Monday, June 07, 2010

The Power of a Poem 16

The basic criterion of all good literature is honesty.  I remember learning this from Dr. Mary Fitzgerald (daughter of Dr Garret Fitzgerald, former Taoiseach of Ireland) back in the late 1970s.  In other words all good literature rings true, is essentially authentic and sincerely captures the honest opinions and beliefs of the author.  The corrollary of this is obvious, bad literature does not ring true, is insincere and does not honestly capture either the opinions or beliefs of the writer.  With this in mind I am reminded of the quotation from Louis MacNeice (1907 – 1963), the famous Northern Ireland poet:  "Poetry in my opinion must be honest before anything else and I refuse to be 'objective' or clear-cut at the cost of honesty.”

MacNeice wrote the above quoted line in the introduction to perhaps his best and certainly his most famous book of poems called Autumn Journal.  However, it is not that particular volume that I am going to quote from here, but rather present to my readers a poem about the centrality of place in MacNeice's work.  As I haved said in previous posts "ómós áite" or "importance of place" are central to poetry written in Gaelic and also in English in Irish Literature.

The poem I wish to reproduce hereunder is called Carrickfergus.  Its subject is MacNeice's early years as a child in Carrickfergus and his going over to a boarding school in England when he was quite a young boy.  He was born in 1907 and the war to which he refers is, of course, the First World War (1914-1918), so the young poet is somewhere between 7 and 11 in this poem.  Strangely the subject of this poem is very prosaic, to say the least, as it presents us with a blow by blow account of the poet's early years as a young lad in Carrickfergus, a subject one might say would be more suitable to a memoir.  However, there are some memorable lines.  His Dublin poem which I will reproduce in the next post is way more "poetic" and far better crafted than this poem.  However, the honesty and integrity and authenticity of Carrickfergus are unquestionable and the observations sharp and crystal clear.  That's why I quite like this rather prosaic poem. 


I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.

The brook ran yellow from the factory stinking of chlorine,
The yarn-milled called its funeral cry at noon;
Our lights looked over the Lough to the lights of Bangor
Under the peacock aura of a drowning moon.

The Norman walled this town against the country
To stop his ears to the yelping of his slave
And built a church in the form of a cross but denoting
The List of Christ on the cross, in the angle of the nave.

I was the rector's son, born to the Anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

The war came and a huge camp of soldiers
Grew from the ground in sight of our house with long
Dummies hanging from gibbets for bayonet practice
And the sentry's challenge echoing all day long.

I went to school in Dorset, the world of parents
Contracted into a puppet world of sons
Far from the mill girls, the smell of porter, the salt mines
And the soldiers with their guns.

Above a picture of Louis MacNeice

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