Blog Portfolio – It’s pronounced “Jack O’Metty”!

I’m the type of person who makes casual reference to Alberto Giacometti in everyday conversations. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Euronews cultural vignette which outlined the great sculptor’s methods; starting from a large scale he would pare down and reduce his sculptural figures until almost nothing remained save only the most minimal of features which could be said to represent man. Giacometti’s problem was knowing when to stop before his clay figures, once larger than himself, disappeared to nothingness. I use this as a metaphor for my own critical thought. I consider and consider and pare and reduce until sometimes nothing remains. The trick is to create some academic content  before this happens. I don’t always succeed. This blog is a document of that process; its posts representative of others which got pared away. Though Giacometti hated the miniature figurines he produced, he felt compelled to make them. Whereas I quite like the blogs I’ve written, I do know that compulsion. If we ever happen to have a chat and I mention ‘Giacometti’, now you’ll know what I’m on about. Feel free to cuff me ’round the ear.

Giacometti commented on the relative sparseness of his own critical  work thusly:

Write perhaps, but only if I cannot avoid it. Do not embark on long critical explanations about art. In any case, it is simple, the subject. Categories. Efficaciousness. (209)

The subject. Categories. Efficaciousness. Simple. If my blog posts are nothing else, they are evidence that for me such things are never simple. Academic writing itself for me is often arduous. The subjects I analyse themselves sometimes seem intractably complex, before and after critical analysis. Perhaps to make such things simple is the hallmark of genius; making genius not necessarily the sole preserve of the artist. I see that simplicity of expression and process in the finest critics.   In my blogs I read a willing scholar strain against his limitations, striving for simplicity through the complex. That they were written at all is heartening to me however. That I didn’t pare them away to nothing, that I have a valid sustainable critical voice. In parts the blogs themselves succeed in showing this, but more often they narrate the struggle to achieve and maintain that voice. The academic work of greatest worth takes place elsewhere. Once I realised this I became a better blogger. That this happened over the last 24 hours is incidental! Let’s look at some blogs and the story they tell, the moral of which is: I’m just beginning.

Within the blogs written over the course of the past few months, there are clear counterpoints as well as through-points: what pleases me most is that I can see progression in both my criticism, but also, more importantly I think, my idea of myself as an academic. In the early blogs I see a lack of confidence in the act of critical utterance, a constant resort to disclaim and excuse. Though aware that any progression by definition must be constant I am pleased with the modulation I read when making this comparative self-analysis. The voice with which I express myself in the blogs has also been refined. What at first was faltering, often inflected with pique and exasperation, has become more true, nimble, and sure. By design the tone is sub-academic, situated outside of the space from which I draw my more exacting critical work. This voice, often self-referential and deprecating of my scholarly position, itself has been refined, becoming more of an ally to my scholarship, than dissonant and prone to scepticism, which its first iterations sometimes were. The honing of this parallel voice is a finer achievement than the criticism contained therein. Though the criticism is fantastic also of course!

This. This is why Hemingway is so embarrassing.

My first post, Why is Hemingway so embarrassing? looked at a writer I had to a large extent abandoned as adolescent. It marks out the reasons for this turning away through an analysis of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms and its protagonist Frederic Henry:

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.

I go onto criticize Hemingway for a lack of honesty:

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.

I then state a position which I would later qualify in a subsequent post regarding the way in which Hemingway ended his stories:

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 … If we as readers aren’t meant to ‘understand’ but rather ‘feel’, can we say that he himself lacked true self knowledge, understanding?

I recanted the stridency of this critique through circuitous means; a reading of an essay by John Berryman contained in his collected criticism The Freedom of the Poet. In it, Berryman makes a convincing case for the simple beauty of expression which Hemingway can achieve at his best, focusing on the story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”. There is a hint of relief in my volte-face:

My point of contention with both Iceberg Theory, and Hemingway, is that the more interesting story 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.

In allowing me the forum to document a reappraisal of a retrograde critical position such as this one the blog has been of great benefit.

