IAAS Postgraduate Conference 2015 – Reflection

I spoke at the Irish Association for American Studies Postgraduate Conference on the 28th of November last. The conference draws together scholars engaged in Postgraduate study, either at MA or Doctorate level, who have particular interest in American studies. You’ll find further details, and a link to the conference brochure here.

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John Gould Fletcher, 1886-1950

I presented on the poet John Gould Fletcher, a minor poet in the American canon, most often mentioned in conjunction with the Southern Agrarians, a group whose debatable legacy colours much of the critical reception of his poetry. I drew parallels between Gould Fletcher’s poems which address his upbringing in the Antebellum South, with those poems in Yeats which deal with the “Big House” of the Irish variety. I called it, “Big Houses and Lost Causes: Parallels and disparities between the poetry of the American South and the Anglo-Irish Ascendency”. One half of a snappy title.

It was my first experience of academic conferences. I learned a lot. Some of which lessons I shall impart to you now, gather round…

There is nothing so pleasurable in academia as the honing of an initial interest into a defendable critique. I first read Gould Fletcher last year, finding him to be an intriguing poet, whose varied output spans symbolist dross to lyrical confessional poems of searing intensity. Façade, trope, and device, form a catafalque for the poet’s exposed self in poems which deal invariably with his past, his family home, his father, and death. That these poems were so rare amongst his output, added to their import. I felt the thrill of discovery. I read all of the criticism on him which I could find, tangentially covering the Southern Agrarian movement, as well as Modernism more broadly. I flirted with the easy pratfall of championing an under-appreciated poet beyond the scope of his achievement. Whether I was spurned or was duped is for those who attended the conference to judge. I defined Gould Fletcher’s treatment of the “Big House” legacy of the South as:

riven with an anxiety which both creates a personal coding of a collective imaginary, and allows for the achievement of an “Integrated Nostalgia” through the acceptance of the opacity of memory.

I contrasted this, with the less laudable treatment of the “Big House” motif in Yeats’s poetry, a subject of criticism which is more common. I felt that such a contrast both shed a new light on that area of Yeat’s work, whilst also highlighting the value of what Gould Fletcher achieved. That Gould Fletcher wrote these poems contemporaneously with those of Yeats, at once adds to his achievement. A small but significant victory for a minor yet rewarding poet.

The Ghosts of an Old House

[…]

In this room my father died:

His bed is in the corner.

No one has slept in it

Since the morning when he wakened

To meet death’s hand at his heart.

I cannot go to this room,

Without feeling something big and angry

Waiting for me

To throw me on the bed,

And press its thumbs to my throat.

[…]

Other things I learned. People just read out papers they’ve written at these things. Word for word. Where’s the fun in that?

Reading a couple of verses of poetry skirts the risk of a presentation devolving into a poetry reading; bringing with it a concomitant change in tone. Is there anything more awkward than a poetry reading without the poet? I stand over the approach. Poetry speaks for itself, at its finest will always remain inscrutable, and necessitate subjective engagement. To facilitate such an engagement through a reading of the poems themselves is the least the critic owes the poet being critiqued.

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W.B Yeats, 1865-1939. Original Gangster. 

The after-conference pints took place in McDaid’s. That the pub has been abandoned by the literati since the ’60’s didn’t seem to matter (they migrated to Gogarty’s? Grogan’s?). I left a dour discussion of faltering PhD’s and short term teaching contracts to meet with some friends of mine who I hadn’t seen in months. We watched Tyson Fury become the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Drank pints in pubs where poetry is never mentioned. I learned there are doors out as well as in.

Though I was proud of having presented in such a forum, and felt energized having gone through the process of preparation and delivery, I learned that the confidence I gain in my little academic victories soon ebbs and falters. Reading some poems by Robert Lowell earlier today, “Those Before Us”, “The Withdrawal”, “Robert T.S. Lowell”… I wonder, if I had read them prior to my reading of Gould Fletcher would my criticism have been finer? Was my critique based more on the intuition I rely on, sometimes fall back on, rather than the intellect I am seeking to hone in these years at UCC? No Matter. If I can never fool myself, I seem to be able to fool others, least-ways I was on that day in UCD. All very pessimistic, I allow.

