Saturday, April 30, 2022

Adorable Trivialities

I'm reading Elected Silence by Thomas Merton, which was (bizarrely) the title initially used in the UK for his autobiography, better known as The Seven-Storey Mountain. I began to read it many years ago, but I don't think I got further than a few pages on that occasion. Other than that, I've never read anything by Merton.

This is a bit strange, I suppose, given my long-standing interest in converts. In fact, I am reading the book as research for the next article in my converts series in St. Martin's Magazine.

I was bound to come to Merton eventually. I'm fairly familiar with his story from various books about converts that I've read during the years. (A Century of Catholic Converts by Lorene Hanley Duquin may be the best of these. I recommend it. It's so good I bought it twice, once for myself and once as a gift for the lady who eventually became my wife.)

But I'd always felt a bit iffy about Merton. The wrong sort of people were keen on him, I thought. And his flirtation with Eastern religion was a bit troubling.

My distrust was deepend by this article on the Catholic Answers website. All in all, I thought, I would avoid Merton.

However, he has since received praise from the highest source, the Pope himself. In his 2015 speech to the US Congress, the Holy Father said: "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions."

Does this mean all Catholics are obliged to revere Merton? Obviously not. We all know there is a hot debate within the Church on how far we are to adhere to the Pope's judgement when he is not speaking infallibly. Personally, I consider it wisest to follow rather closely, and therefore I'm happy to consider Merton "safe" (while reserving the right to read him critically).

And he can't be too bad, because one of the things his memoir did was push me into the confessional, which I had avoided for too long.

It's a good book. Thomas Merton seems to have been the sort of extroverted, go-getting, effortlessly competent type of person who is in many ways the complete opposite to myself. Although he lingers on his flaws and failures, the picture I get from reading his memoir is of someone who excelled academically and socially-- so much so that he placed no particular value on his success, and even felt somewhat ashamed of it. So, to this degree, I find it hard to relate to him. (I'm still quite a shy person, but if I was to describe my childhood and adolescent shyness readers would find it hard to believe. And I was definitely a C-to-B student at school-- except at English, where I excelled, and at mathematics, where I was always very happy to scrape a bare pass.)

Merton was also (by a certain point in his life) drawn towards silence and solitude, something I've never experienced at all.

However, I still find a lot of interesting stuff in the book. What prompted this blog post was one passage in particular, in which he describes a train journey to Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, to attend a Trappist retreat (this was before he became a Trappist):

So when we entered Cincinnati, in the evening, with the lights coming on among all the houses and the electric signs shining on the hills, and the huge freight yards swinging open on either side of the track and the high buildings in the distance, I felt as if I owned the world. And yet that was not because of all these things, but because of Gethsemani, where I was going. It was the fact that I was passing through all this, and did not desire it, and wanted no part in it, and did not seek to grasp or hold any of it, that I could exult in it, and it all cried out to me: God! God!

This reminds me of a similar passage, in Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday. It comes at the very end, after the protagaonist has had an experience which is a sort of allegory of the Christian revelation:

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme's experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through. For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

That's always the sensation I feel when I'm immersed in the sacred. That the workaday world is comparatively unimportant, but strangely all the more precious for it. There's not as much pressure on it.

I was trying to express something like this in the article I wrote
about the background in holy pictures.

More recently, it something I've experienced when attending lunch-time Mass in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom church in UCD. This very simple church (which I love) has two plain windows to the right and left of the altar. I greatly enjoy taking glimpses out of them during Mass. The contrast between the world outside and the evocation of Eternity inside stimulates my imagination. Suddenly, the grass and the sky and trees and the passers-by outside the window seems strangely unreal, or less real than the tremendous Reality inside. And the weather outside, be it sunny or rainy, brings to memory that wonderful phrase "in season and out of season."

It's hard to describe the sensation exactly. But what I can say is that the created world never seems more straightforwardly loveable than when I turn towards it after contemplating the divine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Does Anybody Read This Blog Anymore?

In recent months, I've felt like I'm just talking to myself. Which is, of course, what crazy people do.

It could be that my posts became so repetitive and/or eccentric that my little audience just drifted away.

After ten years, I'm too sentimental to retire Irish Papist completely, but perhaps it is time to put it on the backburner.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Imaginary Friends: Another Poem from 2005

Here is another poem I came across in my archive trawl. I'm pretty sure I wrote it a few years before 2005, but the only date I have to go on is 2005, when I created the file.

