Friday, July 31, 2020

Hail to Peter Kantor and Colin McCormack

In a Lancashire snooker hall, in the final year
Of the nineteen-seventies, they pulled it off;
Peter Kantor and Colin McCormack, blear
From six days' cannoning billiard balls, for the sheer
Feat of the thing, for the record books, for the love,
Broke the record for playing non-stop snooker.

Where are they now, and what are they doing today,
Colin and Peter? Does Peter like Tangerine Dream
All these years later, still? Is Colin's beard grey
Or gone altogether? And does either one of them say
"I once broke a record"? Or do they at all esteem
The feat they achieved for six days' continuous snooker?

Where did I see them first? In my sauntering teens
In the stagnant nineties, in an old second-hand Book
Of Guinness World Records. I hungered for just such scenes:
For hurtless hysteria, hype for a hill of beans,
For a groove where the needle of memory gets stuck,
Be it nothing more than a marathon session of snooker.

And a part of me always remains in it, always remains
With Colin and Peter and all of that jubilant crowd
In their inky eternity. Honour their purposeless pains
And honour, too, those who honoured them, all that sustains
The spirit of man in the trifles he has endowed
With gratuitous greatness, in six-day long sessions of snooker.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Smattering of Social Media Snippets

Well, it's been another long absence from blogging! It's through no reluctance to blog, but simply a matter of access to computers. I very rarely have access to a desktop computer these days, as this strange interlude of history continues, and this blogging platform really requires a desktop.

However, Facebook is a much more convenient way of firing off one's thoughts and ideas. Here are some things I've said in the past few weeks. (They may be of interest. Isn't that the whole assumption behind social media, anyway?)

I will return to more regular blogging-- but who knows when?

To me the value of nostalgia lies not so much in the object as in the attitude itself. Nostalgia is a creative action of the soul. Yes, it can be unhealthy, but I think it's mostly not.

Here's a question. How many of my Facebook friends consider themselves nationalists and what does this mean to you?

I consider myself a nationalist. Partly this is filial piety towards my father, grandfather, and all the generations who invested so much in the vision of an Irish nation. But even more, it's because I think the world is a richer place-- for everyone-- if we protect and cultivate meaningful diversity, diversity between countries. Especially in our era of globalization.

But I am a Catholic first and foremost so my nationalism has to be consistent with Church teaching. I've come to accept that a lot of current nationalist attitudes towards immigration are not consistent with Church teaching. (I realize that could be argued, but this is my interpretation.) I would like it if we we could cultivate a nationalism and even a populism which is not so preoccupied with immigration. I also understand the concerns on this matter and I resent that there can't be a calm discussion about its implications.

Personally I wish that all the energy and sacrifice that was poured into Irish political nationalism had gone into cultural nationalism instead. We have a state, but do we have a country? Perhaps Patrick Pearse would have done better to continue his educational and literary work, rather than leading the 1916 Rising. I say that in all respect to the bravery and sacrifice of the rebels. I don't really care about a united Ireland, as things stand. What's the point if we are culturally globalized anyway?

I'm writing in the Irish context but I'm also interested in what my friends from other countries think in their own contexts.

"Ní bhíonn bocht dháiríre ach an té atá gan aisling. Ní bhíonn beo ach an duine a fhéachas lena aisling a chur i gcrích."

Nílim ar aon intinn le Máirtín Ó Cadhain maidir le mórán, ach aontaím leis anseo.

Me and my father, some years ago

Does anyone else out there take an immense delight in reading old magazines and periodicals?

I love how specific they are to a moment in time, in obvious ways and in less obvious ways. After all, "a moment in time" is such an elusive thing. It looks backward to the past and forward to the future, in a way not only unique to that historical moment, but to the particular writer and to the audience they are addressing.

I dislike historical fiction for this very reason. It's impossible to recreate the lived experience of a particular moment in social history. The harder you try, the more laboured and contrived it seems.

