Irish protesters against the water charges
Sunday, 17 December 2017 04:09

Poets, presidents and politics

Published in Poetry

As we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising, Kevin Higgins, the Bogman's Cannon satirist-in-residence, lets rip at the state of poetry and politics in Ireland. See also Cold Old Fire.

It’s probably best that I nail my underpants to the mast at the get-go as an active participant in the events I describe rather than pretend to be any sort of objective observer. In any case, in these fraught times here in Ireland the objective observers are mostly languishing in the particularly hot corner of Hell to which Dante consigned those who in a time of crisis, such as now, have nothing to declare but their neutrality. Since the late summer of 2013 the apparently stable edifice that was the Irish poetry world has been struck by a number of earthquakes–and several significant aftershocks–which have left the building looking shaky.

First, the death of Seamus Heaney who, whatever your poetic aesthetic or politics, was undeniably a world-class poet who dominated Irish poetry in a way that is rare. Heaney wasn’t just our best poet; he was our second, third, fourth, and fifth best poets as well; and was to a large extent the currency on which Irish Poetry Inc. traded with the rest of the poetry world. His passing was like the retirement of a great player from the team built around him; a few games into the next season the fans, media, and even the chairman of the board suddenly realize how threadbare the rest of the existing lot look without him, and the dread sets in.

The second big happening was the going up in flames last autumn of the fantasy, beloved of many Irish media or arts liberals –our equivalent of those Americans who orgasm at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency–that unlike the French and the Greeks and whoever else, the Irish never protest. Ireland has had inflicted upon it seven years of severe austerity since 2008, much of it to bail out–on orders from the European Union–one bank which, though it only ever had six branches, managed to lose about $10,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. The spark that finally led to the uprising was the government’s farcical attempt to introduce new, additional water charges while at the same time preparing to sell the country’s water resources and infrastructure to a businessman known to have (ahem) a close and sometimes very financial relationship with the main governing party. Hundreds of thousands marched in hammering rain last November; two vans believed to be connected to the Irish Water company were set alight in the middle of the night in West Cork; and the attempt to install water meters outside each and every house has met with an organized campaign of physical resistance nationwide. It’s been great fun.

Last October I got a Facebook message from Rhona McCord who works in the office of Clare Daly – a United Left member of the Irish parliament (Dáil) best known in the United States for describing President Obama as “a war criminal” – asking me where my poem against water charges was? The resulting poem ‘Irish Air: Message From the CEO’ was a modest proposal of sorts in which the CEO of the newly formed company “Irish Air” outlines how charging the Irish people for the right to breathe is a sensible policy for a happier twenty first century.

To me, there would be no point at all publishing such a poem in a small magazine read only by poets, for at least some of whom the phrase “change we can believe in” brings to mind their dream of one day getting to give Don Share a shoulder rub in the hope that he might in return favorite one of their Tweets. "Irish Air: Message From the CEO" was published simultaneously on Clare Daly’s political website and on the Irish Left Review web site. On the morning of the most recent national demonstration against the charges, Luke "Ming" Flanagan, who represents our area in the European Parliament, posted the poem on his Facebook page and urged people to share. All the evidence is that this poem, which was in effect commissioned by the office of a politician in our national parliament, has been read by many hundreds, more like thousands of people, the majority of whom, I’m sure, would ordinarily think themselves to have no interest in, or use for, poetry. The advent of social media–especially when combined with a sudden challenge to long-taken-for-granted cultural and political status quos–has made the usual literary gatekeepers seem, at times, next to irrelevant, and sent said individuals into a cold sweat panic.

Galway poet Sarah Clancy (born 1973) won the inaugural Irish People's Poetry Prize for the video of her public reading of her poem "And Yet We Must Live In These Times" at the November 1 anti-water charges demonstration. The essential message of this finely delivered poem is that after the past seven years–during which Clancy herself lost her house–that actually, no, we Irish are not "grand" with all of this, however much we might sometimes pretend we are. Clancy last year published her third collection of poems, The Truth & Other Stories (Salmon Poetry). Clancy’s work is often sharply political but, unlike many a protest versifier, her language is always particular rather than clichéd or sloganeering, and the focus remains on the individual humans behind the latest set of miserable official statistics rather than flying off into ideology and bad rhymes.

