Saturday, June 12, 2010

Amazing May 4

What has impressed me most by such psychiatrists and psychotherapists as R. D. Laing (Scottish), Eric Beirne (USA), Anthony Storr (English), Ivor Browne (Irish), Carl Ransom Rogers (USA), Rollo May (USA), Irving Yalom (USA), and needless to say Rollo May is that they all put the real person of the client/patient at the centre of their therapy. For all of them it is the healing therapeutic relationship between counsellor/therapist and client/patient that moves the healing onwards, nothing less. While I love both Freud and Jung much and have read not a little from their voluminous works, one cannot help but feel, that while the two were great and good therapists, their abiding interests in their own ideas and techniques dulled their edge I believe as very great therapists, making them great therapists with the “very” left out or A minus practitioners rather than A plus practitioners in the field of psychotherapy.

This introduction leads on to chapter two of May’s short book The Discovery of Being. In this chapter he presents us with a case study around which he focuses his contention that the centrality of the client is all important to the counselling or therapeutic process. He calls her Mrs Hutchens, though he does not inform us as to whether this is a pseudonym or not.

He starts by referring to the power which secrets can hold members of a family to ransom. I have discovered this in my own life with respect to a good friend and former partner for a brief time who was kept captive by the stranglehold of the mental health secrets of her family. The stranglehold was so great in May’s case of Mrs Hutchens that she suffered from perpetual hoarseness. She was literally in the stranglehold of her family not to divulge any secrets. Here we have the abuse of power, conscious and unconscious, by the patient’s family.

May argues his point well. Those who had treated Mrs Hutchens from the point of view of techniques and theories failed to help her. The only way he knew to help this poor woman was to treat her as a whole person living in the now, as an ontological reality or being, to put the case in existential terms. His own words are worth contemplating here, and I use that verb advisedly:

I propose, thus, that we take the one real datum we have in the therapeutic situation, namely the existing person sitting in the consulting room with the therapist. (The term “existing person” is my equivalent of the German Dasein, literally the being who is there.) Note that I do not say simply “individual” or “person”... (Op. Cit., p. 25)
Because to do so, May would see as being tantamount to a reduction of that reality before him on the client’s chair. In other words, there is always a real being there who is an ontological whole which is the only locus for whatever theories or therapeutic approaches one takes (my words, not May’s, though I presume that I have faithfully interpreted his meaning).

Without discussing much more of Mrs Hutchens’s case I would like to summarise May’s conclusions which from his experience and study he applies generally to all cases. These are basic axioms, I believe:

1. First, Mrs Hutchens is as an existing person very much centred in herself, “and an attack on this centre is an attack on her existence itself.” (ibid., p. 26)
2. Every existing person has the character of self-affirmation, the need to preserve his centeredness. “The particular name we give this self-affirmation in human beings is courage. Paul Tillich’s writing on ‘the courage to be’ is very cogent and fertile for psychotherapy at this point.” (Ibid., p. 27)
3. All existing persons have the need and possibility of going out from their centeredness to participate in other beings. (see ibid., p. 27) This, needless to say, involves risk and courage.
4. The subjective side of centeredness is awareness. “The palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described brilliantly how this awareness is present in ascending degrees in all forms of life from amoeba to man.” (Ibid., p. 28) I take it from this that awareness has to do with basic survival, as otherwise we will be swallowed up by our natural enemies.
5. This fifth principle or axiom is that of self-consciousness. The unique human form of awareness is self-consciousness. May, to my mind, gives a wonderful description of the difference between awareness and self-consciousness: Awareness is merely awareness of threat from animate or inanimate others while “Consciousness in contrast, we define as not simply my awareness of threat from the world, but my capacity to know myself as the one being threatened, my experience of myself as the subject who has a world.” (Ibid., p. 31)
6. The sixth and last principle or axiom, or “ontological characteristic” as he calls it, that is, anxiety. Anxiety is the state of the human being in the struggle against what would destroy his being. (see ibid., p. 33)

Finally, with regard to number 5 above, namely consciousness it is important to note that Freud discovered early in his career as a therapist that the neurotic pattern in clients is characterized by repression and blocking off consciousness, hence, his definition of psychoanalysis as the making conscious of the unconscious.