(I have a clear memory of writing every poem I wrote. My 2005 poems were mostly written a rented room in Stillorgan, while listening to Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles. I remember this poem being written at home, at a time I was eating lots of peanut butter straight from the jar and reading The Wheel of Time.)

This is a very Betjeman-esque poem, even mildly plagiarizing his "A Hike on the Downs". The narrator is meant to sound unpleasant, and he's not meant to be me. I'm unpleasant in different ways.

When I wrote this poem, I remember being very unsatisfied with it. Now I read it again, it's actually a lot better than most of the stuff I wrote at this time. As with many of my old poems, I regret that I avoided Irish references as much as possible, hoping that would make them more accessible to non-Irish readers. I'm also disappointed that I fell into the common mistake of using "under-par" to mean "inadequate", when it means quite the opposite in golf.

Imaginary Friends

I like to think that Anthony
Has read the works of Proust.
He seems so smart and literary.
It gives me such a boost.

I like to think Elizabeth
Conceals a heart of gold
And if she does, we can forget
Those nasty jokes she told.

I like to think that Paul and Clive
Are intellectuals
Who can’t abide the nine-to-five
And not just ne’er-do-wells.

But, in the morning, when I wake,
Before I don my myths
I realize my own mistake.
Who tumble-dried my wits

To turn such dullard into dudes?
Don’t ask, I know: myself.
But with my tea, a thought that soothes:
They’re not quite bottom-shelf.

Maybe I wince to hear their jokes
Their quips that miss the target;
At least they’re better than the blokes
Who throng the supermarket.

At least they aren’t quite as bad
As those atrocious mothers
Who rant at the last kid they had.
They don’t give me the shudders

(Except for sometimes). As for me
I could be worse by far.
If not quite what I hope to be
I’m not quite under-par.

But, ah! When day-dreams set me free
Then Anthony and Paul
And all that third-rate company
(Myself the most of all)

Become the people I deserve;
The wit and repartee!
Elizabeth has vim and verve,
Clive spontaneity.

Too much of life offends the sight
To look with naked eyes.
Who could forego the candle-light
Of fantasy and lies?

Before the Party: A Poem from 2005

I didn’t want the other guests to arrive
As I helped you put out glasses and plates.
You laughed and said Nobody celebrates
A thirtieth alone
, do they? I knew
That moment's fragile joy couldn’t survive
The next intruder to come smirking through
Your door. But after all, we’re only mates.

The inner sanctum is the only room;
Nothing is holy outside you and me.
Ringing the door-bell now is blasphemy.
The soul is a kingdom charted two by two.
The door-bell rings. Sir Thomas, I presume
And loneliness begins again at three

I'm going through all my old poetry, trying to collect them together and to digitize all the ones I only have in manuscripts. It's proving to be quite a task.

This is one of the better ones I've come across, that I haven't posted on this blog already. I think the second verse is very good, if I say so myself.

At this point of my life, I was writing a lot of poems portraying fictional, dramatic situations. Reading back on them, I cringe at their knowing, worldly-wise tone. Based on my life circumstances, this affectation was ludicrous. I'm not worldly wise today. I was even less worldly-wise in 2005.

But that's one of the dilemmas of poetry. You don't want it to be pure self-expression, since you want to speak to universal (or at least, widespread) human experience. But writing from a God's-eye view is also difficult, since most of us are not God. You have to find some compromise between the two.

Although this poem describes a fictional situation, it's definitely influenced by a powerful unrequited crush I had at the time. I say "crush", but it was not a fleeting thing, and lasted a couple of years. But I was very firmly "friend-zoned" (as they say these days). I think this poem might fairly speak to any young man caught in such a situation.

Is it obvious that the girl is greeting a new arrival, ironically, as "Sir Thomas"? I hope it is.

Monday, April 25, 2022

A Happy Anniversary

On this day in 1660 the English parliament (the "Convention Parliament") voted to restore the monarchy and acknowledge Charles II as King of England. He had a high old time of it, hiding from Roundheads inside oak trees and frolicking with many women, and then converted to Catholicism on his death bed.

God bless constitutional monarchy! God bless democracy! God bless parliaments with nicknames! God bless England!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A Strange Thought

I haven't got the time or energy to expand this into a proper blog post, but I was struck by a strange thought the other day.

