Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Wayfarer in a Pub

Reader, what do you fret about?

I don't mean for yourself. I'm not talking about your final examinations, or your love life, or your bank balance. I mean, what social trends do you fret about? What are your worries for society?

Because I think most of us worry about society, and that our social philosophies can (to a great extent) be boiled down to our worries for society.

Now and again I seem to glimpse the world through the eyes of a progressive, and I realize that they actually fret about society collapsing into a racist, sexist, theocratic dystopia where secret police bundle "minorities" into vans and take them to concentration camps-- or some similarly lurid scenario.

This seems absurd to us. But then, I think such anxieties-- anxieties regarding social trends-- are very often irrational. In fact, I will willingly accept that my own anxieties regarding social trends are often irrational.

Here is one example, which may or may not be irrational.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt a very deep anxiety at the loss of what I might best term "folk culture". Perhaps I might also use the term oral culture. Or cultural memory.

In fact, it's very hard to come up with an appropriate term, because what exactly it is that I'm anxious about is hard to define-- though it seems very clear to me.

Perhaps a list of things towards which I feel protective, or nostalgic, might explain it:

Skipping chants. Ghost stories. Folk ballads. Street games. Parlour games. Card games. Local sayings. Riddles. The widespread use of literary and poetic and Scriptural quotations. Amateur dramatics. Shadow puppetry. Regional accents. Proverbs. Sing-a-longs. Stories around the campfire.

I think you probably understand what I mean now.

But it's very hard to know what collective term to give such things, or what to take as a defining characteristic, or even what they can be contrasted against.

I could try "oral culture", but this doesn't really cover it. Oral culture involves the transmission of culture orally. But take the example, for instance, of some kids improvising their own sport, using whatever equipment they have to hand. This would be an example of what I mean, but it can't be called oral culture.

Or take the example of somebody quoting a speech from Shakespeare, in an everyday context. This also fits, but it's not oral culture per se. It's written culture that happens to be expressed orally.

Sometimes I've defined this thing (whatever it is) against the mass media. I've defined it as everything which has been eroded, and continues to be eroded, by the radio, the television, the cinema, and the internet. The phrase "making your own entertainment" is often used in this context.

But that's not really it, either. Card games, for instance, are not really a case of people making their own entertainment-- there's not much imagination or creativity involved-- but they somehow seem to fit in this category. To me, at any rate.

And many of the media that existed before radio and television were pretty rubbishy. Music hall, for instance, seems to have been a tawdry form of entertainment, without much artistic or social merit. The same is true of a lot of print culture which preceded radio and television. "Penny dreadful" magazines were trashy by any standard, it would seem. (I've never actually read a penny dreadful, but I have looked through some popular magazines that predated radio and TV. Some of them were just as trashy and trivial.)

The wonderful website TV Tropes has an interesting page called New Media are Evil, which gives examples of the anxieties that greeted every new media as it came along, all through history.

As the page puts it: Almost every new medium of communication or expression that has appeared since the dawn of history has been accompanied by doomsayers and critics who have confidently predicted that it would bring about The End of the World as We Know It, by weakening the brain or polluting our precious bodily fluids.

The same thing has happened to basically every type of media in history, making this trope as old as mankind itself. Writing itself was hugely suspicious for example, as people feared that it would cripple the ability to memorise things, as this was now no longer needed, as everything could be written down.

Silly, right? And yet... I can't help feeling that there was considerable justification to even this anxiety, and that something is lost when a society passes from an oral to a written culture.

Something is obviously gained, too. In fact, most people who love books would agree that far more is gained by the spread of literacy than is lost. 

But...something is lost. Modernist literature, for instance, could never have arisen in an oral culture. Perhaps what is lost in oral culture is a kind of innocence. (My own theory is that all art becomes decadent the further it is removed from folk culture.)

Whenever a new cultural medium comes along, I would argue, something is lost as well as gained. And with some media, we might argue, more is lost than is gained.

For instance, I believe the introduction of television was cataclysmic to social and cultural life-- while, at the same time, I am fascinated by the history of television itself. (Peter Hitchens writes a brilliant and depressing chapter on television in his masterly book The Abolition of Britain.)

