A more “recent” article from Gwyneth Lewis

After leaving class today I was quite curious about the best way to locate a collection, complete or selected, of Gwyneth Lewis’s poetry. This led me to google where I found a rather interesting article posted in an online journal: Feminine Irony in the Religious Poetry of Gwyneth Lewis. I have mostly skimmed it because, yes, I have a lot of homework to do tonight (and the abstract seems to be written in French)  but it seemed relevant for two reasons.

1. Lewis has published some kind of collected works volume called Chaotic Angels. I’m skeptical of collected volumes because they seem to always leave out the one poem I wanted. I’ve bought three ‘complete’ and ‘collected’ volumes of Edna St. Vincent Millay looking for the one poem I can only find online and in a biography of her. It’s worth the quest but still I’d rather avoid it. Still, Chaotic Angels is probably going to be a lot easier to find on amazon just because it was published more recently.

2. In the opening paragraphs of the essay Szabo refers to an obituary Lewis wrote for R.S. Thomas. I decided I really wanted to read this.

Continue reading

A Second Poet to Remember: Wilfred Owen

Often, as we read a number of poets in class each day, we touch briefly on a poet who could be the subject of an entire semester’s study. One such individual is Wilfred Owen. Born and raised in England in the two decades preceding the First World War, Owen lived to see the ending of the Victorian era of poetry and personally experienced the devastation of the Great War—one of the major drivers of arrival of the Modern era in poetry. It was his tragic time spent fighting in the war and his death just one week before the Armistice that helped patriotic Britons realize the extent of the horrors of trench warfare in continental Europe.

In a class that I took a year ago (appropriately labeled “Victorian Poetry: From Tennyson to Eliot”), we read through much the English canon around which our Celtic Fringe poets are working. Owen was a key figure in that canon since his works fell between the aristocratic, sexually-charged poems of Tennyson and the innovative, Modernist free verse of Eliot. In particular, two of Owen’s poems stick out in my mind as archetypes of his forceful and ironic treatment of the Great War: “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Exposure.”

In the first poem, Owen remembers the haunting image of a fellow soldier who succumbs to a gas attack and paints the picture of his agony: “…at every jolt, the blood / Comes gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues.” The poem, however, goes beyond a mere imagination of the soldier’s suffering. In repeating the phrase “If you…” and addressing the reader as “My friend”—ostensibly, a Briton at home who venerates the war—the poem challenges society’s misconceptions about the glories of war. Famously, it ends with the phrase “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori”, caustically challenging the Victorian notion that it can be sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

In contrast to the biting tone of “Dulce et Decorum Est”, the poem “Exposure” solely laments the terrible conditions that soldiers faced in the bitter cold of winters in the trenches. Two key rhetorical devices are used. Most subtly, Owen re-imagines nature as the soldiers’ most fearsome enemy by personifying the cold: “Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us”. The weather, more aggressive than the Germans, “knive[s]” the benumbed, entrenched soldiers. And, more overtly, he reiterates the poignant message that “nothing happens”. In the midst of painful, hypothermia-inducing cold, the soldiers’ greatest frustration is the complete lack of action and progress. Life in the trenches just grinds on.


The poetry of Wilfred Owen, then, ardently seeks to expose the brutality and the tragedy of the Great War. How very different from the brief nod to the Hed Wynn’s death in the same war in R. Williams Parry’s elegy, where the atrocities of war are sidelined before an attempt to create a national poet figure for Wales.

A Great Way to Start (or End) your Day…

Before we get too far away from Ireland in our in-class discussions, I’d like to add a quick note about the renowned Irish Breakfast. The Irish really do believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Leave breakfast bars, yogurt-on-the-go, and McGriddles behind! A traditional Irish breakfast is a full meal and can be eaten at any time of the day to ensure five hours of a full stomach. In fact, it is rumored that James Joyce enjoyed two large Irish Breakfasts immediately before beginning to write Ulysses.

The Welsh are also well-known for their breakfast customs; however, the center of their meal varies dramatically from the Irish Fry-Up that I explain below. The unique delicacies of the Welsh breakfast are laverbread, a combination of seaweed and oatmeal fried in bacon fat, and cockles (clams).

