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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Hemingway, Berryman

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John Berryman, 1914-1972

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

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

“Why?”

“He was in despair.”

“What about?”

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

‘God to him no worse luck send.’

‘Many must have it.’

Many must have it.

Work Cited:

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

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