The 1916 Poets: Some Thoughts

Shortly after noon on Monday 24th April 1916, Easter Monday, Padraig Pearse stood outside the General Post Office in Dublin and formally proclaimed an Irish Republic. Pearse and his colleagues were engaging in a doomed if dramatic gesture of defiance against the British Empire, a few hundred armed irregulars with no great plan and even less hope of victory.

For many non-Irish poetry lovers, the Easter Rising is perhaps best known as the subject of WB Yeats’ great poem ‘Easter 1916‘. Appropriately, as in many ways this was a poets’ rebellion. Three of the signatories of the proclamation, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Pearse, were poets, as were a number of other combatants and close supporters of the rising.

Plunkett was something of a poète maudit. Thin, pale and consumptive, he was already dying when he entered the GPO that Monday. His verse is, in the main, sentimentally religious and laden with images of blood and death. He is now best remembered for the poem ‘I See his blood upon the rose’ which was learned by heart by generations of Irish Catholic schoolchildren.

 I see His Blood upon the Rose

 

I SEE his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

 

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words.

 

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree.

McDonagh, who commanded the forces that occupied Jacob’s Mill on a southern approach to the city centre, was a more substantial and prolific poet than Plunkett, and his writing was more closely aligned to the mainstream of the Irish Literary Revival. He wrote poems on themes from Irish myth and legend as well as translations from older Irish verse (and also from Catullus). His ‘On a Patriot Poet’ might serve as his epitaph.

On a Poet Patriot

 

HIS songs were a little phrase

Of eternal song,

Drowned in the harping of lays

More loud and long.

 

His deed was a single word,

Called out alone

In a night when no echo stirred

To laughter or moan.

 

But his songs new souls shall thrill,

The loud harps dumb,

And his deed the echoes fill

When the dawn is come.

Pearse, had he lived, might well have been the most interesting poet of the three. He was the first Irish poet to take Whitman seriously and, almost uniquely among his compatriots, frequently used unrhymed free verse, albeit that he swapped the American’s barbaric yap for an Irish Catholic sense of piety. Like Plunkett, he was much taken with ideas of blood and sacrifice. On the night before his execution, he wrote a letter and poem to his mother; the poem has undertones of the crucifixion in its play on the mother’s simultaneous suffering and glorying in the death of a son.

The Mother

 

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed;

But I will speak their names to my own heart

In the long nights;

The little names that were familiar once

Round my dead hearth.

Lord, thou art hard on mothers:

We suffer in their coming and their going;

And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary

Of the long sorrow – And yet I have my joy:

My sons were faithful, and they fought.

The GPO Quartermaster was Desmond Fitzgerald, one of the English Imagists who met in the Tour Eiffel café in Soho, as near to an avant garde as English poetry had in the years before WWI. In late 1917, while Fitzgerald was in prison for his part in the Rising, his poems started to appear in AR Orage’s journal The New Age, alongside work by Ezra Pound and others. These were love poems, were not ‘Celtic’ and make no reference to Nationalist politics. Although he wrote prolifically, Fitzgerald’s claim to fame is his political career as a Minister in the first independent Irish government. Indeed, it was as a politician that he found his place among those remembered in the Pisan Cantos decades later.

Spring

 

I knew you and knew your beauty, bat only thought

Of that other beauty that artists, long-since dead, had wrought

On canvas and marble and painted glass:

And so we let the days and the weeks pass

Unnoticed as a bird that flies

Above the house, until one day, walking in friendly wise,

We heard a far-off blackbird sing

And suddenly remembered it was Spring.

And then I remembered your dark eyes and your fragrant lips and your cool

Hands that had touched mine, and that you were beautiful:

And our eyes met, and our hands: and glad and elate

We sought the woods and the fields and the Springtime beyond the City gate.

A number of women, members of Cumann na mBan, participated directly in the Rising.  Among these women was the Theosophist, folklorist and Revival poet Ella Young. A born eccentric, Young survived and went on to teach at Berkeley and to have her work set to music by experimental composer Harry Partch

These poems show something of the influence of Hilda Doolittle.

The Rose

 

The rose that blooms in Paradise

Burns with an ecstasy too sweet

For mortal eyes

But sometimes down the jasper walls

A petal falls

Toward earth and night

To lose it is to lose delight beyond compare

To have it is to have despair

As can be seen, the 1916 poets were a mixed bag; many were tied to the romantic cultural Nationalism of the Revival, looking back to an idealised Ireland that never was but without the imaginative power of a Yeats. Others were interested in new movements and ideas and radical approaches to writing verse. In this, the poetry of the Rising reflects its politics. Easter 1916 was a coming together of dreamers and realists, nationalists and socialists, radicals and conservatives united more by a cause than an ideology, a cause they were willing to die for. And die many of them did.