Laverbread and Cockles, a part of the Welsh breakfast

The Irish Fry-Up is the main course of the Irish breakfast. It is a fried mixture of meat (bacon, sausage, and salmon), pudding, bread, and vegetables (usually mushrooms, tomatoes, and beans). The Fry-Up is quite universal and is similarly prepared in most Irish homes. Eggs, porridge, potatoes, and soda or wheat bread are often served alongside the Fry. As delicious as this all may sound, be warned of the obvious– Irish breakfasts are very high in fat and protein! They are known to contain up to 1300 calories, more than half of average daily intake.

A Traditional Irish Breakfast

Try not to be skeptical of the term I am about to use: Filmpoem

I’ve spent a lot of the past week watching filmpoems. And really no one is more surprised than I am. In many ways my sense of the poetic is traditional, conservative–stuck in the mud. Once in D.C. with a friend I went to the Corcoran Gallery and saw video art installations. The piece had something to do with footage of water dropping and JFK getting shot. I didn’t really like it. I may have voiced my skepticism at dinner quite freely. So when I was looking for a poet to work on and I ran across a few video-poetry sites I was skeptical.

For me poetry’s power has always been its substantial visual power in the absence of actual physical visual detail. Eavan Boland can write in Anorexia “Caged so/I will grow/ angular and holy” without providing a visual reference. When a film maker provides a line by line reference of Anorexia I find the sudden leap to literalism less interesting and artistic. (which is one of many reasons why the filmpoem Anorexia fails artistically.

Despite some of the worse examples I could drag up I’ve been generally impressed by film poems.  For example there’s a lovely piece for The Stolen Child by Yeats. The video mostly serves simply to provide visual narration that is pretty literal to the poem without being overtly referential. Continue reading

The Welsh Working Man

Sometimes mis-readings can be productive. Although we are most often taught to read carefully and with studious detail to a poem’s particular poems, one of the most fascinating things about poetry—about its unconventional phrases and vague nature—is the way it catalyzes our minds’ wanderings.

One example of productive mis-reading occurred earlier today when I was reading Idris Davies’ poem Do you remember 1926? and immediately considered it a poem about the Great Depression. As an English major roughly familiar with landmark dates, I quickly jumped to the conclusion that it contrasted the excessive highs of the Roaring 20s (the “summer of soups and speeches”, of “penny concerts” and “jazz-bands”) with the oppressive lows of the Wall Street Crash and the following Depression (the “swift disaster”). Such a reading is certainly plausible—except for the fact that the Stock Market Crash occurred in 1929.

Chronology aside, the (incorrect) reading I extracted from Davies’ poem set my mind on an economic slant and made me realize how much money, power, and employment factor into the other Welsh poems we are reading. Another of Davies’ poems, Mrs. Evans, you want butter again, hardly hides its political and economic undertones when it pits Dan the grocer against Mrs. Evans, the “little woman” whose husband “strike[s]” and spits “fiery language” about the evils of communism.

On a slightly different tact, two of R.S. Thomas’ poems A Peasant and The Hill Farmer Speaks work to defend the importance of the Welsh shepherd, the archetype of the working man. In the first poem, the speaker—one who blatantly admits that “There is something frightening in the vacancy of [the peasant’s] mind”—insists on the famer’s ruggedness and durability, utilizing the military diction of “siege”, “attrition”, “fortress[es]” and “wars.” In the second, the famer gains even more power by directly addressing the reader and pleas for equality, saying “Listen, listen, I am a man like you.”

In both poets’ works, then, there appears a shared working class rhetoric. In focusing on the quotidian interactions of members of Welsh society, like those between the grocer and his customer or between the shepherd and his flock, the poets present the Welsh as a humble, blue-collar people and suggest that economic activity (or lack thereof) is an integral aspect of the Welsh identity.

Such a reading, that the Welsh people are identifiable, at least partially so, by their lack of wealth, would seem a stretch if Wales were not actually one of the most economically depressed regions in the United Kingdom. Earlier this week, I came across an article in the Economist, a publication written in England, that discussed increasing regional disparities in income in the U.K. As they said so convincingly:

“The gap between Britain’s poorest regions (mainly in the north and Wales) and its richest (in the south-east) has widened for the past 20 years. It grew worse during the recent recession, and is likely to widen again as government budget cuts fall disproportionately on poorer regions. GDP per head in the poorest quarter of Britain’s regions is now lower than in the richest part of China. (The Economist, “Gaponomics: Regional Income Inequality Has Risen in Many Countries. What Should Be Done About It?, March 10th, 2011, www.economist.com/node/18332806)

In short, parts of the United Kingdom are growing healthily while Wales is not. As seen in the chart from The Guardian (above right) , people in Wales have about sixteen percent less money to spend, on average, than those in the South-East, home of London’s bustling financial market. With such income disparities in mind, maybe we can begin to understand why Welsh poets feel the need to defend their working class roots. It is their reality.