*****************

A few months have now passed since I wrote the above. I think that approaching the ‘Big House’ as primarily a home, frozen over through remembrance which Gould Fletcher does, is in its way, remarkable and worthy of praise. I prefer his approach to that of Adrienne Rich, whose poem “In the Wake of the Home”, touches on similar ground. When Rich pushes off from remembrance into an area of freer imagined thought in section nine of her poem, I feel she loses the intensity which she has built in the previous sections. What is left is rhetoric of a kind, something I read in her work which is not to my particular taste. The sanguine nihilistic finality of Gould Fletcher is a more apt poetic position from which to address America’s past, through the personal not the collective, arriving at that emblem ‘Hope’ through existential inquiry as opposed to projection.

Dean

 

I first met Dean Browne last summer at an event held by the School of English, UCC.

I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with a miserably, weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.  

We were both there to receive the Patricia Coughlan Essay Award for Essays on Irish Culture. Well,  Dean got the award, I got the consolation prize of the certificate. We both awkwardly stood in for photos by the grand piano in the Aula Maxima clutching our printed A4 sheets of praise, mine identical yet somewhat the lesser.  You might guess. I’m still mordantly bitter.

I wondered at who this reticent, still, prematurely bearded vanquisher, many years my junior, could be? We exchanged a few pleasantries; my smiling words of congratulations sluiced through gritted teeth.  It spooked me somewhat that I felt no reciprocal warmth in our brief conversation.  The photographer wanted to take some extra shots of us  at one point, but Dean had had enough and wandered off. I feigned a similar attitude though as an eternal egoist I craved the camera’s shutter. I was happy with my prize, touched by my family’s heartfelt support in the pews, and rationalised my second place away as just another white lie I’d have to add to my CV. Dean Browne, pah! Even Professor Coughlan must be allowed a misstep in critical judgement every now and then surely?  If I were ever a wrestler, I’d certainly play the heel.

Owing to the fact both Dean and myself were on scholarships, awarded again by the School of English (thank you, thank you, thank you) our paths crossed again on a number of occasions whilst we fulfilled our supervision hours during the first semester in-house examinations. UCC is quite a small place. It leads to regular bumpings-into, and brief exchanges of small-talk. We maintained a passing acquaintance, welcome on my part for no other reason than to quell my inquisitiveness as to the critical character of the guy who beat me. How welcome my small talk was to Dean I’m still none the wiser. I began finding old library dockets with Dean Browne’s name on them constantly bookmarking books of poetry I was reading. Montague. Ashbery. Heaney. Auden. Muldoon. I wondered at whether I had seen such dockets last year without remarking on the name, it then being unfamiliar to me. He was reading what I was reading. Or rather, I was reading what Dean had already read. In the lee of the library one evening both happening to be smoking at the same time he suggested we go for a pint. “Why not?”

It was immediately apparent that my pique at coming second in that prize, exaggerated here yet still real, was to be rightfully added to the list of post-facto causes for mortification. One of those things you feel in a moment of recollection and quickly press to the back of your mind. Quiet, reticent, particular in speech, Dean had a vast knowledge of poetry, contemporary, Modernist, Romantic, Classical. As the pints of porter were sunk in their turn, it bested me to spar my part of the conversation, offer equivalent insights to those which seemed for him to come so easily.

Hmm, maybe Professor Coughlan got it right? Oh self hate.

I realised that in the time I’d been studying English in UCC, I had believed myself superior, certainly equal, to anyone I encountered studying in the School. Necessary self belief, or hubris? There you are. After numerous nights of pints and poet-talk, as well as what you might term correspondence (if such a term exists any longer), I have come to new perspectives; been criticised and given criticism; been introduced to new poets I never knew of, not least of all Dean himself; in effect, I’ve come to see the value of that second place. I’ve come to know Dean as both a good friend and a valued academic peer.