 The somewhat ironically titled Irish People's Poetry Prize is administered by Dave Lordan, one of the finest poets of this generation (born 1975), who runs the literary website The Bogman’s Cannon which, since its foundation in January, has exploded to become by far the liveliest literary publication in Ireland and the place where the increasingly disloyal opposition to the rackety old mansion that is Irish poetry post-Heaney gather and publicly talk about stuff. People are for or against The Bogman’s Cannon in the way that people are for or against Obama, or, before that, were for or against the Russian Revolution or the execution of King Charles I. If Walt Whitman, Mayakovsky, and John Milton were hanging around Ireland writing poetry today, they’d certainly be emailing Dave Lordan poems to be published on The Bogman’s Cannon.

As I’ve implied, the reaction to this has not been universally positive; it would almost be disappointing if it were. The heads of one or two PhD students at Trinity and Queens University Belfast have exploded; one or two fans of the restrained autobiographical lyric have begun screaming like young ladies from Greenwich, Connecticut who’ve just been flashed by Teamsters; and the esteemed critic Maria Johnston of Trinity College Dublin last week had to go for a long lie down after going into battle on Twitter in support of moderation, respecting one’s elders, and the short well-made personal lyric. She is not expected to make a full recovery. Neither is Cork poet Gerry Murphy, the title of whose 2010 collection was My Flirtation With International Socialism (Dedalus Press). Murphy–a poet who has traded on faux radicalism pretty much all his life–has been jumping up and down on social media describing the tactics of the anti-water charges movement as being reminiscent of “fascism” and, somewhat less importantly, telling me that I should “take a break [from writing poetry] for a month, and then give up altogether.” Just at the moment when the old order got a thoroughly deserved shaking–and may there be more of it–Gerry Murphy and others in and around the Irish poetry world discovered how much they love the political establishment, at whose teat they of course all suckle.

Of course not all the poetry produced by our recently very charged news cycles has been of equal quality; it would be shocking if it were. Young Leitrim poet Stephen Murphy has become a YouTube sensation, with his signature piece "Was It For This?" being viewed almost 27,000 times to date. The poem has been re-Tweeted by, among others, Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams, and Stephen read it at the huge anti-water charges demonstration outside the G.P.O. in Dublin in October. To be sure, worse poems than Stephen’s have been inspired by the water charges issue; someone told me in confidence that if she hears one more bad rhyming poem on this issue that she will seriously consider paying her water bill, in the unlikely event that is that our shambling government actually succeeds at bringing the charges in. There is no excuse though for rhyming (or sort of) as Stephen Murphy does “racketeering” with “profiteering” and the poem is full of an utterly naïve idealization of the rough reality that was pre-Christian Ireland with its pagans and druids, though there’s no denying that this sounded groovy to many, including apparently Mr. Adams. I tried to help Stephen out, as is my way, by re-writing (some would say parodying) his poem and giving it a more definite title, "It Was For This"; this seems to have led Stephen Murphy’s wife to the opinion that I am a bad person, and on that point at least she’s probably right.

By far the worst poem though to make its way into recent Irish political discourse arrived on our computer screens on the terrible morning that was Wednesday, February 11, when our President Michael D. Higgins “released” the text of the only poem he has written since he became president in November 2011, in The Irish Times, no less. His use of the word “released” is interesting in that it calls to mind, among other things, David Bowie’s surprise release a while back of a new single on iTunes. Here is the poem in full:

To those on the road it is reported that
The Prophets are weeping,
At the abuse
Of their words,
Scattered to sow an evil seed.

Rumour has it that,
The prophets are weeping.
At their texts distorted,
The death and destruction,
Imposed in their name.

The sun burns down,
On the children who are crying,
On the long journeys repeated,
Their questions not answered.
Mothers and Fathers hide their faces,
Unable to explain,
Why they must endlessly,
No end in sight,
Move for shelter,
for food, for safety, for hope.

The Prophets are weeping,
For the words that have been stolen,
From texts that once offered,
To reveal in ancient times,
A shared space,
Of love and care,
Above all for the stranger.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to this collection of warmed over banalities and abstractions which seems, or so rumor has it, to have been inspired by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in early January. I will say two things in Michael D. Higgins's defense here: (1) at least he came out against the Charlie Hebdo massacre in this poem, even if only in the vaguest possible way; it is more than can be said for some on the Jihad loving left, and (2) though his poetry may not to date have achieved universal critical acclaim, he has written far better poems than this.