I was thinking about the Ireland of my youth, and specifically how the stories and doctrines of Catholicism were fairly frequently invoked at this time.

This could be easily exaggerated-- they certainly weren't a feature of everyday life or ordinary conversation.

But they were there. It was not unusual for conversation to turn to sacred matters. Even if they were not discussed (or alluded to) from a viewpoint of explicit belief, they were generally discussed respectfully enough.

What I find interesting is the counterpoint this involved. There was, on the one hand, the ordinary world of school and buses and television and shopping trolleys.

On the other hand, there was the world of first century Palestine, a world of miracles and demoniacs and impassioned theological debate. And then there was the whole history of Catholicism, full of martyrdoms and wonders and apparitions, many of them occurring in exotic countries, or in distant times.

It's the mixture that I find intriguing, and beguiling. Ordinary life had a window onto an utterly different world, an utterly different mode of being. It threw its light onto the mundane world, however fitfully.

This is more or less gone now, and Ireland seems correspondingly shrunken and impoverished to me.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Happy Easter!

Just a quick post to wish all my readers a blessed Triduum and a happy Easter. Here's hoping we all receive many lasting graces over this holy period.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

On a Lenten Rondel

What poetry needs is a place at the table. There has never been, I believe, so little popular interest in poetry as there has been for the last fifty years or so. And yet there is no lack of reverence towards poetry. We have too much reverence, and too little familiarity (in both senses of that word).

We put poetry into cordoned-off areas, to be safely exalted and ignored.

Some time ago I submitted a poem to an online journal for which I have written quite a few articles. I was told that several people had submitted poems to the journal, and that the editors were working on a separate publication in which such creative writing would appear.

But this is the whole problem in a nutshell. Confine poetry to its own publications, its own events, its own websites, and very few people are ever going to read it.

It's hard to believe that poetry, not so long ago, was a staple of every sort of magazine and newspaper. If you don't believe me, read some literary biographies from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.

The problem today is not that there are no "spaces" for poetry. There are. But poetry never really escapes from them. There are poetry slams and poetry websites and all sorts of poetry repositories, like this one which was created by my own library-- "Poetry in Lockdown".

It's a noble initiative, but who is going to read all these poems crammed together into an online collection? Who is going to sit down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and browse through "Poetry in Lockdown"? Nobody. So much poetry in one place, so barely presented, is somewhat overwhelming.

Related to our excess of reverence for poetry, today, is a reluctance to talk about it in the same way we talk about everything else. We are too conscious of silly maxims such as Archibald MacLeish's "a poem should not mean but be." We have been more or less convinced that anything we deign to say about a poem is almost certainly reductive, vulgar, obvious, missing the point, etc.

But to place something above or beyond analysis is really to push it out of sight and out of mind.

Whenever I've shared my poetry with people (with a very exceptions), the reaction is generally twofold:

1) I like it.

2) It makes me think of X or Y or Z.

But what I was really gunning for is a critical reaction. What is good about it? What is bad about it? What does it suggest to you in terms of meaning and association? Exactly the sort of critique anyone would have about a film, a novel, a painting, a piece of music. I just want my poem to be treated as a piece of work, not as pure sacred self-expression, immune from analysis.

There is no shortage of people writing poetry (which is a good thing in itself), and even platforms (of some kind) where that poetry can be shared. But there is no real discussion of any of this poetry, outside the ivory towers of the academy. It's just there. Take it or leave it.

So today I am going to discuss a poem-- not written by me, but by Dominic N of the "Some Definite Service" blog.

It's a poem which has been posted on the blog for several Lents running, but with subtle changes over the years. I suggested to Dominic that he should write about the evolution of the poem, and he did so in this post.

Being a lover of texts about texts, and of texts about texts about texts, I am now going to write a little bit about the poem myself-- not concerning myself with the different drafts (though that would be interesting), but with his latest version.

Here it is:

All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent.
All grunged-up souls, all people pent
In pleasure’s prison, bravely cast
Your senseless sin aside at last:
Believe the Gospel and repent.
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast;
Fear not these desert days of Lent.
The thirst and hunger will not last,
For by God’s Son, who underwent
The Cross, we know that we are meant
For Heaven’s home when pain is past —
All friends of Christ, hold fast, hold fast.