Another point, which May makes, and an important and relevant one at that is the fact that “consciousness itself implies always the possibility of turning against oneself, denying oneself.” (Ibid., p. 33) In other words, consciousness includes within its ambit the possibility of suicide. This is where, as our author argues, true existentialism has to contend with the agonizing burden of freedom.

Amazing May 3

Rollo May’s insights are interesting to take note of. As I have remarked already he was a wise and compassionate human being – the type which we need more of in this beautiful, if often sad world of ours. He regrets the modern tendency to describe man in the image of a machine. This is modern tendency, I believe only if we take modern to mean in the last 400 years. I seem to remember one of the French philosophes, a man called de  La Mettrie writing a book called “L’homme Machine.” This Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709  - 1751) was a French physician and philosopher, and one of the earliest of the French materialists of the Enlightenment. He is best known for his work L'homme machine:  Machine man, wherein he rejected the Cartesian dualism of mind and body, and proposed the metaphor of the human being as machine.   So this dehumanizing of humankind is nothing new. In this regard he quotes another great existential thinker and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers who “held that we in the western world are actually in the process of losing self-consciousness and that we may be in the last age of historical man.” (Op. Cit., p. 15) Whatever about the last part of this prediction the first is obviously true. Everywhere we look in the modern world there seems to be a blithe disregard for been aware, never mind conscious, of what we are doing to our planet and indeed to ourselves as creatures on that planet.

I also liked his quote from another psychologist William Whyte (see ibid., pp. 15-16) who argues that psychotherapy could become a social tool at worst and seek to make humankind into conformists rather than into individuals. The question of human freedom looms large here.

Once again, I value the following insight for its depth and radical nature:

I, for one, believe that we vastly overemphasize the human being’s concern with security and survival satisfactions because they so neatly fit our cause-and-effect way of thinking. I believe that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were more accurate when they described man as an organism who makes certain values – prestige, power, tenderness – more important than pleasure and even more important than survival itself (Ibid., p. 17)

He describes well the two great Freudian concepts of repression and transference. We generally explain repression as the mechanism by which the child “represses into unconsciousness certain impulses, such as sex and hostility, because the culture in the form of parental figures disapproves, and the child must protect its own security with these persons.” (ibid., p. 16)  He enters caveats with respect to the overuse of the concept of transference which could enable the therapist to hide from the reality of actually meeting or “encountering” the client. The existentialists among us will immediately and correctly anticipate the introduction of another powerful existential concept namely that of encounter. His criticisms of transference are interesting and do bear quoting in the author’s own words here:

In the first place, transference can be a handy and ever-useful defense for the therapist, as Thomas Szasz puts it; the therapist can hide behind it to protect himself from the anxiety of direct encounter. Secondly the concept of transference can undermine the whole experience and sense of reality in therapy; the two persons in the consulting room become shadows... It can erode the patient’s sense of responsibility, and can rob the therapy of much of the dynamic for the patient’s change.  (Ibid., p. 19)

In this respect, May goes on to argue that it is only within the context of genuine encounter, that is a genuine meeting of persons that transference has any meaning at all. One would have to agree thoroughly with May here. He then gives in italics what at first sight appears quite revolutionary and radical, but which within the context of real encounter is less so, the following statement: “Transference is to be understood as the distortion of encounter.” (Ibid, p. 19)

May is somewhat critical of the role of “eros” in therapy and laments the absence of an adequate understanding of “agape” and argues that the latter is not a mere sublimation of eros, but rather the transcending of it. (See ibid., p. 19)

May is very interesting on what happens during such an encounter between client and therapist or even between two human beings in a less formal setting. The client will most likely have inhibitions, and remember that inhibition was a term Freud used for the inability to reach out to another human being lest one lose one’s identity. May gives the following neat definition of inhibition as “the relation to the world of the being who has the possibility to go out but is too threatened to do so; and his fear that he will lose too much may, of course, be the case.” (ibid., p. 20)

However, in today’s world the neurotic pattern takes the opposite form – namely going out too far and dispersing one’s self “in participation and identification with others until one’s own being is emptied.” (Ibid., p. 20). That’s why ostracism and not castration is the greatest fear among moderns today.

