C: Pxhere.com / Suzy Hazelwood

The Woes of a Traditionalist Poet

I was sixteen years old when the troubling of my life began. It was then that the fatal ambition to be a poet seized me.

I blame my father. He recited Shakespeare and Yeats to me when I could barely read. When the urge to compose poetry came upon me, he encouraged me, rather than warning me against the years of frustration that were to follow. I should probably write a “misery porn” memoir taking him to task for all this.

Indeed, this misguided father (who was so benighted as to campaign against Ireland joining the EEC) filled my head with all sorts of extraordinary, archaic notions: patriotism (stirring tales of the 1916 Rising); chivalry; romanticism; even, God help us, a certain deference to the reactionary teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. What chance did I have?

My father was no mean poet himself. Tragically, though, he had never caught the knack of hiding his meaning behind layers of obscurity. Nor had he liberated himself from the constraints of rhyme and metre. To cap all my miseries, this was the sort of poetry I learned to love and write myself; poetry that rhymed, scanned and made sense. I noticed that not much of this was being written any more, and I set out on the journey of life naively thinking that there might be a market for my poetic wares.

And a few early successes encouraged me. I had a poem published in Books Ireland at the age of seventeen, and another a few years later. I won some prizes in local competitions, and on the last day of 1999 I even won ITV Teletext’s Millennium poem competition, judged from Roger McGough, out of hundreds of entries. I hoped this was an omen for the coming century.

How more wrong could I have been? Only a handful of publications even publish poetry, and it soon became obvious to me that free verse monopolised that small amount of space. Free verse: the sort of poetry that, to me, seemed nothing more than prose chopped into random lines. Actually rhyming, scanning and making sense seemed like the royal road to the rejection pile.

But I was young, and full of determination. If traditional verse was out of favour, well then “I’d be the man to lead the van” when it came to a revival. After all, nobody actually wanted to read free verse. Although many people could still recite bits and pieces from Wordsworth, Yeats and Shelley, hardly anybody outside literary cliques could even name a poem written in the last fifty years, never mind quote one. Popular poetry had its last gasp with John Betjeman and Philip Larkin, in the nineteen-eighties; both of them, encouragingly, reactionaries like myself.

So to hell with the literary magazines and the poetry pages. I would submit, submit, submit everywhere I could, heedless of submission guidelines. I would blaze a trail of my own. After all, surely there were enough people who agreed with me that poetry had taken a very wrong turning in the last few generations. I often heard this opinion expressed, even by lefty liberals like Stephen Fry.

But, though many people might have thought this, they didn’t seem keen on doing anything about it. Especially editors. I’ve heard about authors who got enough rejection letters to wallpaper a room. Not me. I rarely got any response at all.

In my late twenties, I gave up the dream of writing poetry, and turned to prose like any sensible person. I started blogging in resistance to Progressive, Liberal Ireland, with my blog Irish Papist. I wrote letters to the newspapers. I wrote articles for Catholic publications, and for general interest magazines. I even had a book on Catholic saints published, which continues to sell a few copies most weeks. I discovered it was a thousand times easier to find a readership for poetry than for prose.

But, as I sailed into my mid-forties, a thought began to nag me. Yes, I was swimming against the current of Progressive, Secular Ireland. And this felt good and what I should be doing. But wasn’t I just swimming with the current when it came to writing prose? Catholicism and conservatism might be counter-cultural in today’s Ireland. But poetry, proper poetry, is far more counter-cultural. Hadn’t I just given up on that ideal?

And yet I couldn’t help thinking that our society had an urgent need for poetry, proper poetry. Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of the Irish nation, once wrote that: “In every properly governed and sensible community the people would spend half their time in making, reading and comprehending poetry.” Half of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation were poets: Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Plunkett. Going back in history, poets such as James Clarence Mangan, Thomas Davis, and of course the great W.B. Yeats had been crucial to the development of Irish national consciousness. And even further back, we had the Gaelic bards or filí, who were the very keepers of our cultural flame.

But today: what? Poetry, outside the literary clique, is in such low esteem that even the Rose of Tralee banned its contestants from reciting poetry for several years. And, sadly, it couldn’t be said that Christians, nationalists and conservatives (for the most part) put any more emphasis on poetry than secular liberals. There is no popular resistance to free verse. That’s why it reigns supreme. Whenever I try to talk about Tennyson or MacNeice or any other poet to my fellow reactionaries, I get blank looks, with very few exceptions.

There was actually a time, not so long ago, when national and provincial newspapers published poetry regularly, as did pretty much every magazine. Not any more. And this is because there is no demand, no audience..

It’s my contention that poetry is, in fact, crucial to a healthy society. If we are to have the sort of Ireland that conservative (and even thoughtful liberals) hope for, we are not going to get there by memes and polemical YouTube videos alone. The battle is a spiritual and cultural one. Poetry is part of that.

Below is one contribution from myself, with some relevant footnotes. You may think it poor. Perhaps it is poor.  But better poets (writing proper poetry) won’t arise unless we foster a culture that encourages it. There will only be a revival of traditional poetry if there are enough people out there reading it and calling for it. It’s worth a little bit of effort.

 

Take me Back Home to Kiltartan

Take me back home to Kiltartan

Take me back through the Celtic Mist;

Let’s slip past the Aosdána warden

And the anti-romanticist.

Let’s hope that the Salley Gardens

Is one place the bulldozers missed.

Take me back, take me back to Kiltartan

Where all our grandparents first kissed.

I’ve heard all the charges against it

Five thousand and seventy times

I’ve watched the postmodernist’s lancet

Dissect its pre-pluralist rhymes

But I think I’m still going to chance it

So sue me for Paddywhack crimes

Take me back, take me back to Kiltartan

In search of more bearable climes.

Oh, take me back home to Kiltartan

Perhaps it was never more real

Than Atlantis or Eden or Arden

But this Ireland is ghostlier still.

I can actually feel my heart harden

As I hear their post-everything spiel.

So take me back home to Kiltartan

Before I forget how to feel.

 

Notes:

  • Kiltartan: a region in Galway which was the home of Lady Gregory, a leading writer of the Irish Revival. “Kiltartan English” was a disparaging description of Lady Gregory’s attempts to reproduce the local speech in her writing.
  • The Celtic Mist: The name of a yacht owned by Charles J. Haughey. But here it’s a reference to the Celtic Twilight, a term used to describe the literature of the Irish Revival. Usually used in a derogatory way these days.
  • Aosdána: a contemporary Irish association of artists.
  • Salley Gardens: From “Down by the Salley Gardens”, a folk-song best remembered for the version written by W.B. Yeats.
  • Paddywhack: “Paddywhackery”, the term used by sullen modernists for any attempt to romanticize the Irish past or traditions.

 


 

Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh has worked as a library assistant in UCD since 2001. He blogs at Irish Papist and has written for various publications, including Ireland’s OwnThe Irish Catholic, Leaven and St. Martin’s Magazine. His book Inspiration from the Saints was published by Angelico Press in 2018.

 

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