See both articles here:

Economist Article –&– Guardian Article

Three Sorrows of Storytelling in O Searcaigh: A Reflection on Lost Irish Culture

I was intrigued by Cathal O’Searcaigh’s allusion to the Three Sorrows of Storytelling in his reflection on the past in the second stanza of his poem, “A Runaway Cow.” Just out of curiosity, I decided to do some research and thought I’d share my discoveries. I also found a copy of the Three Sorrows, a collection of three tragic tales revolving around the Irish cultural values of heroism, clan loyalty, and debt, on google books, which you can view here.

The first of the three tales, “The Fate of the Sons of Tuirenn” describes the hatred-filled feud between the Sons of Tuirenn and the Sons of Cainte which ultimately results in the killing of the oldest Cainte son, Cain, by the Tuirenn. Although it was during wartime, the Sons of Cainte saw this act as intentional, and the son of Cain, Lugh, tricked the Sons of Tuirenn into eternal labor until they settled the debts with their lives.

The second sorrow is “Children of Lir,” in which Lir’s stepwife’s jealousy of his love for his four children leads her to turn them to swans. She exiles her step-children for 900 years, and when they return to their home, there is no space for them in the mortal world.

“Deirdre of Sorrows” tells the story of Conner’s fallen kingdom as caused by Deirdre. After hearing a prophecy that the young girl would destroy his rule, Conner secludes Deirdre from the world, especially men, until she is of age to marry him. However, she falls in love and runs away with another man. Conner follows them in pursuit of Deirdre, and allows his kingdom to be destroyed.

It’s especially interesting for me to learn of the backgrounds of these tales and references for the very reasons that O Searcaigh includes them in his poetry. “A Runaway Cow” is O Searcaigh’s reflection on the idea of disappearing Ireland which is in the present a “desolate” country scene of “lifeless villages,” stripped of good soil and “young folk” by the famine. The nostalgia for the “grand sods of the old days” is expanded upon in the second and third stanzas in the desire for return to the past. O Searcaigh seems to set up a nostalgic longing for the past existence of inhabited white bungalows dotting the land,  the presence of youth, rich storytelling, and clan loyalty. However, O Searcaigh makes clear that this past is not actually desirable either, for the houses are “dandruff in the hairy armpit of the Glen,”  young people are “trapped in their destinies,” and storytelling is a relief in the time of “narrow-mindedness” and “unemployment.” It is this conglomeration of past suppression and modern desolation that prompts the male subject’s “leap like a runaway cow,” an escape from the suppressing but bittersweet old Ireland (which tales like Three Sorrows, not only the repercussions of famine, keep  alive) in modern times. It is also interesting that in what seems to be his conflict between the old, disappearing ancestral Ireland and the modern Ireland, O Searcaigh retains the use of the Irish language rather than the infiltrating English.

"the little white bungalows, attractive/as dandruff in the hairy armpit of the Glen" (11-12)

A Generation Estranged From the Rural World

This past week, as we wound through a number of remarkable Irish poets, I have found myself particularly intrigued by an agricultural current that ran through both John Montague and Seamus Heaney’s poems. Both poets seized upon the imagery of the milking process as a sort of poetic muse, or, at the very least, as a rough and physical phenomenon that needed a poetic response.

John Montague’s poem, “A Drink of Milk”, operates on two distinctly different registers. On the simplest level, the poem is a delightful portrayal of a rural farmhand enjoying one final, refreshing beverage before he falls, exhausted into sleep.

…as he dreams towards bed.

A last glance at a magazine,

he puts the mug to his head,

grunts, and drains it clean.