May makes other interesting points in this rather wide-ranging and intense first chapter. He mentions the fact that any encounter will be both anxiety-creating as well as well as joy-creating. He also refers to the most interesting and indeed very important fact that in any genuine encounter, both persons are changed, however minutely. He goes on to agree with Carl G. Jung that in effective therapy a change occurs in both the therapist and the patient, and that unless the therapist is open to change the patient will not be either.

May finishes this chapter with a call to study the concept of encounter, as we have mostly up till now only perceived this reality in its distorted nature, that is, through the distorting lens of transference.

Amazing May 2

Bases of Psychotherapy

This heading above is the title of chapter 1 of May's book The Discovery of Being.  What May to my mind is attempting here is to get back to the basics, back to first principles, or if you like to clarify what the axioms of existential psychotherapy are in the first place. He points out that this form of therapy had become popular on the continent of Europe from the early forties and did not take root in the USA until the early sixties.  However, he does note that there were certain affinities with this approach in the foundational work of the great Americam psychologist William James who spoke about the importance of the immediacy of experience, the unity of thought and action, and the importance of decision and commitment.  These were all existential concerns, but the language of the latter movement was then obviously unknown.

Rooted in the Immediacy of Experience

In existential psychotherapy its the lived "nowness" of the experience of the patient/client that counts.  Techniques are very much in the background, and they provide limited guidlines which are always secondary to the human experience of client and therapist.  May leaves us in no doubt as he launches almost immediately into a personal experience of suffering from which most of his sensitivities for this approach grew.  He tells us how, while he was languishing in a TB sanitorium somewhere in the US, he was writing his book The Meaning of Anxiety.

Centrality of Anxiety/Angst in the Existential Tradition

He mentions scholars and therapists from whom he learnt much as a young psychologist and psychoanalyst, viz Soren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud.  It was the first of these two scholars who penetrated through to the very reality of anxiety by defining it as "the struggle of the living being against nonbeing" which he as a sick young Doctor could experience in his own life as the very struggle with death.  Kierkegaard was giving words to the very experiences May and his fellow patients were going through in their sanitorium.  This is essentially (if the reader will pardon the inapproriate and singularly inapt  adverb here from a philosophical point of view) what exitential psychotherapy is all about.

Freud 's Approach was different

Freud was essentially a scientist and liked to argue again and again that psychoanalysis was/is a science.  I have discussed his contentions on this matter elsewhere in these posts.  Freud had studied neurology under Charcot in Paris, was indeed a brilliant clinician and had a really clear rational mind.  At school he had been known to be quite a scholar, even a genius.  May points out that Freud was writing on a technical level where his genius was supreme.  Freud knew much about anxiety and could discuss its qualities ad infinitum in a scholarly manner.  However, he had not known what real anxiety was in his own life as such.  What Kierkegaard did was to describe his own ontological anxiety, that is his deep anxiety as he experienced it at the heart of his own being which he felt could be extinguished at any time.  While Freud knew about anxiety, Kierkegaard knew anxiety.

Integration versus Disintegration

Disintegration is a big theme in psychotherapy and in psychiatry.  I have wrtten about this theme at length in these pages before.  Dr Anthony Storr, as we have seen, looked upon psychotherapy as a process to "integrate" or even "re-integrate" the separated parts or fragments of the psyche of the mentally sick patient.  May argues cogently and strongly in this introductory chapter that modern man has repressed "the sense of being, the ontological sense." (Op. cit., p. 15)  This sense of being is nothing less that the human being's unified sense of self (my terms, and my understanding of what May is getting at here!)  Let us listen to May's simple but profound words here:

One consequence of this repression of the sense of being is that modern man's image of himself, his experience of himself as a responsible individual, his experience of his own humanity have likewise disintegrated. (Ibid., p. 15)
The terms Being and Nonbeing, May goes on to argue, have been dismissed as hopelessly vague and useless scientific terms by some modern psychologists, but such dismissivemness our author argues is cavalier in the extreme.  It is cavalier because it dismisses the profound ontological nature of what it actually means to be a thinking, feeling and willing human being or human unity.  These thoughts once again are mine, though I feel I am interpreting May's concerns accurately here.

To be continued.