I want more tradition, but I want it to pervade ordinary life. I am for the traditionalism of Tuesday morning on a workday. The traditions, customs and rituals that can fill the most ordinary moments are the ones that count to me, not the "big ticket" traditions that happen once a year or every now and then, and require great expense and planning. They are important, too, but they seem far less important. What is the point of cramming all our traditions into weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, big sporting occasions, etc., if ordinary daily life becomes completely drab and humdrum?

For the same reason, I'm not attracted to the idyll of living in some sleepy, old-fashioned village. I want to be in the belly of the beast. I want to take contemporary life at its most soulless and utilitarian and try to make the most of that.

The Arian controversy, as you know, hung on the question of whether Jesus was divine or created. I often think how many Arians must have felt they had a slam-dunk case in John 14:28, "The Father is greater than I". This seems inarguable, doesn't it? And yet virtually all Christians reject the Arian position today.

This is why I am so reluctant to appeal to the "plain" meaning of Jesus's words, or to pit my judgement against the Magisterium. If we can go wrong so easily with Christ's own words, why should the same not apply to Church documents?

I think the association of ideas plays a massive role in human life, one habitually underrated. I notice it even in the littlest things. For instance: I regularly have to give directions in the library, and I notice that whenever I say: "Go to the right of the escalators", people virtually always say: "I go upstairs?". (Well, not anymore, because once I'd noticed this I started to clearly specify that they should stay on the same floor. But before that, they always asked this.)

I'm especially prone to association of ideas myself, sometimes to a comical and ridiculous level. Sometimes I become drowsy in a particular place, or reading a particular book, simply because I've been drowsy in the same situation before.

The Ilac shopping centre in Dublin used to have-- when I was a kid-- a fountain or water feature in the centre, with hot air balloons rising high into the air, and glass lifts which rose over the roof from which to see the cityscape. It also had a café over the fountain, on a kind of mezzanine level, whereby you could look down into the water.

Strangely, I noticed a link in my memory, whereby every time I remembered a particular book of Years criticism I read, I thought of this part of the fountain, the balloons, the lifts, and the café. But though I also read that book a long time ago, I don't think I read it there. So why does my memory link them? I think because that area above the fountain seems symbolic of the sublime and elevated to me. Took ages to make that link. The mind is a funny thing.

Incidentally, are biscuits (or cookies, as Americans say) better dunked in tea/coffee, or undunked? I used to dunk them all the time. Now I'm tending not to.

How weird it is that we give the same name to the ear-piercing, jarring noise a police-car makes, as we do to the creatures who produced such irresistible music in Greek mythology?

I asked people yesterday, in a post here, for their views regarding pop culture, high culture, and folk culture. Most people were quite withering about pop culture.

I agree with them. I think pop culture has had a catastrophic effect on society. And yet... Can I wish the cinema away? It has brought so much magic into my life. I have happy memories of watching all eleven series of Frasier with my father, just before his final illness. I have happy memories of watching Fawlty Towers with my family, and Star Trek with my brothers. I can't really wish those away.

There is the austere conservative side of me which thinks we would all be better off sticking to books and telling stories around the fire. But another part of me is fascinated by pop culture as a kind of modern-day equivalent to folk culture. Are Batman and Jean-Luc Picard our equivalent of King Arthur or Finn Mac Cumhail? I see how they differ. Do the differences outweigh the similarities, invalidate them?

Michael Collins is often presented as the hard-headed, pragmatic man of action, in contrast to De Valera's romantic idealism. But this is a passage from Collins's book The Path to Freedom:

"We have secured the departure of the enemy who imposed upon us that by which we were debased, and by means of which he kept us in subjection. We only succeeded after we had begun to get back our Irish ways, after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language, after we had striven again to govern ourselves. We can only keep out the enemy, and all other enemies, by completing that task. We are now free in name. The extent to which we become free in fact and secure our freedom will be the extent to which we become Gaels again."

These are the things that strike me as important and imperilled as I enter into my mid-forties, in 2020.

1) Cultural diversity-- the real sort, not the nominal, skin-deep sort. That specialness and character should be preserved against the tide of sameness. I worry about this all the time, incessantly.

2) Poetry. Poetry seems ever more important to me. Poetry seems, not only essential in itself, but the necessary corrective to all that is utilitarian, banal, and dehumanising in society. And it seems to me that poetry has never been more marginalized in the life of society than it is today.