My second post dealt with two poets, Desmond O’Grady and Stephan Spender, and two of their poems, “Purpose”, and “The Uncreating Chaos”. I come at O’Grady’s poem from a personal perspective, criticizing it as superficial and unrewarding:

“Purpose” as the briefest of samples, written in his middle age, the position of the poet is one of hindsight, lacking the immediacy of the Steven Daedalus type exclamatory willfulness, which it recalls. It fills me with … peevishness.

I contrast this with Spender:

Spender’s poem is a cutting critique of posture, fakery, heroics. … It’s ironic, self-accusatory, replete with self doubt. All that O’Grady’s rhetoric isn’t.

Returning to read these early posts I find myself upgrading their formatting: Youtube clips which before hid behind hyperlinks now take centre-stage. A definite improvement in my IT skills!

The comparison I make is perhaps harsh on O’Grady, who I have found to be a fine translator. It highlights my personal taste in reading poetry, and is still further an example of how that taste may colour my criticism. I address this issue further in a later post which deals with my friendship with a classmate, Dean Browne, and my criticism of his poetry.

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.

I see the later piece as more accepting of the validity in a poetic remove, whilst still maintaining the validity of my preference.

I really enjoyed writing the piece on Dean. I purposefully sought to make real an inspiring Salonesque collegiality which I imagine the UCC of Theo Dorgan, Maurice Riordan, Sean Dunne, for example, to have been, for right or wrong. We are actually friends too of course! The blog was again a perfect forum to make comment upon a source of learning which sits outside of the seminar and the reading room. I feel that my writing style had evolved by this time to the point where I was able to incorporate humour and feint more confidently: the blogging voice, as it were, coming closer to my own, gaining in authenticity.

My next blog, Bill Lawson – ‘Douglass, Memories, and Disappointment’, is where I see a shade of pique and skepticism begin to come through in my blogs. It’s quite perfunctory and snarky, and doesn’t adequately engage with Professor Lawson’s thesis. This snark would reach its apogee in the post entitled, The Academic Culture Industry. It’s something of a place-holder post, not seeing my criticism advancing. In it I return to the theories of Adorno, a theorist I first read some years ago. My analysis of his theories are quite blunt here owing to that remove. The frustration I was feeling in finding the authenticity I’ve mentioned here, as well as a dip in the brio with which I seek to bring to my studies in general, is seen in the post, which is a reductionist broadside against the concept of the modern University. The say we hurt the ones we love, don’t they? This is me lashing out:

… 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?

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The world’s foremost… hater of Jazz music.

I have toyed with the impulse to rewrite both posts, expunge the lines which now cause me to balk, but I think they’re of better use in their original iterations, standing in contrast (I hope!) to some of my other posts which I feel come at their subjects with better graces, with a truer voice. If this amounts to them taking on currate’s egg status then so be it, they will be of use as marking points along the road.

My next post, Essay Writing – Hanley Style, is the sole post which relates to film criticism. That it does so only tangentially is an indication of a more general critical reticence which I felt when addressing the medium. I have a great love of film, and have thoroughly enjoyed studying the subject formally over the past two years. This enjoyment has not brought with it a corresponding confidence in analytical expression however. Reading my classmate, Martin Curran’s blog, which deals primarily with film, I can only be envious of the freedom of expression which he brings to the area. When seeking to bring the comparable critical exactness with which I seek to analyse other artistic arenas I find myself continually laying my hand to the wrong tools; a bolster when an awl is needed. My post on the area narrates in a way this dynamic, seeing myself mired in ever deepening complexity when simplicity of expression, as I have mentioned, should be the aim.

I’ve two embryonic ideas which I think might be worth developing: A look at the cinematography/mise en scene of I Went Down. Looking at the influence of nature documentary on De Buitleir’s style, and how in so doing a new representation of rural Ireland was created in Irish Cinema; A look at Lenny Abrahamson’s “Prosperity”, an examination of the links between the televisual and the filmic. Maybe looking at Kieslowski as a precusor, and Soderbergh as a contemporary exponent.

Further posts which are linked, this time more positively, are two posts which reflect upon my presentation style, IAAS Postgraduate Conference 2015 – Reflection, and Textualities 2016 Mini-Conference – Reflection. The first details my experiences preparing and delivering a paper at the postgraduate conference of its title. In it I make the case for an off-the-cuff presentation style which allows opportunities for improvisation. I also argue for the inclusion of extended readings of the poetry which I am then analyzing.