Amazing May 1

As I promised I wish to distill the insights of Rollo May from his book The Discovery of Being (Norton & Co., New York, 1983) which I am reading and reflecting upon right now.  The beauty of any book on psychotherapy or on any related discipline - and especially poetry as I recently illustrated - is that in the areas of self-discovery and personal development much reflection is called for.  Hence, one needs to be relaxed and "chilling" as the moderns say these days to allow the wisdoms proferred by experts like May to sink home.

More Knowledge Less Certainty

May calls our attention to what he calls a "strange paradox" (Op.cit., p.  9), namely that the more our objective truth grows with the flood of modern information - and how much more are we bombarded with information overload in 2010 now that we all have easy access to the internet - the less we are sure or certain about our own inner world (May's term), or about our real self (Carl  R. Rogers) or about our soul (this author and many contemporary scholars and writers).

This lack of certainty is worrying, and remember May was writing this wee book way back in 1983.  Such an inner lack of certainty, our author argues, leads to much inner confusion, even nihilism.  May's words were stark and still are.  Let's listen to them:

Sensing this [lack of certainty], and despairing of ever finding meaning in life, people these days seize on the many ways of dulling their awareness of being by apathy, by psychic numbing, or by hedonism.  Others, especially young people, elect in alarming and increasing numbers to escape their own being by suicide. (Ibid., p. 9)
May's book is essentially about embracing our "being," accepting the probability and inevitability of its contrary "nonbeing," and in so doing learning to accept our very own nature as mortal but creativbe beings.  This in a nutshell is what this great book is about.  It is a book which argues that being is as important, if not more important, than doing.  Once we begin, May argues, and it's hard to argue with him on this point, to discover and affirm our own inner being in its existential reality here and now in our lives, our inner certainty will grow and be strengthened.  Only out of such inner certainty can we all get the strength to carry on, and indeed to grow through the pain of whatever suffering or "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" that life throws at us.

Also, it is worth stressing here, and May adverts to it, that a sense of wonder at the very mystery of life that is both inside us and outside us, in the macrocosm of the universe and in the microcosm of the very cells of our very own life, will be ours to inspire us as we become more aware and more conscious of our very own being.  Our author offers us nothing less than such deep awareness and consciousness of what to exist really can mean in this often sad and at times painful world.  One expects nothing less frm such a fine writer and such a beautiful human being.  One is tempted with Shakespeare to sing the praises of being as it exists in all humans, and indeed in all sentient creatures, in the words of Miranda: "O brave new world that has such people in it!"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Introducing Rollo May


When I find an author I love I go and buy as many of his/her books as are available and read them.  This has long been a habit with me.  I remember doing that when I was introduced to the wonderful novels of Fyodor Dostoyevski by Rev. Fr. Patrick Carmody, M.A., M.Phil. way back in the late 1970s.  Dostoyevski has long remained a favourite author to whom I return again and again and again. At the moment I am reading Rollo May.  I was introduced to him about a year back through reading another favourite existentialist therapist and disciple of thgis great man, namely, Dr. Irving Yalom.  May was one of his favourite teachers and mentors and became a great friend.  I loved what Yalom had to say about this wonderful and beautiful human being.  (As I age "beautiful" is a word that the years have liberated me from being inhibitionist about using with respeect to man, woman or beast.)  Anyway I have recently read Man's Search for Himself which May wrote way back in 1953 a brilliant little classwic which I summarised here in this blog at 13 Posts on May .  I am now three quarters way through another of his wonderful books called The Discovery of Being which I will review and summarise later in these pages.

Being as an art appeals to me as I grow older.  In a world fraught with much stress and anxiety, much of which finds its locus in the push or drive to be up and doing almost all our waking lives, it is sheer bliss to get moments of silence away from the noise of performance, and just enjoy the art of being.  I am writing this post on my small netbook while on holidays in the South of Italy where I am enjoying and appreciating the simple wonder of being while relaxing in the sun reading the above quoted book by May.  Hence a few words about this great and inspiring human being would not go astray.

Who was R.M.?

Firstly, let me state that Rollo May was one of the most important figures in existential psychology, and, without question, one of the most important American existential psychologists in the history of the discipline. His dates are 1909 – 1994, so he lived to the ripe old age of 84.

