Poetry and Power

US President Joe Biden.
US President Joe Biden.

(First published in Poetry Ireland Review: 142)


‘I have been a poet of the oppositional imagination’, said Adrienne Rich in 2000, ‘meaning that I don’t think my only argument is with myself.’ Anyone familiar with the work of the late American writer can affirm the aptness of this self-designation, her poems – with their formal suppleness, their unflagging alertness to the actualities of power and the constricted possibilities of fulfilled selfhood in her society – jolting readers into new states of awareness, both ethical and literary. ‘This eye / is not for weeping’, she declared in ‘From the Prison House’: ‘its intent is clarity / it must forget / nothing’. 


Importantly, for Rich, commitment to an ‘oppositional’ poetics was a highly practical affair. In an essay included in Arts of the Possible, she explained why she refused the Clinton administration’s award of the National Medal for the Arts in 1997. The ‘disparities of wealth and power in America are widening at a devastating rate’, she wrote, arguing that a ‘president cannot meaningfully honour certain token artists while the people at large are so dishonoured.’ Such a stance related not only to questions of citizenship and democracy in her culture, as Rich perceived it, but to a generous and radically non-hierarchical conception of creative labour, grounded in the collective experiences of her time. ‘Like government,’ Rich proposed, ‘art needs the participation of the many in order not to become the property of a powerful and self-interested few.’ 


Read today, Rich’s ars poetica is remarkable not only for its impetus of inspired fellow feeling with the victims of poverty and economic austerity in her country, but for its attitude of almost clinical scepticism towards state power and presidential authority. Certainly in Ireland, it is difficult to imagine many (or any) poets of comparable public stature adopting so openly adversarial a position towards a state patron, whether homegrown or American. If anything, in this country, the endorsement of a U.S. president in particular tends to be accepted as the ultimate confirmation of a poet’s cultural significance. When Bill Clinton described Seamus Heaney as ‘our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives’, the ‘our’ in his pronouncement was not questioned, nor were the politics of his administration examined by Ireland’s public broadcaster, which re-printed the tribute without contextual commentary. 


Some cultural bonds run too deep for scrutiny – and remain as strong as ever. Were we to watch the fund-raising campaign-video for Poetry Ireland’s proposed new arts centre in Dublin, we would find a recording of Joe Biden expressing his enthusiasm for the project, on the basis that ‘there’s nothing that goes to the soul like Irish poetry.’ The accolade of the professional statesman is offered as incontrovertible proof of poetry’s worth. Meanwhile, the issue of how such sentiments might play in Palestine, for instance, is not raised. In the Gaza Strip, there’s nothing that goes to the soul like a Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) guidance system, recently donated to the Israeli military (as part of a larger package of high-grade weaponry) by executive order of the Biden administration. At the time of writing, proceedings have been instituted against Israel concerning alleged violations of the international Genocide Convention; and the message of patron-like encouragement from Joe Biden – Israel’s staunchest ally and self-appointed arms-supplier throughout its series of civilian massacres – remains live on Poetry Ireland’s website. One would be forgiven for concluding that, in these quarters at least, Rich’s call for an ‘oppositional’ code of poetic conduct has passed unheeded. 


In some respects, this is a curious oversight, given the Irish reference, in the form of a playfully provocative revision of W.B. Yeats, that frames Rich’s self-presentation above. ‘Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric’, the laureate famously stated, ‘out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry’: a distinction Rich was energetic, and unapologetic, in seeking to demolish. No doubt an intriguing monograph could be written on Rich’s complex relationship – antagonistic but fruitful – to Ireland’s national bard. When she first began reading him in earnest as an undergraduate, she said, Yeats embodied for her the ‘idea of the Great Poet, the one who more than others could hook syllables together in a way that heated my blood’. Her engagement, however, was critical as well as receptive. ‘I know I learned two things from [Yeats’s] poetry’, she wrote, ‘and those two things were at war with each other’: 


One was that poetry can root itself in politics. Even if it defends privilege, even if it deplores political rebellion and revolution, it can, may have to, account for itself politically, consciously situate itself amid political conditions, without sacrificing intensity of language. The other, that politics leads to ‘bitterness’ and ‘abstractness’ of mind, makes women shrill and hysterical, and is finally a waste of beauty and talent. 