What about the internet? Well, it could be seen as an improvement, in that it is less passive than the media which dominated immediately before it-- television and radio. One might argue, as well, that it is a corrective to the homogenizing tendencies of TV and radio. Instead of millions of people watching the same show, you have millions of people writing their own blogs, participating in obscure internet forums, and pursuing the most arcane interests. That's a good thing...isn't it?

And yet, and yet....a young relative of my own admitted to me that he found it difficult to read books, since he was so unused to reading text without a light glowing behind it. I was touched and saddened by the admission.

So, although I cannot find an adequate term to describe the thing towards which I feel protective, I need to use some term. I will go with "folk culture".

Here are the characteristics of "folk culture", in this sense. These are tendencies rather than absolutes, and not all of them apply to every case:

1) It is non-technological, or minimally technological.
2) It is traditional.
3) It is national, regional, or local.
4) It is performed to small groups which are physically present, rather than to a mass audience across space and time.
5) It is participatory, rather than passive.
6) It is non-commercial.
7) It is improvized, rather than standardized.

I really do fret a lot about the loss of this "oral culture". I seem to encounter examples of this loss all the time-- although I am aware of the phenomenon of "confirmation bias", and realize my view may be excessively gloomy, that things might not be quite as bad as I fear

Be that as it may, I feel an obligation to protect and propagate "oral culture" in my own small way. This has led me to various efforts, but the effort I am going to write about in this blog post is my effort to memorize poetry.

I recently wrote an article on the decline of poetry for The Burkean. In this case, I am sure that the decline is a real decline, and not an imagined one-- and I give arguments for this in my piece.

So for a good many months now, I have been putting a corpus of poetry to memory. It's not the first time I've done something like this-- I've memorized quite a lot of poems in recent years, from the same motives-- but, inevitably, they have faded from my mind. I came to the realization that I had to keep them fresh, by constantly revisiting them.

In my teens, I had a great memory for poetry. I memorized poems without even trying. Since my twenties, however, it has required an effort. (The amount of effort depends on the poem-- in fact, I believe that the ease with which a poem sticks in one's memory is a good sign of its merit as a poem. Great poems almost brand themselves upon the memory.)

I started out simply memorizing poems I loved, and then I decided to start trying to memorize a poem (or passage from a poem) from every notable poet. My idea was that, one day, I would be able to say: "Name any poet and I'll recite a poem by him or her"

This is the list I have put to memory so far:

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett 
Snow by Louis Macneice
The Fool by Patrick Pearse
Ulysses by Tennyson
The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon
“Our revels now are ended...” by William Shakespeare
"All the world’s a stage...” by William Shakespeare
To Helen by Edgar Allen Poe
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...” by William Shakespeare.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats
“Ay, but to die…” by William Shakespeare
Lines Written on Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
The Wayfarer by Patrick Pearse
The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
A Birthday by Christina Rossetti
Heraclitus, by William Johnson Cory
The Owl by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Planster’s Vision by John Betjeman
“No Longer Mourn for me When I am Dead…” by William Shakespeare
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas
“That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold” by William Shakespeare
“Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” by William Shakespeare
“My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”, by William Shakespeare
“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton
““Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth” by Arthur Hugh Clough
“The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell
Remember by Christina Rossetti
“Ring out, wild bells” by Lord Alfred Tennyson (from In Memoriam)
The Song of the Strange Ascetic by G.K. Chesterton
Forget Not Yet by Thomas Wyatt.
The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
September 1913 by W.B. Yeats
The Workman’s Friend by Gem Casey (Flann O'Brien)
If by Rudyard Kipling
When I was One-and-Twenty by A.E. Housman
"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now..." by A.E. Housman
Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
An Irish Airman Foresees his Death by W.B. Yeats
How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"Yonder see the morning blink..." by A.E. Housman
"Under the wide and starry sky..." by Robert Louis Stevenson
"Into my heart an air that kills..." by A.E. Housman
Peace by Henry Vaughan
She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost
John Anderson my Jo John by Robbie Burns
When He Who Adores Thee by Thomas Moore.
Golden Stockings by Oliver St. John Gogarty
Ringsend by Oliver St. John Gogarty
The Return by Thomas Traherne
Shakespeare by Matthew Arnold
Ode on a Snowflake by Francis Thompson
Adelstrop by Edward Thomas
Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
The Fisherman by W.B. Yeats
The World’s a Stage by Hilaire Belloc
“Among the crooked lanes..” by James Thomson.
“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces...” by Charles Algernon Swinburne.