He knows more than I do. We’re very happy together. I’m hoping for a summer wedding.

Here’s one of his poems, first published in Southward magazine, and what I think of it.

Polypheme

He remembers the telescope most on winter nights –
a cheapish starter model this, but it let him go
to Mare Imbrium and back in minutes;
then he’s that nine-year-old who wheels it to the window,
dusts it down, and finds this keyhole in the hemisphere.
Sometimes the lens reflects his own myopic squints,
trained on whatever might chance to constellate
especially for his look – the soft blur
of the Pleaides, or Cassiopeia
he liked to picture rocking on a blue verandah;
or that god who, deaf to his charades, hints
nothing of himself and declines to comment
and is nobody’s business for the moment
unless he means to say Sorry, you’re too late. 

Words. Many, sundry, endless. Must be chosen however. Reduced. Polypheme can be read in two ways then. The universe of language which a bare etymological reading of the word denotes, as if it is a creation of the Critical Theorists, is immediately reduced by meaning: the Classical allusion, the one-eyed man, and all those who have made reference to such through time up to this point, this poem.   The cracking open language for the purposes of the inspection of constituent parts is countered at once, in one word: how I, or you, receive it, its communication. The Cyclops imagery is continued in the motif of the telescope: the search of for something outside of the self. The “I” is narrated in measured lines until the reveal of the cosmic joke, the nihilist turn as the hot tap runs cold at the poems finish. The awkward use of “this” contrasts to the sweetness of phrase of, “keyhole in the hemisphere”, “constellate”, as well as the pairing of “soft blur” with the startling construction of the “blue verandah” of stars. There is a sureness in the choice of words which leave us in no doubt as to the intent of each echo and contrast.  The distance between poet and subject, and the traversing of that liminal space through narration of remembrance is the key here: the astronomer who feels the final rebuff yet is accepting of his place in the universe, its limitation not seen as a cause for despair but universal, is not the poet: in the telling, the remove, something is lost. I prefer when poets play both Citizen and Narrator. I’m slow to make such a criticism here, maybe the mapping of the remove is the point.

Nice one…

 

Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.

 

Hemingway, Berryman

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John Berryman, 1914-1972

I recently read a piece by John Berryman on Ernest Hemingway’s short story ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’ which appears in the poet’s collected criticism, The Freedom of the Poet. It led me to re-read the story. It’s beautiful. I’d admit it moved me to tears, but then we mustn’t show emotion in this line of work. Berryman reads the story of the neat old drunk drinking on his own in a café, as two waiters look on waiting to shut up for the night, ruminating on the concept of ‘nada’, ‘nothing’, ‘nothingness’ and how dignity is our only resource in facing such terms, as ‘something very beautiful’, with masterful deftness of perception, matching the story’s beauty with his own.

“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.

“Why?”

“He was in despair.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

Berryman points out the subtle way in which Hemingway creates such intensity of feeling through a story where not much, if anything, occurs. On re-reading the story, I agree. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find much of Hemingway unreadable now. Berryman has shown me that it need not be so. The story of the old man full of dignity coping with despair, written by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, analysed by an old man full of dignity coping with despair, was enough to move this old man full of DDT coping with his hair. I shouldn’t joke of course. I trust you’ll forgive me. Reading both Berryman and Hemingway brings it front and centre: this is life and death, how what I write must strive for the same effect.

“I am of those who like to stay late at the café,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

Is it crass to say I know who those people are? That I am one? That you may be? The final line is a Hemingway classic. My classmate Emilio Bonome Ares mentioned Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” in his Textualities 2016 conference paper. I myself have criticized it in a previous post. My point of contention with both Iceberg Theory, and Hemingway, is that the more interesting story often takes place after the full stop of the final line; that the stories themselves often do not support the gnomic construction of their resolutions. Such may be the case elsewhere, but not here. To quote briefly Berryman’s other great treatment of Hemingway, “Dream Song 235”,

‘God to him no worse luck send.’