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.

Reading this now, it appears an overly strident position to hold: again it acts as a document of a progression in my style which is on-going. The following remark also, though intentionally flippant, comes off as polemic:

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

What is more admirable in this post is my charting of the journey I undertook to arrive at my argument: initial idea, development and application of the critical gaze, through to its realization, and finally the after thoughts of possible revision and modulation.

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 … 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.

That I remain supportive of my initial critical argument,  having gone through this process, is encouraging to me. Again, the blog allowed me to come to this realization.

The post in which I reflect on the Textualities 2016 Mini-Conference continues the line of thought which the IAAS Conference began. In it I analyse my presentation, which I wasn’t entirely happy with, in large part owing to the flawed approaches to presentation style which I held, as outlined. In it, I again expand on my evolving presentation style, as well as outline my search for an effective theoretical framework on which to base my reading of the poetry of Michael Hartnett, the subject of my forthcoming thesis. This blog post documents a change in direction, away from an examination drawing on Deconstruction and Translation Theory. It deals in depth with my reactions to my delivery of the presentation itself, and my reflections upon it, eventually coming to a defense of my initial intention, if not the methods used.

I’m very happy for those classmates also who have written of the rush and sense of accomplishment which they experienced at the event. On reflection I see that it’s by over-complicating things that I denied that to myself. Drawing from broader reflection, however,  I know I won’t change my intention. Nor should.

Whether this resolution is warranted is yet to be seen. As I said in my introductory paragraph, I’m just beginning.

The blog post which I am most pleased with is my Interview with Des Healy. In it I describe my meeting with the man who was amongst Michael Hartnett’s closest friends, co-conspirators, and confidantes. It took me a very long time following the initial interview to come to write this post. I struggled to find halter for the register of voice which I felt represented Healy himself, as well as my own experience. The piece is the most experimental of all those featured on my blog. Its parataxical form and clipped syntax create something which stands apart, certainly from my earliest efforts.

Gough’s in Charleville is a fine bar. You’ll find old ladies sitting at tables having tea and scones. Tradesmen in high-viz jackets on their lunch break. Neat habitual drinkers fastidious in their movements. An odd business meeting. Sky Sports News on mute on the TV. A good fire. I leafed through Monday’s Echo whilst I waited for Des to arrive. 8 Across, four letters. “Science fiction novel by Frank Herbert”. D.O.O.N. The Co. Limerick town standing in for the alien planet. The odds for a horse Charlie Chawke had running in Thurles that evening had come in from 5’s to odds on. The happy pride in the telling as the barman had him backed that morning. Only a youngster.

Des Healy. Amongst the best of men.

I believe in adopting this style I achieved the simplicity of description which the interview merited. I think I give the reader a feeling for both Des Healy, as well as his relationship with Hartnett. Certainly to the greatest extent that my ability as a writer allows.

My final, and most recent blog focuses on the recent Centenary Celebrations of the 1916 Rising, expanding upon that event to comment upon the vagaries of close reading through an in-depth analysis of a passage of prose from John McGahern. It encapsulates well the significance this blog has taken on for me: a medium for immediate quick-fire analysis, as well as simultaneous examination of that analytical process. Taking a talk given by Dr Heather Laird as its centre-point, and using the device of a particular close reading of the text, That They May Face The Rising Sun,  I seek to shed new light on  a strand of McGahern’s work, as well as his treatment of Irish Nationalism. Whether I achieve my aim is for the reader to decide. That I had the confidence to try, using the blogging medium is itself an achievement. For me at least!

In conclusion then, let me return to Giacometti:

Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it. (87)

He made this assertion well after he had established himself as one of the greatest sculptors of this century, of any century in fact. The humility he shows, in perpetual readiness to discover and create, is one I seek to emulate. Substituting the word “critically” for “artistically” I come to a sentence which is close to my own self-ideation. This blog is a document of acceptance of this truth. I hope that this is clear in its posts, and that the insight I gained in writing them will aid me in achieving the success which I am striving for.

Thanks for reading!