It is not surprising to note  that like many other geniuses writing and practising in the world of psychotherapy that our man experienced a difficult childhood, with his parents divorcing and his sister suffering a mental breakdown, also described in some sources as schizophrenia.  His educational background is broad and eclectic and took him to Michigan State College and Oberlin College where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1930. His first teaching position was at an American college in Greece where he taught English. While in Greece, May would often travel to Vienna to attend the seminars of Alfred Adler, and, while there, he was called to study theology and move back to the States. He received a bachelor of divinity degree in 1938 at the Union Theological Seminary, after which he practised for two years as a Congregationalist minister, which he soon gave up.  I'm not so sure whether he abandoned all institutional religion or not, but he certainly opened himself to insights into humankind from all sources East and West.

Psychology, however, became the supreme calling for May, and so he resigned from the ministry and began his studies in psychology at Columbia University in New York, New York. While working on his doctorate, he contracted TB, a life-threatening disease - a disease we Irish are very familiar with as hundreds of thousands of us died from it in our sad history as a nation - my own paternal grandfather and two of his brothers succumbed to this horrible disease.   It was out of this traumatic experience that May developed a new fondness for existential philosophy, which matched his belief that his struggle against death, even more than medical care, determined his fate in surviving the disease. Of course, May's background in theology, particularly the influence of the existential theologian Paul Tillich, was a major impetus for his desire to pursue a study of psychology informed by existentialist philosophy. In 1949, May completed his doctorate in psychology.

One of the things that inspires me about May, as it does of other major figures in psychotherapy and psychiatr, is that he, for example, asserts that an existential approach to psychology refuses to force a client to conform to a pre-articulated theoretical system and, further, does not simply fall back on using "techniques" as a defense against fully engaging with the client in psychotherapy.

May saw certain "stages" of human development which he described rather loosely, unlike Erikson's stages of psychosocial development which the latter worked out very precisely. May's suggested "loose" stages are:

1. Innocence – the pre-egoic, pre-self-conscious stage of the infant. The innocent is only doing what he or she must do. However, an innocent does have a degree of will in the sense of a drive to fulfill needs.

2. Rebellion – the rebellious person wants freedom, but has yet no full understanding of the responsibility that goes with it.

3. Decision  -  The person is in a transition stage in their life where they need to break away from their parents and settle into the ordinary stage. In this stage they they must decide what path their life will take along with fulfilling rebellious needs from the rebellious stage.

4. Ordinary – the normal adult ego learned responsibility, but finds it too demanding, and so seeks refuge in conformity and traditional values.

5. Creative – the authentic adult, the existential stage, beyond ego and self-actualizing. This is the person who, accepting destiny, faces anxiety with courage.

These are not stages in the traditional sense. A child may certainly be innocent, ordinary or creative at times or an an adult may be rebellious.

See thes sites for further information on this great human being:


Wiki May

Mythos and Logos


Theory of personality

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Power of a Poem 17

Yesterday I promised readers of this blog that I would paste a copy of the wonderful poem "Dublin" by Louis MacNeice below.  I have been talking about the sense of place in poetry in English and Irish in Irish Literature in these pages.  I have also referred to posts I have written on the same topic in my Irish blog, Aisling, for those of you who are familiar with that tongue.  Everyone of us is defined by a complex combination of genes, family and society.  Wherever we are born we are inevitably coloured by our family and surroundings - both nature and nurture.

I came to Dublin when I was only six years of age from Roscrea County Tipperary.  My late father was seriously ill and the family had no option but transfer to Dublin city whewre he could be better cared for and get a new "light" job.  I loved Dublin city from the start even though we were living in poor surroundings in Ballybough.  However, that was 1964 and there were no drugs on the streets and we boys played football on those same streets until darkness fell.  Also living so close to the city meant that we went there to shop, or more frequently to "window shop" (that is a phrase we used for looking at what we coulkd not afford to buy).  I loved walking down Talbot Street, Henry Street, Marlborough Street, Gardner Street, Parnell Street, O'Connell Street, Abbey Street, North Frederick Street, Dominic Street, Mary Street, North King Street, and, of course, the famous Moore Street.  These named streets were the streets of my boyhood and adolescence.  On occasion we would cross either O'Connell Bridge or the Halfpenny Bridge to go south of the Liffey.  We Northsiders on occasion would deign to cross the river!  I always loved walking through Trinity College which I did for thye first time with my father in my early teens.  We went in to visit the great Book of Kells.

