovely voice." I always thought I had a good radio voice, and a good radio delivery. The producer obviously thought I was some distance from her ideal! Also, I'd gone into the studio with one idea foremost in my mind: to speak slowly. I was convinced the temptation would be to race through it. But even when I deliberately spoke faster, it wasn't fast enough!

However, I assumed the professionals knew what they were talking about, and that I would hear the proof of this in the end product.

Well, as you can guess, that's not how it happened at all. When I listened to the broadcast, I winced all the way through. I hated how I sounded on the radio! And it wasn't just a case of cringing at the sound of my own voice, as we all do. I specifically hated the way I delivered the piece-- how much emphasis I put into it, how exaggerated it seemed to me. I've never listened to it again, though it's available on the internet, and I doubt I ever will.

I have my own views on the proper reading of literary texts. I started reading poetry in a serious way when I was about fourteen. I would read anthologies of poetry slowly, reading each poem to myself over and over and over again, and often covering the name of the author so I wouldn't be influenced by reputation. 

As I did this, I "heard" the voice of the poet in a very particular way, though I only realized this years later. The voice I heard was a male voice (although, come to think of it, I might have heard a female voice when it was a female poet). Male or female, it always spoke in the same tone-- steady, formal, neither slow nor fast, and almost without emphasis. And it always spoke in standard English, not with any particular accent. (I utterly detest dialect poetry.)

The voice in my head, reading poetry, always paused for line breaks, even for run-on lines. That's still how I read poetry.

I can't bear listening to a poet or actor reciting a poem and making heavy weather of it. It makes me cringe. Actors are particularly culpable in this regard. They want to put their stamp on a poem, to make it a performance.

Is this just a personal preference of mine? Perhaps it is, but it's not a random one. It reflects my underlying view of poetry, which was well expressed by John Stuart Mill:



Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener...

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. It may be said that poetry, which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller's shop, is a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage. But there is nothing absurd in the idea of such a mode of soliloquizing. What we have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us. But no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself. The actor knows that there is an audience present; but if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill. A poet may write poetry with the intention of publishing it; he may write it even for the express purpose of being paid for it; that it should be poetry, being written under any such influences, is far less probable; not, however, impossible; but no otherwise possible than if he can succeed in excluding from his work every vestige of such lookings-forth into the outward and every-day world, and can express his feelings exactly as he has felt them in solitude, or as he feels that he should feel them, though they were to remain for ever unuttered.



I believe this. I believe it holds true even in the case of dialogue poems, and poems which by their very nature would seem to require a more declamatory style. 

I also dislike the use of heavy regional accents in poetry recitation. I realize this might put me under suspicion of being a snob, but I don't care.

Don't get me wrong. I love accents. I rejoice in the diversity of accents in the world. I don't think anyone should suppress their accent.


But, in recent times, we seem to have seen (or rather, heard) a cult of regional accents which is altogether excessive. It seems as though people are actually exaggerating their accents as some sort of socio-political statement.

I'm against this because it's ugly. No matter what your accent, you can modulate it. There is a proper way of pronouncing words. Shapeliness is generally considered beautiful, while distortion is considered ugly, and I think it's true of speech. There is such a thing as being "well-spoken" and I think poetry should be recited in a well-spoken voice.

Given all that, I was rather disappointed with my solitary airing on radio. And doubly disappointed, since the subject is one close to my heart. My script was prose, not poetry, but I think the same principles apply, especially as it was a very introspective sort of prose.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Rider's Quest: A Unicorn Poem

"Oh rider tell me why you ride
So endlessly, so urgently?
They ask throughout the countryside
Or if you hunt, or if you flee.
Now linger here a little while
And whisper it into my ear
The thing that drives you many a mile--
Or is it far, or is it near?"



"My gentle host, I cannot say--
I have not seen it with my eyes
Or by the common light of day
Or under any earthly guise.
I seek it, yet it seeks me too.
I seek it, yet I somehow flee.
Good host, I cannot give to you
The answer to this mystery."

"Poor rider, linger yet a while;
And warm yourself beside the fire.
We cannot live without a smile,
Enraptured by some one desire.
You miss the music of the day
You miss the poetry of night.
You must not yearn your life away--
Poor rider, what a sorry sight!"

"Dear host, the things you say are true;
The world is broad, the world is wide,
And full of wonders, old and new.
And yet-- it pales unless I ride.
The merry festivals I see
Seem merrier, the more I speed--
And the untasted revelry,
While still I ride, is sweet indeed."