Works Cited

Bonnefoy, Yves, and Alberto Giacometti. Giacometti. Paris: Flammarion, 2012. Print.




Dr Heather Laird Research Seminar – Easter 1916 Rising Centenary Commemorations – John McGahern

John McGahern, staring at something to his left whilst wearing a turtleneck. Circa 1975.

John McGahern is one of the only writers who I have read completely. The novels, the stories, the non-fiction. As much of the criticism as is readily available. I’ve never read the play actually now that I come to think of it. Oh well. It did get panned. There are a few other writers who I’ve come close to completing. Chekov. Mann. I tried with Melville. Shakespeare. Friel. Calvino. Camus. Lost interest in each, there always being time to return. It’s not as if being a completist is the aim. We’re not collecting baseball cards here. Christ America you’re insidious.

It does help of course if you’re well read. You need the straws to go with the sparks. It can be a distraction however. You must have read someone before you can write about them. Or speak about them. Or misquote them. I always felt it was the deepest cut imaginable when Sartre accused Camus of not having read the books he quoted. It’s said they fell out over Marx.. I think it was more over that nuclear option of an insult. There was no return from such depths. Or maybe there was. But he died.


The Easter 1916 Centenary Commemorations have been front and centre in the national consciousness of late. I’d hyperlink to a webpage on them but there’s surely no need. They were all very civilised. Touching. Dignified. No men in balaclavas and sunglasses. Kept tacitly out of frame. Unprovocized. You can use it if you want, first one’s free.

Let’s smash cut away from the Easter Centenary for a moment. Don’t worry this will all be wrapped in a bow at blog’s end. Let’s hope.

Last November I attended a seminar presentation here at the School of English, UCC, given by Dr Heather Laird, entitled Writing Working-Class Mothers. The role of the working-class mother figure within Irish literature was expertly detailed, the significance and shading of various representations outlined using examples that spanned two hundred years of Irish writing. Dublin based texts dominate our ideation of the term “working class”. Dr Laird sought to expand this view to include  both regional urban settings as well as the rural. Incisive and insightful, I look forward to reading her upcoming work on the subject. The greatest take-away for me from that day however, was the depth and breadth of Dr Laird’s reading. I stopped making notes of each title and character around the twenty mark. There were many more. The in-depth knowledge required achieved through extensive reading before the first critical word may be uttered, which I referred to in my opening paragraph, was evident that day. Dr Laird’s example is one I will seek to follow in my own studies.

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An actor playing a 1916 volunteer appraises his life choices.

Leafing through old back issues of the now dormant journal Cork Review, edited by Thomas McCarthy, I came across a piece by John McGahern entitled “Easter”. It is an early excerpt from the novel which would become That They May Face The Rising Sun, although its working title was then “That He May Face The Rising Sun”, an interesting insight in and of itself. “Easter” corresponds to a passage which appears late in the published novel, pages 251-259 of the Faber paperback edition. It describes an Easter Sunday visit from Jamesie, the mercurial Irish-everyman of the novel, to the house of his neighbours, Joe and Kate

“Eireann’s nobel emblem boys…”

Ruttledge. Joe Ruttledge stands as counterpoint to Jamesie’s character in both, more reserved and thoughtful, a cipher for McGahern himself. A commemorative march is taking place from the local IRA monument to the graveyard at Shruhaun. Jamesie recounts a childhood memory of witnessing the killing by the Black and Tans of a number of local volunteers, for which the monument was erected. He tells of how he and his father rescued the lone survivor from a bog, and how when the man went on to become a local politician he never acknowledged his saviours. Jamesie has a jaundiced view of the commemoration, seeing it as myopic of the true nature of the past, ‘They carried placards with slogans and photos of Pearse, McDermott, and Sands on green, white and gold backgrounds. The effect was somehow sinister and cheap’ (258). Sinister and cheap. I like that one.