First of all, I think this is an excellent poem. The use of the rondel form in itself is an achievement, being a highly restrictive and exacting format. There are only two rhymes in the whole poem, which gives it a strong sense of compression and containment. The repetition of the two rhymes adds emphasis, to this very simple and unambiguous poem.

It's a highly rhetorical poem. The poet addresses the reader directly, in the first line and the last. Indeed, the poet addresses the readers collectively, giving it something of an air of a sermon.

The use of repetition is the most notable feature of this poem. The repeated lines are exhortations, again emphasizing the rhetorical tone of the poem. One of the most important functions of poetry is to inspire, and this is obviously a poem that sets out to do this.

It's a rather melodramatic poem, a characteristic that I think both a strength and (possibly) a weakness. The first line is both melodramatic and emotional, reminiscent of evangelical religious language that seems (sadly) quite old-fashioned today. This is a bit daring but, I think, very effective. It surprises the reader and wakes her up. "Believe the Gospel and repent" is also a powerful line, since this is in effect the essence of the Gospel. In fact, to read the Gospels is to realize how far we tend to drift from this basic fact, that Jesus called on us to believe and repent, above all else.

However, I do think the melodramatic nature of the poem might be a weakness-- or, more positively, something that gives the reader pause for thought. After all, is the modern Lent really an ordeal? There are two days of fasting (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), and six Fridays of abstaining from meat. These days a lot of people abstain from meat anyway. In terms of the core requirements, Lent really seems more of an inconvenience than an ordeal.

But that's the minimum. Aren't we supposed to go beyond that? Yes, most of us "give something up". This year (as I've done several years previously), I gave up listening to music. Even though I allowed myself to break this musical fast on Sundays (and St. Patrick's Day), it still bites a little. But only a little.

We could go much further, and doubtless many do. The English politician Anne Widdecombe, for instance, only drinks water during Lent-- a privation which strikes me with awe! However, I think such people are in a minority. References to "holding fast", the "desert", and "thirst and hunger" seems somewhat incongruous and excessive.

But perhaps I am taking too literal a reading of the poem? Perhaps the poet is thinking of the spiritual ordeal of Lent, a time in which we are meant to spend more time in reflection, prayer and self-examination. This is possible. However, I still think it seems unrepresentative of modern life. It's very difficult to "retreat" during Lent, in our post-Christian and pluralist societies. Sadly, Lent does not throw its atmosphere over its stretch of the calendar, as do Christmas and summer and other periods of time. I think it's rare (to put it mildly) to remember something that happened during Lent and say (or think): "I remember one Lent..." Outside a Catholic church, with its covered statues and purple hangings, you'd hardly know it was Lent. And it's very difficult to preserve a Lenten spirit, a Lenten outlook, in all the animation and bustle of everyday life.

Similarly, "pleasure's prison" strikes me as excessive. How many of us are really hedonists? Life still seems a condition, as Samuel Johnston put it, in which "much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed". It seems to me that most of us spend most of our time working, studying, commuting, taking care of children (or parents), enduring small talk and obligatory social calls, keeping fit, seeking to improve ourselves in one way or another-- somehow (I may be wrong) I think hedonism is the besetting sin of few enough people these days. Although we neglect our souls, I don't think we do it for the sake of pleasure. I'm even inclined to think our society could do with more simple, wholesome pleasure, not less. However, "pleasure's prison" is certainly a ringing phrase, taken on its own.

As I've said already, however, it might be that this contrast between Lent as it should be, and as it really is, is a virtue of the poem. It's a salutary reminder. After all, here we are; another Lent gone and we have not really lived it as we should have.

While I am criticizing the poem, I will mention a final thing I don't like so much. "Grunged-up" seems a little too slangy and discordant; admittedly, my taste in poetry might err towards the over-polished and the over-refined. I can't help thinking of nineties grunge music and fashion.

Other than that, I have only good things to say about the poem, especially its use of language. "Your senseless sin" pleases the ear, and reminds me the intellect of sin's futility; I may consider "these desert days" and "thirst and hunger" to be excessive in terms of our actual experience of Lent, but the simplicity and vividness of the phrases themselves are effective; "for Heaven's home when pain is past" is a line which is a pleasure in itself, having something of the naivety and simplicity of Anglo-Saxon poetry. (There are plenty of echoes of Anglo-Saxon poetry in this poet's work.)