"Rider, your words are strange, but fair.
The hall seems brighter while you stay.
You seem to carry some quaint air
From long ago, or far away.
Stay yet a while. And tell me true--
Is your lone quest to silence sworn?
I think I know what you pursue--
I think you chase the unicorn."

"The unicorn? Perhaps I do.
I cannot say, my gentle host.
Sometimes I fear, to tell you true,
I chase the phantom of a ghost.
I am not sworn to silence stern,
Nor do I riddle you for sport.
The thing for which I hunt and yearn
Is something of the strangest sort."

"Still stranger than the unicorn?
Oh rider, do you mock at me?
Is this a costume to be worn,
An outward show of mystery?
Perhaps you merely seek a name?
And yet-- I cannot think it so.
Oh pardon me!-- I see with shame
Your heart is purer than the snow."



"Good host, my pardon will I grant
Most readily. Your words are fair.
But mockery and teasing chant
Follow behind me everywhere.
"The man is mad", the children sing,
"He plays some trick", their mothers say.
I hardly hear their chattering.
I smile on them and go my way."

"Good rider, tell me why you stare
So keenly at that candle's flame?
I've marked you often looking there--
All candle-light is much the same.
A candle is a common thing,
A thing unnoticed by the world.
What magic has its flickering
For one on such a mission hurled?"

"Of all the things the world contains
This flame is closest to my prize.
This flicker that the world disdains
Is a kind beacon to my eyes.
Of every worldly thing the most
Unworldly is its gentle gleam.
Here is my secret, worthy host:
I seek the light seen in a dream."


Tuesday, September 4, 2018

More from "Catholic Without Apologies".


Here is another article from Catholic Without Apologies, the collection of my Catholic Voice articles which I put together with the intention of getting it published. I was told that collections of articles don't sell, so I'm posting it here bit by bit. This article is from October 2015.

Do We Need a New Idiom?

I’m typing this article the day after I attended the latest meeting of the Hilaire Belloc Society of Ireland. The Belloc Society meets on a regular basis at the Central Catholic Library in Dublin’s Merrion Square. Many of its members also come to the meetings of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, which I chair, and which meet in the same venue. All of these ventures—the Belloc Society, the Chesterton Society, and the Central Catholic Library itself—could do with more support. If you are interested in attending one of our Chesterton Society meetings, contact me at Maolsheachlann@gmail.com. If you are interested in attending a Belloc Society meeting, contact me and I’ll pass you onto its organisers. I hope I may be forgiven for beginning my article with these promos. They are, as you’ll see, appropriate to the subject in hand.

Irish Catholicism, right now, is at a point which might be compared to the fall of France in World War Two, or perhaps to the evacuation of Dunkirk in the same war. To put it bluntly, it has taken a hammering. Forces which were working against it in semi-secret, and with little apparent success for many decades, have recently enjoyed a spectacular breakthrough. The near-collapse in vocations, the open hostility to the Church in the Irish media and Dáil Éireann, and the euphoric approval given by the Irish people to same-sex ‘marriage’, are only some of the fronts on which the secular agenda in Ireland has won an “overnight success years in the making”, to indulge in one of my favourite clichés.

Now is the time for Irish Catholics to declare, paraphrasing General De Gaulle, that “We have lost the battle, but we have not lost the war”. Indeed, the shoe is now on the other foot. We are no longer under siege, but on the offensive. There are obviously disadvantages to this; but the great advantage is that we now have the initiative. We don’t have to be on the back foot any more.



So this should be—and indeed, it is—a season of reflection and regrouping for Catholics in Ireland. This is why my ‘promos’ in the first paragraph, I insist, are highly relevant. The Chesterton Society and the Belloc Society primarily exist to study the works of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc; but, since both these gentlemen were Catholic apologists, our discussions often turn to the present-day challenges facing the Faith in Ireland, and the ways they might be met.

One aspect of this subject that arose at yesterday’s meeting—and that has frequently arisen in other places where these matters are discussed, such as the online Irish Catholics’ Forum—is the matter of how we present the Faith to our contemporaries. Do we need a new language, a new style, in order to speak to today’s Ireland? John Waters has sometimes suggested that we might drop the word ‘God’, at least in some contexts, in order to speak to our contemporaries about the transcendent reality that they are so determinedly blocking out. Nobody at the Belloc meeting made such a radical suggestion, but one young gentleman—who has considerable experience speaking to his unbelieving peers—did suggest that terms like ‘original sin’ might be replaced with different language, since they tend to make young people ‘switch off’ and stop listening. He made a very strong case.

