Monday, March 24, 2008

PN 08

Festival time again. The thirteenth Poetry Now Festival takes place in Dún Laoghaire from 3 to 6 April ‘and this year it once more brings together poets of many nationalities – Irish, English, American, Jamacian, Italian, Iranian – and many styles, many languages and many concerns, for what promises to be a deeply stimulating and satisfying four days. Workshops, talks, debates and The Irish Times and Strong Awards will complement the programme of readings by a gathering of exceptional Irish and international poets.’ Poets taking part include Bernard O’Donoghue, Antonella Anedda, Jamie McKendrick, Seamus Heaney, C.D. Wright, Alan Gillis, Meghan O’Rourke, Daljit Nagra, George Szirtes, Henri Cole and Mimi Khalvati. Before the festival proper gets going there’s a panel discussion, ‘The Quarrel With Ourselves’ – Who Reads Poetry, Anyway?, in association with Poetry Ireland chaired by Michael Cronin with guests Peter Fallon, Meghan O’Rourke, Alice Lyons, Mary Shine Thompson, Maurice Scully and The Cat Flap. I’m greatly in favour of panel discussions and anything else that gets us away from the liturgical solemnity of the poetry reading but I admit to a certain dread of this one only because the subject as advertised is one of those automatic topics that festival machines and radio station computers routinely spit out to exercise the populace. What is poetry at all at all and who needs it in anyway? This is possibly unfair. The questions to be addressed are:

Who reads poetry? For whom is poetry published? Of whom do poetry audiences in Ireland, and elsewhere, consist? How important to the life of poetry is the existence of strong poetry criticism, and what is the state of play in Irish criticism at the moment? What’s needed in the Irish poetry scene? What’s working? What’s alive, and what’s in need of change? Join these artists and thinkers as they put the poetry scene through its paces, and feel free to put a question or two their way.

There’s probably only one answerable question in there, and that’s the one about criticism. Poetry criticism is essential to the life of poetry in the same way that every other kind of art criticism is important to the art concerned. Otherwise, everyone’s a poet and no-one is a poet. Otherwise, that is, there is a culture of complacency in which no makes judgements of any kind. There’s plenty of that already, plenty of bland reviewing which is content to describe rather than evaluate. There is little enough real criticism and few enough outlets for it. What do we need? More critics, more real criticism, more journals, websites, more vigour. And less worry about audience, readership, the mass market, all that blather.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Munster Republic

I received the following from the Munster Literature Centre today:

The brilliance of poets emerging from Northern Ireland in the last century, their dual-nationality, the colour of their background and the attention and authority of the only serious contemporary Irish poetry critic of the time (Edna Longley) led to an imbalanced projection of Irish poetry to the wider world.

With the Troubles in the past the achievements of poets from the southern quarter of the island are now coming sharply into focus.

The Munster Literature Centre is calling for academic papers written in English on the subject of Contemporary Munster Poets. The resulting work will be published in book form late 2009. The papers may focus on individual poets, perceived schools or any other aspect to do with contemporary Munster poets. The papers may deal with poets writing in English, Irish or both together.

From June 2008 as many Cork poets (Maurice Riordan, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Bernard O'Donoghue) will feature on the Faber publishing list as Ulster poets (Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin).

The University College Cork group of Innti poets (Liam O Muirthile, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Michael Davitt, Gabriel Rosenstock, Louis de Paor and Colm Breathnach) are widely acknowledged as having revitalised poetry in the Irish language in the last thirty years. Through translation their work has had an influence which has reached beyond the Irish language literary community.

A contemporaneous group in UCC writing in English, described by Thomas Dillon Redshaw, as "that remarkable generation" consisted of Maurice Riordan, Gregory O'Donoghue, Gerry Murphy, Theo Dorgan,Thomas McCarthy, Sean Dunne and Greg Delanty.

A grouping of senior, influential Munster poets would include Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Patrick Galvin, Michael Hartnett, Desmond O'Grady, Sean Lysaght, Brendan Kennelly, John Ennis, Paul Durcan (who lived in , worked in and wrote about Munster for almost twenty years).

Other Munster poets significant for the achievement of their work or for their potential for academic attention would be Bernard O'Donoghue, Peter Sirr, Aidan Murphy, Roz Cowman, Aine Miller, Ciaran O'Driscoll, John Liddy, Paddy Bushe, Dennis O'Driscoll, Michael Coady, Robert Welch, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Michael Fanning, William Wall, Rosemary Canavan, James Harpur, Augustus Young, Trevor Joyce, Frank Golden, Michael Fanning, Eugene O'Connell, Padraig J. Daly

A younger generation just getting into their publishing stride would include John Sexton, Eileen Sheehan, Billy Ramsell, Leanne O'Sullivan, Patrick Cotter, Liz O'Donoghue, John McAuliffe, Matthew Geden.

