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Striking Out

Afric McGlinchey

Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies, Irish Experimental Poetry, Volume 46, Issue 1, May 2016, Edinburgh University Press, ISSN: 0021-1427

This 240-page review contains essays written by over a dozen eminent academics and poets from universities in Ireland, England and the US, as well as book reviews, a list of further recent books on literary criticism and some examples of experimental poetry. The essays examine prevailing trends in Irish experimental poetry and showcase the work of poets who look to James Joyce and Samuel Beckett as their primary antecedents.

Most contemporary Irish poets are inclined to shy away from experimentalism, which, rather than communicating directly through clear narrative or focusing on experience, explores a non-linear consciousness. For those who find experimental poetry frustratingly elusive or obfuscating, this collection goes some way towards providing clarity in terms of approach and intent among those committed to the form. Most of the poets discussed here are concerned not only with a “poetics of perception” – a self, immersed in the environment – but also in the particular ways that the expression of experimental poetry can be ethically embedded in its socio-cultural times. 

The book opens with useful abstracts of each essay and, unusually, follows these with notes on each of the contributors. This early introduction to impressively academic writer profiles sets up an expectation of the quality of essays to come.

Preceding an essay by Michael Smith, who died during the production of this book, is a tribute to him by Trevor Joyce. This is a personal account of a literary friendship, which has the intimacy and informality of a eulogy:

“I’ll read … from that sequence of Mike’s ...”

Too soon put up for the wind that blew it down,
Hope became despair,
And despair was the sea on which my ship had sailed.
The rain became the city, the city became the rain,
And the unnested fledgling that ancient playful dog.

Barbara, Barbara, my canal-bank pinkeen girl.
Your curls are in the water with the barge,
And I am sailing down a purple Nile
Across the mill’s aluminium-silver dome

From where the knacker’s leans against the sky
And a solitary lilac weeps in its concrete yard.
(“The Gift”)

The quoted poem (one of two) follows semantic rules, but the imagery evolves into something altogether more intriguing and enigmatic, while retaining the music and lyricism of a surreal narrative. Other poems in this book that share these qualities include those by Billy Mills, Trevor Joyce and Sarah Hayden.

The reader is drawn in to further, more academic essays, opening with Michael Smith’s “Translation & Reality: A Letter to the Poet Trevor Joyce”. (One senses that the world of Irish experimental poetry is rather a small clique, as many of the poets discussed know and write about each other’s work.) In this letter, Smith quotes Borges’s observation that “we can never read the texts of the past as these were understood by their authors and their contemporaries”. Many of the poets discussed in this book interact with or allude to earlier writings placed in a contemporary context. Michael Smith’s letter to Trevor Joyce concerns the idea of “reality” being mediated by language. He refers to the perceived inaccessibility of Mallarmé’s poetry, and that of Brian Coffey, offering the suggestion that it might simply be that they are using language in a way “to which we are unaccustomed”. This idea brings to mind a similar point made by Sadakichi Hartmann, a Japanese-American poet of the early 1900s, who introduced the Japanese aesthetic of epistemological suggestiveness in the haiku form to American readers. It takes an educated reader to make connective leaps when actively engaged with experimental poetry, especially in the case of unintended serendipities. In fact, Michael Smith suggests it might be seen as “a game, in the sense of accidentality, unaccountability”, and asks Joyce if this is how he views his own poetry.

In his introduction, David Lloyd, distinguished professor at the University of California, mentions the key figures in experimental poetry in Ireland, describing Trevor Joyce as “perhaps the most formally inventive of contemporary Irish poets”. He also refers to their “perceptual and signifying systems”, provoking a curiosity and interest in the work being done by those few experimentalists brave enough to challenge the more traditional  mainstream. In particular, Lloyd pays tribute to Michael Smith, who, in a lifetime devoted to poetry, poetic translation, and publishing, “did more than anyone else” to maintain the connection between contemporary Irish poets and the modernist generation of the 1930s, “editing and reprinting … largely forgotten and unavailable poets like Brian Coffey and Thomas McGreevy”. Lloyd acknowledges his own debt to Smith, who introduced him to James Clarence Mangan, Charles Donnelly and Miguel Hernandez. This opening up to unfamiliar and unanticipated ways of using language, Lloyd writes, furthered the new avant garde approach in Ireland which had been kickstarted by James Joyce and Beckett; the latter having described experimental poetry as “an art of pure interrogation”.