"The Raven" is the longest poem in this list, at one hundred and eight lines long. I'd actually memorized it before, some years ago, for the sole purpose of reciting it at a dinner party. (I switched the lights off and held a candle in my hand, as I recited it. The sense of drama was punctured somewhat when I tried to blow out the candle before the final "Nevermore", but struggled to do so). Then it faded from my memory. However, it was easier to memorize again, since I had memorized it before.

I decided "The Raven" would remain the longest poem in my repertoire, my "party piece". I actually recite it to myself, silently, every morning, to keep it fresh. It doesn't take that long.

I've noticed another benefit to having a body of poetry put to memory-- it's quite comforting. The mind (indeed, the world) can be a chaotic place-- having a refuge of structure and form is soothing.

I've had opportunities to recite the poems on my list, and here I come (finally) to the real subject of this meandering blog post.

There have been a lot of get-togethers in my extended family recently. Mostly (though not exclusively) these have been on the occasion of family deaths, including the death of my father.

More recently than that, my cousin passed away-- a relatively young man, in his early fifties.

Since Irish nationalism is deeply embedded in my extended family, there is a tradition of singing Irish folk ballads at get-togethers. My father himself had an apparently limitless fund of these. He would quite often toss off a verse of a ballad and then remark, casually: "I haven't even thought about that song in forty years."

Once, some years ago, my wife asked me to sing her a song. I realized I couldn't think of a single song I could sing her. When I told my father this, he said: "You should be ashamed of yourself." I agreed, and I was ashamed of myself.

So I felt a mixture of admiration and envy at my extended family, that they had such a wealth of patriotic (and other) ballads on the tips of their tongues.

However, at the recent get-togethers, I made a troubling discovery: they actually don't have them on the tips of their tongues. Not anymore.

Even the older ones-- men and women in their sixties or seventies, who had participated in innumerable sing-alongs over the years-- had trouble remembering the lyrics of most of the ballads they sung. They had to consult their smartphones for many or even most of the lyrics. As for the younger members-- those in their twenties and under-- they had no songs at all.

There was much lamenting of this fact. A member of my family who is very progressive, and frequently argues against my own social nostalgia, was particularly outspoken. She said: "Remember the days when we used to sing without any phones, actually remembering the words?" She was disdainful of anyone resorting to a smartphone-- although she had to do it herself, when joining in with some songs.

My father never learned how to send a text or navigate the internet. Perhaps that is why his memory for ballads never decayed. I think he was better off.

As is usual in such occasions, each member of the party was implored to sing a song. When my turn came, I suggested I would recite a poem instead. (I "haven't a note in my head", as the saying goes-- and I had already been building up my repertoire.) I recited "The Wayfarer" by Patrick Pearse. Pearse was the leader of the 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland, so it fit the patriotic mood of the evening, although it is not obviously nationalistic:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way

I was nervous I would forget some words, or stumble over them, but I didn't. I recited it slowly, and gained in confidence as I went along. To my great surprise, the pub went silent, and lots of people beyond my own party were listening. There was even a round of applause from people I didn't know. It gave me a thrill.

Afterwards, we adjourned to a house until the early hours of the morning, and I recited some more poems: "Death of an Irishwoman" by Michael Hartnett, "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon, and "The Fool", which is another poem by Patrick Pearse.

I even joined in the communal singing this time, although I also had to look at lyrics on a smartphone.

I've stopped memorizing poetry now-- I'm intensifying my efforts to improve my grasp of the Irish language instead, having decided that the Irish language is even more important than poetry. That gives me plenty of scope for memorization. However, I'm still keeping my repertoire of poems fresh in my mind. I carry the list in a notebook, and mentally recite a few every day.

Am I alone in my concerns for "oral culture"? Do other people fret about this? I don't know. I wonder. Even finding words for these concerns, finding terms for what I am talking about, has been difficult. And yet, I would like to think I am not alone.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My Lighthouses Series in Ireland's Own

If you buy the Halloween special of Ireland's Own, you can read the first in my series of articles on Irish lighthouses, about Wicklow Head.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Friday, October 11, 2019

My Latest Article in the Burkean

I have an article in The Burkean, an online conservative magazine published by Trinity College students, on the decline of poetry.

