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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

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

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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.

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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

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“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.