Papers should be submitted in hard copy by October 31st 2008 to:

the Contemporary Munster Poetry Criticism Project,
The Munster Literature Centre,
Frank O'Connor House,
84 Douglas Street,

Maybe it’s my sceptical nature but I’ve never understood the case for ‘Munster’ as some kind of autonomous cultural entity, so the argument above, that we should exchange one kind of parochialism for another, doesn’t hold much attraction. Other than the rugby team, does Munster resonate as a distinctive place with a culture or a literary sensibility radically different from Leinster or Connacht? Do any of the old provinces really hold a value for us other than as lines on a historical map? Munster does have a historical resonance, of course, but even that is fragmented. Do you mean Tuadh Mumhan (North Munster), Deas Mumhan (South Munster), Ur Mumhan (East Munster), Iar Mumhan (West Munster), Ernaibh Muman (the Ernai tribes portion of Munster), or Deisi Mumhan (the Deisi tribe’s portion of Munster), or the kingdoms of Thomond, Desmond and Ormond into which they were eventually subsumed? All of these had their defenders and their competing voices but few would have pledged loyalty to the larger entity. Perhaps the case for Munster would be less strenuously articulated if it didn’t have Cork in it. It’s certainly hard not to feel that in the argument above Munster is essentially another name for Cork. No-one could argue against the distinctiveness of Cork but again, when it comes to literature, is it the Corkness of Maurice Riordan, Gregory O’Donoghue, Gerry Murphy, Theo Dorgan, that really matters, or the Waterfordness of Sean Dunne or the Waterfordness cum Corkness of Thomas McCarthy?

And even if an irrefutable case could be made for Cork as the central factor in the sensibility of these writers, can we really talk usefully about the Ennisness of a poet or the Thurlesness of another? And is there a line of shared heritage and impulse that could be drawn from Killarney to Clonmel or from Nenagh to Dungarvan? Trevor Joyce may live in Cork but you would be hard put to reconstruct its streets from his poems. Though I’m listed as a Munster poet myself, I feel as if I’ve been picked by the wrong team. I was, it is true, born in Waterford, but both of my parents came from the West of Ireland and we left the place in the late sixties. I’ve been back twice on brief visits since. It’s a childhood place for me, and one that I remember quite intensely but I couldn’t pretend to a Waterford, or a Munster, sensibility on the strength of it. Dublin, on the other hand, is a constant companion, obsession, and provider of spiritual nourishment, not least because I’ve lived in it, with one long gap, for forty years. And even then I wouldn’t think of myself as a Dublin writer, but more as someone who writes in the English language with all kinds of wires snaking out into all kinds of English and other language traditions. I value hugely a lot of writers on the list above and yet I would never think of them as essentially Munster writers and would never look to them for expressions of Munsterness. I'm not even sure I recognise the Durcan who writes 'about Munster'. On the other hand I follow Munster’s exploits in the Heineken cup with a fluttering heart whereas Leinster never gets the pulse going. Maybe it’s the shirts. . . , the passion, the call of the fada liom oíche fhírfhliuch. . .wait, I feel a Munster moment coming on. . . .

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Music for Viols

(Tobias Hume’s Good Againe)

Good again
this night, this late
to hear that tune and fall
again, the slow dark drag,
of thickly branched trees
swaying above water,
of sound moving
from the farthest pit
to pour down.
God and the devil
must play the viol.
The door of the world
swings open
on Hume’s excited figure.
After sadness, hunger,
royal blindness
to the great shame of this land
and those that do not help me
after a bellyful of snails
and the sniping of lutenists
good again to stand
with the night
in Jordi’s hands
and listen
and walk in
as far as the tune will go.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Wolves in the garden: Michael Krüger

Went to the launch in the Goethe Institut of Das elfte Gebot/The Eleventh Commandment/An tAonú Aithne Déag, a selection of poems by Michael Krüger, another in the series of tri-lingual editions of German poetry, handsomely produced by Coiscéim, and translated into English by Hans-Christian Oeser and into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock. Previous outings in this series have included Günter Kunert and Hilde Domin. Kruger is active as a publisher, critic and novelist, but is best known in Germany as a poet. Carcanet brought us Diderot’s Cat, with translations by Richard Dove, in 1993.

Introducing him, Chris Oeser calls our attention to his ‘highly developed sense of time’. The poems ‘serve as snapshots, as photographs freezing a moment in time'.