The story of Francis Ledwidge is equally reflective of the politics and confusion of the time. His poem ‘Lament for the Poets: 1916’ reflects his friendship with those poets, especially McDonagh. Ledwidge was active in the Irish Volunteers but played no part in the rising, largely because he was serving in the British Army at the time. He died in 1917 in Passchendaele. Had he lived, he might have found the new Ireland an inhospitable place for a retired British soldier.

Lament for the Poets: 1916

 

I HEARD the Poor Old Woman say:

“At break of day the fowler came,

And took my blackbirds from their songs

Who loved me well thro’ shame and blame.

 

No more from lovely distances

Their songs shall bless me mile by mile,

Nor to white Ashbourne call me down

To wear my crown another while.

 

With bended flowers the angels mark

For the skylark the places they lie,

From there its little family

Shall dip their wings first in the sky.

 

And when the first surprise of flight

Sweet songs excite, from the far dawn

Shall there come blackbirds loud with love,

Sweet echoes of the singers gone.

 

But in the lonely hush of eve

Weeping I grieve the silent bills.”

I heard the Poor Old Woman say

In Derry of the little hills.

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective: A Review

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective (Murdo Eason), Bread and Circuses 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1625178879, £11.99

 

There can be a tendency to think of hill to seapsychogeography as an essentially urban activity, the province of Baudelairean flâneurs and Situationist revolutionaries wandering the streets of Paris and London ley-line hunters, while non-urban walking is thought of as being more focused, more directed at a specific end, its politics associated with claiming rights of way rather than rites of passage. On his Fife Psychogeographical Collective blog, From Hill To Sea, Murdo Eason has been steadily expanding the range of the dérive to take in the ‘Kingdom of Fife and beyond’ in an astute blend of text and photographs. The ‘beyond’ does include cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, Newcastle, Huddersfield and, yes, even Paris are explored, but the heart of the blog is in the towns, villages, fields and coasts of the old kingdom. The writing is as varied as the locations, and the range of genres wide: poem essays, photo essays, walking notes, essay poems, photo poems, travelogue are all here, in any kind of combination you care to think of.

And now there’s a book that brings much of the best of the blog together in a large, nicely readable format. It’s an exceptionally happy transfer from digital to print; apart from a couple of stray ‘click heres’ and a visual presentation that perhaps too closely imitates the online incarnation, From Hill To Sea works remarkably coherently as a book. This is, perhaps, due to the unifying central preoccupations that run through Eason’s work, which might be summarised as a concern with what places can tell us if we observe them with sufficient patience and an understanding that ‘a landscape view is never neutral’, an insight that holds true for the urban as much as the rural environment.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Eason’s explorations is the connections he unearths. Take the case of William Gear, the Fife-born miner’s son turned painter whose abstract works regularly reflect the skeletal pithead architecture of his family background. Gear was one of only two British members of the CoBrA art movement, an number of whose members were founders of Situationism. This link, naturally, takes us to Amsterdam in search of the CoBrA museum and to the Haute-Loire (on paper, at least) in search of Guy Debord’s rural other life. There’s a passage in the CoBrA manifesto that could equally be applied to Eason’s approach to writing: ‘A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic of virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create.’ This refusal of the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ allows Eason to bring motorway bridges and graffiti into his work on the same terms as woodland and art installations.

Reading any psychogeographical work will bring the reader to a contemplation of certain words and concepts: edgelands, the interzone, dérive, and, above all else, liminality. The word liminal is in such common currency that it bears explicit teasing out every now and then just to clarify what it is we mean by it. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and was first introduced into English by psychologists towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep began to us it to describe the middle stage of rituals where the initiate is in the space between their old and new selves, a state in which they exist between two worlds, idir eatortha as we say in Irish.  In the 1960s, Gennep’s ideas were expanded by another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner initially focused on rites of passage, which, following Gennep, he saw as being guided liminality, where an expert/teacher/shaman moved the subject to the threshold of a socially approved new state. Later, he began to apply the term to more spontaneous threshold states (his favourite examples being the Beats and Hippies) where uncontrolled disruption of the social order with no agreed desirable outcomes emerge. Since Turner, this idea of liminality as an unpredictable disruption of social norms and behaviours has become perhaps the most widely recognised use of the word.

