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
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.

6a00d8341c630a53ef010534fc8310970b-800wi
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.

 

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.

untitled1
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.

CctgB2LXEAE4kAO
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…

Spender > O’Grady. And Why.

Desmond O'Grady

I read a poem by Desmond O’Grady in September. I reacted against it then. And feel the same now. It’s called ‘Purpose’. Have a read of it.

 


I looked at my days and saw that,

with the first affirmation of summer,

I must leave all I knew: the house,

the familiarity of family,

companions and memories of childhood;

a future cut out like a tailored suit,

a settled life among school friends.

I looked face to face at my future:

I saw voyages to distant places,

saw the daily scuffle for survival

in foreign towns with foreign tongues

and small rented rooms on companionless

nights with sometimes the solace

of a gentle, anonymous arm on the pillow.


I looked at the faces about me

and saw my days’ end as a returned ship,

its witness singing in the rigging.


I saw my life and walked out to it

as a seaman walks out alone at night from

his house down to the port with his bundled

belongings, and sails into the dark.

On reading it I wrote this:

“O’Grady is an interesting figure in Irish poetry. Any Irish poet who features in La Dolce Vita will automatically qualify as interesting! That clip is emblematic perhaps of the extra textual allure of O’Grady: his relationship with Pound, the life he led after he ‘saw [ …] life and walked out to it’. I’m not sure this position of interest is justified in his poetry. Taking “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 the same peevishness I feel when reading Hemingway now, resenting his lack of truthfulness; there being no room for doubt, existential anxiety, introspection.”

Reading that now, I can’t help but wonder if I let my own insecurities colour my analysis. My envy at O’Grady’s journey into an uncertain future. My own journey, of course, having only taken me so far as the sheltered waters of UCC bay. We all bring our own prejudices when we read a poem though don’t we? Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics have been instructive for me in my reading recently. Much of what he describes I’ve intuitively felt to be true. In so far as any theory can be “true” of course. Or should aspire to be. I think I might be a Gadamer guy. Although to be frank, I’m unsure as to what that might mean. Who’s a pariah. Who’s a prophet. Who’s to know. Further reading required. Anyway, I can stand to be wrong, when there’s no such thing.

After damning O’Grady, I then went on to praise Spender:

“Another poem, which I read recently, which may be read as a companion piece to “Purpose”, and one which I view in a more favorable light, showing the qualities for which I criticize O’Grady, is “The Uncreating Chaos” by Stephen Spender. We all bring our own prejudices to our reading, where we are at that particular time in our lives, or days, or afternoons, and this is probably an example of that. Spender’s sensibility is more in tune with the academic life I lead perhaps, perhaps just simply the life I lead. That is my prejudice. You, of course, have yours. A poet who exposes himself unflinchingly will necessarily speak to us, above one who postures or fakes however. Can that be established as a truism? Spender’s poem is a cutting critique of posture, fakery, heroics. And though aimed at himself, can be viewed as a critique of all that which we see in “Purpose”.

Before I include the verse which best outlines this, a point of interest which adds a further nuance to the subject of truthfulness in poetry. The final line of the fourth stanza was revised by Spender in subsequent editions of this poem. The line, ‘I shall always have a boy, an affair, or a revolution.’ being amended to read, ‘I shall always have a fare, an affair, or a revolution.’ That the self censorship occurred that way and not the other, the initial utterance being one of seering self disclosure, must be read in Spender’s favour. The linking of the word ‘boy’, with ‘bride’, in the original version is a startling feature of the poem, which is lost in the alternative. That the censorship had to take place at all is perhaps more an indictment of the society Spender wrote in, rather than of Spender himself. I include just the first section here, have a read of it for yourselves:

To the meeting despair of eyes in the street, offer

Your eyes on plates and your liver on skewers of pity.

When the Jericho sky is heaped with clouds which the sun

Trumpets above, respond to Apocalypse

With a headache. In spirit follow

The young men to war, up Everest. Be shot.


For the uncreating chaos

Claims you in marriage: though a man, you were ever

                                                                                    a bride.

Ever among the supple surface of summer-brown muscle

The fountaining evening chatter under the stars,

The student who chucks back his forelock in front of a glass,

You only longed for your longing to last.


The engine in you, anxiety,

Is a grave lecher, a globe-trotter, one

With moods of straw, the winds that blow him, aeroplanes.

‘Whatever happens, I shall never be alone,

I shall always have a boy, an affair, or a revolution.'”


The intervening weeks haven’t altered my reading of Spender’s poem. I still love it. It’s ironic, self-accusatory, replete with self doubt. All that O’Grady’s rhetoric isn’t.  I hint at the issue of reader’s prejudice, something which I’ve since identified in Gadamer, as I’ve addressed. If a theory just confirms what I feel to already know to be true however, can this be said to be a meaningful engagement with that theory?  Perhaps they’re not made to be agreed with. Or disagreed with… Theory, Theory, Theory. Theory.

Also, I’ve since watched La Dolce Vita in full. The central motif of the alienation of modern man, the uselessness of art, song, poetics, is realized almost perfectly. The episode with Marcelo’s father, Steiner’s infanticide/suicide, the final scene on the beach… It’s heartbreaking. And in the middle of it we have two windbag poets, played by O’Grady, and Iris Tree. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and ascribe a self mockery to what may be seen as a lack of self awareness.

stephen-spender
Stephen Spender