David Lloyd highlights the relationship of language to poem in manifesting “the phenomenal world of perception or sensation”. The “breakdown of the object” reflects “the breakdown of the subject” and the rupturing of lines of communication. He quotes Jim Mays, who, in his essay here, suggests that the “constitutive unavailability to easy and practiced consumption” is the reason for the limited circulation to date of Irish experimental writing. But perhaps, for a nation that has always been defined by mobility, migration and displacement, the fragmented form of experimental poetry perfectly suits Irish experience.

“In the Romantic period, the lyric had answered to the conception of the national landscape as fulfilment … and the location of the ‘I’/ ‘eye’ as the demonstrative source of origin,” writes Francis Hutton Williams, a postdoctoral research assistant at Oxford University. The later demands of national revolution irrevocably altered that lyric landscape. In clear, unambiguous language, Hutton-Williams draws attention to a conscious balancing of culture and politics post-independence, pointing out that the Abbey Theatre was the first playhouse in Europe to be subsidised by the state. For many writers, the only response to this potential undermining of creative freedom was to turn to satire or leave the country. Hutton-Williams charts the progress of avant garde writing in Ireland, in view of the threat it posed to the prevailing religious beliefs, traditions and customs. Two literary critics of the day, Terence Brown and Seamus Deane, were of the opinion that “the strengthening of Ireland’s religious authority after independence explains the general reluctance of Irish writers to engage with modernist ideas”. Hutton Williams also argues against the term modernism as a catch-all category for those who attempt to challenge the lyric as a form.

In an engaging, unpretentious essay, Geoffrey Squires, an alumnus of Cambridge University, notes, as other writers do too, Yeats’s impulse to look both backward and forward, “making him a particularly difficult figure to place historically and artistically”. For Yeats, as for Joyce, the prevailing times called for “a cyclic or at least a non-linear view of history … and the search for forms that would embody this”. If the empiricist focuses on “experience”, he writes, the rationalist focuses on Descartes’s cogito, or “consciousness”. Why did writers become more concerned with consciousness than with experience? The answer, he says, lies in “the growth of ‘organized knowledge” – or science. The phenomenon of modernism soon sprang further movements such as imagism and surrealism, further stages in the process of cognition. But while surrealism took hold in other parts of Europe, the centrality of the concrete image became of significant importance to poets such as Heaney and Mahon, reinforcing empiricist leanings in Ireland.

Squires, an experimental poet himself, uses excerpts from non-poetic sources such as John C Lilly’s Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Biocomputer to create electronic texts. Electronic literature has been defined as “a practice that mediates between human and machine cognition”. Kenneth Keating, a postdoctoral researcher at University College Dublin, closely examines a number of Squires’s recent digital texts in an essay titled “Repetition and Alterity: Geoffrey Squires’s ‘texts for screen’”. Keating finds Squires’s use of repetition and method of inhabiting the screen to be “destabilising” however, his born-digital texts a “progressively troubling force of indeterminacy”. (These minimalist texts can also be found on Youtube.) For example, in “Litany”, a word will appear: “Having …”, followed by “… having not”, both contradictory assertions read at the same time. This balancing of negative and positive ends with the paradox of a (positive) double negative: “Never ... never not”. Keating decides that the contradictory formulations, the conditionality, the options offered, the choices the poet refuses to make, all undermine reductive conclusions, leaving the reader unable to penetrate the ambiguities inherent in the work. My own feeling is that it is possible to appreciate what the poet is getting at in this poem and others. But perhaps I am being reductive. Keating certainly is a close and attentive critic who makes no such assumptions.

