Saturday, 3 October 2015
Distressing the bones
Distressing the bones
It has been busy since the last entry. Last night was the reading with Billy Ramsell, Pascale Petit and I. Today it was my workshop in the morning, and, as they say, my pleasant task to introduce the launch of new publications by Breda Wall Ryan, Victoria Kennefick and Maeve O'Sullivan in the afternoon. It all went very well indeed, but me telling you so without you being there is not of much value.
Let me ask myself questions instead. Were Billy and Pascale and Breda and Victoria and Maeve, and the ten poets in my 'masterclass' (essentially a workshop) - including Victoria and Breda - really good? Yes, of course they were. (They really were.) And was the welcome and organisation of Eleanor Hooker (also in the workshop) and all her volunteer team marvellous? Yes, you can bet your life on it. Really. I could give more detail on Billy's energetic, coiled recitation by heart of his strongly lyrical but tough work, or say, as I have done before, that Pascale is a sui generis poet of the magical, animistic and tragic with a brilliant visual imagination, but adverting to this so briefly and lightly will seem somewhat like blowing kisses into the air. Nevertheless, these things are true, so please assume them.
I could say more - and did - about Breda's work where emotional intensity presses through richly detailed lines that lodge in the ear and about her sense of the world as bitter and dark but full of verbal pleasure and close observation. I could tell you that Victoria is an exciting and thoroughly blown-through poet whose work feels fresh on the pulse, but also carries a lightly-registered but deep apprehension of what can lie below. I could perorate on the haiku as a form that has established itself in the English language as a medium of meditation in which perfectly ordinary and apparently incidental things hold still and allow us to look through them as in Maeve's poems. And, there! I have made a gesture towards it and I mean it, and you will see I am registering something that is - at least as far as I can gauge - really does exist.
I hope you will forgive me if I now return to what has concerned me directly, in so far as it was part of my own reception. That takes me back to the reading on Friday.
It was back in the Nenagh Arts Centre theatre and was introduced by the poet Thomas McCarthy who is one of the great men of Irish poetry and literature generally. We each answered a few questions from him before our individual introductions and readings. Thomas is a great poet of great reading, knowledge and understanding, so it very much interested me what he would say about me. It turned out that, in his view, I am primarily a European rather than an English poet. He was very generous, beyond hostly obligation, in his evaluation. I was, naturally, flattered and delighted with the generosity and it gave me to think on the difference between being an English and a European poet.
I think what Thomas meant was that my sensibilities were formed by experiences outside England, which is probably true. Although I have spent close on fifty-nine of my years in the country of my family's refuge and only eight in that of my birth, no doubt the lives and expectations and some of the deepest instincts of my parents were passed on to me: the family house remains the family house even when it is far removed from home, which was probably why that first return visit to Budapest in 1984 made such a huge impression on me.
What were my parents' expectations and instincts? The world had behaved savagely to them: the world might therefore be expected to act savagely again. What precisely was the world? It was the urges, prejudices, passions and furies of those around them; of societies, try how they might, they could not be a full part. It was an unstable world whose grip on order was tenuous. What once seemed to be solid buildings were lying in ruins around them. What were once families were now bloody severed or missing limbs. They felt, if not quite alone, part of an entity they did not fully want to claim. The very language they spoke was spoken against them: it imprisoned and tortured them so when they escaped its clutches they were relieved yet bereft. It was their individual strength that saw them through, not their societal strength, but there were other individuals, some even stronger perhaps, who did not make it. That which offered security was perhaps overvalued if only because its supply was short.
As a child one resists the values of one's parents but one cannot help learning and internalising them so they become the walking spectres of the imagination. The instincts one consciously resists are all the more real for being knowingly resisted.
And is this so with me? I don't know but I do recognise something of the spectral as I describe it above. In describing it I make it real. The time accumulated since then, the good life stored in the bank of security takes precedence, of course. One has a life to live and obligations to the immediate necessities of the world and all one has learned to love in it.
One question that has arisen a few times here at the festival was whether it is possible to write happy poems - poems of, or about, happiness? I think the question first arose out of Billy's work but did so in the course of the book launch. It is a hard task, Billy had said when Thomas asked him about it in public. After the reading, in the pub, we talked about the idea that happiness wrote white, a thought I attributed to Paul Valéry, wrongly, since it was Henry de Montherlant. What if, I suggested, one wrote white on dark paper? What if happiness was to be seized because that which is not seized does not convince us that it is happiness? What if happiness was not something one wrote about - although one might - but what the achievement and shaping of some response to life actually was. The poem then was not about happiness: the fact that such a thing as a poem can exist at all is the happy thing. The awareness of brevity is embedded in the poem about happiness in the same way mortality is embedded in poems about life and vigour.
The very fact that I speculate about such things is, in its way, evidence that what I psychologically inherited from my parents continues on it spectral rounds and produces instincts and values that are the ground out of which poetry might spring.
And perhaps does so. The Europe of Central Europeans, of Central European Jews particularly, of which Thomas spoke, and at more of which he hinted, means something like that. It is a field of expectations and values that point to an unattainable security. It is, necessarily, a spectral place: fugitive ground on which good is something seized and lost. It is a harsh, erratic disciplinarian that can disorder the bones of Paul Celan should it see fit.
But we all know that, don't we? In our different places, at our various points on the map and the clock we recognise it. Some of us will have some more recent historical experience of it. Or if not the experience the memory trace of it.
There is no hierarchy of dread. One does not deserve, or get, medals for one's apprehensions. A Europe of apprehensions seems intensely real to me. Maybe it disorders my own bones in a much smaller way than it did Celan's.
But let me, since I work out of England, in English, be less dramatic about this. Let us agree, not on the grand term 'disorders' but on something more delicately poised, more modest, something more like 'distresses' perhaps. Something there is that distresses the bones. Yes, I think that is probably fair.