Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Poems That Make You Think!

When studying English Literature, all those years ago in the late 1970s, certain terms and definitions stuck in my youthful mind - not that I claim that I readily understood them then; being young and very impressionable and reasonably intelligent is all I can claim for myself then - because they sounded good and I felt they carried a weight of authority which necessitated that I should keep plugging away at trying to understand those terms.  One of those terms that entered my youthful consciousness was that of "Objective correlative."  I'm sure that it was Michael Paul Gallagher, S.J., that introduced me to this fascinating term.  It was first coined by T.S. Eliot in his famous critical commentary on Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Any artistic mechanism by which emotion is evoked in the reader or viewer or listener is what Eliot referred to as an "objective correlative."  In other words, the poet must get an objective construction (my term) or objective means (again my term) to convey how he or she is feeling.  It's certainly not literature (or good literature even) if one expresses the bald emotion.  I remember being at a lecture by Professor Ní Chuilleanáin of TCD who condemned in no uncertain terms what she dismissed as "confessional poems as being practically valueless."  I felt then, and I still feel, that she was far too dismissive and, indeed, very wrong in this contention.  After all, there are many very good confessional poems. However, I do know what she meant, though she over-stated her case, that poems where the "objective correlative" is not strong or is even missing, have nothing other than mawkishness, sentimentality and schmaltz to offer the reader.  T.S. Eliot's own definition of the "objective correlative" is brilliant and very clear:  "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."   (This definition is given at this link here: Objective Correlative ).

Now, what is the reason for this rather longer than usual introduction?  The answer is simple.  I wish to present you here with Derek Mahon's wonderful poem : A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford  where this poet uses a particularly strong "objective correlative" for his own emotion and for the corresponding emotion of his readers or listeners.  That things break is one of the earliest lessons we all have to learn and it heralds the first inklings of growth in the young child.  As we grow older still we realise that people break too; that they age and grow ill; that they eventually die; that even whole villages, towns and cities of peoples have been wiped out by nature, and worse by their fellow men; that whole civilizations indeed have died out.  Mahon's "objective correlative" in this beautifully handled poem is simply as the title puts it, a "disused shed."  Upon opening the door and looking into the shed he sees amidst "bathtubs and the washbasins /A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole." All the different, broken and rusted things of mankind are there with vegetation overtaking them and rusting them down to nothingness.  Through all these rusting and corrupting things, he hears the voices of peoples and civilisations that have been lost or destroyed.  This poem speaks also of the fall into dereliction of the old Big House of our father's and grandfather's era, after the foundation of the modern Irish State.  It was written during the late 1970s, or thereabouts, when the Northern Ireland Troubles were in full swing and hence there is a palpable fear that certain communities there might perish and be lost, too.



A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
      Seferis — 'Mythistorema'

For J.G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped forever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door growing strong —
'Elbow room! Elbow room!'
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges
. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flashbulb firing squad we wake them with

Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
'Save us, save us,' they seem to say,
'Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!'

From Collected Poems (Gallery Press, 1999)

Above, a picture I took some years ago of the detritus of modern life in the aftertide at Clontarf.

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