Eason explores this sense of outsider liminality in his meditations on physical and temporal threshold states: his bridges, beaches, graffiti art, coffin roads (the splendidly named Windylaw – am I alone in hearing a ‘ley’ there?) [I am, of course, wrong. Harry Gilonis informs me ‘The path passes over a tump, or law, from Anglo-Saxon law, low (from Welsh llaw: a mound). No immediate connection with ley (Anglo-Saxon, a clearing in a wood).’], ghosts (neither living nor dead) and so on are classic liminal exemplars, as are the repeated visits  to abandoned mineheads, which represent both the physical line between the upper and lower worlds and the disruption of an entire way of life as an industry was abandoned with no thought to where its displaced workers might end up. Again, when he writes about the condition of Dalgety Bay, an area of radioactive contamination caused by the dumping of materials by the UK Ministry of Defence, he is discussing what happens when an entire landscape is rendered liminal by a complete disregard for the environment and for all our futures. Equally, the temporal space between two concerts becomes an opportunity to stroll along the banks of a Huddersfield canal, another sign of a lost way of life.

Of course, no word exists in a vacuum. In Latin, limen is cognate with limes, the fortified boundaries of empire, like Hadrian’s Wall, part of which is buried under one of Eason’s sites of interest in Newcastle. In English, its cognates include: limit, eliminate, subliminal and, possible, oblique and sublime. It would need a book-length study to fully relate these words to liminal writing and art; another day’s work entirely.

Another member of the family is limen, or liminal point, the usage in psychology that originally predates the anthropological sense. The liminal point is the limit below which a stimulus is no longer perceptible, the minimum level of nerve response required to produce a reaction. In this sense, the liminal can be seen to relate to an aesthetics of penury, an art that favours a kind of poverty of means as its basis. This would imply an art of place that declines the grand Wordsworthian gesture in favour of the small, neglected, discarded and ignored features of the world we move through. Eason, building his meditations on some blades of grass growing through a pavement, the shadow of a leaf, tagging on a dull concrete wall, transforms the everyday through this kind of attention.

It is impossible to do justice to From Hill To Sea in twelve hundred words; it’s too rich in detail, too wide in range, to do anything other than indicate why it’s worth reading and how it might be read. It is a book that raises an interesting question; in instances of spontaneous liminality resulting in social disruption, can the artist play a role in reintegration? Turner wrote that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’”. Perhaps the psychogeographer’s role is to render them visible again. It’s a role that Eason seems eminently qualified to fill. And the book really doesn’t end on the last page, but carries on as the blog continues to grow, possibly assembling materials for a second volume. What to say? Buy it, read it, ponder it. It’s a delight. Oh, and here’s a video taster to whet your appetite:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KozGcZqLo4U

War Poetry

My review of From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945, edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson and published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is on-line on Guardian Books.

It is interesting to read From the Line alongside Gerald Dawe’s Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-45. Dawe has more wars to play with, given the nature of 20th century Irish history, and his anthology covers World War I, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars and The Emergency, aka World War II.

The most immediately striking difference between the two books is the almost perfectly monoglot nature of the Irish one. Dawe includes just one poem in Irish, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s post-Hiroshima ‘Aifreann na Marbh’ (Mass of the Dead). It is salutatory to be reminded that the poet-soldiers who fought for their vision of a Gaelic Ireland were, for the most part, monolingual minor Georgians, with the exception of the somewhat Whitmanesque Pearse.

It is worth remembering that over 200,000 Irish men volunteered to serve in the Great War, many of them in the belief that they were fighting for Home Rule; a tiny fraction of that number participated in the Easter Rising. Yet when the survivors of the war came home they found themselves somehow on the losing side, often viewed as little more than traitors to the emerging Free State. Some fought their erstwhile comrades in the War of Independence and then against each other in the Civil War, many just packed their medals and memorabilia away and never talked about it again.

Observers of the various recent state visits between Ireland and the UK will be aware that this silence has only very recently been broken. Most Irish poets who fought in the trenches were simply forgotten. A good number who fought in World War II just never returned. Dawe serves them well by recovering them from this ill-deserved oblivion, and the effort involved is qualitatively different from that required from Goldie and Watson.

An extract from What is a Mountain

If pattern and order are artificial concepts the mind imposes on the unknowable given, then so is chaos.

Of course, identity is a construct, but it is also a process. To state baldly that national identity is a product of the 18th and 19th centuries is to confuse nation with nation-state. Or should we say to that unknown poet who wrote, about 600 years ago, ‘Ich am of Irlond’, sorry mate, you’re wrong, you’ll have to wait for the emergence of national self-consciousness?

Nationality, not nationalism: the latter an ideology slow to take hold in a country long influenced by the decentralised nature of Gaelic society, but inevitably fostered by the colonial experience.

A process unfolding over at least 5000 years. Flexible and absorptive; not the Celtic cliché of the official mythos, but an organic thing: shifting, changeable and real. Not essence but accidents. There are things we can know, but cannot explain.

(From one of the three prose sections of What is a Mountain that were omitted from Lares/Manes: Collected Poems. A few copies of the original Japanese-style hand-sewn first edition remain available from hardPressed poetry.)