In these reminiscences, Rich was cogently articulating what many readers of Yeats have surely also suspected: that for all his deliciously haughty defence of poetic inwardness – of the writer’s task of forging an achieved lyric ‘I’ out of the tumult of their own multitudinous soul – his work and language drew much of their force from the material happenings of history as a collective endeavour, a site of active human struggle. And yet, as she explained, her desire to extend the Yeatsian legacy of an intellectually engaged poetics was mirrored by an equal and opposing need to recalibrate the terms of that engagement to include her own experiences, and to salvage the art from the encroaching grip of political reaction. 


In A Journey with Two Maps, Eavan Boland spoke of a similar process of literary self-awakening, describing how over the course of her coming-to-consciousness as a poet, she felt impelled to develop a politically combative paradigm of literary imagining. The poetic schemas available to her as an aspiring author, she wrote in ‘A Woman Without a Country’, were only capable of ‘rendering [...] The whole woman as a skeleton’, ‘severing / Her body from its native air’: a process Boland’s own work would attempt both to document and to resist. More broadly, she wrote, when figures such as ‘[T. S.] Eliot accepted the task of making the poet an outcome of civilization rather than a subversive within it’,


the concept of the poet became mixed with ideas of power which had too little to do with art and too much to do with a concept of culture shadowed by empire-building and conservative ideology.’


Boland’s literary practice (and indeed, her feminism) was outward-facing and naturally conversant with a range of liberationist discourses; curiously, she refused to identify herself as a solely ‘feminist writer’. She was, in any case, a thorough-going critic of power: of the manifold ways in which empire and notions of social hierarchy, for example, can preserve and reconstitute themselves over time, in the lives of people and in the shape and directionality of an entire culture. From the beginning, for both poets, the very act of writing was to enter a field of endeavour already rife with subtle pressures and coercions, and moulded by a ‘conservative ideology’ for which received entitlements and exclusions were uncontested and largely incontestable. To exist at all as a poet, non-conformism was not only a virtue, but a first necessity. 


The centrality of this non-conformist impulse to the practice of poetry could undoubtedly be explored and refined further: a good deal further, certainly, than the scope of this essay allows. In the space allotted here, however, my hope is merely to recuperate the concept of ‘the oppositional imagination’ as an alternative sign-post of cultural merit. Put simply, and contrary to prevailing wisdom: a writer at war with the world they inherit (and the literary mores therein) can have a salutary effect, on both literature and the world. Specifically, I’d like to use this idea as a frame for approaching the poetry of Dave Lordan, whom I consider a valuable and original exemplar of the ‘oppositional’ mode today – and whose work, perhaps not coincidentally, has received relatively sparse critical attention in recent years. 


An unrepentant political radical – as Rich also was – Lordan ranks among Ireland’s most uncompromising and rhetorically fervent of literary subversives. His work is marked by demotic glee and a boisterous, sometimes millenarian, commitment to exposing – making strange again – what he sees as the unredressed ferocities of capitalist modernity, particularly as incarnated in the form of the southern Irish State. ‘Let me make this situation clear’, he writes in ‘Reflections on Shannon’: ‘There is a mass murder ongoing in Iraq.’ Questions of violence and complicity – of the possible meaninglessness of the just act and the visionary word – whirl in the hurricane of his witnessing verse: ‘when I close my eyes’, he writes, ‘I am always a sniper sniping / from the window of a burnt out building.’ 


Such qualities have divided critics in the past. In 2007, The Stinging Fly found Lordan ‘exhilarating’ in his ‘exploration’ of personal and social themes, but lamented the creeping-in of ‘more and more argument’ to his poems as they advanced: ‘Poetry should be considered, thoughtful, humble; never cheap’, the review concluded. Of course, Lordan’s poems are impulsive, brazen, and even meretricious: having caught the attention of their audience, they proceed to yodel and roar, pulling quick tricks in the hope of keeping the assembled crowd in place. But the idea that poetry as a rule must avoid ‘argument’, that poets cheapen their craft by engaging in ‘rhetoric’, is fundamentally misleading (and rather didactic), as we’ve seen. Every honest reader knows that too much lyric solipsism becomes abrasive; a lambent mellifluousness may disguise moral vacuity; curated eloquence can represent, on occasion, the conscious evasion of ethical imperatives. The long silence of Ireland’s current Chair of Poetry – an otherwise garrulous figure – regarding America’s sponsorship of ethnic cleansing in Palestine might serve as an interesting discussion-point in this regard. 