So what do I think? Do we need a new idiom in which to speak about the Faith to our contemporaries, or should we use the old idiom?

I have thought about this a great deal, and my conclusion is that we need both. I especially think it is of supreme importance that we do not discard or devalue the old idiom—and by ‘idiom’ I mean style, terminology, forms of devotion, the whole shebang.

Whatever Happened to Irish Catholicism?

Ever since Irish Catholicism began its recent decline—and the Bishop Eamon Casey case in 1992 may be taken as a convenient point to date this from—a certain narrative of its decline has gained popularity, not only amongst non-Catholics but also amongst Catholics. The narrative is that the Irish Catholic Church had grown complacent during the years of its ascendancy, that the vast majority of Irish people went to Mass out of conformity and fear of what the neighbours would say, and that Irish Catholicism was legalistic, puritanical and joyless. The entire thing came crashing down so quickly, this narrative implies, because it was built on sand all along.

Bishop Eamon Casey

I have never seen very much evidence, beside anecdotal evidence, to actually bear any of this out. And when I go to primary sources—when I read books and articles and poems that were actually written during the long years of ‘Catholic Ireland’—I find the exact opposite. Working as I do in UCD Library, I have access to the back issues of many historical Catholic periodicals, such as The Irish Ecclesiastical Record and The Dublin Review. I often take these bound volumes (going back decades, all the way to the nineteenth century) to read on my coffee and lunch breaks. And what do I find? Not the anti-intellectual, dry, legalistic, moribund traditional Catholicism of modern legend. Instead, I find evidence of a highly literate, reflective, outward-looking Catholicism that flourished right up to Vatican II. (These periodicals include many articles on subjects such as science, other religions, modern social problems, and the arts—articles that are nearly always both informed and thoughtful.)

Regarding the accusation of joyless puritanism, one only has to read the literature written by believing Catholics during these times—such as the novels of Canon Sheenan, Walter Macken, John D. Sheridan and others, popular poems such as ‘The Trimmins on the Rosary’, or even the nostalgic articles in magazines such as Ireland’s Own and Ireland’s Eye— to realise this wasn’t the case. Irish Catholicism may have had its ascetic side—and what is wrong with that?—but it also had an emotional and mystical richness that can strike us as almost maudlin today.

Hours before I started typing this article (on Mission Sunday) I listened to one of our local priests—a Nigerian—deliver a stirring tribute, in his homily, to the Irish priests who had won so many of his people to Christ. He mentioned visiting the graves of priests who had died in their late twenties, and who are buried in that distant land. Such priests did not come from nowhere. They learned their robust faith in fervently Catholic homes and communities.

Personally, I give zero credence to the theory that the Irish Catholic Church had simply been coasting on inertia for decades (or centuries) before it hit a rock in the nineties. I think the decline at that time can be blamed on a much more recent development—on the loss of nerve and (to put it bluntly) the heresies that spread like wildfire after Vatican II. It only took twenty years to undermine what it took centuries to build up, but that is the nature of decay.

Very well, the reader might say—but that was then, and this is now. Society has changed, like it or not. Don’t we need a new language to ‘interface’ with the modern world? Isn’t the old language, the old way of doing things, outdated and archaic?



At the risk of sounding paradoxical, I would like to suggest that the very fact that it is outdated and archaic may be a strength. Let us remember the old Irish proverb that ‘what is strange is wonderful’. Let us pay heed, too, to another wise saying—“Every generation revolts against its parents and makes friends with its grandparents.” This may not be literally true, but it contains a truth—that what is rejected with disdain at one time (in the life of a society, or even the life of an individual) is often embraced fervently at another. Examples abound; the music of Abba, Victorian architecture, the Irish language, vinyl music records, and a thousand others. Even if we look across the water to Britain, we can see that the ‘Old Labour’ that was once considered deader than dead is now back in the saddle, and ‘New Labour’ is old hat. And when the tide changes in this way, what was once a liability becomes an asset.

