And Hope and History Rhyme

Healing in Poetry

I have been reading Tara Bergin’s “This is Yarrow”,  a collection of her poems shortlisted for The Irish Times/Dún Laoghaire “Poetry Now” competion which takes place from the 11th. to the 14th. September. See
There are several other poets shortlisted and this formed the basis for a summer read-in of my own to give myself a better idea of just what was being written right now by Irish poets.
Yarrow is a herb famous for its healing powers and was used in ancient times to heal wounds in battle, perhaps Philoctetes used it on the uninhabited island of Lemnos where the Greeks dumped him because his wound was so obnoxious; presumably it smelled bad and he moaned in pain a lot, poor guy. Phil was a famous archer and was given his bow and  arrows by Hercules whose armour bearer he was. He is celebrated in the play “Philoctetes” by Sophocles and I could go on and on about him but the point is that Seamus Heaney wrote a version of this Sophocles play called “Cure at Troy” and it is from this Heaney play that the above title of this post comes: here is the full quote:

“History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave,

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.”

I wonder how one would hope on the other side of the grave? Sorry, that aside, its a great piece of Heaney. So I was drawn to make this connection with the theme of Tara Bergin’s collection “Yarrow” and the the Heaney play also about a healing of wounds. And of course I am mindfull of Heaney’s idea that poetry should “redress” things in our life (see “The Redress of Poetry” Heaney 1995). When we read a good poem, especially the exceptionally good one, we feel that something has been explained, put into a new context for us, or we feel cleansed or refreshed in some way because of it. Thom Gunn says:
“Writing poetry has in fact become a certain stage in my coping with the world, or in the way I try to understand what happens to me and inside me….an attempt to grasp (his italics) with grasp meaning to take hold of…”
All of this speaks to a psychological, a spiritual, healing, that takes us on the journey to wholeness, to become better people in our present very wounded world.

It seems to me that universities and schools have lost sight of this function and purpose of Art in their pursuit of the numbers game; what I have heard called “the knowledge industry”. More worrying, it seems to me, is the fact that poets now seem to boast in their biographies about their “doctorate” and subsequent role of university teacher of creative writing of one sort or another. Dr. Bergin is no exception, though I am not sure if she teaches. Does a poet need a Ph.D. to write well? Is it a sign of a vocational qualification to write well? Is it a prerequisite? I generally find that academic writing tends to be difficult for the lay person to read, it is jargonistic, follows a strict research methodology based usually on the split subject/object world of Descartes and relies very little on imagery or human emotion and feeling in its aims. Is this the training for a poet? And can one really teach poetry and creative writing in a third level institution based on their principles of research and publication? Maybe good poetic writing can be taught, I am not sure, but it seems to me that an aspiring writer has to go on their own journey of reading and then as Dr. Johnson said, apply themselves to the task. My worry about teaching of any kind is that it tends to pass on old ways of doing things, received dictums, the teacher’s style can be infective. I guess for me the qualification for the good poetry teacher is being an exceptional poet and that depends on their poetry not their doctoral thesis. If you wanted to sculpt or paint in Renaissance Italy you didn’t check the courses at Pisa you looked for a studio that needed an apprentice and got down to the work of modelling.

So I was critical of what I read this summer because largely I felt it showed this academic flavour of inaccessibility, of obscurity, I kept asking: What is this about? It so often showed the institutional tendency of cerebal introspection, what I call later in my poem “introspective erudition”. But more importantly because I felt it rarely achieved those qualities of “redress” that Heaney speaks of, his metaphorical rhyming of “hope and history” and I mean history in the sense too of personal history, of story, indeed the poet’s life.

So let me draw your attention to what I think is my favourite poem in Tara Bergin’s collection, “At The Garage”; you can hear her read it on U tube at: . It is about her encounter with a garage mechanic who she clearly feels a sexual attraction towards. That straight forward theme cheered me up and I loved the way the image of “dirt” and specifically “black ink” from the engraver or the finger printer was carried throughout the poem. It suggests to me a guilty overlay on everything that should be clean and white, from the poet’s cheek to the receipt he hands her at the close of the poem. I see this respectable married woman having this rush of desire for this sexy garage man but sadly it’s all too “awkward” in the end as she sees (great image this) the slightly pornographic calendar on his office wall with the image of the “dirty girl”. The girl I call “June girl in a waterfall”; all wet and see-through. And the transferance onto this poor girl in the calendar of all our poet feels so as to get rid of it. But of course that doesn’t work as any therapist will tell you! And so in the end I see her in my imagination, stimulated now by the poem itself, as disturbed and unable to find a place for her sexual feelings; other than to leave them in the poem itself for me to deal with. It’s exactly like putting something up on Facebook and thinking you have in some way dealt with it. Having said that it’s an honest and vividly imaginative poem and I think the best in the book.

So here is my poem in response to it: and I know that maybe I don’t reach those high Heaney standards either but I don’t have a doctorate and it got written, as they say, and there it is. If you think I make some headway leave a comment. I slipped Heaney’s quote in you will note!

After Reading Tara Bergin’s “At the Garage”.

I have decided to read
the shortlisted collections of my betters.
A venture rather tricky
trying to use my bookshop to avoid
the tax-evading work-house of the net.

Smart indy covers, nice blurb,
An’ biographical notes for nice an’ easy reading:
degree, research, a Ph.D
a teaching post to stretch
the geographical imagination.

No one drives a bus,
works in a wash-up,
or even like Larkin
labours in a library.

I struggle with meaning,
an introspective erudition,
sometimes absolute mystery:
why bizarrely alter a spelling
of a famous poet’s name?
But then out of this confusion
comes good common dirt:
poetic lust for the working man.

Repressed sexual angst,
And yes I know that feeling very well.
But it needn’t be “awkward.”
Like justice, the longed-for
can rise up and smile and say
my god you’re hot!

Yet after she has paid and seen vividly
the finger print upon the white receipt
seen her dark desire on the wall
(June girl in a waterfall?)
in the end, finally,
my fancy sees her high heels sliding
as she lifts a leg into a posh Saab
and all I want to do, oh god!
is stand at the next light and flash,
expose myself as it turns green.

But as one grows older, envy is not enough.
Without excitement I’d wave
a damp flag in the wind.


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