Other places we frequented were the two famous railway stations - Amiens Street Station (now called Connolly) and King's Bridge Station (now called Huston), Guinness's Brewery and the famous People's Gardens and The Phoenix Park.  This was the Dublin of my youth - a wonderfully vibrant, if poor and decadent in places, city where there was literally no great amount of crime and absolutely no drugs.  The poor amused themselves with street games, collecting glass bottles so they could be redeemed by the shopkeepers for a few pennies.  Anyway, I've always thought that the following poem captured my Dublin.  It is a poem with a great declamatory style.  It's almost as if the historical persons represented by the various monuments were themselves telling the story that is Dublin, were themselves introducing the city to us in the words of this great poem.


Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals -
O'Connell, Grattan, Moore -
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades -
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river
With a concertina movement
And the sun comes up in the morning
Like barley-sugar on the water
And the mist on the Wicklow hills
Is close, as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English,
Historic with guns and vermin
And the cold renown
Of a fragment of Church latin,
Of an oratorical phrase.
But oh the days are soft,
Soft enough to forget
The lesson better learnt,
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.
Garrison of the Saxon,

Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought,
You give me time for thought
And by a juggler's trick
You poise the toppling hour -
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick.

-- Louis MacNeice

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

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Power of a Poem 15

John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909), the early Anglo-Irish dramatist and poet,  wrote some wonderful nature poems.  He was also known as Edmund John Millington Synge  and was an accomplished playwright, poet, prose writer, and collector of folklore. He is widely known as one of the co-founders of the Abbey Theatre.  Synge is best known for his play The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots during its opening run at that same theatre.  Two  nature poems penned by J.M. Synge spring to mind here, viz., Prelude (Wicklow) and In Kerry.

Prelude (Wicklow)

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon's delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
Now a second poem from J.M. Synge's pen:

In Kerry

He heard the thrushes by the shore and sea,
And saw the golden star's nativity,
Then round we went the lane by Thomas Flynn,
Across the church where bones lie out and in;
And there I asked beneath a lonely cloud
Of strange delight, with one bird singing loud,
What change you'd wrought in graveyard, rock and sea,
This new wild paradise to wake for me-
Yet knew no more than knew those merry sins
Had built this stack of thigh-bones, jaws and shins.

The Power of a Poem 14

Once I remember attending a wonderful lecture in UCD by Professor Seán Ó Tuama, who was then Professor of Modern Irish in UCC. (That was in the early 1980s if I remember correctly, though I am not 100% sure.) At that time there was a yearly lecture in the Department of Modern Irish in UCD called "Léacht Uí Chaidhin" and an invited academic would give an address on some subject in modern Irish literature in Gaelic. I can only presume that this annual lecture continues. I don't remember the exact title of his learned disquisition, but it contained the phrase "ómós áite," that is the centrality of place in the history of Gaelic literature.

In Gaelic we also speak of one's "áit dhúchais" or "native place" and how important that landscape and all it contains influences not alone one's poetry and literature, but one's very identity. In this tradition the poet is the official spokesman (or spokeswoman, though practically all poets were men with a few honourable exceptions) of the spirit and soul of the people.  In this tradition, the late great John O'Donohue (1956 - 2008) (whose web page can be viewed at this link: JOD) was the quintessential scholar of the centrality of place in the spirit and identity of the Gaelic nation that is modern Ireland. I have written about this in my Irish blog Aisling here: Centrality of Place in Gaelic Literature . 

With these few thoughts as an introduction, I now wish to recall for my readers poems inspired by a sense of place in Irish poetry written in English.  There is no better place to start than with the wonderful W.B. Yeats (1865 - 1939) our most famous and, without doubt, greatest English poet.

One of the first poems I remember learning by heart was The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Another poem, rooted in the centrality of place, also by W.B. Yeats that I learnt off by heart once again was The Wild Swans at Coole:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones 
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, 
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?