The reprisal killing of a local Protestant man William Taylor is also detailed. The excerpt and novel are identical, word for word, bare one detail: the name changes. Here it is:

Then they came for poor Sinclair, the Protestant, nine fields away. The Sinclairs were quiet and hardworking and they kept to themselves like all the Protestants. They knew as much about the ambush as we knew. ‘Sinclair’s wife met them when they came to the back door. She thought they were calling about a mare they had advertised in the Observer that week and pointed them to the byre where Taylor was milking. They shot him like a dog beneath the cows and said he confessed before he was shot. Oh, we are a beautiful people Kate. (256)


The Cork Review excerpt has the name as Taylor throughout. It’s a mistake. As much the copy editor’s fault as McGahern’s. It’s interesting for me because it immediately links the passage to one which appears in Amongst Women, another of McGahern’s novels which was published twenty one years previously. The killing of “the spy” William Taylor, is mentioned as one of the memories which the lead character Moran and his friend McQuaid share every year when they meet.


From year to year they used  the same handrails to go down into the past: lifting the cartwheel at the crossroads, the drilling sessions by the river, the first ambush, marching at night between safe houses, the different characters in the houses, the food, the girls… The interrogation of William Taylor the spy and his execution by the light of a paraffin lantern among his own cattle in the byre. (14)

The killing of a British Colonel dominates the reminisces of Moran and McQuaid and is detailed in length, whereas the above passage is the only mention of William Taylor. McGahern would exonerate Taylor twenty years later, using the bitter remembrance of Jamesie to indict the character Moran.  That his remembrance of that murder is set beside the banal details of ‘the food, the girls…’ shades the character further towards psychopathy.

Insights gained from close reading. Are they significant, or does it prevent us from seeing the wood from the trees? Either way piecing the above details together was thrilling for me. I find such things thrilling yes, I lead a very sheltered life.  I hope that Dr Laird, herself a keen appreciator of McGahern’s work, will see the above analysis as both an original insight, and as a testament to her teaching, and the example of her critical approach.

Perhaps I should’ve chosen McGahern as the subject of my thesis? Too late now! I’ll always have a deep love of his work which perhaps a thesis would taint.

God’s mercy on “the spy” William Taylor.


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.

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.

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.



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.


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.




Edit. Wiki. Lit. Order. Exclamation. Event. Using hash tags has affected the way I write. Non-sequitur. Apropos of nothing. Rocking Horse.

On the 3rd of February last, as part of the Contemporary Research Skills Module of the MA I’m taking at UCC, I took part in the MA Wikipedia Editathon. The aim of the event was to exercise our social media, editing, and writing skills. And have same assessed.  My chosen topic was the poet, Michael Hartnett , whose poetry I will be writing my thesis on this summer. That’s a link to his Wiki page by the way. Gordian knot anyone? I had never edited a Wiki page prior to the event. Constant listener, first time caller.

Truthfully, I was a bit abashed at the prospect. Who am I to delete, to add to, to summarize a complex life? In one sense it’s a simple enough process. Scrolling, cutting, typing, virtually pritt-sticking a picture or three. In another, more meaningful one, it is daunting. Add to the official repository of knowledge. On a Wednesday morning. Before your first coffee. That’s me conceptualizing Wikipedia as carved stone, when in fact it’s malleable putty. These things matter to me however. I know they matter to others.

I deleted all reference to his alcoholism. Tidied up some of the existing text. Inserted a publishing history which I feel is a vital resource. I didn’t add an essay I prepared the night before. I include here screenshots of the Wiki page prior to my intervention. Sands of cyberspace now blown to the Wiki winds. At time of publishing no further editor has shaped the putty.

I’ve been reading The Song of the Earth, by Jonathan Bate recently. It’s a very fine book. As you’d expect. Oxford. Harvard. Yale. His writing style is replete with the ego of the academic. The ego required to set forth, to criticize, to create out of others’ work something new, fresh, illuminating. I have that ego too. When the wind blows just so. Not on that morning. Not in that context, the communal creation of content. Or this context perhaps. I gained that self-knowledge from that morning if nothing else.

I envy those of my classmates who seem to be able to produce content in a live setting: live-tweeting, live-blogging. In conceptualising my own academic writing as more solitary and ruminative, am I merely making excuses for skills I lack? A more pessimistic analysis to counter my declaration of a Bate-like ego just now. Avowal and accusation.