‘Many must have it.’

Many must have it.

Work Cited:

Berryman, John. The Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969. Print.

Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976. Print.

The Academic Culture Industry

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A month has passed and here’s my second blog. I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle on my excoriation of Hemingway. Obscure silence being the best place to lie low obviously. Also. Going to seminars. Having coffee. Pulling pints. Being in love. Watching films. Reading a poem or two. Putting off accomplishing the amorphous task of creating a break-out blogging success story. I’ve a few ideas I intended, intend, will intend, to write upon. Who’s to know if you, my future reader can presently scroll down and view the insightful missives I shall write. Who’s to know… You.

I think it was Twain who said that, and I’m paraphrasing, if writing doesn’t come to you as easy as it is for leaves to grow on a tree, you should just pack it in and be done with it? Maybe it was Dumas. Or a Russian. Keats? Nevermind. On the other hand there’s the old Hemingway chestnut of shackling yourself to the desk for four hours a day typing out Gatsby if the Muse doesn’t come. I read Kevin Barry sides with Hem on this one. The reference I’m looking for appeared in an interview in one of the national newspapers last weekend. Not online however. So no fancy hyperlink. It exists. I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it. And yes, I’m aware that’s not how it works. But there you go. Barry is all over the place recently on the back of the recent publication of Beatlebone. He’s giving a reading in Waterstone’s tomorrow night in fact. A suitable event for a blog post you’d think. I recall reading the first story in “There Are Little Kingdoms”, when it first came out, and flinging it across the room, never to be retrieved. For fear of causing an affray, perhaps I’ll stay away from Waterstone’s tomorrow. Or not. If the next blog you see is my updating of Reading Gaol you’ll know I took the latter course. In which case, don’t cry for me…”

In matter of fact, it’s now coming on two months since I last blogged. My course supervisor has hinted strongly that I need to write more. As has my father, himself an inveterate blogger (http://vinhanley.com). Fathers shouldn’t bury their sons. Fathers also shouldn’t be more prolific bloggers than their sons. And yet here we are. The first part of that was a bit morbid, I apologize.

I’m sure you’ll agree “reasons why I don’t blog so often” is probably not great subject matter for a blog. It’s obfuscation. Like what’s gone before.  To write you must acknowledge your limitations.  I don’t like that. No one does I presume. The academic game I’m trying to play involves straining at your limitations daily. Those of perception, understanding, analysis, I can live with. Add in those of expression however and I generally kick the can until I can’t feasibly kick it any further.

Further on that point, and something that perhaps seems axiomatic, but bear with me: Academic work involves two things, reading and writing. The first part is consuming. The second part is production. Studying as I am, it’s possible to rationalize reading, the consumption part, as doing work. When in fact, any sane definition of work involves the creation of a product. Herein lies the problem beauty, of studying in the humanities.

And so I come to my question, to what extent are MA courses, like the one I’m studying now, extraneous arms of the “Culture Industry”? To what extent are we in MA programmes  merely the descendants of those Jazz loving soda guzzling ignoramuses who packed the picture houses at weekends to keep cool in California? And what if we are, I suppose. Adorno and Horkheimer weren’t exactly guys you could tan a few beers with were they? (Not that that’s a legitimate critieria I use to analyse literature/philosophy (It is)).  In a nutshell, having fore-knowledge of what I’m doing when I willfully consume rather than produce, placing myself in the picture house, indicts me all the more. So along with my Kevin Barry denial, I’m guessing there’s no hope for me.

To put it more succinctly still: being part of an MA or PhD programme in the humanities requires the student to battle through years of existential guilt at not being a productive member of society, whilst telling him/herself that the completion of this journey will bring more than their supervisor embarrassingly telling them that, ‘no… Philip? I’m afraid you can’t have my job’.

And that’s where I am right now. So forgive my lack of blogging Dad, I’m trying my best down here. The next one will be about poetry and stuff I promise.

Why is Hemingway so Embarrassing?

 

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The Old Man and The… Bath.

