In September of 1967, I boarded a ship in New York and sailed to Cobh in County Cork. I somehow found my way up to Dublin and eventually to Earlsfort Terrace, where UCD was then, and enrolled in a graduate course. How antiquated and crass this Henry Jamesian adventure would seem a few months later. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April of ’68, Robert Kennedy in June. Both atrocities occurred in the midst of the Vietnam war, perhaps the worst year of it, that of the Tet Offensive. America would suffer the throes of 1968 not just through the rest of the twentieth century but well beyond it, to this day. Little did I realize, as I glided past the Statue of Liberty, that I wouldn’t return to live in America again until nearly two decades later.
The Ireland I settled into, however, was enduring its own seismic Troubles. While the sectarian violence was largely contained within Northern Ireland, the repercussions, especially of massacres like Bloody Sunday in 1972, were felt throughout the island. A cruel irony, however, is that appalling loss birthed a cultural renaissance. For one, Brien Friel and Stephen Rea founded the Field Day Theater Company. And under that imprint a series of pamphlets probing the cultural politics of the day began to roll off the press. When I eventually lectured in Trinity College, I would leap across Nassau Street to purchase the latest word from Derry, according maybe to Seamus Deane or Tom Paulin. We were witnessing a sustained burst of creativity on many fronts. It’s hard to credit that Friel’s Faith Healer premiered in 1979 and Translations followed in 1980. And the torrent of poetry (Heaney, Longley, Mahon, then Carson, McGuckian, Muldoon) that poured out of the North was astonishing. I was intrigued by how this work possessed both the transcendence of poetry and the heft of politics.
As transfixed as I was by this hot-off-the-press literature, I was very aware of being a “blow in,” a foreigner with an inadequate grasp of the history determining contemporary tensions. I discovered this glaring deficiency in my year at UCD, where I struggled to achieve an MA in Irish Studies. When I went on to do my PhD at Trinity, I turned back to the culture I knew intimately, America, even more specifically New England. I did my dissertation on Nathaniel Hawthorne. When, however, I began to teach American Literature, I gravitated towards its poetry, albeit largely the canonic figures I had come to know as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College: Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman to be sure, but particularly certain Modernists like Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. In my early teaching days in TCD, I had a fetish with the lasting influence on this poetry of American Puritanism, particularly an austere use of language called “plain style.” Moore announces this doctrine of no verbal frills in her mordantly titled poem, “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond / all this fiddle.” What compelled me most, however, about these American Modernists was an ontological zeal, a stern determination to remain true to the essence of things, each poem grounded in the finite while flying, some more, some less, towards the infinite. These poets were doing for poetry the redemptive cleansing Puritanism attempted to achieve for religion. It was also fascinating that no one agreed on what that quiddity of existence was. Being a “literalist of the imagination,” Moore would describe poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Metaphor had to be above all truthful, never merely sonorous or, God forbid, fanciful. I heard this same warning in the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams in “Paterson”: “No ideas but in things.” This is a phrase, which like thinking itself, evolves. If you stop at “No ideas,” you register an anti-intellectual stance. Carry on to the next conditional word “but,” however, and you enter the space where ideas can be legitimate, when they are “in” things. Then again, much more overtly Plato than Aristotle, Wallace Stevens, in the poem “It Must be Abstract,” declares: “You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun again with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it.” You are still, however, seeing the stellar sun. The nimbus of “the idea” doesn’t blind you to fact.
For all my attraction to this exactitude, however, my idol was a poet not immune to, indeed wed to, an ecstatic extravagance. Unregenerate, I revered Emily Dickinson, she who had gone to Mt Holyoke, when it was the female seminary founded by Mary Lyon, a scion of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century preacher, who personified the revivalism of the Great Awakening in nearby Northampton. Dickinson, however, had the good sense to leave Mount Holyoke, where she was expected to offer in the mid-19th century a public testimony of her faith. She crossed the Mount Holyoke range in the opposite direction, reentered her imposing homestead in Amherst, and shut her bedroom door. Unlike the Modernists, whom I could, truth to tell, find arid in their punitive insistence on accuracy, Dickinson was both metaphysical and passionate, so passionate about matters of faith that they smacked of the erotic.
When I returned to America in 1986, I enjoyed the good fortune of being also able to settle in Amherst. I eventually secured a position at the University of Massachusetts and purchased a small house not ten minutes away from the Dickinson home. (My cottage is one of a cluster built after the Civil War to house both the freed slaves and Irish emigrants who worked as servants in Amherst.) This location has served me in a variety of ways through the last thirty years, not least during the recent pandemic. I have found myself relying on that American model of self-isolation, my immortal neighbor down the road. So many Dickinson poems have saved me recently from a searing loneliness. Even a poem I’d hardly noticed before has come to the rescue, bestowing a sense of freedom, release. It starts with these opening lines: “A Thought went up my mind today— / That I have had before — / But did not finish—some way back— / I could not fix the Year—”. Nor does the thought complete itself in the poem, thereby giving the reader permission to yield to the random path of true contemplation. If you submit yourself to this interior realm, miracles occur. The outside goes inside: “I never saw a Moor— / I never saw the Sea— / Yet I know how the Heather looks / And what a Billow be.” Furthermore, as the physical becomes more powerful in such trances, the metaphysical reciprocally magnifies: “The Brain— is wider than the Sky—”. As seductive as internalized infinity may be, Dickinson is able to utter a warning we can only wish Trump with his lethal denial of science would have harkened to as Covid roared: “…Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency.”
