Friday, June 11, 2010

Art That Changed My Life: (Northern) Irish Literature

As of late, I have taken up with the (mostly Northern) Irish again. This is probably due to the fact that April, as well as being the cruelest, is also National Poetry Month (in this nation at least). So I decided to read solely poetry form April's beginning to end. I will admit that I snuck some prose into the mix, and was busy reading my boss's play, but, for the most part it was poems, poems and, you guessed it, fucking poems. The whole thing started in March, actually, with me reading the big international anthology that I had a small hand in producing. Words Without Borders, bless their hearts, included me in the intro to this collection (quite good, by the way) and, though I never got my promised free copy, I did plow through the thing cover to cover, and was, I felt, better for it. After that mean feat, I decided to dedicate my reading to poetry for the month, maybe more, probably less.

I read some of the usual names (for me), most striking being Ciaran Carson’s Breaking News and Nick Laird’s To a Fault. That got me back on the Northern Irish bandwagon (I’m tempted to use “off the wagon” here as some lame joke at the expense of the drunken Irish stereotype, but I’ll ignore that temptation). It reminded me of the feeling I had at RU when I was first exposed to the likes of Muldoon and Heaney. Yeah, I had read that poem about digging with the pen by Seamus a while back, but that is nothing compared to “Casualty” and “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” Really it was McGuckian’s Selected Poems that woed me and Carson’s Belfast Confetti that sealed the deal.

I’m not sure what it is exactly about the Irish poets, though I do know that I seem to be particularly attracted to the writing of “The Troubles.” I think this coincides with my interest in Cuba and Latin American writing, as well some from Russia, revolving around the subject of political animosity and terrorism, in the broad sense of the term. Would the writer’s work be so captivating were it not for the harsh realities from which they sprung? Can we imagine Reinaldo Arenas without thinking of his sad life of persecution under Castro? Can we truly digest all that Bulgakov has to tell us without contextualizing his work in the Stalinist era Soviet Union? Similarly, without “The Troubles” what would Carson be writing? Well, one can guess it would be something like his last few books, especially the recent two, but I fear that the man will long be associated with the poetry he wrote in the ‘80s. Not that this is a bad thing—his work in The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti is incredible; there’s a richness to these poems and a shocking quality, especially evident in my favorite of his techniques where he uses punctuation as a stand in for violence. The benign representing the horror. Pretty damn brilliant.

Perhaps it is the political strife under even the most apolitical of poems—such as the early work of McGuckian—that attracts me. Or maybe it has to do with something Carlos Fuentes allegedly said, that all the English language needs to keep it interesting is for an Irishman to come along every generation and write something. He was referring, probably, to Joyce, though the same could be said about Muldoon. Aside form the linguistic trickery and erudition (serious and mock), Muldoon manages to play with forms and traditions while whittling them away. Doggerel and lyrical, tight as a drum and rambling like a wayfarer, Muldoon is pretty inventive in his work, though a lot of his poems are confounding as all get. Whereas Heaney is often understated and precise, Muldoon can stretch himself into places where the reader might fear to follow, building and growing and losing some along the way. Often the rewards are many; occasionally not, though I feel his work will age well and definitely bears rereading.

So is it the language or the politics? Both, maybe? Is political strife enough? Is wordplay enough? I’m not a giant fan of language poetry, and I usually like something deeper to be behind such tinkering. Perhaps the combination of these significant elements is what drives my interest, though to simply boil down a huge cultural and literary tradition into two fucking categories is inherently idiotic. Nevertheless, I might argue that these two things went far in sparking my interest which, all these years in, continues to burn. I tend to focus on what I call “The Big 4” of Northern Ireland (Heaney, Muldoon, Carson, McGuckian) often to the exclusion of some other fine writers. Oh, I tried with Joyce, and I might again. And yes, there’s no overstating the contribution of W. B. Yeats. Often looked at for only his plays, the prose of Samuel Beckett is pretty amazing. And then there’s Wilde. What about Brendan Behen? Have you read him yet? Get to it. And J. M. Synge. I’m sure you’re acquainted with G. B. Shaw, right? And then there’s that Roddy Doyle and his Barrytown Trilogy. And then there’s Flan O’Brien. And Patrick McCabe. And look here, it’s Sinead Morrissey and Nick Laird making things more interesting than ever.

Okay then, I’m off. June 16 is coming. Maybe I ought to give old Joyce another try. If not, there’s plenty to read from Dear Old Erin’s Isle.