On a much subtler and perplexing level, the poem exhibits a noticeably sexual undercurrent. The interaction between the dairy cows and the farmer, between the feminine “swollen dugs” and the  masculine “farmhand”, couples fascinatingly with the erotically charged “steadily pulsing stream”, the relieved “grunt” of satisfaction, and the “pounding transistor” that “shakes / the Virgin on her shelf” to create a crisscrossing and complicated sexual dynamic in an otherwise straightforward celebration of rural life.

Similarly, Seamus Heaney’s “Churning Day” also succeeds at finding intense meaning in the simple agricultural act of churning buttermilk. By virtue of several hauntingly beautiful portrayals of the churning process—I am thinking of “the hot brewery of gland, cud, and udder” as well as the “danc[ing]” “gold flecks” of butter that appear magically—the poem works to glorify the decidedly difficult work of the rural milkmaid, the rhythmic and exhausting labor of creating butter by hand.

With two such well-wrought agricultural poems in front of us, I find myself wondering why it is that a generation such as ours finds ourselves so very distanced from the rural scenes seen in both poems. Why is it that few, if any, of us have spent time on a farm, milked a cow, churned butter, or enjoyed a fresh glass of milk. Why does such a thought even seem bizarre to wonder? And, perhaps most importantly for our class, what is poetry that does not find itself rooted in the natural world or in the lives of those connected to it?

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time thinking about the importance of agriculture, and, more generally, about our generation’s (lack of a) connection to the physical world, I hope that Montague and Heaney’s poems offer a glimpse into a world that most of us are quickly passing by.

Women in Ireland

Reading Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Eavan Boland for today got me thinking, not for the first time, about the very paradoxical status of women in Ireland. It’s not uncommon, in the Western world, at least, for the ideal imaginary woman (from Marianne, the icon of France, to Rosie the Riveter, to Queen Victoria to Pocahontas) to be praised even while real women live secondary and oppressed lives. In Ireland, however, the two extremes seem to be even further apart than elsewhere.

Queen Medb's grave at Knocknarea

Pre-Christian Ireland was full of powerful female figures—Medb (pronounced meeve), ruling queen of Connaught and sovreignty goddess, started the war in the epic Cattle Raid of Cooley; she is supposed to be buried upright inside her tomb at Knocknarea, facing her enemies (Cuchulainn was the greatest of these). The Badb (pronounced more or less bibe) was a war goddess who could take the form of a crow and turn battles whichever way she wanted them to go. Brigid, whose name means “fiery arrow” was the goddess of poetry, eloquence and flame. Even after the arrival of Christianity, things took a long time to change; Saint Brigid took over many of the attributes of the goddess she succeeded. She is supposed to have been consecrated a bishop by St. Mel. My favourite story about her has her taking a bath one day when all the other bishops in Ireland drop by for a conclave. Her servant rushes in in a tizzy, because they have no beer to serve the bishops. “Don’t worry!” says Brigid and hops out of the tub and turns all her bathwater to the very best beer that any bishop ever drank. Like the goddess, Saint Brigid is patroness of poets and artists, and the flame at her gravesite burned for 600 years.

Now consider political independance. Constance Markiewicz was one of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion, and later one of the members of the first Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament).

Con Markiewicz in Uniform

Irish women received the right to vote with the establishment of the Irish Free State, in 1922. One might compare this to women’s suffrage in the US (1920), the UK (1928, though married women were allowed to vote decades earlier), France (1945) and Switzerland (1971!). Ireland has had two women Presidents, Mary Robinson in the 1990s and Mary McAleese (presently). It’s true that the Presidency is mainly ceremonial, with the Taoiseach or Prime Minister being the head of government—but nonetheless the President is the Head of State (here is a link to the Office of the President, with a message of condolence from President McAleese to the Emperor of Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake). Mary Robinson went from being the President of Ireland to the United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights, which confirms that she was not exactly a lightweight. Friends of mine who worked for UNHCR during her time as High Comissioner reported that she was ferociously intelligent, absolutely charming, and a genuinely nice person who actually got to know her staff—a fairly rare combination.

So how do we reconcile this with a country in which, until very recently, unmarried mothers were treated like pariahs, condemned to a sort of slave labour in the infamous Magdalen laundries where they were often subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse? Sure, other countries had similar institutions in the nineteenth century—but the ones in Ireland were in operation well into the 1970s. Peter Mullen’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters caused all sorts of outrage when it came out, not least because plenty of women who actually grew up in these “asylums” are still alive, as are their alleged abusers. Condoms were illegal until the 1980s, as were other forms of birth control even for married couples. In 1992 the courts blocked a 14 year old girl who had been raped by a neighbour and become pregnant from leaving the country with her parents for an abortion, even though she was suicidal at the time.