This story is old but it goes on…

Interview with Des Healy

I travelled to Charleville, North Cork, last Tuesday (February 9th) to speak with Des Healy, lifelong friend of Michael Hartnett.  Des worked with my father for many years, being Principal in St. Ita’s Secondary School Newcastle West, where my father taught English. I’ve no doubt that that was the main reason he agreed to speak with me. No matter. I was eager to meet with him and get a first hand impression of Hartnett. It was a bright Spring day. The road was wet. I recall a constant rainbow and a glare.

A chance to listen to Pat Kenny on the radio, a chance I seldom get nowadays. A SIPTU official. How to interview someone. Apologies for cutting across you but my researcher just passed me a canny fact which simply must be heard…

It’s Spenser and Bowen country passed Mallow, before Buttevant. You don’t get that impression from the road. Spenser and Bowen wrote about fields and rivers far off from the M20 roadside. The road itself is completely arbitrary and meaningless. I was nervous. I realised I had known of Des my entire life. An incredibly smart man. Great in his own way, in that small town. He taught himself Russian. He lived in Africa for a number of years. He drank with Kavanagh and Jordan and Liddy. All that lot. And of course he was fast friends with Hartnett. What I knew and what I conjectured into fact tumbled in my head as I waited at the temporary traffic lights in Buttevant. Builders putting down paving. I smoked constantly.

So what do you want to know about Mike?

Gough’s in Charleville is a fine bar. You’ll find old ladies sitting at tables having tea and scones. Tradesmen in high-viz jackets on their lunch break. Neat habitual drinkers fastidious in their movements. An odd business meeting. Sky Sports News on mute on the TV. A good fire. I leafed through Monday’s Echo whilst I waited for Des to arrive. 8 Across, four letters. “Science fiction novel by Frank Herbert”. D.O.O.N. The Co. Limerick town standing in for the alien planet. The odds for a horse Charlie Chawke had running in Thurles that evening had come in from 5’s to odds on. The happy pride in the telling as the barman had him backed that morning. Only a youngster. There was nothing in the Echo. I was a curio with my coffee and coat. I went out the back for another smoke.

And that’s where Des found me.

We found a quite corner inside the door. Not before he got a pint for himself and me a coffee. He knew everyone. Everyone knew him. Over 6′. White hair. Vitality still. Whilst at the bar he explained me to the locals. He’s here to talk to me about a friend of mine who was a poet. This was accepted without remark. I liked him immediately.

After a few icebreakers about my parents’ health, sensing that the well meaning (not that) young man before him clearly had no intention of carrying out anything which could be described as a professional interview, Des took the lead. In fact I think I asked him how he first met Hartnett, to which Des replied something along the lines of, the very first day of Junior infants at National School! We sat together!. Ah I see, I didn’t realize you were childhood friends. Which I didn’t. Preparation is the key to good journalism.

The rivalry between Joe O’Shea and Frank Finucane (uncle of Marian), the boys’ first teachers. O’Shea was something of a poet himself often publishing ballads in the local papers. When asked if anyone could do better, Hartnett said, ‘I could!’, and thus became a pet to one and a child rival to the other. They knew him as a poet in the schoolyard as children. What age? Oh, eleven or twelve. Mike was always a poet. Hartnett writes, in one of his relatively few pieces of journalism, that when he went to the Secondary School, ‘he lost an ally’. No further explanation is offered.  Well, his name was Frank Finucane.

Des’s father was the local postman in Newcastle West at that time. Putting his family a rung above Hartnett’s, whose father was a painter decorator. Whether this was notional or real whose to tell. Hartnett himself details in his poems the mud floored poverty of his upbringing. Des was sent away to boarding school in Kilkenny, and subsequently gained a scholarship to study English in UCD. It would take Hartnett longer to depart. Poetry, and John Jordan, the instruments of his escape. In the meantime. Des’s father was a member of the local Gramophone Society. Mike listened to classical music at our house. His love of classical music started then. He had a great ear. My reading of “Sibelius in Silence” gains a further layer of meaning. Sibelius was quite the tragic figure when it came to the drink too of course.