JCC Mays, formerly of University College Dublin, reviews two collections, Imaginary Gardens by Billy Mills and Astonished Birds/Cara, Jane, Bob and James, by Catherine Walsh, both published by hardPressed poetry in 2012. He finds the collections challenging and oblique and asks frequent rhetorical questions of them. “Nothing is easy about this book as a whole,” he says of Astonished Birds; “this is not a book for gentle skimmers,” he observes about Imaginary Gardens, whose title references Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”, which famously begins “I too, dislike it.” For those readers compelled to wonder what the point is of such obfuscation in some (though not all) experimental writing, Mays comes up with an answer of sorts: “Convenience food for the mind offers poor nourishment, and a prolonged diet of the same leads to overdependence and macular degeneration.”

The poems in these two collections emphasise the importance of consciousness and “presentness”, something Gertrude Stein mentions in her lecture on Composition as Explanation: “every one living in the living they are doing …” Squires quotes from a poem by Mills:

& mean it strange
to be here again
awake in beauty.
(“Poem 93”)

Catherine Walsh’s collection is “another garden with real toads in it”. The front and back covers feature photographs taken by the poet of an actual garden where a distant hill identifies the location as Letterfrack, “notorious for the brutal neglect and sexual abuse of pupils” at the industrial school. Here the alternating fonts are perceived by Mays as confrontational. “The outline structure of Astonished Birds is clearly signaled and needs to be so because it is imposed on a rush of feeling that could easily become inchoate.” Irish poetry has always hidden its sharpest criticism “under the mask of comedy”, Mays observes, citing Aidan Carl Mathews and Paul Durcan; and Walsh’s protagonists trace a personal recovery that is ultimately epitomised by hilarity: “… simply a hoot. If you weren’t laughing, you’d want to cry.”

The rest of Mays’s article is preoccupied with discussing the work of Harry Clifton and Irish poetry in general, and championing the post-Beckett/Joyce experimentalists in particular: “Mills, Walsh and the like … want out of the rut.”

In her clearly defined essay, Claire Bracken, associate professor at Union College, New York, deals with an analysis of the nomadism of Catherine Walsh’s City West, a journey that is “physical, virtual, textual”. Providing frequent examples, Bracken identifies how Walsh uses subjective perception, poetic fragments and monologues to indicate multiplicity and change. The continual variety of different speaking voices and contextual locations reflect the daily experience, personal memory and social life of the marginalised, in particular, single mothers from a working class background.

Walsh’s passionate concern for the marginalised is shared by Randolph Healy, who has a personal investment in understanding his daughter’s experience of deafness.

In her essay on Healy’s “Arbor Vitae” Marthine Satris, associate editor at Stanford University Press, analyses his poetry in terms of how he “uses parataxis to assemble his poetry of persuasion, relying on the human instinct to find patterns and links, our cognitive leaps, to create the poem’s throughline”. His patterns include certain literary devices to convey the sense of isolation experienced by the deaf, particularly since the government banned the teaching of sign language in deaf schools in favour of lip reading. One line reads: “Sohac, hasco, schoca.” In a footnote, he reveals that the anagram is chaos. “No matter how good your hearing is, there are things which you will not hear.” Satris is of the opinion that if it weren’t for the footnotes, Healy’s poetry would, to most readers, be incomprehensible – a “jarring mix of scientific terms, programming languages, and bursts of poetic constraint”. But this is a deliberate tactic on Healy’s part, to convey his point. The poignancy is all in the footnotes.