3) Something I can only evoke by a term such as "folklore", or "oral tradition". Ballads. Parlour games. Campfire tales. Local legends. Everything that is not commercialized, commodified, passively consumed, or mass marketed.

I am always preoccupied by these subjects. I don't claim they are more important than others. But they feel most urgent to me.

And what about the Faith? Of course, the Faith. But the more I learn of the Faith the calmer and surer I feel of it. Our Lord's promise to St. Peter is a sure rock we can rest on. We need the Church to save us, not the other way round. That victory has been won already.

Saw a guy in a café today. Irish, in his twenties or thirties. Marvel comics tee-shirt. Liverpool F.C. bag. Reading a Harry Potter book.

Nothing against those things individually but I found the sight depressing and depressingly typical.

Here is a crazy idea I had today. Do you think there might actually be too much emphasis on family in today's society and that this might actually be damaging the family? Bear with me here.

This thought came to me as I was contemplating the Irish of today. I wonder what is important to them in life. Most don't care about religion. Most don't care about culture, beyond Netflix. Most don't care about politics very much, at least not in any idealistic sense.

But I think it unfair to assume they only care about consumerism, sport and entertainment. If you asked them what was most important to them in life, I bet the majority would say family.

Does our privatized, self-referential society place so much expectation and pressure on the family, without a wider horizon, that it actually puts unbearable strain on family life?

Chonaic mé an scannáin "Áit Ciúin" san phictiurlann aréir. Céad turas chuig an scáileán mór tar éis na srianta Covid. Scannán uafás, agus uafásach maith. Scríobh agus stiúir John Krasinski é. Tá an domhan faoi smacht eachtrannaigh ó domhan eile, itheann said duine ar bith a dheanann torann glórmhar. Leanann an scéal teaghlach amhain. Barrsamhail an-dearfach don teaghlach agus don athair ach go h-airithe.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell may be the book which disappointed me most in my life. Great title, great idea. A long, long novel (or series of novels, or roman fleuve) in which an old man looks back on his life, and the fortunes of a large group of his friends and acquaintances over decades. I loved the idea. But I found the execution very disappointing, and never finished it. (As with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, I got absurdly far and then gave up). Anyone else read it?

I like the idea of a roman fleuve but it would have to be worth the investment of time.

Philip Larkin loved A Dance to the Music of Time, and said he only wished it was longer. What do I know?

Should the Church be counter-cultural or should it try to accommodate itself to the culture? I think it has to be both. "Moving with the times" is easy, but pure oppositionalism is also easy. And sterile.

When I read the writings of JPII, I'm struck by how this supposed hardliner went as far as he could in recognising the elements of truth and virtue in modern currents of thought and in other religions, while steadfastly rejecting the evil parts.

Is this so different to what the Church has always done? When we read about Christian Europe in the Dark Ages, how do we account for the incessant tribalistic warfare, the pious Christian kings with many mistresses, the slavery, the Christianization of pagan feasts and customs? The Church has always and everywhere been trying to "encounter the culture" and "enter into dialogue" as far as I can tell.

Running to my foxhole now.

A few days ago I posted: "I love Ireland but it has no soul".

Today I was out and about and found myself pondering this again. I think Irish people are kind and funny and warm, for the most part. I certainly don't think I'm better than anyone. But...

It's hard to describe the "but", as huge as it seems to me. Few people really seem to care about anything bigger than themselves, or to have any burning convictions of any kind. It all feels so cramped, shrivelled, windowless. It reminds me of Burke's phrase: "the lives of men become no more than the flies of a summer".

I'm not necessarily talking about religion here. It is religion, but also folklore, tradition, belief in a cause, romanticism, all those things. Everything that gives life grandeur and depth. They seem missing from contemporary Ireland to me.


Why am I so preoccupied by the fear of cultural homogenization and the desire to protect traditions? I think about this all the time and have far as long I can remember.

