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.
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.
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.