In one of the most scintillating essays here, Alex Davis, professor of English at University College Cork, contributes a clear and focused essay on Billy Mills’s “mapping” of the environment in verbal art. He draws attention to Mills’s awareness of the ambivalence of art’s relation to the world, the “incompatibility of poem (or language in general) and the extra-linguistic reality of rooms, rivers and rocks”. The essay considers the poet’s concerns over his entire oeuvre, highlighting Mills’s ecopoetics as contrasted with the poetry of Seamus Heaney, his relationship to language poetry and his identification with the work of fellow experimentalists, including Maurice Scully, the “phenomenological” Geoffrey Squires and Catherine Walsh. He quotes Mills as saying, “If the role of philosophy is to inspire action, the role of poetry is to be in the world.” Mills, like Ric Caddel, whose work he reviewed, focuses on eco-centric poetry, or humanity “placed in the weave of things”. Certainly this essay arouses interest both in Billy Mills, and in the contemporaries he respects, as well as their specific concerns and influences.

Kit Fryatt, an English lecturer at the Mater Dei Institute of Education (Dublin City University), contributes a fascinating essay titled “The Poetics of Elegy in Maurice Scully’s Humming”. She begins her discussion by drawing attention to the oxymoronic notion of “humming” the words of a forgotten song. “Humming” in the context of Scully’s collection could suggest anything from “the background radiation of the universe, to the babble of languages irradiating our planet, to the buzzing of bees pollinating plants across the earth”. Fryatt draws attention to Scully’s use of journalistic notations of place and linear time as well as physical facts and the ironic details of these, set against the actuality of the speaker’s grief after the death of his brother:

My brother is dead. I found him at the end of his bed.
His brain weights 1565g, his heart 465
the document says & helps me know what a whiff
of actuality feels like from those who know the facts of life.
(“Ballad [Argument]”)

This is a modern elegy, which, rather than the traditional characteristics and functions of the elegy (such as pastoral motifs, repetitions, imprecations, a general movement from grief to consolation) features irony and deflection. But Scully’s elegy also grieves the disappearance of traditional ritual to mark the occasion of a death. Fryatt, herself an experimental/avant garde poet, sharply contrasts his work with the “complacent commercialization of a Romantic ideal of immortal beauty … in much recent Irish elegiac effort”. As to his work in general, referencing John Goodby, she observes that “any reader familiar with the ways in which ‘experimental’ Irish poetry has been defined against a ‘mainstream’ preoccupied by ‘family, nation and tradition’ and as a ‘poetry of process’ rather than ‘a poetry of product’ will recognize the targets of Scully’s satire”. Nevertheless, she suggests that Humming marks a transition between different phases of Scully’s overall work.

Romana Huk, an editor and author of books of literary criticism (on Stevie Smith and others), also analyses the work of Maurice Scully, in her essay: ‘’Out Past/Self Dramatization’: Maurice Scully’s Several Dances. Her essay acknowledges numerous other critics before her, who identified “an interest in perception” which is “perhaps the most compelling commonality” in the work of experimental poets. She also references Heidegger as an influence on the lyric phenomenologists such as William Carlos Williams and George Oppen, and points out that Scully queries their “singular” approach to phenomena. His work, “with mortality always in his sights”, considers both human fragility and our “undelimitability”. (While I baulk at the use of such a word, I find myself unable to come up with a synonym.)

Niamh O’Mahony writes a most interesting essay on the use of appropriation in the poetry of Trevor Joyce, analysing the function and impact of textual borrowing, and comparing and contrasting Joyce’s appropriative practice to that of a number of other contemporary poets. Joyce’s practice includes using old texts and reconfiguring them, while retaining the possibility of cultural and political resonances. Unlike some of the writers here, O’Mahony holds up his work to scrutiny, which is, after all, expected in critical essays: “Questions arise regarding Joyce’s capacity to express himself through his appropriations, and about the possibility of there being anything meaningful or articulate within a poem composed this way,” she suggests, referencing other critics whose responses to Joyce’s work “are helpful in elaborating an alternative approach to appropriation”. As for the practice of appropriation itself, she writes that in terms of conceptualist poetics, “these critics are united in absolving practices such as appropriation from the accusation of leading to meaninglessness in poetry”.

