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