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Writing the city

I was asked to give a talk for the UCD Scholarcast series on 'If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song', the anthology of poems about Dublin which is this year's choice for 'One City, One Book'.

Here's the opening of the talk. The podcast and pdf are here


Peter Sirr

Writing the City

How do you write about a city? How do you even define a city? A place, a history, geography, sociology, centres and peripheries, monuments and wastelands. A map of possibilities, an elusive map, coming in and out of focus, full of gaps and smudges. City is an abstract word like world or nation or country. You write from your particular apprehension of it, out of your own particular moment. Maybe you don’t write about it at all. From it, out of it. . . I’ve always liked what Roy Fisher said about Birmingham – Birmingham’s what I write with. The city as instrument, mode of exploration, investigation.

‘All cities are geological,’ Ivan Chtcheglov, tells us.

You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.’ (Formulary for a New Urbanism)

If Ever You Go, an anthology of Dublin poems is a brave attempt to map the geology and psychogeography of a city.  It’s necessarily a challenging and contradictory kind of project because for all its apparent coherence the vision has to remain fragmentary, lodged in the subjective imaginings of the poets and song writers the city has somehow impinged on.

The editors reach for the idea of a map to organise the material – this is, the book says, a map of Dublin in poetry and song and the book is organised geographically, to emphasise that idea, with its Northside, Liffeyside and Southside sections. Maps imply exhaustiveness, a comprehensive overview, a definitive charting of the territory. I think of John Rocque’s great 1756 map with its 11,645 houses, every single building in Dublin according to the man himself. George II was so impressed with it that he hung it in his apartments, maybe because it offered a tantalising image of completeness.

Poets, though, aren’t cartographers and their collective responses can’t really create a decipherable map. Precisely because of the complexity of responses – or indeed non-responses – a literary map is always a pretty notional idea.
I think for instance of  Patrick Kavanagh who provides the title for this anthology. Dublin was many things for him – refuge, shark pond, village, a place of spiritual redemption. But it’s his ghost that stalks the city in ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’, the city viewed from the grave, where the print of his own past might linger, a dishevelled shade ‘Playing through the railings with little children/Whose children have long since died.’ Dublin for Kavanagh was the place he happened to be, an anyplace for the spirit to grow if it can. He leaves us his print, his map with its named streets, Baggot Street, Pembroke Road, Raglan Road, enough for us to make a Kavanagh-land out of, but he knows the place doesn’t matter:

He knew that posterity had no use
For anything but the soul,
The lines that speak the passionate heart,

The spirit that lives alone.
O he was a lone one,
Fol do the di do
O he was a lone one,
And I tell you

Kavanagh’s relationship is with his spirit, what he cultivates is the vagabond and uncategorisable life of the spirit: the city is where that cultivation happens, which is why it’s both a private and universal place. What we see of the city in the poems is the urban village that was his stamping ground, a micro city, a city of the overlooked and under appreciated: canal water, barges

                                the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins - an art lover’s woe,
    (‘The Hospital’)

all of these the sites of the deepest kind of celebration, of loafing and soul-inviting.


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