James Cummins, organiser of the SoundEye poetry festival and a doctoral graduate of University College Cork (UCC), identifies the poet Tom Raworth as Irish in his informative essay. A poet usually regarded both as ‘English’ and as part of an American poetic tradition, Raworth, whose mother was Irish, spent his childhood in Ireland. In accessible language, Cummins reveals how these significant early years impacted on Raworth’s perception and his poetry.

Rachel Warriner, a fellow organiser of SoundEye, and doctoral candidate at University College Cork, considers the visual aspects of Maggie O’Sullivan’s work in “A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts and POINT.BLANK.RANGE”. She describes the materiality of O’Sullivan’s words on the page and the collaged elements, which use “diacritical and asemic marks, colour, emboldened and underlined words, and typographical interventions” to create inferences, which may be obscure as well as suggestive. While there are intriguing points made in this essay, it could have done with some editing: the argument is unclear and repetitive at times, and commas are often used where full stops would have been more appropriate.

Examples of poetry by Maurice Scully, Trevor Joyce, Fergal Gaynor, Sarah Hayden, Billy Mills and Catherine Walsh are included, as well as engaging reviews of other books of literary criticism, and a list of others that could not be reviewed in the book for reasons of space.

This Review of Irish Experimental Poetry is a timely study in many respects. The essays are informed by the contributors’ own academic and poetic backgrounds, which illuminate our understanding of intent behind the work of the poets discussed. One impressive feature of the book is its firm placement of experimental poetry in – or rather against – the general “weave” of Irish poetry. Ireland has, in the past, been known as a country of dissidents, and it is time that our contemporary dissident poets were heeded by the wider poetry community. For anyone serious about studying Irish experimental poetry, this book is essential reading.

1/12/2016

Afric McGlinchey’s second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat, published in 2016 by Salmon Poetry, was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s 2015 essay on Paul Muldoon, “Rousing the Reader”. Here is an extract:

Paul Muldoon is our most Wildean writer in the twenty-first century. In many ways Wildier than Wilde, but the comparison still appears just to me. His verse exhibits wit and skill, informed by a steady, serious gaze. He is an international poet with a reach as far as the transatlantic English into which the world’s culture empties itself, but also a grounded one; when the Irish reader encounters in the hologram-maze of his references the word gliomach, she wonders how many of her foreign counterparts know they can consult the online Dinneen.

His work of course reflects his life: as transatlantic professor at Princeton, the jet engine ferrying him home, but not allowing him to forget the millions of less fortunate exiles who laboured without a chance of return, commemorated in his earlier poem “The Loaf”; as father in a world of globalised youth, as possessor of a sensibility that enjoys the rootless and changeable mash of contemporary culture without becoming deracinated himself. Enjoyment is bubbling up everywhere, the hilarity of a bookish child loose in a library, of the writer in a university not tethered to a period, of the person free to come and go, who saw classifying him as an “exile” as belittling “the likes of Brodsky or Padilla” in The Prince of the Quotidian.

It is located even more in the nature and the possibilities of poetic language. Wilde’s dictum “A truth in art is that of which the opposite is also true” is balanced by the opposite and equal truth, that language does bear a relationship to truth, and the poet’s job is to find a provisional balance between these two realities. The oppositions are frequently binary, fictions of poetry presenting themselves as both true and false. The invocations, the conjurings and the clues can cluster in a brace of lines that have the blatant form of a statement. In the opening poem of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, “Cuthbert and the Otters”, “This style of nasal helmet was developed by the Phrygians // while they were stationed at Castledawson” has a seismological sense both of the actual shifts of history (it was the Celts who overran the Phrygians, in Asia Minor, it seems; conquerors and conquered have changed places – and they change places in the other sense too) and the steadiness of fact (the places haven’t changed at all). It is also absurd if deft, the absurdity recalling us with a bump to the world of what we know, or know we can’t know

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