W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

What matter if I live it all once more?

Endure that toil of growing up;

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress

Of boyhood changing into man;

The unfinished man and his pain

Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

Changing my mind about Fothermather

 

In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”.  Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content.  At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:

What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.[1]

 

For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content.  However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.

 

This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written.  I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules.  The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’,[2] I thought it ingenious and intriguing.  Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.

 

While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of  warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.

 

Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.

 

I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019)  It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it.  When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental[3]. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.

My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.

 

McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet.[4] In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems.  The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.

The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece.  Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old.  The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:

 

I                       a                                                                                  father

need

 

da

da

 

 

Sigmund Freud

 

The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental.[5] The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs.  The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.

 

The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.

 

The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)

 

[1] https://jacket2.org/commentary/robert-creeley-conversation-leonard-schwartz

[2] The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012

[3] Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.

[4] Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.

[5] The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.

Does it matter if you don’t understand Medbh McGuckian?

Unknown

Who knew? Marine Cloud Brightening, the title of Medbh McGuckian’s most recent collection is actually a thing, the name for an experimental programme that would seek to make clouds brighter by reflecting some of the sunlight they absorb back into space and so reducing global warming, or at least that is my lay person’s understanding of it. The discovery that this phrase has such a clear reference clashes with the cover of the collection which presents a painting of cloud, sky and land in a seascape which looks both generically Irish and tonally emotive but vague.

 

I have been trying once again to get on terms with this poet, both through her new Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon, (Wake Forest University Press, 2015) and Marine Cloud Brightening, (Gallery Press, 2019). McGuckian’s work resists interpretation but her poems have a weight and a rightness which refute hostile assertions that they are beautiful nonsense, apolitical, too political, plagiarising, restrictively female and hermetically private. Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to seek for a singular valid reading for any of her poems and the attempt to achieve this is misguided though always tempting in the way that we are always tempted to construct meaning for a Rorschach blot.

 

Like McGuckian, I grew up in Belfast although she is slightly younger than me. For me, as for her, the special place has always been Ballycastle. Our experiences have been totally different, not least because I am a Protestant and she is a Catholic and because she stayed in Northern Ireland and I have lived most of my adult life in England. Nevertheless, there is that uncanny and symbolic awareness of two titles to the same place which means that sometimes her words crawl around the inside of my skin. In the title poem of her collection, Marconi’s Cottage, I recognise lines and phrases from my own memories of many visits to Marconi’s cottage, the place where the coast road stops on the way to Fairhead. When she describes it as ‘Small and watchful as a lighthouse’ and as ‘Bitten and fostered by the sea/and by the British spring’ she is speaking my memories and my conflicts. I do not know whether she is writing about a house or a person or even a plant; in the last stanza the object of address has acquired leaves. Nevertheless, I read this as a love poem which refracts my own love for the same place.

 

Herein lies the danger or the opportunity of poetry so wilfully obscure. Readers are forced either into a process of pedantic search for sources or to impose their own reading of the texts in front of them. Some critics have gone down the route of an exhaustive exploration of sources. Others have defied the writer by hunting for a definitive singular reading. An interesting exploration of both these strategies was adopted by Kenneth Keating in his article: ‘Medbh McGuckian’s source texts and the challenge to authorial identity in “The Good Wife Taught her Daughter”’[1]. Keating turns to Jacques Derrida for his underpinning rationale:

According to Derrida’s différance, as a signifier no word has an ideal             relationship to the signified, all words, through their positioning within a chain    of signifiers which find meaning in opposition to one another, inherently       represent an absence of that which is signified. All terms, as Derrida declares,           are dependent upon one another for their meaning, reliant on the chain in its entirety to gain understanding, and yet this chain is infinite and in constant           flux, therefore a complete understanding is impossible. External to the chain,             outside of this process of differentiation, the signifier is meaningless. As a        result of this, there is no single pure meaning of a word, and it is this             impossibility to find such a meaning which thus applies to all linguistic acts,         of which McGuckian’s poetry is one. Différance refers, therefore, to the        difference which is held within a single term and the multiplicity of meaning            which composes all linguistic acts. McGuckian’s uniquely opaque and          challenging poetry encapsulates this différance as it continuously interrupts            itself and prevents a reductive, singular coherent interpretation. Multiple        interpretations are to be found within a single text just as within that text multiple meanings of a single word or phrase are to be found. As Derrida’s   deconstruction works within Western metaphysics in order to undermine it            and render a single transcendental truth possible, McGuckian works within   poetic language and symbolism to undermine it and render a single absolute          interpretation impossible.[2]

 

Although McGuckian’s own comments on her work are almost as impenetrable as the poems, she might seem to be signaling an acceptance of this approach through gestures like the title of her most recent Selected Poems, The Unfixed Horizon.