It may be an intensely private moment such as locking up a holiday home for winter or coming across a set of old keys, it may be a social encounter with three beggars or with a saint in a cathedral, or there may be allusions to the weight of history, to the burden of the past: unaccounted victims under a blanket of snow, a train that pulls coffins through the valley. In that sense it is a poetry of history rather than a poetry of geography

They’re the poems of a traveller, poems of places rather than of place; ‘he seems to travel through many landscapes and yet none because they preserve their anonymity.’ Chris also talks about another aspect of his work, its quietness. Most of these poems, he says, ‘breathe quietly’, which is ‘not to say that they breathe easily’. They’re full of ‘the sinister, the menacing, the eerie’.

You see a fire leaning towards you, a wind is in search of fire, a fire pits its strength against the dark. Where landscape occurs, it seems to be threatened or threatening. Has place become contaminated? A cloud of melancholy hangs over his descriptions of nature. Nature is not innocent, it is either something neglected or something unattainable or something torn. Wolves in a suburban garden might be an image for a modern reality show on tv but at the same time there are wolves in a suburban garden.

Maybe because they operate with a clarity of line and language and strong images, the translations work effectively. Here, for instance, is ‘Cello Suite’


Vom Fenster aus
sehe ich die Bahn kommen,
ein rostiges Insekt
mit geweiteten Augen.
Wie leicht sie die Särge
durchs sonnige Tal zieht!
Einundzwanzig, zweiundzwanzig ...
Sind sie gefüllt oder leer?
Jetzt läßt sie zischend Dampf ab,
der sanft zu mir her zieht
wie eine undeutliche Botschaft.
Ich drehe das Radio lauter,
eine Cellosuite, im Hintergrund
der keuchende Atem
des Musikers, deutlich zu hören.

Cello Suite

From my window
I see the train approach,
a rusty insect
with widened eyes.
How easily it pulls the coffins
through the sunny valley!
Twenty-one, twenty two. . .
Are they full or empty?
Now it hisses, letting off steam,
which gently drifts towards me
like some vague message.
I turn up the radio,
a Cello Suite, in the background
the wheezing breath
of the musician, clearly audible.

Sraith do dhordveidhil

Feicim óm fhuinneog
an traein ag teacht,
feithid mheirgeach
na súl mór.
Nach éasca mar a iompraíonn sí na cónraí
trí ghleann na gréine!
Fiche is a haon, fiche is a dó. . .
an folamh nó lán iad?
Sioscadh anois uaithi, ag ligean leis an ngal
a shnámhann go séimh chugam
mar theachtaireacht éiginnte.
Ardaím an raidió,
Sraith do Dhordveidhil, sa chúlra
i gclos do chách
anáil chársánach an cheoltóra.

This is typical of how the poems work – or at least the short poems. The constraint of publishing a trilingual book is that it necessarily means the emphasis is on the shorter poems. The poems here tend to develop a single strand of thought and image; they’re a kind of inspired note-taking, and are full of unobtrusive surprise. The real world, acutely observed, is inclined to wobble like houses in an Amsterdam canal:

When my friend looks out the window,
the city doubles.
At dusk the classics step
from their shelves and start working,
a dog serves them cheese and wine.
And at night an angel sweeps with great care
the pavement between water and front door,
as though impelled to clean up one of the four rivers
to Paradise.
(‘A visit to Amsterdam’)

Another kind of wobble happens in ‘A visit to the graveyard’ as the poet looks into an open grave

Lumpy clay, snails,
wood and a few bones, nothing
to frighten us. Had I expected more?
As a child I wished to know what disappears
together with the dead, never again
to surface, the sacred things of life.
I walk on, my shadow of its own
accord searching for other corpses,
teetering like a sleepwalker
on the green ridge between the graves.

There are also a number of poems for voices: ‘What the gardener says’, ‘What the philosopher says’, ‘What the taxi-river says’, ‘What Marx says’ etc, though these didn’t work as well for me. They’re a bit too slick, or maybe it’s that they announce themselves too clearly. I like the poems that creep up on you a bit more stealthily and then enact their mild surprise:

Wolves now live in our garden.
Choked with emotion we watch them
lick their bloody paws.
Their stench spreads like gas.

One has a duck in its claws, another
has two blackbirds. Hapless creatures.
We ask nature for its counsel
but the sun takes umbrage,

and the rain has decamped to the centre.
Hungry beasts. Their eyes aglow
like ink and blood. At night they lie
under the apple tree and noisily

grind their teeth.

(Reality Show)

For anyone who’s wondering, by the way, the eleventh commandment is

Du sollst
nicht sterben, bitte

Thou shalt
not die,

faigh bás,
led thoil

Michael Krüger, Das elfte Gebot/The Eleventh Commandment/An tAonú Aithne Déag, Ausgewählte Gedichte/Selected Poems/Rogha Dánta

Translated into English by Hans-Christian Oeser
Gabriel Rosenstock a d’aistrigh go Gaeilge

Coiscéim, 12 euro

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