You can read it here, if you are so minded.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Remembering the Philip Larkin Society Forum

Sometimes I like to use this blog to memorialize something which would otherwise go unmentioned on the internet-- for instance, this blog post on the Allen Library project library, where I did a training course in 2001. I was pleased when that post received several comments from people who'd been involved with the Allen Library in some way.

Recently, it occurred to me to write a blog post about the Philip Larkin Society Forum, on which I was active for a few years-- perhaps two or three. It has disappeared almost without a trace now-- I can only find a handful of references to it on the internet, all of them oblique.

Philip Larkin was, of course, a British poet, novelist, and librarian who died in 1985. He is famous for his melancholy, his traditional verse, his unfashionable conservatism, and his fear of death-- amongst other things.

I'd been a fan of Philip Larkin since I encountered his poetry in The Palgrave Treasury of Golden Verse (an updated edition, of course), which I read very slowly and very carefully over several months in my teenage years.

It seems to me as though the popularity of Larkin has burgeoned all through my lifetime. He was never by any means obscure-- he turned down the Poet Laureateship, since (being a curmudgeon) he feared it would make him even more of a public figure than he already was. But his star seems to ascend higher and higher all the time, to the extent that he now seems accepted as the outstanding British poet of the twentieth century (which he was)-- despite his unfashionable poetry and politics.

But before I continue on the subject of Larkin, a word about internet forums.

Internet forums seem to exist somewhat outside the pale of intellectual or cultural respectability. It's not that people are ashamed to contribute to them, exactly, but they seem to be viewed (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson on the subject of landscape gardening) as "rather the sport than the business of human reason".

And yet, participation in internet forums is quite often mentioned as an important stage in the development of somebody's opinions-- especially when it comes to people around my age, who are rather conservative or right-wing in their views.

What value has all this writing on the internet? I was always reluctant to mention anything I had written on the internet to my father, since he seemed quite disapproving of it (at worst) and dismissive of it (at best). And yet, he eagerly read anything I had published in print. And people in general seem far more respectful of printed writing than of writing in cyberspace.

But surely they feed into each other? I'm sure that the thousands upon thousands of words that I've typed on the internet-- on this blog, on internet forums, on Amazon reviews, on social media, and in so many other places-- have made me a better writer, and helped me to develop my thinking (such as it is). In fact, I often find my mind returning to debates and discussion on the Philip Larkin Society Forum, in the faraway days of yore.

Don't get me wrong-- as a traditionalist, I think it's only right that time-hallowed formats such as the magazine and the book should enjoy a prestige greater than an internet forum or a comments section on a blog. But that doesn't mean we should be completely dismissive of writing on the internet.

I discovered the Philip Larkin Society page almost as soon as I started using the internet, around 2001. (Actually, I first logged onto it on the half-an-hour "internet time" we were allowed in the Allen Library, which now seems rather quaint.) But I didn't start posting there until around 2005, and I think it was around 2005-2006 that I became a regular. I was one of about half-a-dozen regulars, along with a larger group of semi-regulars.

Philip Larkin's poetry was the primary subject for discussion, of course. But we also discussed other poets, other literary topics, and pretty much everything and anything.

I was feeling quite depressed, at this time of my life. I felt I was drifting, and my self-belief and self-esteem were in the basement. I was also feeling depressed about society and culture. I was becoming increasingly conservative, but I had no religious faith.

This last characteristic was one I shared with all the forum regulars. They were all atheists and unbelievers. The only religious member was a semi-regular, who used the name "Goofy". I remember, in one discussion, he asserted that he knew God existed. This baffled me, although I rather envied him.

Larkin, as I have mentioned, was noted for his fear of death. (His later masterpiece "Aubade", in particular, articulates his terror of extinction: "Nothing more terrible, nothing more true". Religion was "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die.") I remember one discussion on whether Larkin's poetry provided any kind of comfort or meaning in the face of mortality. One regular described a recent brush with the Grim Reaper. The consensus seemed to be that poetry provided some comfort, but very little.

I think it's fair to say that everybody on the forum shared a rather melancholy disposition-- not surprising, considering the rueful tone of Larkin's poetry, where even the flashes of sublimity are only highlights against a general gloom. (Larkin famously said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.)