By contrast, there are few living nightmares that Lordan has flinched from facing. Resonantly, his poem, ‘Discover Ireland’, is set in a meat factory, where from time to time a cow will disrupt the conveyor-belt rituals of its own slaughter: ‘kicking and bucking’ against the workers on-site, ‘precarious’ men who finish their days ‘covered, head to toe, in hoof-shaped bruises. / Black-and-blue patches, / reminiscent of cowhide.’ The hunched intuition of a degraded world, of scars beyond healing and ruined hopes no longer responsive to traditional powers of salvage and repair, is intrinsic to Lordan’s vision – making him, at heart, not an engagé writer in the conventional sense so much as an apocalyptic artist. ‘I am Salmon / in a poisoned stream’, he declares in the 2021 collection, Medium: ‘Part healed / and part poisoned then, // and part-poisonin’ too.’ 


Lordan is dogged and enraged by the cruelties we no longer notice, even as they surround and underpin our lives; by the forms of malice we might just uncover inside ourselves were we, with fearful honesty, daring enough to look. ‘There’s a woman stumbling in a field / of snow’, he writes in ‘Invitation to a Sacrifice’, a woman hunted by dogs and men, ‘Crying out / Crying out’: 


If you could relieve this woman now,


if you could perforate the veil



stretch a giant hand

and raise her from this picture

would you?


You would?

And then what would you do with her? 


In Lordan’s verse, tranquillity – for many would-be-Wordsworthians, the very precondition of poetic creation – is forever being splintered by whispers from a troubled world, hard with hurt, like ‘midnight wind / or a sack of smashed glass’. ‘Hell has run out of handbaskets’, he grimaces (in ‘21 Proverbs’). 


The reverse, however, is also true. The ghosts of long-gone rebels and utopians can be found roaming through the terrains over which Lordan hungrily scavenges. ‘I believe in them, so they do exist’, he proclaims in ‘The Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains’: 


They might be vagrants who dropped

out of ballads and poems.


They might be rebels

Who outran the redcoats

Until the redcoats dissolved. 


Such lines are Shelleyan in their insistence on power’s impermanence. Just as Ozymandias, the tyrannical ‘King of Kings’, crumbles into dust, his empire giving way before the harsh equality, ‘the lone and level sands’, of the desert where his reign once was absolute, so the ‘redcoats’ – those brutal enforcers of colonial domination – are ‘dissolved’ by the slow tides of history. (It seems apt that Percy Shelley was a zealous believer in the cause of the United Irish ‘rebels’, whose spectral remnants, elusive and indomitable, are conjured in the praise-poem above.) It is ‘just’, Lordan sings, ‘to ascend / With the lost and forgotten // To summits the rooted / Cannot even imagine.’


Yet, in his willing plunge into what Yeats termed ‘the filthy modern tide’, Lordan also bears a resemblance to that bard of the downcast and disregarded, Langston Hughes. ‘Love the first rough throat in the morning. / Love the last sad mutt in the night’, he scrawls in a graffiti-spray of longing, gutsy and truthful, that chimes with Hughes’s earlier urging: ‘Gather up / In the arms of your pity / The sick, the depraved, / The desperate, the tired, / All the scum / Of our weary city.’ The oratorical charge that pulses through Lordan’s lines, the sense, always, of voiced attack that animates his lyricism, are reminiscent, too, of Gil Scott-Heron. Seductive sass and heightened realism are mingled in the work of both. ‘It’s winter in America, / Yes, and all the healers have been killed’, Scott-Heron chants, ‘Democracy is ragtime on the corner, / Hoping for some rain.’ ‘The darkest hour’, Lordan harmonises, ‘is just before the bomb.’ 