Maybe this last case (known as the X case—the girl could not be named because she was a minor) was the turning point. Such is the argument, or part of it, of this article from the International Socialism Journal, which maintains that the changing status of women in Ireland is primarily in response to changing economic forces (rather than membership in a liberal European Union or the activism of feminists). Which makes one wonder what happens next, now that Ireland’s economy has collapsed. According to this article from the Belfast Telgraph, “Women [in the workplace] are being abused in ways that are wholly unacceptable.”

It all leaves me very nostalgic for Brigid (either one of them), the fiery arrow.

Brigid's Well

Some thoughts on Dumbness and Eloquence

Ok, Ok, I know I just posted so I apologize, but after I posted my bit on Dolmens and bogs I took some time to go back and catch up on former blog posts and found myself getting really excited reading Susanna’s post on how we read.  Amanda has already made the point that we need to treat poetry differently, that it deserves a particular sort of intimacy and attention.  I’d like to respond instead to the criticism of English as a “bastard language” (which strikes me as completely ridiculous) because I think it ties in very cogently with a philosophy of language that Deane is getting at.  (Like Susana’s post, this one might get a bit rambly, as it has been a recent little fixation of mine.  I apologize in advance.)

I’d like to ground this quickly with a short argument that J.L. Austin makes in his book How To Do Things With Words, which, I should say, I have only read a short excerpt of for another class.  Namely, that language is not just a way of describing a pre-linguistic world that we initially perceive, but in fact language is a way of thinking the world.  Language is the medium through which we interpret and make sense of, well, everything in one way or another.  More importantly, language actually creates the intelligible world that we live in by producing the names, categories and structures through which we must articulate all our thoughts.  How does a nation create national identity?  By referring to themselves in a specific way, by calling themselves Irish!

The wonderful thing about poetry is that it is always reimagining the language, not just coming up with new names for familiar objects, but shifting syntax, grammar, fundamental patterns of structure, to create a different interpretation of the world.  And how does this tie into Eloquence and Dumbness?  Writing in Irish, as Deane points out (or notes that others like Burke pointed out), is more than a matter of audience.  The Irish language imagines a different world than the English language.  English is, in Deane’s words, not just the language spoken by the imperial invaders, but “the language of a condition—modernity” (113), while Irish is the language of nostalgia, a language fixated on the past which can barely even imagine a future.

Part of this, I believe, is the adaptability of English, its willingness to absorb new terms and forms.  The scholars of Irish, on the other hand, strove to maintain their own language as an eclectic object, cementing it even further in the past by resisting any new additions or changes.  Later attempts to revive the language through mandatory education can be understood to have failed partly for the same reason: the language they sought to teach was necessarily a standardized form.

Moving back to the essay:  Deane has two models of Eloquence and Dumbness, “the polite are civilized and eloquent, the uneducated are dumb; yet it is also the case that the “natural” are eloquent, the polished are dumb” (117).  By natural, he is referring to that language closest to the unspeakable “language of the unconscious” (from the bottom of the same page), which some might call the language of God, or the natural world.  Again, as a side note, I think poetry is a language that surrenders itself to this dumbness, breaking down more rigid structures to get closer to something “real.”  The Eloquent and civilized language establishes categories which it then forces, often violently, on the colonized, who almost never fall perfectly into these imagined structures.  The English recognize a very narrow definition of “civilized” and anyone who falls outside this definition is essentially screwed.  But paradoxically I think, English is only able to do this by previously establishing itself as the Dumb language capable of adapting to the shifting reality of the modern world.

So to wrap up, very poorly I’d have to add, I don’t want to in any way ignore the cultural context in which the two languages of English and Irish exist and are used.  Obviously the English relied on more than just their language to establish an empire.  I only want to point out a way of thinking about language itself, which might inform our discussion in the future, especially when it comes to poetry.  I’d love to hear if anyone else is thinking about this, or thinks I’m just spouting crap, or that I have no idea what I’m talking about.  Anything that gets us thinking.