However, not everybody on the forum was conservative-- most seemed apolitical, and somewhat fatalistic, while others even leaned to the liberal side. My own conservatism was deepening every day. I had reached a kind of futile anti-industrialism similar to that of D.H. Lawrence (whose book Apocalypse I'd read on a visit to the North of England-- I have happy memories of reading it in the deserted lounge of a hotel called the King's Arms, in Richmond North Yorkshire, while drinking brandy and Cokes). Pretty much everything about modern society was shoddy and contemptible, I'd decided. All modern history was a chronicle of social and cultural decline.

All these years later, I've come to see this outlook as sterile, a dead end, even self-indulgent. This is why I become fatigued by right-wing Catholics who see nothing but weakness and compromise in Vatican II. Repudiation is easy, even when it is dressed up as the loftiest idealism and fidelity. Ultimately we must find something in the world as it is to affirm.

But I digress...

Goodness knows how many thousands of words I poured into the Philip Larkin Society forum. All of the regulars seemed to be somewhat abashed at their presence, since each of us would intermittently bid adieu to the rest...and yet we kept coming back.

Perhaps the most memorable contributor was a chap who went by the name of Cojones. He insisted that Larkin was the only poet worth bothering with. He even questioned whether the rest of us actually enjoyed poetry by other poets, as we claimed to. I know he sounds like a troll, from this description, but I don't think he was. I think he was absolutely sincere. At one point, when somebody offered "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" as an example of a wonderful line of poetry, he claimed to find no merit whatsoever in it!

He'd discovered Larkin as a teenager, by walking into a room when some of his poetry was being broadcast on the radio. He was a gloomy chap. At one point, he commented that he never expected to have another relationship. But this was rather part for the course. We were all gloomy.

He did make one very profound observation, however, once which has always stuck with me. It was during a discussion of W.B. Yeats, whose poetic pre-eminence I was forever advancing. He said that he didn't like Irish writers, because they were always trying to hard to be Irish, or trying too hard not to be Irish. I think this is one of the most penetrating critiques on Irish literature I've ever heard (although I've come to believe that there's nothing wrong with "trying to be Irish", any more than there is with "trying to be human", or "trying to be Christian". I try very hard to be Irish, and one day I hope to succeed).

The forum could be surprisingly rough. I was mocked when I admitted to a taste for the verse of Edgar Allen Poe, and also when I wondered if Shakespeare's sonnets were not overrated. (I haven't changed my mind on either of these subjects.) On another occasion, I had the temerity to plug an early blog of mine, on which I'd posted some of my poetry. Some time later, one of the regulars took a savage swing at my efforts. I found this devastating at the time.

(However, I was no angel myself, and perhaps this was revenge for the time I responded to a long, thoughtful post he had written with a one-word profanity ("B*****ks!"). I thought I was being funny, and that the joke would be obvious-- after all, it was the kind of thing Philip Larkin might write in his infamously scurrilous correspondence with Kingsley Amis. But he didn't see the funny side of it. Yes, I was a rather less refined character back in those days...I had not yet discovered G.K. Chesterton.)

Oh, the hours I spent working out my thoughts on that forum! I can still see its green type  glowing against a white background, with the inky image of a frog at the top. (The Society’s emblem is not, as one might suppose, a toad, but a drawing of the small jade frog which Larkin kept as an ornament on his desk...).

Eventually, the forum was taken down while the website was being redesigned. I think this was against the background of some controversy, something to do with changes of personnel in the Society itself-- I heard murmurs. When it eventually returned, months or years later, it included a new forum-- but this one, sadly, was stillborn. At intervals of months, I would think to look in on it. Only one of the regulars posted there, and that was seldom indeed, as nobody responded to his posts. The party, such as it was, was over. Now even that forum has been taken down.

I often wonder what has happened to all the regulars. I see one, who posted using his real name (as did I), quite active on the internet. I sent a Facebook friend request to someone who I thought might have been one of the others, but it was not accepted. I know one regular died in the twilight days of the forum-- in fact, close to his own end he admitted (in poignantly poorly typed words) that it was one of the few pleasures left to him.

I hope the rest are still alive, and doing well. I remember one of them, after a rather bruising response to one of my posts, told me that it was not delivered without affection. I look back on them all with affection, too. "What will survive of us is love."

(I contributed a commentary on Larkin's early poem "The School in August" to the Society website, for their regular "Poem of the Month" feature, in January 2006. It's still there, and I'm still quite proud of it.)