Monday, May 30, 2022

Something I Posted on Facebook Last Night

Listening to a homily this morning I found myself thinking of the uniqueness of the Bible and of Biblical exegesis compared to any other sort of literary criticism or analysis.

I am afflicted more than most people, I believe, by a deep sense of pathos in the transience of all things. This applies to stories and literature, too. It's always seemed sad to me that all stories come to an end. The hero riding into the sunset is the most famous symbol of this, but it's there in all literature, narrative or otherwise. An end comes to the journey together of the writer and the reader. Books go out favour, out of print, out of memory.

This pathos is alleviated somewhat by the timelessness of any given literary (or cinematic) classic. Such works seem to live outside time to some degree.

But nothing lives outside time like the Bible. Not only does the text return to itself over and over, so that the book of Apocalypse is like a reprise of the entire story. Not only does the whole Bible have an eschatological or soteriological dimension so that every scene in it (some more so than others) seem to contain the seed of eternity.

But, in a more worldly or lived sense, I'm aware that the Bible is perpetually alive in human consciousness in a unique way. Today's sermon on the Ascension in this particular church is one of tens of thousands all over the world today, millions through time. The texts of the Bible are constantly being read, analysed, moralized, meditated upon, filtered through different historical perspectives, etc. The text is "open" in the sense of a 24/7 shop being open. For me, this heals the pathos and loneliness that hovers over other texts in a unique way.

In Ireland Today, Poetry is More Counter-Cultural Than Catholicism

We all know that Catholicism is counter-cultural in today's Ireland. We know that our political elites have pushed through a social agenda that is anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. We know there is a deep-rooted hostility to Catholicism in the media, in the universities, and so on. We know there is a "soft persecution" against Christians, which so far is limited to fairly minor things such as discrimination against Catholic societies in universities, or bullying of Christian bakers reluctant to bake cakes for gay weddings.

I've come to the conclusion, however, that poetry is even more counter-cultural than Catholicism in today's Ireland.

There is at least a space for Catholicism. There is no space for poetry.

Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people attend Mass in towns, suburbs and villages all over Ireland. There are quite a few Catholic publications in Ireland: The Irish Catholic, The Catholic Voice, Alive!, Position Papers, and so on. There is Spirit Radio, Radio Maria Ireland, and any number of Catholic blog and radio channels.

There is really no space for the discussion of poetry, outside school and university.

I'm not just talking about formal spaces. There are no informal spaces, either. Try to talk about poetry and eyes glaze over.

For instance, some years ago I was reading Idylls of the King by Lord Alfred Tennyson, a heroic verse cycle of poetry which was extremely popular little more than a hundred years ago. I plan to return to it in the future. It's the kind of thing you can really get your teeth into. And indeed I found a satisfying amount of academic articles devoted to it, as well as a couple of book-length studies in UCD library. 

However, my attempts to talk about it with people floundered utterly. Zero interest. Not even the faintest glimmer of interest.

There are Star Trek nerds, Doctor Who nerds, politics nerds, philosophy nerds, all kinds of nerds. But there are no Idylls of the Kings nerds, no Tennyson nerds. You won't find an internet forum or Facebook group devoted to either.

Catholicism is counter-cultural in Ireland, but it is at least on the agenda. People have a lot to say about it, are keen to engage you in argument and debate or even sympathetic discussion.

Poetry? Nothing.

Friday, May 13, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (II)

I grew up in a three-bedroomed flat in Ballymun and it was always crowded. I didn't have my own bed until I was a teenager. This environment, I've noticed, has influenced me in two contrasting ways.

One is a stubborn contrarianism, a disposition to assert my own individuality and strive for originality, which I think derives from a fear of being swallowed up in the crowd. This tendency has good and bad aspects. It also gives me an affection for eccentrics and oddballs.

(It would be unfair to pretend that this is entirely a reaction to my family environment. Indeed, there was plenty of eccentricity and originality in my family, and it was prized.)

The other legacy of my rather crowded upbringing is a dislike of silence. I'm used to having activity around me and I like having activity around me. I like having a background

This has made me rather impatient and even disdainful of people who "need" silence. Which might not be a great qualification for somebody working in a library. I must admit I'm rather unsympathetic towards students who ask: "What's the quietest part of the library?". My reply is inevitably: "Get over yourself, you cissy." At least, that's what I feel like saying.