I read a lot of Hemingway when I was young. You can’t undo these things. Most immediately, it led me to be an insufferable proto-Nick Adams type youth, not one such as sleep a-nights. More lastingly, it made masculinity one of my foremost concerns. Versions. Subversions. That kind of thing. My reading material was, and remains, written largely by white males. It’s certainly a problem. And like all problems, it’s something I’m happy to ignore, rationalize after the fact. To masculinity then. And where better to start…

Farewell to Arms, like all Hemingway’s novels features a protagonist who is a thinly veiled cipher for Papa himself. In this case, Frederic Henry, a young American who volunteers as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army during WW 1. Like all Hemingway heroes, Henry is variously; fluent in a European language, a solemn observer of local custom, obsessed with masculine conduct, brave, contemplative, a high functioning alcoholic, and above all, ludicrously capable. You’ve probably read it so I needn’t elaborate. A few of those traits however…

The importance Hemingway places on his American protagonist conversing in European languages amounts to near fetish. He gets his retaliation in first to the accusation of being called an ignorant American. He is Rochester speaking French. Not Paulie Walnuts falling flat on his face attempting to chat to locals. A short interaction between Henry and a Major who is about to operate on him:

‘I guess you’ve got a fracture alright. I’ll wrap you up and don’t bounce you’re head around.’ he bandaged, his hands moving very fast and the bandage coming taut and sure. ‘All right, good luck and Vive la France.’

‘He’s an American,’ one of the other captains said.

‘I thought you said he was a Frenchman. He talks French,’ the captain said. ‘I’ve known him before. I always thought he was French.’ He drank a tumbler of cognac.

The blustering confidence of the Major, as well as his heavy drinking, highlights another trait in Hemingway, the exaltation of professional capability above all else. The sequence wherein the Major comes to diagnose Henry’s knee as operable, disregarding the dithering opinions of three junior doctors is a perfect example of this. Too long to reproduce, here it is. ‘There was a star in a box on his sleeve because he was a Major.’ This sequence perfectly encapsulates Hemingway’s denial of doubt, those who would second guess. Self-doubt or anxiety of any kind is to be avoided at all costs. Primarily through liquid means. For an example of a Hemingway character drinking to assuage depression open any page of his collected works. Examples of any elaboration on the subject are more difficult to find.

The complete lack of honesty in his poetry, the form of expression where we might expect to find such feeling addressed, is a prime example. His poems amount to little more than curios. To quote one is to almost carry out an act of violence against the great man. But howsoever…

In the rain in the rain in the rain in the rain in Spain.

Does it rain in Spain?

Oh yes my dear on the contrary and there are no bullfights.

The dancers dance in long white pants

It isn’t right to yence your aunts

Come Uncle let us go home.

Home is where the heart is, home is where the fart is.

Come let us fart in the home.

There is no art in a fart.

Still a fart may not be artless.

Let us fart an artless fart in the home.

                                                             -The Soul of Spain

(I’m willing to never speak of this poem again if you are.)

Introspection is always hinted at in Hemingway, never detailed. The results of his theory of omission, ‘that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood’, is that we are made ‘feel’ something we can never understand, are left to stare through the opaque window of his prose at a primary feeling whose depths we can only wonder at. The gnomic way in which he ends stories for instance, by his design, an expression of significance and meaning, are often cliff edges over which we are flung, left to run furiously in the air Wile E. Coyote style vainly seeking traction. Often, he himself was unsure of how to end them. If we as readers aren’t meant to ‘understand’ but rather ‘feel’, can we say that he himself lacked true self knowledge, understanding?

It is this lack of understanding, and the refusal to address it, which made my teenage-self, in the fog of adolescence sharing in that refusal, love his writing so much. He remains for me, a writer who should be read in those teenage years, and discarded thereafter. Writing this I can’t help but feel a well of sympathy for him. Perhaps you’ll allow me this compromise: to criticize Hemingway’s engagement with masculinity as limited is not to invalidate it. He wasn’t empty, rather, in the sensory sense, merely dumb.