It should be reiterated that even as Lordan merits comparison – and, indeed, seems perennially to be joining forces – with the unvanquishable Beats and Bohemians of yesteryear, with barricade-poets of forgotten causes and Miltonic members of the Devil’s party, his work is fixed in a post-Celtic Tiger Irish milieu. In fact, few writers have been so far-seeing in their critiques of neoliberal Ireland, which emerges through Lordan’s lens as a kind of dreamless wasteland. ‘The best way of surviving the recession is coma’, he charges (in ‘Surviving the Recession’): 


You can let the bills stack up in the hallway while you’re in a coma. You won’t be charged for coma services until you wake up. Otherwise, sleep long and hard using the no dreaming technique. 


Likewise in The Word in Flames, Lordan interrogates the ethos of what he terms ‘numbness-to-my-neighbour’, an extreme and stultifying individualism (possibly akin to the ‘paralysis’ James Joyce associated with Edwardian Dublin a century earlier), which he views as endemic in austerity-era Irish society. His diagnosis, as ever, is both polemical and astute, tussling between personal frustration and political challenge: 


… the lack of a popular response to the elite sadism of the austerity era raises the question of the presence or absence of the empathetic feeling. No matter how deep the cut, no matter how grievous the wounds of austerity are to the social body, no matter how much pain the elite inflict on the mass, for their own good, the dominated and abused majority seem so far to be unable or unwilling to offer a serious response, one with any intent or hope of undermining the systemic power dynamics at work. We keep our heads down, getting on with things, hoping to get by [….] We seem to have individually committed ourselves to being socially unconcerned. 


This ‘numbness may not be the opposite of shock’, he then proposes, ‘but a development of it, a deeper symptom of a shock response’ – language that knowingly echoes that of Naomi Klein, whose book, The Shock Doctrine, is still a touchstone of anti-capitalist analysis and organising. ‘Some of the most infamous human rights violations’ of recent history, Klein contends, were ‘committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free-market ‘reforms’, a pattern in force across a range of global contexts, from Pinochet’s Chile to the U.S. in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. 


In Ireland, too, as Lordan’s work reminds us, ‘the implementation of free-market “reforms” ’ following the 2008 financial crash had a long afterlife: in the guise of an alienated citizenry and a depleted public politics. ‘Hope, ya ould mutt, I hear yer in bits’, begins one pungent address: ‘I heard somebody stomped on yer throat an’ all ya can do now is grunt.’ Something between a spew of bedraggled compassion and a vernacular hymn for Dublin’s street-homeless, in its raucous, grieving way the poem, entitled ‘Hope’, extends a seam that burrows below the surface of modern Ireland’s literary landscape: a subterranean channel where destitution finds voice. 


Crucially, whatever bedlam Lordan would have us behold derives from life, and more than that: from our life together, from society. ‘Curled-up like the day / before / he was born’, he writes of a drug addict, hazed out in a hovel: ‘he’s witching / a midnight / out of noon // meltin’ into his mattress / like horse melts / in a spoon.’ Lordan paints pictures that only the broken and deracinated will fathom in their entirety, looking through the tarnished glass his words hold up and finding their own lives mirrored – not without tenderness. This is a quality that also inflected and coloured the poetry of the late Derek Mahon: formally debonair where Lordan is noisy and oratorical, but similarly sceptical in his politics and disposition. As The Telegraph noted in its insightful obituary for the Belfast poet, ‘it is a hallmark of Mahon’s work that he could empathise with the rootless [and] dispossessed’, whose suffering and endurance took on symbolic resonance during ‘his own wanderings’. Quoting the Italian radical Pasolini, Mahon could assert that it was ‘in the refuse of the world’ that ‘a new world is born’: a maxim borne out, similarly, by Lordan’s forays through the jagged scraplands of the present. Viewed from the derelict fringes, the violences of contemporary history take on sharpened definition, and are clear to discern. ‘Each suffers alone in their own separation’, Lordan writes, before adding, in a dialectical twist: ‘Our music’s how we contradict’. In the songs of these edgeland singers, contradiction becomes a mode of heroic utterance, even a requisite of the craft.

Ciarán O'Rourke (First PUblished in Poetry Ireland Review) // May 2024