I'm not even sure the world IS becoming more homogenised. It's a hard thing to discern because you have to take all sorts of different things into account. Perhaps the world grows more homogenous in some ways but more diverse is others. And who is to say definitively if one sort of diversity is superior to another? I feel sure of the homogenization thesis in my heart. But I also know the heart is deceitful above all things. Either way this idea haunts me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Something I Wrote During the Lockdown

(Apologies once again for my long and continuing absence from blogging. I am hoping to have more time soon, although it will be a gradual return. In the meantime, here is a blog post I wrote during the lockdown. I wrote it as a sample blog post for a work blog I was proposing, in which library staff would write articles drawing on the books and collections in the library. That idea sunk without a trace, so here it is.

As I had no access to any libraries at this point, and very little internet access, I had to rely on the books at home. That is why the selection is so eclectic.) 

Themes in Irish Poetry since 1970: a Very Selective Content Analysis

Poetry is both universal and particular, private and public, timeless and ephemeral. Poetry has been an important part of Irish culture from the days of the Irish filí to the time of Yeats and beyond. The popular readership of poetry may have declined in recent decades, in Ireland as elsewhere, but it remains a prestigious literary form, and one which many people turn to in order to express their deepest feelings, concerns and aspirations. Poetry is also an especially favourable medium for examining the preoccupations of a culture; although a poet might well write about trivial things, it’s generally used to explore the deeper currents of human existence.

This blog post is a very selective examination of some Irish poetry written since 1970. The date of 1970 may be considered fairly arbitrary; however, it seems a convenient starting point for “contemporary Ireland”, coming as it does after the social upheavals of the sixties.

My sample consists of six books and six periodicals published between 1981 and 2019. They are:

The Selected John Hewitt, published by Blackstaff Press in 1981.
The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.
Sweet Sweet Memories, self-published by Fran Murphy in 1986.
Poetry Now Anthology 98, published by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 1998.
Poems Through Ireland, a poetry collection self-published by street poet Jamesa Kelly in 2000.
Tallaght Soundings, a collection of prose and poetry by Virginia House Creative Writers, 2007.
Six copies of Comhar, the premier Irish language magazine, which range from 2011 to 2018.

I have only featured poems published after 1970, which amount to 207 poems in all. My sample includes poems in both Irish and English, poems by recognized poets and by “ordinary people”, and poems dating from the whole range of my chosen timespan.

One thing that is immediately obvious from reading these poems is that the Celtic Mist had long evaporated by 1970; even the “ordinary” poets (who might be assumed to be either above or below literary fashion) do not draw on the romantic literary conventions associated with the Celtic Revival. The closest we come to this is “The Hero’s Portion” by John Montague, which takes as its subject the ancient Celtic custom of assigning the best portions of meat to the mightiest warrior. But the vocabulary is far from romantic: “Cracking and splitting down to the marrow stuffed bone where he licked and sucked as clean as a whistle”. Jamesa Kelly’s express a strident Irish republicanism, but one based on a solidarity with ancestral suffering and struggle rather than on an idealized national heritage.

Irish history—the sort of history which fills history books, that is—features in thirty-six of the 207 poems, most prominently in the works of John Hewitt and Jamesa Kelly. Hewitt was an Ulster poet, who was raised in the Methodist tradition. His poetry sought to transcend the ethnic and religious divide of Ulster, and to identity with Irish history as a whole, particularly in solidarity with its suffering:

The careful words of my injunction
Are unrhetorical; as neutral
And unaligned as any I know
They propose no more than a thoughtful response;
They do not pound with drum-beats
Of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

“Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto”, 1972

John Hewitt
James Kelly’s volume includes laments for the Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, and many denunciations of Britain’s role in Irish history. However, he has no rosy view of Ireland’s traditions: the poem “Modern Ireland” is an attack on the title subject, but concludes that the present is still better than the past: “Goodness, how pathetic our past”.

Two poems in the selection—an excerpt from “A Farewell to English” by Michel Hartnett, and “Gaeltacht” by Pearse Hutchinson, express a strong sense of loss in the decline of the Irish language, and the culture associated with it. Other than that, the corpus of poems analyzed here come close, at least by implication, to agreeing with the famous words of Stephen Daedalus: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Michael Hartnett

At least this is true when it comes to history with a capital H. The other sorts of history—family history, social history, personal history—are treated more favourably on the whole.