It's also prejudiced me against the whole mania for silence. Of course, "mania" is a loaded word. I'm not suggesting this attitude of mine is fair or rational. But at the same time, I'm rather antagonized whenever I hear someone praising silence and contemplation. They always say this as though it is something incredibly original and even daring (usually accompanied by disparaging remarks about "our 24-hour society" and social media, etc. etc.) But pretty much everybody is on Team Silence, as far as I can tell. Except for me!

Having said all that, I can think of any number of occasions in my own life when I've been thrilled by silence. For instance, when visiting my aunt's farm in Limerick. What I love about the relative silence of the countryside is that you can actually hear distance. Hearing water gurgling in a drain far away is a delicious sensation. Or (to take a more suburban example) listening to shouts and cheers drifting from a playing-field out of sight.

On the whole, though, I'm on Team Noise, Team Activity. I realize that this puts me at odds with the whole Christian tradition, I'm sure I'm in the wrong, and all I'm asking for here is an exemption.

But is contemplation all about silence, anyway?

I have a mind that is always racing. I find it very hard to concentrate during Mass and the rosary. This is one reason I prefer a short Mass, since trying to concentrate during a protracted one is quite tiring.

Silence doesn't make me feel contemplative. It just makes my mind race more.

Having something to keep my mind busy, and thus soothing it, is what "liberates" my contemplative side. Perhaps I am not so strange in this. After all, this seems to be the point (or some of the point) of the repetitive prayers of the rosary, according to some authors. It focuses and steadies the analytic part of the mind, which allows the contemplative part of the mind to work.

I only have time for a quick post now, so I will resume this topic in my next one.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (I)

In October of last year, I wrote a blog post with the title "To Live Overflowingly", in which I expressed a desire to live a life packed with incident, industry and gusto. This is how it started:

In recent years, a particular ideal has seeped into my imagination-- gradually, but with ever more insistency.

I would call it "to live overflowingly."

I don't claim to embody this ideal, or even to approach this ideal. It's an ideal, something that captivates my imagination.

To put it simply (before I inevitably elaborate), it's to live with gusto, to cultivate a hearty appetite for life.

I love the line in Groundhog Day: "Well, sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes." And the line in Tennyson's "Ulysses": "Life piled on life were all too little".

I think this ideal first took hold of me while reading about prolific authors. Prolific authors have always stirred my imagination. Authors such as Isaac Asimov or G.K. Chesterton or St. Augustine (five million words!) or Enid Blyton.

I love what Isaac Asimov said about himself: "Writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers."

That ideal still moves me-- especially the gusto part. But, more recently, I've been turning towards a different ideal, one that is almost the opposite.

I've been trying to be more contemplative, slower.

This applies especially to writing. Although I still like the idea of being a literary workhorse, and that works fairly well in prose, my mind is turning more and more to poetry.

At the risk of being controversial, all prose is pretty interchangeable. (I'm not talking about fiction, or about essayists such as Chesterton or Orwell-- although it actually applies to a considerable extent here, too.)

Whenever I look at any of my published pieces, I do feel a strong sense of accomplishment. I don't think I'll ever get over the thrill of seeing my words in print. It makes me happy when people tell me I have a particular style.

At the same time, there is the nagging thought: "A lot of other people could have written this. It would have been much the same."

As well as this, prose is disposable in a way that poetry is not. Of course, prose will at least get a reading, which poetry usually won't. But people read prose, put it aside, and never think about it again. If you can persuade someone to actually read a poem-- oh, huge "if"!-- and they really like it, it will mean more to them than prose ever would. People come back to poetry.


When I started writing poetry (around sixteen) I laboured over every single poem, every single line. It was finished when it was finished. The almost-good-enough wasn't good enough. Anything that read awkwardly, any weak link, had to be replaced with something better. This was the right approach and I wrote pretty good stuff, for my age.

In my twenties I had the disastrous idea of writing a poem every day, or every few days. My idea was that it would train my poetic (and writing) muscles. I compared it to practicing calligraphy, so  that one becomes a fluent calligrapher. It was a big mistake. There was a very dramatic decline in quality. I wrote some terrible poetry in my twenties-- terrible in its mediocrity, in its throwaway nature.

Recently, I've gone back to writing as I did in my teens, and even more so. On my morning tea-break in work, I take out whatever poem I'm working on (only one so far), and sit with it. If I spend the entire tea-break without writing a single word, that's OK. If I write a single line or a couple of lines, that's OK too. (W.B. Yeats, my ideal in all matters poetic, didn't let himself write more than six or seven lines at a time. I'm not that severe.)