Stories of a summer in London. Reunited again. Sprees when there was money for pints and fags. A lot of the time there was none. Hartnett worked. Dishwasher. Busboy. Teaboy.  Though he never actually did too much work when he worked! Swinging Sixties? No, it wasn’t like that for us. Though there was craic and good fun as always with Mike. One of their mates Jimmy Musgrave was a nephew of Donal Foley. That’s how the ‘Teaboy of the Western World’ thing happened (Scan9). He got noticed. Paul Durcan wrote a letter to him, by this time back living in Newcastle West. Liddy. Jordan. They helped him a lot. Jordan offered to pay his way in UCD.

They were in Dublin at the same time too. Des sitting in the lecture hall. “Mr Jordan is ill today”. Then walking into McDaid’s to find him deep in conversation with Hartnett. Am I romanticising? Des didn’t tell it that way. A time he met Kavanagh, was abused and ordered to buy liquor. Des didn’t like him. Who would. I piece together what Des is telling me with what has been written of that time. Cronin. Montague. McGahern. His recollections chime with theirs. Des graduated in 1964. To London again. We shared a flat in World’s End, the Fulham End of King’s Road. He had a way with people. I get carried along in the recollection. There are people who inspire deep feeling, who we feel to need to be around, to protect.

Des moved to Africa in ’67. Hartnett married. Found work in the Fairview telephone exchange. Working and family life. He recalls meeting Heaney at a literary event in the ’70’s, the concern Heaney expressed about Hartnett and his drinking. The happy reminiscence changes. Or perhaps that’s my imagining. There’s no escaping the hard facts of Hartnett’s life. Concern. Regret maybe. But for what? That was him. No structure. No rules. He compares him to Sebastian in Brideshead. Sadness in the voice now. He used call me in the middle of the night. At all hours.I’ve an idea about this.” “I’ve a joke I must tell you.” About poetry? Yes, at times. I’d suggest something here or there. A catch in the voice perhaps of my own creation. I miss it.

Did you once see Shelley plain? Hard to fathom the reverence for the poet. It doesn’t come natural to us. Respect. Don’t revere. We’re more than an hour into it now. The pint of beer nearly gone, my coffee long cold. Hearing Des recall driving his friend to dry out, the only person he’d go for, I feel I’ve strayed too far, gained access to the tragedy which all life long friendships must be.  That was the last time I saw him, he died soon after.

I asked him whether he’d be attending the upcoming Hartnett festival. He would be, yes. The conversation decompressed. Back to trivial things, anticipating our parting. We shook hands and I thanked him. He walked back to the bar and the men there. I hope you do him justice now!

More than before, I felt the need to.

Textualities 2016 Mini-Conference – Reflection

I presented at the Textualities ’16 Mini-Conference on Friday, 4th of March last. It’s a Conference run by, and featuring all of the MA students currently studying at the School of English, UCC. I presented on the poet, Michael Hartnett, who I’ll be writing a thesis on this summer. The event was the culmination of the Contemporary Research Skills module which all of us took part in throughout the academic year. The objective of which was to clue us in to the contemporary world of academia, this blog itself is a happy by-product of it. Parallel facets of the digital academic such as live-tweeting (see below, for my own contributions), live-blogging, or Wikipedia editing, were also touched on. The conference was to be where we brought all these together. The prescribed style of presentation at the conference was Pecha-Kucha: the delivery of 20 slides, 20 seconds for each. The conference was a great success.

There’s me looking grumpy, front row, second from the right.

Putting my reflections of the event down on paper here, I find myself both reflecting on the event, as well as the personal reflections I’ve had since. You know… in my mind? I was disappointed with how I presented. My disappointment was compounded to by criticism I received on it, some fair, some unfair (in my view!). I’ve reflected on it quite a lot, giving it more thought than it deserves, most likely. Reading some of the excellently written reflections on the conference by my classmates, (Michelle Murphy’s and Emilio Bon Are’s being two which I enjoyed) I feel a complete dislocation. The uniformly positive response to the event leading from a genuine sense of communal enrichment, is one I don’t share. To explain that dislocation I’ll explain why I was disappointed with my presentation first, tell you what I learned from the other presentations, then detail my reflections of the event as a whole. That will add up to a reflection, won’t it?