Memory is a major theme in these poems: in thirty-seven of the 207 poems, it is a primary theme. The memories featured are very often painful, especially in the works of John Hewitt. They are only sometimes nostalgic—most of often in the volume by Fran Murphy, about half of whose poems are fond recollections of her Italian-American childhood. (She moved to Ireland in 1968, but her poems display very little interest in Irish culture per se.)

Occasionally they are ambivalent, as in “Above the Pool” by John Montague, which describes a childhood romantic encounter. What strikes the reader, when reading these “memory” poems, is their intensity, their vividness—that, and how they tend to be more concerned with personal and family life than with the “grand narratives” of history. (John Hewitt, whose “memory poems” are often specific to the conflict in Northern Ireland, is a counter-example.)

Irishness is rather less of a theme in the poems than I had expected. John Hewitt writes eighteen poems on the subject, and Jamesa Kelly writes sixteen, but outside that there are only twelve poems where Irishness is a prominent theme.

Jamesa Kelly’s “For All Who Want to Be Irish” is one of the most explicit meditations on this topic:

It’s not as simple as it seems you see,
Here is a complex sort of treachery.
Is it possible to live here, but really part of it,
Unless you are born in this land
And spend your time in the womb of Mother Ireland?

The tentativeness of this poem is quite representative. Few of the poems in my sample posit any essence of Irishness, or meditate upon the national character per se.

Modernity, also, is less of a major theme than I would have expected. There are few “zeitgeisty” poems, few references to new technologies or social changes. Jamesa Kelly has poems on Viagra and mobile phones, and The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse includes “The Guttural Muse” by Seamus Heaney, in which the poet envies a crowd of young people leaving the disco. The last poem in Tallaght Soundings (“Demographics” by Patrick Sneyd) is a very matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the new multicultural Ireland. Other than that, modernity is more taken for granted than commented upon.

Poetry itself is quite a prominent theme. John Hewitt writes about Walter Savage Landor. Jamesa Kelly writes about Michael Hartnett. Michael Hartnett writes about Yeats. Cathal Ó Searcaigh writes about Ovid, and Marguerite Sneyd writes about a poetry reading given by Paul Durcan. Altogether there are sixteen poems in which poetry is a major theme.

Dirk Benedict meditating on poetry
As might be expected, there are many poems about romantic love, although they tend to concentrate on its pains and disappointments, rather than its joys. “Scaradh na Compánach” by Caitríona Ní Chlėirchin describes the Countess of Donegal’s sadness and anxiety as her husband leaves her for battle. “Another Cold Dinner” by Fran Murphy laments a husband constantly late home, and expresses feelings of abandonment. Jamesa Kelly’s volume contains poems addressed to several different women, but the accent in these is upon pain and sorrow. It is significant, perhaps, that the most purely romantic poem in the sample—“Twilight” by Anne McGarth, one of the Tallaght poets—celebrates a private moment of reverie, set against a cityscape with no mention of other human beings.

Virtually all the poems are written in free verse, or using a very loose metre and rhyme scheme. John Hewitt is the poet who draws on traditional verse forms the most, particularly the sonnet. On the whole, however, the forms used occupy a middle ground between traditional verse on one hand, and the kind of dense, cryptic verse favoured by High Modernists such as Pound and Eliot on the other.

The overriding impression I take from these poems is one of melancholy. They seem to evoke a human condition where—as Samuel Johnson put it—much is to be endured and little is to be enjoyed. Personal experience is more real to these contemporary poets than the backdrop of history and current affairs. Memory is insistent, but is painful more often than not. Poetry itself is frequently a theme, which fits well with the general atmosphere of interiority and self-exploration. Ireland is a context rather than a subject matter. Religion is rarely mentioned. There is little sense of broad horizons, new frontiers, or enticing possibilities. The poet is thrown upon his or her own resources, navigating fhe traumas of private and cultural memories, seeking personal meaning in an often hostile or indifferent world.