So far, I have ten verses of a new poem that I'm pretty happy with.

The idea is to dwell with the poem, to put my soul into it, so that-- however bad it is-- at least it could never be called throwaway. To put as much thought, depth and love into it as I possibly can. As much of myself into it as I can, so that each is an episode in my life.

True, some of the greatest poems have been written in a matter of hours. John Keats, astonishingly, wrote "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" (in my opinion, the greatest sonnet in the English language) in a single night, at the age of twenty-one. Such miracles are rare and not to be looked for.


And what if these poems are never published, if they never get an audience?

I'm reconciled to that. At least, I'm trying to be reconciled to that. I don't want it, and I would very much like for them to get an audience. But I've accepted at this stage that literary magazines and newspapers are not going to publish my poems, or that I might manage at best to get a handful published. Good or bad, they are written in traditional verse, which goes against them from the first.

And really...who reads literary magazines or slim volumes of poetry, anyway? Posting a poem on Facebook probably gets as much of a readership. My hope is that a poem that really speaks to people will find its way, however it comes to their attention.

And even if they never do (which would admittedly disappoint me), there is value in the process. We live in a prosaic society, an anti-poetry society. I don't want to be carried along on the tide. Patrick Kavanagh once said: "A young man who writes poetry is a young man, but a man of forty who writes poetry is a poet." I'm going to write poetry. I'm going to talk about my poetry and ask people if they'd like to hear my poems. It seems to me as worthy a topic of conversation as many others, even if it's a dire poem.

In my next post, I'll write about other aspects of this "turn to the contemplative", aside from writing poetry.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Three Years Today

Today is the third anniversary of my father's death. I posted this about him last year on Facebook (and shared it again this year).

Today is the second anniversary of my father's death. He was the biggest influence on my life. My love of poetry came from his extempore reciting of Shakespeare and Walter Scott and Robbie Burns and any number of others, not to mention his buying me books such as Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses.

He put far more effort into the public good than he ever did into his own private good. He edited a community newspaper (latterly a magazine) called The Ballymun News for over thirty years. He wrote most of it himself. He took a leading role in setting up a community social centre called The Ballymun Workman's Club. He helped set up the Irish language school in Ballymun, without which I would not even have the Gaeilge briste [broken Irish] I have. He said he had no Irish himself, although I suspect he had a little more than he pretended.

In the seventies he became a whistle blower and had a brutal boy's remand home called Marlborough House shut down.

He did all this while working a succession of jobs which were rarely more genteel than house painter, labourer, or orderly. Several times he had opportunities to advance himself but refused them on grounds of principle.

He was a strongly believing Catholic, although he rarely went to Mass. He also had a big influence on my religious beliefs although there was never any pressure in this way. I am such a contrarian that I probably would have reacted against it if there was. He could quote fluently from the New Testament, though the Old Testament was a closed book to him. When we went into town to get a birthday gift on my birthday the ritual was always: a glass of orange and a bag of crisps in the Flowing Tide, and lighting a candle in the Pro Cathedral.

I have so many memories of him but recently, I find myself remembering one from the mid-nineties: the smell of papier-mache as he made something from it in the living room-- a Christmas crib most likely. Soccer was on the TV. He watched every sport except a handful, like basketball (which was "a game for freaks") and motor sports.

"He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again." Please say a prayer for him.

Monday, May 2, 2022

My (Brief) Exchange with Brian Holdsworth

I often watch the videos of the Canadian Catholic YouTuber Brian Holdsworth. I've been a fan for a good few years, but recently I've not been so keen on the turn his commentary has taken, which seems (as with many Catholic YouTubers) relentlessly negative towards developments in the Church.

I might be wrong, but it seems like many Catholics on the right are drifting into a sort of despairing nostalgia for Christendom. I don't doubt that they care about saving souls, but they also seem preoccupied with the notion of reviving a Catholic society, a Catholic culture and body politic.

This seems such a flight into fantasy that I find it rather depressing. We're not in the High Middle ages anymore. We are in a very different situation and it seems reasonable that the Holy Spirit is responding to that diference, that this is why the Church in our time takes a different approach than it did in the Counter-Reformation or any other time.

Anyway, I was surprised that my initial comment got 37 "likes". Brian responded to it. I responded back, and then so did he. I think I'll leave it there.

Here is the video.