I don’t believe that poets are necessarily the best judges of their own work. Perhaps the combination of having a practical knowledge of the poems’ compositional process and being, at the same time, emotionally invested in that process diminishes their ability to see the poetry whole – in all its breadth and pattern, its complexity and obviousness. My feeling is that poets can’t help but view what they’ve created in close-up, through the (often nostalgic, sometimes self-aggrandizing) lens of their own creative ambitions and projections: whatever strength of inner vision gave rise to the writing persists after its completion, fogging up the glass.
Nevertheless, like most people with poetical notions, I often find myself attempting to assess my past work, and reflecting on my somewhat fitful relationship with the craft. Having written, the logic goes, there’s surely no harm in speculating as to the how and why.
This happened to me recently, when after receiving a hard copy of my second collection, Phantom Gang, I sat down and re-read the manuscript, now metamorphosed into a book. On re-visiting, I wondered whether some of the poems should have been included in the final draft, and also noticed a number of phrases and inflections elsewhere that seemed clunky and in need of editorial attention: an impulse I resisted. In general, I try not to succumb to that traditional neurosis of the litterateur, which holds authorial revision, or perennial workshopping, as a sacred rite. Many acclaimed poets, I know, have been chronic re-writers of their own work (among those I’ve been reading lately, Marianne Moore and Derek Mahon come to mind). And there are some, no doubt, whose poetry ultimately has benefitted from such fixation and control. But for myself, once the initial fever of creativity has lifted, I tend to let the poems rest more or less as they landed – not because I think them flawless, but in the hope, usually, that I will be able to move on to new work.
This being said, I recognise that time can be a clarifier. At a distance of four years, for example, I now think of my first collection, The Buried Breath, as a kind of cluttered excavation, yielding an array of eclectic materials – from love-lorn postcards to declarations of political faith – scattered fragments from my life up to that point.
Phantom Gang, for all its continuity of concern and perspective with the preceding volume (I am, after all, the same person I was before), seems to me more like a dream-journey, or the poetic equivalent of a rain-cycle: falling to ground (in the opening poem, “Ros Inbhir”), then coursing over long terrains of memory and “History”, before moving across a degraded, embattled world (in pieces like “The Raid” and “The Lack of What Is Found There”), to finish in the ocean (“Bishop’s Pool”) and the open air (“The Clearing”). The individual poems – many of them exceeding the standard, prescribed length of 40 lines or less – spill into one another, verbally and thematically. I’d like to think that together they can be understood less as a collection of poetic trinkets than as a series of mutually enfolded sequences, interweaving past and present, journalism and myth, memories real and (re-)imagined.
One resemblance that does exist between the two books is their political consciousness and anger: their shared sense of belonging, as texts, to a world made up of more than linguistic categories, and extending (I hope) beyond the bounds of my own purely private experiences as a writer. I want my work to partake of the world, and to acknowledge at least some of its complexities; without it, after all, where would we be?
None of which, to me, seems especially subversive – although I’m sometimes told that I’m a political writer. An acquaintance once went as far as describing me as a “Marxist poet”. This warmed my spirits, although, in truth, I’m not entirely clear as to what a Marxist poetry is, or might look like. Like a barricade, perhaps? Or a withering state? Like Das Kapital, or The Civil War in France? Any one of these manifestations would disrupt and unsettle prevailing notions of what poetry is allowed to be, and how poets are expected to behave... would be a delicious provocation, in short – and so, I think, the moniker may be taken as a compliment. But I’m still not convinced that I meet the necessary criteria.
I should say that my reservations about being called a “Marxist poet” have little to do with Marx himself, whose life and thought I hold in high esteem. Adrienne Rich viewed him as “a great geographer of the human condition”, and I agree with her. “What kept me going”, she said, recalling her experience of reading his work in the 1980s,
[was] a sense of recognition: how profit-driven economic relations filter into zones of thought and feeling. Marx’s depiction of early nineteenth-century capitalism and its dehumanizing effect on the social landscape rang truer than ever at the century’s end.
Along with that flare of recognition came profound respect and empathy for Marx’s restless vision of human capacities and the nature of their frustration. I found no blueprint for a future utopia, but a skilled diagnosis of skewed and disfigured human relationships. I found a Marx who would have been revolted by the expropriation of his ideas in the name of tyranny, by the expropriation of his name: ‘I am not a Marxist,’ he said.
Rich’s reading is characteristically expansive, and yet honed to the grain of Marx’s work and world-view. He emerges in her portrait, not as the power-hungry dogmatist of conservative caricature, but as a living radical, thoughtful and discerning, determined to redress the exploitations of his time.
I also believe Rich herself could be described in similar terms. And yet, somehow the idea of announcing myself as Ireland’s Richist poet (aside from the enjoyable pun) seems a bit much. Along with Marx himself, I’m inclined to hold that ‘I am not’, strictly speaking, ‘a Marxist’.
As I read through my poems, they seem more the work of a moralist than a Marxist. Even when they set out to register the conflicts of social life and contemporary history, they do so in a way that foregrounds the complicity of me the author, and of their own imaginative fabric, in the violence recognised or the condition diagnosed. This, perhaps, is where their force comes from. But it’s also a limitation. There can be a grandiosity, and a subtle self-regard, to the (self-)condemnations of the flagellist, which become after a while, predictable. And once poetry loses its surprise, its pungency and startle, what remains? Noise and line-breaks: a reverential pastiche. (A poem, I firmly believe, should always be more than the sum of its line-breaks.)
At the end of the day, and although I’m often dubious about the bard’s (self-serving) penchant for literary prescription, I might just agree with Seamus Heaney, who insisted on the self-delighting quality of poetic creation. For all that poetry reflects or reveals of its author, or its time, it must also be possessed of wildness if it means to breathe in the world. A poem, a book, a sheaf of scattered pages, needs always to have its own particulate mystery, eluding our schemes and conscious intentions – or it is nothing. Whether or not the final product passes that test, when writing Phantom Gang I understood its essential soundness.