I’m too close to Michael Hartnett. I’m conscious of the need to write on him from an academic distance which his poetry deserves. It’s central to my thesis. To detail that I decided to include in the presentation a summary of his life and poems which are particularly important to me. In performing the pratfall of an overly subjective engagement, well I came across as too closely involved. It stank of “Work in Progress”, because that’s what it was. All well and good. Such doesn’t make for polished presentations. I didn’t get across that nuance. Maybe I’m ascribing it nuance status after the fact. I do things like that.

As I’ve outlined elsewhere, I don’t agree with presentations which involve reading from a prepared script. Ideally I like to have as complete a knowledge of my subject area as possible, some staging posts, and an end point marked out, then riff off the top. It’s more immediate. In doing so you invariably come at a new insight which only the pressure of speaking to an audience facilitates. In the days and weeks prior to the presentation I tried to throw my arms around the entirety of Hartnett’s poetry. As well as Translation Theory. Deconstruction. The Public Sphere. My thesis was undoubtedly too broad. In hindsight it was a fool’s errand. It didn’t work. The Pecha-Kucha format doesn’t lend itself to the approach I had taken previously. I didn’t adapt. I presented a partial picture of Hartnett’s poetry and the theory I was using to critique it. With a backdrop of pictures. Which I occasionally resorted to narrating. I’m writing this curled in the foetal position. Yes, I’m a grown man.

I’ve stated elsewhere that when presenting on poets or poetry I think it’s a good idea to read some poems. Sometimes without immediate analysis. Let them speak for themselves, nothing being comparable to the magic of each reader’s reception. I stand by that position. I think. Am I arguing myself into an academic foxhole here? Within the six minute timeframe allocated, this time I didn’t get the balance right. Searching for a way to present a poem in both languages simultaneously, I landed on what I believe is an original technique; holding cards which subtitle the poem being read, (if it’s not original please let me know!). I read one of Hartnett’s better known poems, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’, ‘An Muince Dreoilíní’.  I think the technique is novel, performing the Différance which I believe lies within Hartnett’s bilingual poetry. Its tactility also acted as a counterpoint to the implacability of the Pecha-Kucha format. As overt a criticism as I felt decorum would allow. It was risky. I’m glad I went for it, though I’m uncertain as to its efficacy. Perhaps I’m internalising criticism which it received.

That’s me, front and centre. Bit of a berk.

Focussing on Hartnett’s bilingual poetry, I was constantly conscious of my own limitations of understanding. I don’t speak Irish. I blame others, don’t worry. In short it’s a problem. The Mini-Conference presentation was me butting against that glass ceiling of understanding, a snapshot in time of an approach I understood was inaccessible to my monolingual brain. I was in love with it a little, and like all one sided lovers I blinded myself to the approaching necessary ending. I didn’t tell the audience any of this. I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible.

image (2)
Is it possible to have a “different public sphere”? I blame myself…

A more positive aspect of the conference were the presentations of my classmates. I saw in some, a polish and confidence in presentation style which I’ll never have. The live-blogging, live-tweeting, aspect of the day was a real highlight also. I see I’m lagging behind in that side of academia. It’s easy to dismiss or be sceptical. The ease with which others engage on the spot, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is something I must strive for. I can only envy. I’m very happy for those classmates also who have written of the rush and sense of accomplishment which they experienced at the event. On reflection I see that it’s by over-complicating things that I denied that to myself. Drawing from broader reflection, however I know I won’t change my intention. Nor should.


I just come across an edition of the Guardian’s ‘Poem of the Week’ series which features ‘A Necklace of Wrens’. Carol Rumens makes a good fist at analysing it, though I think there’s more to the poem than she puts forward. For someone who’s about to embark on a thesis on Hartnett it’s heartening to see her hail him as ‘a major and ground-breaking 20th century poet’, and not indulge in the more common “much loved and admired” cliché, which I see in much of the work on Hartnett. Maybe I can put those provisos on ice? In truth, it’s neither here nor there. I’m reminded of Kavanagh’s words from Self Portrait: ‘Nobody is important. Nobody is major. We go to our destiny in the end. I am not in the least bitter over all this. In fact I am always in danger of bursting out laughing.’ The old boy said it right. I must take his words on board when looking at Hartnett. And when reflecting on presentations…