The crucial thing about this poem was not its decidedly anaemic words but the timing of its release. Six weeks earlier President Higgins, who once used my mother’s downstairs bathroom and bought me my first ever Black Forest Gateaux when I was just fifteen years old, had signed the Irish Water bill into law when he could have delayed it by referring it to the Supreme Court. Many were surprised by this, and a good number were angry, because, in the past, now-President Higgins had a flirtation with international socialism that was altogether more serious than that experienced by the abovementioned Gerry Murphy.

On a memorable January morning in Dublin one protester, a Mr. Derek Byrne, shouted “midget parasite” at President Higgins’s car, though he later withdrew the word “midget” as he recognized that it might be potentially insulting to all people of diminutive stature, many of whom would themselves be against water charges. The release of this poem looked like a PR stunt designed to warm the genitalia of your typical Irish junk progressive, who just loves that we have a poet president. I responded in the only way I could, by re-writing President Higgins’s poem for him, re-titling it "Socially Acceptable Vegetables," and publishing it on The Bogman’s Cannon. It was at this point that Gerry Murphy’s beard burst into flames and he began telling me via social media that I should give up writing poetry.

Another recent Irish news cycle poem has been "Queer" by Elaine Feeney–also published first on The Bogman’s Cannon and made topical by our upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage. The poem ironically suggests some possible cures for lesbianism:

“Did they tell you a herbalist
Might be the best option?

(Or a priest)”

Feeney is the also the author of the classic satire, "Mass," which features in her 2013 collection, The Radio Was Gospel (Salmon Poetry), and which savagely mocks the tendency of some in Ireland to see the saying of a Mass, be it for success in your exams, or “your granny’s black lung,” as the obvious thing to do in most situations bar none.

In the aftermath of Heaney a new type of Irish poem is beginning to predominate. And it is not the well-made anecdotal lyric which Irish poets have tended to be so good at producing. Such poems now have a means of entirely bypassing the usual gatekeepers who no longer have any effective way to put manners on us. Though most of them don’t say it publicly, it is believed that the thought of an Irish poetry world increasingly dominated by irreverent corner boys (and girls) such as Dave Lordan, Sarah Clancy, Elaine Feeney, and yours truly makes some arts administrators throw up repeatedly each morning before leaving for work. The nub of their problem is this: the poets of the generation immediately under Heaney are nothing like as consistently good as he was, especially when it comes to the public poem. So there is a desperate rush on to find the next acceptable face of Irish poetry.

This year Ireland marks the centenary of the 1916 Rising, an armed revolutionary uprising by a group that was at least partly self-appointed; had they been around at the time most of our leaders would certainly have not supported the Rising; nor most likely would Mr. Pat Cotter, whom Don Share has asked to edit a special Irish issue of Poetry. Cotter has lately been on social media expressing grave concern that Sinn Féin might be in government after the next election; he will do his best to find for the Irish cultural establishment some poets they can feel safe with. I understand that Dave Lordan has a poem in the issue, which showcases poets born after 1970 and was put together on an invitation-only basis. There will be some good younger poets in there too; but I doubt you’ll get from its pages much more than the occasional hint of the very real ongoing changes I’ve talked about here. It was Pat Cotter’s shambolic attempt, from which he–in the end–had to back down, to censor the literary criticism section of the Munster Literature Centre’s magazine Southword in January which led to the revolt which gave birth to The Bogman’s Cannon. Having him edit such a special issue right now is akin to exhuming from the grave the late great Norman Podhoretz and asking long-decomposed Norm to edit an anthology of poetry of the Vietnam War.

Were he around, Seamus Heaney would be commissioned to write a poem for the 2016 commemorations, and he would do it well. But that time is over. And the Irish establishment, both cultural and political, is quaking in its flip-flops about how it's going to bluff its way through all this. At bottom, they fear for their jobs. If a new and very different government were to take office this year–and it probably won’t–then many of these people’s time at the trough may be over.

 This article also appears in the current issue of The Raintown Review (Volume 13 Issue 1) http://www.theraintownreview.com/

west bank wall balloon girl
Sunday, 17 December 2017 04:09

Art, activism and the cultural food chain

Published in Cultural Commentary

Susan Jones outlines how activism can help artists in an age of austerity and widening gaps between rich and poor.

The so-called golden age of arts funding gave way to debilitating austerity, felt particularly by artists who are now at the end of a long food chain, divorced from arts funding and policy decision making. But when did these divisions start, and how can artists use activism to create meaningful change for the future?