As the virus, however, consumes more and more lives, I have returned to Whitman with a fresh appreciation, even need. Truth to tell, I used to bridle at the presumption Whitman brandishes in the opening lines to “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The poet’s assertion of the physical oneness of all humanity had always threatened my tenuous self-possession; but at this point in history his words stir sheer terror. For the first time, I am seeing daily the consequences of the physical, human contiguity he asserts, the wages of our connected flesh. And then history in a flash drew another line of relevance under Whitman’s proclamation. While some of us were assiduously quarantining, events in the world beyond forced us to acknowledge not just our oneness with others but the differences history imposes, as distinct from those we choose. In the spring of 2020, the hermeticism imposed by the pandemic was blown apart by a resurgence of racial violence in America. People in lockdown poured into the streets to protest police brutality against black citizens. Dickinson’s exclusivity, alas, does not stand up to this moment in our history. If the brain is wider than the sky, the sky we actually see contracts. Dickinson’s world is white, wealthy, privileged and inviolable. Above all it is dominated by the first person singular, as are most lyric poems.
At this pivotal point, I have found myself turning back to the Irish poetry born of the Troubles. I realize that I’ve reached an age when I have no choice but to let my two cultural homes have a conversation as equals with each other. While not assuming an exact analogy between sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and the recent racial violence in America (colonization and enslavement, while both insults to autonomy, emphatically are not equivalent), I do see ways in which the poetry spawned by the Troubles deployed strategies that can help in conveying the politics of this moment in America. One such strategy is that the self as the speaking center of the poem is often suspended, and multiple points of view appear; or a shift in the time frame of the poem suddenly alters the narrative, creates a plot, as it would in prose, or life. This is also a moment to observe different literary genres, even different art forms, conversing with each other.
Take, for example, Heaney’s “The Other Side.” Heaney’s frugal language perfectly suits this depiction of the terse relationship between a Catholic and Protestant farmer. Gritty words (“tares,” “rut,” “kirk”) are shared by both men. And yet the poem hints at suspicion on either side but also a prickly intimacy. The Catholic speaker is fascinated by the Biblical references the other farmer invokes to denigrate his neighbor’s plot: “It’s poor as Lazarus, that ground.” And yet the Protestant is drawn to the hushed, nightly ritual nearby of the rosary. The poem’s narrator, the son of the Catholic farmer, is a bystander, who floats into and out of opposing perspectives. This fluidity eventually coaxes one side closer to “The Other Side.” In the conclusion, the now grown-up narrator, in a sudden chronological jump, stands outside his old home and just behind the eavesdropping Protestant on the doorstep, a crucial threshold. The Protestant offers these guarded but kindly words to his Catholic neighbors: “I was dandering by / and, says I, I might as well call.” The narrator wonders whether he should “go up and touch his shoulder / And talk about the weather / or the price of grass-seed,” what they have in common.
This gentle conclusion keeps coming back to me lately as I ask if poetry can play a role in healing America’s racial wounds. One American poet, the Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes, keeps coming to mind. One particular poem from 1926 especially beckons. In “The Weary Blues,” Hughes appears to cede the power of his pen to a musician, a Blues singer he’d heard earlier that night in a club. From this point on music sings along with poetry, or rather poetry with music. Hughes, the poet, knows that he has heard in that man’s music both genius and pain, as in these naked lines: “Ain’t got nobody in all this world, / Ain’t got nobody but ma self.” When I read these words, I hear George Floyd, the young black man crying out last spring for his mother as he is dying from a policeman’s choke hold in Minneapolis. Floyd felt he had nobody. Hughes brings the reader close to a man who feels utterly alone, but suddenly, having been recognized, appears less isolated. It’s as though the reader both feels and resists the intrusive urge to touch that man on his shoulder.
And as with Heaney in “The Other Side,” the conclusion of “The Weary Blues” involves a leap in time and space. With Hughes, the move is from the public venue of the club to the privacy of the musician’s bedroom. The poet narrator then creates the illusion of disappearing. The use of “I” to denote the poet’s voice disappears; and the colder “He” to denote the man the poet sees from some elevated, invisible perch, maybe the ceiling, takes over. Just prior to this ending, the singer has closed his long night in the club on a note of despair: “I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.” That relinquishment of the will to live, however, is contained within a song, a live performance. Similarly, the end of the poem, while registering the wages of despair, also reminds us, if only by the full rhyme to come between “bed” and “dead,” that we are living in a poem. Still, that poem remains true to just how weary a human being can be:
The singer stopped playing and went to bed.
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
The tiny word “or” asks what the difference is between a rock and a man that’s dead. The answer is patent. One was a human being. But is our singer alive or dead? Do we go with the heartbeat in “echoed” or the stasis of “slept”? Through this pulsing ambiguity, this lack of finality, the singer continues to live. The finite becomes infinite. This poem will not stop echoing.