Come Live With Me and You’ll Know Me

But I have deeper reasons for believing that we should hold onto the old idiom, the old style, of Irish Catholicism. It’s based on that beautiful line from the infancy narrative of the gospel of Luke, often rendered: “Mary treasured all these things, reflecting on them in her heart”. All the traditions and customs and folkways of Irish Catholicism—the Sacred Heart, the Miraculous Medal, Knock, Croagh Patrick, the First Fridays, the importance of First Holy Communion, the break in Lent for St. Patrick’s Day, the songs and holy pictures, right down to less tangible things like the way Irish Catholics talk and think about their faith—are a well of living memory. They grew out of a lived faith over generations, one that was suited to our national temper. A new ‘style’ that is simply invented—no matter how creatively or intelligently—just can’t have the same meaningfulness. We should be seeking to preserve and revive these traditions, this way of life and worship, rather than looking for a new approach. We should treasure these things in our hearts.

I believe that the advice “Show, don’t tell”, which is so often recommended to those writing fiction or giving presentations, also applies to evangelisation. (Well, perhaps we should amend it to “Show, don’t just tell” in this case.) We often hear it said that faith is ‘caught, not taught’. In this, it resembles many other things, such as foreign languages. I bet many of us have had the experience of going to France or Germany, and suddenly finding ourselves just ‘picking up’ the language that we struggled to get to grips with in school lessons. That is, hearing native speakers using them for real actually makes more sense than having them explained to us in simplified form, through our own language. (Though, of course, the latter is still necessary.)

In the same way, I think the Catholic faith makes more sense, and is more likely to be ‘caught’ by unbelievers, when they witness it in others—and by this, I’m not talking about witnessing heroic virtue or personal sanctity (though that is certainly to be wished for). What I mean is that, just as someone learning a language will pick it up best by listening to native speakers talk to each other, so non-Catholics will ‘pick up’ the Faith, and be drawn to it by hearing (and reading and watching) practicing Catholics interact with each other. Most importantly, they will realise there is something there—something solid—something different. They will realise there is an ‘inside’ as well as an ‘outside’.

I had this experience. When I started to investigate the Catholic faith, the Catechism and other books aimed at non-Catholics certainly helped, but Catholic blogs and newspapers and books—which were full of debates and discussions and references which were totally over my head—reassured me that the Faith was really something living, not just a theory. I especially remember, when I started going to Mass, how moved I was at hearing the priest’s own memories of going to Mass as a boy. Such things told me that the Faith was a living thing.



I believe we should not only preserve this living tradition but strengthen it, and revive it—in tangible ways like Corpus Christi processions, ‘Sunday best’, fish on Fridays, Stations of the Cross, and the candle in the window on Christmas Eve. Even more important than these tangible things are the intangible ‘atmosphere’ that comes with them.

I said earlier that we should use both the old idiom and a new idiom. I am certainly not arguing against trying to reach unbelievers by ‘meeting them where they are’. In the church in UCD, I once came across a copy of the Gospel of Luke written in ‘street lingo’. It made me smile, but then I thought; why not? The story of St. Patrick and the shamrock may be apocryphal, but it exemplifies an approach that Church missionaries have always taken. I am in favour of both. Let us take bold new initiatives, certainly. But let’s not throw out what worked so well in the past as we do so.

Cruinneog


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Another Unicorn Poem

Our latest unicorn poem comes from Jack Gourley, a retired security guard from Pittsburgh. Jack left school at age sixteen and never really learned to read or write until he was in his late forties. Since then he has discovered poetry and began writing his own poems in his early sixties. He says this poem is based on a photograph he saw in a magazine.

There seems to be an oblique reference to a popular song in one of the lines. Intertextuality of any kind is forbidden in Unicorn poetry. I will treat it as accidental.



Oh woman sleeping on the chair
You are beautiful beyond compare.

You are beautiful because
Your eyes are closed
Your breath is slow
Your head is low
Your body slack
Like when you were a baby
Long ago.

You are beautiful because you must sleep.
You beautiful because you must breathe.
You are beautiful because you must die.

You are beautiful becomes nobody looks exactly like you
Talks exactly like you
Thinks exactly like you.

You are beautiful because you have seen
Things nobody else has seen
Things nobody can ever see again.

You are beautiful because
In all of the long tale of humankind
You're in the world right now, the same as me.

You are beautiful because you dream
And every dreamer is beautiful like you.

You are beautiful because
I can never give you all I want to give you.

Being a woman makes you beautiful
A woman is stranger than a unicorn.

You are beautiful like a candle's flame
A small light dearer than a world of dark.

Oh woman sleeping in the chair
You are beautiful beyond compare...