Dominic himself was somewhat critical of the lines:

For by God's Son, who underwent
The Cross, we know that we are meant
For Heaven's home when pain is past--

He describes these lines as being "a little more awkward for the reader", though he is satisfied that he has "avoided anything contrived". I think he has done better than that. This is a poem chock-full of simple, direct, simple statements, a thing that is very difficult to achieve in poetry. Most poems have too few direct statements; this poem almost errs on the side of too many. The slight stiffness and indirectness of these lines is a pleasing contrast to this, and this temporary change of pace and tone makes the last few lines all the more powerful in their renewed directness. I like "who underwent the Cross" very much; it gives me a frisson. It has a slightly medieval flavour to it.

As I say, an excellent poem. Like all good poems, its merit becomes clearer as you analyse it. It's by no means this poet's best poem, or even one of his best. It is rather limited in its scope, which is part of is appeal. There is no room here for his usual subtle humour, or his celebration of ordinary modern life. But it does what it does very well.

And I am very happy to be able to post my analysis of it on Spy Wednesday, one day before the end of Lent!

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Endings That Open New Horizons

This is a Facebook post I posted some weeks ago. It's about the climactic scene of "All Good Things", the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

It's a brilliant finale. It features Q, a mysterious and almost-omnipotent figure who was a recurring character in the series. In fact, he featured in the first episode in which he puts the  whole human race on trial (the crew of the Starship Enterprise being their representatives). They survive that, of course, but in "All Good Things", Q tells Captain Jean-Luc Picard that "the trial never ended". Picard finds himself trying to stave off the impending doom of humanity, which comes in the form of a "spatial anomaly".

In "All Good Things", Picard travels through the past, present and future (thrust back and forth by Q), and realizes that the spatial anomaly is growing bigger the further back he travels in time. If he doesn't stop it growing (backwards in time), it will eventually stop human evolution from ever happening at all, in the primeval past. His encounters with the other characters in the three different timelines have a tremendous dramatic and emotional impact on the viewer-- on this viewer, at least. The story touches on deep themes of loyalty, identity, and the unity of a human life.

(The framework of past, present and future is reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, a story which has provided a template for countless other stories.)

Q is a fascinating and ambivalent figure. He is a member of a species called "the Q Continuum", who are all near-omnipotent and who seem to act as a kind of cosmic judiciary. He seems sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly to the crew of the Enterprise. In "All Good Things", up to this last scene, he seems entirely hostile-- even terrifying.

You can see the climax here. Watch it before you continue reading. It's not very long.

And here is my Facebook post, which is shorter than my set-up:

I think this might be favourite climax of any TV drama ever. Not only that, but it's a kind of paradigm of how I think a story SHOULD end. "Charting the unknown possibilities of existence". The conclusion of a story should not be a closing down but an opening up of new horizons. That doesn't have to be a science-fiction understanding of new horizons; it can simply be a deeper understanding of life on the part of the protagonist, or new possibilities of some kind.

The part where Q leans over to say something to Picard and then his chair pulls him away is brilliant, as is "See you...out there". It gets the whole atmosphere of the show in one scene. Of course, in science-fiction guise it's essentially an encounter with an angel.

But then, I'm a fuddy-duddy who thinks fiction (indeed, all art) should be something that raises people up and inspires them. Even it has dark themes, it should ultimately inspire. I agree with Chesterton when he said the only thing worse than the oppression of the people is the depression of the people.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Modern Poetry Really is Rubbish

Last month, The Burkean pulled a wonderful prank on the publishers of Icarus, a prestigious poetry journal in Trinity College.

This story fills me with glee, but also with a certain relief. Since my teens, I've felt pretty sure that modern poetry (which mostly means free verse) is rubbish. I can't see anything in it at all.

But every now and again, doubts creep in. After all, so many modernistic poets seem very much in earnest, often enduring poverty, mental illness and even suicide as they grapple with their art.  (Of course, I have tremendous sympathy for the human aspect of this.) They seem to have so much to say about each others' works, as do literary critics. Am I simply missing something?

A story like this reassures me that, no, I am not missing anything. Modern poetry really is rubbish, a genuine case of the Emperor's New Clothes. 

And that means the revival of classic poetry, traditional poetry, proper poetry, really is an urgent cultural necessity. The need for this seems ever more imperative to me.