 

Keating goes on to provide two readings of ‘The Goodwife Taught Her Daughter’ which, on the face of it, is a relatively unpuzzling poem:

 

The Good Wife Taught Her Daughter

 

Lordship is the same activity

Whether performed by lord or lady.

Or a lord who happens to be a lady,

All the source and all the faults.

 

A woman steadfast in looking is a callot,

And any woman in the wrong place

Or outside of her proper location

Is, by definition, a foolish woman.

 

The harlot is talkative and wandering

By the way, not bearing to be quiet,

Not able to abide still at home,

Now abroad, now in the streets,

 

Now lying in wait near the corners,

Her hair straying out of its wimple.

The collar of her shift and robe

Pressed one upon the other.

 

She goes to the green to see to her geese,

And trips to wrestling matches and taverns.

The said Margery left her home

In the parish of Bishopshill,

 

And went to a house, the which

The witness does not remember,

And stayed there from noon

Of that day until the darkness of night.

 

But a whip made of raw hippopotamus

Hide, trimmed like a corkscrew,

And anon the creature was stabled

In her wits as well as ever she was biforn,

 

And prayed her husband as so soon

As he came to her that she might have

The keys to her buttery

To take her meat and drink.

 

He should never have my good will

For to make my sister for to sell

Candle and mustard in Framlyngham,

Or fill her shopping list with crossbows,

 

Almonds, sugar and cloth.

The captainess, the vowess,

Must use herself to work readily

As other gentilwomen doon,

 

In the innermost part of her house,

In a great chamber far from the road.

So love your windows as little as you can,

For we be, either of us, weary of other.[3]

 

McGuckian clearly signals her use of other source texts by her retention of middle or early modern English usages, so the charge of plagiarism does not arise. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how far the extracts from the source texts have directed the poem and how far authorial choice has been exercised in selecting and collaging them in the new work.

 

In Keating’s first interpretation of the poem, he embarks on an erotic reading which, in my view, stretches the text to breaking point, as when he suggests that the word ‘talkative’ implies open lips, therefore vagina and that ‘be quiet’ is an allusion to the female orgasm. In the second reading, he provides an interesting number of sources, but in neither reading does he offer any sort of certainty. This is totally in keeping with the thesis of his article that McGuckian’s poetry resists determined or singular readings. Keating provides a convincing argument against dismissive and reductive approaches to the poet’s work, but his own readings are so personal, so tentative and so hedged with qualifiers like ‘somewhat’ and ‘almost’ as to undermine the validity of his effort, even though that , to some extent, is the point.

 

Much has been written about McGuckian’s use of intertextuality, as well as her reading and working practices. I have read that she notes down phrases from her reading and crosses them off as she employs them in her poems. I don’t know if this is true and, in any case, I doubt if she is systematic in her selection of sources. I suspect, like many poets, she absorbs what is to hand during the process of gestating a particular poem, in a process like that described by T.S.Eliot in his essay on the metaphysical poets:

When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly                    amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is                   chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and      these two experiences   have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of              the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences              are always forming new wholes.[4]

 

Eliot’s description is perhaps too mechanical and objective in that it plays down the process of interaction and change by suggesting that the poet’s mind is a vessel within which these activities take place with the outcome of ‘wholes’ which are discrete in the world. It might be better to think of the poet’s mind as an organ interacting with the external world so that both it and externality are changed through poems which are never fully detached. This is not to say McGuckian’s poems are unfinished; on the contrary, her endings, although often unfathomable, are nearly always totally convincing. It is more that every poem is a process which may end in a very different place from where it started. One example is the poem quoted above. Another, more recent, is ‘A Handstitched Balloon’ , which concludes with two mystifying but intuitively right lines:

 

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.[5]

 

Although the quest for a theoretical underpinning to justify or explain McGuckian’s project can be helpful or even reassuring, for me it is more interesting to explore what is happening in the poems themselves, to use the procedures of close reading, not to offer an interpretation which proposes a single meaning, but to clarify the procedures by which the poems come into being and link those to what they may mean or say to the reader and also, perhaps to explore what is being withheld.

 

The idea of hand-stitching a balloon is counter-intuitive but suggests love and intimacy; perhaps a gift for the dedicatee: ‘for Michael, in Ward One South’. As the poem appeared in a tribute volume to Michael Longley published in 2009 (Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy edited by Robert Robinson) we may assume that the poem is written for Michael Longley. The connection of the title to the body of the poem is unclear, but it may be picked up in the image of the moon which opens the poem: ‘Arils of peace-engorged late moon freezing/on the water,’. An aril is a biological term referring to an extra seed casing as with a pomegranate, a lychee or a yew seed. Arils tend to be red and this together with the adjective ‘engorged’ suggests that the moon is red, thus perhaps like a balloon. (Something which is red and engorged clearly has sexual connotations but I can’t do anything with this, so I have chosen to park it.) Moons are seen as red during a lunar eclipse, a relatively common occurrence; ‘peace-engorged’ could also be one of McGuckian’s oblique political references to a Northern Ireland post Good Friday agreement. The sense of late time is reinforced by the repetition of ‘late’ in the first two lines, ‘late moon’, ‘late dawn’. Of course, ‘late’ also connotes death. The opening of the poem also traces the passage from night into day which may make us think of a bedside vigil or may lead us to the idea of star-watching or astronomy which is associated with the ‘he’ who we take to be the focus of the poem.

 

At this point, I was seized by anxiety and the need to connect Michael Longley with astronomy and/or trees; the urge to discover sources and find external points of reference is, I think, mistaken. My reading of the poem needs to be made from where I am, not based on an attempt to worm myself inside the poet’s head. We know that McGuckian’s work responds to and interacts with other Irish poets, especially those from the North. Keating demonstrates convincingly that ‘The Goodwife Taught her Daughter’ is, in part, a response to Seamus Heaney’s poem, ‘Field of Vision’. Different readers with different degrees of proximity to the poet and her personal world will be able to take different things from the poems. Nevertheless, I have to trust the poems and myself, rather than engaging in constant research for fear of being told I am ‘wrong’. So I resolutely decided to stop worrying about the identity of ‘he’ or even whether it was the same ‘he’ throughout the poem. I also have to consider who ‘we’ are and whether this too is consistent as well as to explore the relationship between the ‘he’ and ‘we’ which only comes into play in the second part of the poem.

 

The first stanza creates a sense of tranquillity and age which is only slightly undermined by the jarring notes of ‘peace-engorged’ and ‘freezing’. I have a notion that this stanza might be connected to Longley, one of the ‘the veteran old trees’ with an ‘orchard practice’ and recognised as a ‘high, honest capturer’. If so, there are reservations, only hinted at in ‘the closed canopy/they made out of larch trees.’ The second stanza blows away any feeling of peace , with the arrival of a big wind which changes everything; the ‘north-south zigzag’, takes on a political dimension, the moon shifts and the earth changes shape like a balloon, or ‘like a lemon. There is menace in the ‘heavier’ sounds of the taller trees and ‘The cider trees in the lee/of the hill show a thin branch of appleness/over the lane…’ It is impossible to tell whether we should be pleased or anxious about the presence of ‘appleness’. I wondered if the apples were green and if they could be related to the ‘snake of orange motion’ in ‘Smoke’, one of McGuckian’s earliest poems. If so, this would increase the political impact of the poem, but there is not enough there to confirm this suggestion.This second stanza ends with an ellipsis while the third moves from present to past tense: ‘Countless journeys have made that path’. We may choose to identify ‘that path’ with ‘the lane’ of the previous stanza although the use of ‘that’ distances it. The alliteration ‘flow and flutter of limbs on a flowered/floor covering’ seems to intensify the lightness of passage which nevertheless has been sufficient to create a lane; we may think that the floor covering, which is terminology more fitting to indoors, is created by the fall of apple blossom. The humanity, almost the domesticity of the first three lines, is set against the reference to the wind and the sea at the end of the stanza which is described as ‘begrudging/in its beauty’. At one level, this works perfectly as an evocation of place; at another, it juxtaposes the human and the power of nature, or possibly even the femininity of ‘flowered’ and ‘flutter’ with the masculinity of the sea and the wind which has already disrupted the orchard world of the first part of the poem. In that case, reading retrospectively, the ‘thin branch of appleness’ would also be under threat, its vulnerability emphasised by ‘thin’. Against this reading is the fact that for McGuckian the sea is often a female presence. Perhaps the stanza is proposing two possibly antagonistic forms of femininity.

 

The fourth stanza moves further back into the past perfect tense and introduce a ‘he’ whose actions must be viewed ambivalently: ‘He had wanted to cut down all the trees’. His motives are ambitious and wide-ranging as he wanted to ‘collect stars from all over space’. When we are told that ‘he’ wants to be attuned to ‘the dark crater thirty miles wide/on Venus’ we have to infer a sexual meaning, particularly in the light of McGuckian’s earlier book and eponymous poem, Venus and the Rain. ‘He’ is dominant and overreaching; his attempts at charting the stars go wrong and the strategy of trying to control the whole of the night sky from three adjoining houses is apparently unsuccessful. It would be possible to impose a rather clunky political, post-colonial reading on these lines but I am hesitant to take such a route. The stanza ends in a colon which opens out into two similes or analogies, which are very hard to understand but which return to the imagery of the opening, to the pronoun ‘we’ and to the present tense:

as each grave seems to have its companion tree,

when we consider a field,

as a stove can be disguised as a statue of love

and, in place of her breasts, two flowers.

 

 

In the first stanza, the ‘companion trees’ were paired with ‘worker trees’; here, they are found with graves and the orchard seems to have become a field which is a graveyard. Both of these are enclosed places, possibly symbols of the female, but in the first instance the space is fruitful, in the second, it harbours death. So, finally, we come to the last two lines. How can a stove be disguised as a statue of love? My first thought was of the Willendorf Venus, a dumpy figure which, if enlarged, might bear a passing resemblance to a wood-burning stove. This may be excessively unlikely, but we need to examine the idea of a disguised stove. A stove is something which has fire inside it and which burns; in that sense it could be a statue or representation of love, but it is also an image of consumption and destruction. Why, though, are flowers substituted for the statue’s breasts? The Willendorf Venus is very well-endowed with breasts and to substitute flowers would be to prettify the image but to deprive it of its power. I have travelled a long way through my reading of this poem and have ended up somewhere quite different from my starting place. The more I reflect on it, the more words and images reverberate with different connotations, often conflicting. ‘Arils’ sounds like and can relate to apples, which also encase seeds, as, I suppose, do testicles. The ‘loose bellying’ of the wind which ‘rends and peels back the air’ could be an image of parturition rather than partition. The poem may say something about or to the Michael of the dedication, who may or may not be Michael Longley. It may comment on Irish politics and British colonialism, it may reflect conflicts over gender and sexuality, but it is not prepared to tell me explicitly about any of these things because it is written in code.

stove          Willendorf Venus

By code, I don’t mean that there is somewhere a cypher which we could discover and use to interpret the work. It is rather that she chooses to withhold from us as much as she reveals.  There are political and personal reasons for this practice. McGuckian lives in the province of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, a motto which has become the only sustainable way of engaging in a society so divided. To announce your political views in such a context can not only be awkward but actually dangerous. At the personal level, McGuckian is writing about the most personal traumas of gender and sexuality, parenthood, family and friendship. Moreover, she is not just writing, she is exploring, trying to make sense of experience, a process which can never be final. I think it would be literally impossible for her to say what she wants except through the medium of slippery words and shifting symbols. There is a path through each poem which she has taken although as I suggested earlier the course of the poem is probably influenced by the components included in it. We cannot be privy to the decisions over direction which she has taken and we must refrain from readings which reduce the poems to torn vulvas and orgasms. The words and images she selects, so often natural or domestic, are also the poem and the poem’s meaning.

So, while McGuckian may have had a meaning or thought process on which a poem is threaded, the meaning we receive is the whole of the poem as it is put into the world. It is difficult to accept that our grasp or understanding of that poem may always be limited, just as, perhaps our grasp or understanding of any other person will be limited no matter how much we care for them.

 

I am baffled and excited by McGuckian’s poetry. Some of the poems in the second section of her book which is dedicated to the memory of Seamus Heaney, I find almost unbearably moving without really knowing why. However, I have reservations about this hermetic approach to writing as I have always felt that the poet’s job is to communicate and reveal through language rather than to conceal. I feel that the poet uses their own experience, no matter how indirectly, to produce poems readers will recognise as having meaning for them. I don’t think this is always true for McGuckian, although I believe her poems have meaning, however unfixed that meaning may be. Her poetry is unique and I think it should remain so. The danger of a poetry so private is that it invites self-indulgence on a massive scale. The power and the pain in McGuckian’s poetry show us that this is not a trap she has fallen into but she would be a very dangerous act to follow.

 

 

 

[1] Irish Studies Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2015

[2] Keating, op.cit.

[3] The Currach Requires No Harbours, Gallery Press, 2006

[4] T. S. Eliot, review of Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler. Selected and edited, with an Essay, by Herbert J. C. Grierson (Oxford: Clarendon Press. London; Milford) in the Times Literary Supplement, October 1921.

[5] Marine Cloud Brightening, pp. 27-28.