Pat Walsh’s A Rebel Act is, because of its distinguished subject and alternative approach, among the more distinguished books to come out of Ireland in recent years. The first and much-antipicated biography of the poet Michael Hartnett, who died in 1999, it is a literary event and has just been launched at the literary festival named after him, the Éigse Michael Hartnett which takes place annually in the poet’s hometown of Newcastle West, County Limerick. It is a gripping read, written with an admirable clarity and simplicity. I found myself devouring its 225-odd pages to find out more about arguably the most fascinating poet from the Republic of Ireland to succeed Patrick Kavanagh.
The full title A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English encapsulates its mercurial subject’s two most defining statements, and marks out the book’s territory. In 1974, the bilingual Hartnett announced that he would only write in Gaelic from then on, a promise he kept for – or broke after – a decade. His much-maligned poemanifesto ‘A Farewell to English’ contained among its bardically vituperative 167 lines the memorable quatrain
Poets with progress
make no peace or pact:
the act of poetry
is a rebel act.
Coming on top of the Collected Poems (Gallery Press) reissued in 2009, Notes from His Contemporaries: A Tribute to Michael Hartnett, a photo-anthology edited by the poet’s son Niall, and various other publications, this biography seals Hartnett’s reputation as a poet of stone-carved not sand-written works, launching him into the next millennium. As with Robert Fraser’s just published first biography of the English poet David Gascoyne, it elevates the poet to a new level of repute, and will inevitably lead to a wider readership of the oeuvre. A posthumous ‘career move’, a first biography is a sure sign a poet matters, and to more than the biographer. Such books are collectively willed into existence.
A Rebel Act is not a large-scale biography, nor is it lavish – there are no photographs – nor is it an intimate portrait. Written with the co-operation of the poet’s family and main publisher, Gallery Press, it is essentially a biography of Hartnett the poet rather than the man. It is a labour of love whose aim is to perpetuate the memory, spread the word, and ensure a busy afterlife for a beloved author, one who might still be alive today if he had chosen not to drink himself to death. Its concision contains much, and suavely omits sensationalism and sentimentality. It is not just a portrait of a great poet but also a tableaux of the poetry community of Southern Ireland, bloody and bilious, fair-minded and vicious. The supporting cast are endearingly lively, some already familiar figures to the Hartnettian reader from his beautiful – though, as always, controversial – sequence of poems about fellow poets ‘Notes on my Contemporaries’.
There are any number of reasons to be fascinated with Hartnett. His own creatureliness – a faery physique like that of the ‘púcas’, a clurichaun form in tweed and corduroy with Roman-combed hair and/or a cloth cap – exerted a natural magic on all who met him. The lack of photos in the biography is a pity as he was by far and away one of the most interesting Irish poets to look at. His presence was also birdlike; with something of the intensity of his own ‘blacksparred sparrowhawk’.
That he was a modern poet in a modern world but made poems primal as Parnassian lyrics was a large part of his mystique. The early love poems, masterfully entitled Anatomy of a Cliché, begin in a very minor key but build up via humility and purity of expression to a crescendo. Here, he seems half-Irish, half-Greek.
That he was such a fine exponent of the English language and yet so distrustful, even resentful of it, as to give it up for ten years, can only add to our sense of the integrity of his struggle with his gift. English – he seems to say – is at best a consolation prize, at worst cultural imperialism. Far from being a parochial concern, there must be many writers scattered round the ex-British Empire who could empathise with his postcolonial howl. His oeuvre is fourfold: his poems in English, his poems in Irish, his translations from Irish and his translations from foreign langages e.g. Lorca’s ballads and the Tao. I think of Abiezer Coppe’s line: ‘In a mystical sense, I built a Babel.’ Hartnett’s tower is a bilingual Babel, but non-collapsing.
That he was not an academic; that like Kavanagh he pursued his craft in adverse conditions and considered artistic standards more important than living standards; that he resisted bourgeoisification or gentrification; that he braved Bohemia; that he made ends meet in creative ways such as book reviewing or broadcasting, that from the outset he dispensed with the safety-net… all add a magic and pathos to the life and work, making both more legendary. The poet’s ‘struggle for existence’ is an important issue, one which concerns all poets. Terry Eagleton once rubbished a Hartnett poem in which a poet – actually Macdara Woods – does an imaginative stock-take of his impoverished idyll (alcohol and nicotine rations to boot); but there you have an Oxford University Marxist slagging off an authentic working-class poet who dreams of freedom to write without being a wage-slave. For me, the Hartnett poem and Hartnett example demolishes the Eagleton critique, the Eagleton example. Hartnett spurned respectability, yet commanded respect. The saddest moment in the story is the marriage break-up and his quitting the family home in Limerick for a Dublin digs; and here is told with dignity and discretion. Otherwise, Pat Walsh has eschewed an anecdote-rich account, understandably wary of presenting a cartoon, ‘urban myth’ Hartnett. This approach makes for a less entertaining story, but presents Hartnett in all his hard-won seriousness.
That he was capable of controversy, ferociously engaged, eloquently outspoken, uniquely critical (rather than one in a chorus) shows that he walked as well as talked his ‘rebel act’, and wasn’t just playacting. For instance, Hartnett brilliantly criticises Yeats’ ‘Irish tradition’ of Celtic mythology plus Davis/Mangan/Ferguson by jokily imagining an ‘English tradition’ of Beowulf plus the Rossettis i.e. with nothing in between. Yeats was ignoring the great corpus of Gaelic poetry, a thousand years of Irish creation. From his special perch Hartnett could see things other poets missed.
Most importantly, most compellingly, is the seemingly guided way he went about constructing and developing his oeuvre from untitled early lyrics, to his ‘secular prayers’, to the love poems, to the mystical sonnets, to the portraits of poets, to the pastoral poems, smalltown poems/character sketches/ballads, to the mature polemics, to the heartbroken haiku, to the O Bruadair/Haicéad/O Rathaille translations, and so on. He wasn’t one of those poets who sprinkle a few diamonds into a coal delivery. His creation is so considered, and so full of life: human life, bird and animal life, the life of women, the poor and marginalised, and his own life. His poems are organic statements, things necessary to say. He mostly avoids automatism, overproduction, self-repetition. Whereas the Protestant work ethic poet might aim to produce a certain number of poems per week, and always to be working to a daily routine, Hartnett was content to keep refining and polishing the one gem, not overly worried about seeming or feeling idle. Perfection first, production second…
The book benefits enormously from quoting Hartnett at length on all sorts of topics so that we feel we are spending time in his company. He had a down-to-earth super-intelligence, avoiding pretension, over-intellectualisation, pedantry etc. He is somehow the representative leprechaun, all Irishmen, Ireland. On himself: ‘I always lie at interviews. I don’t lie as such but I change my mind so often. I refuse to have what is known in the trade as a ‘coherent metaphysic’… I’ve been trying to pin myself down… but I couldn’t do it… neither am I a butterfly nor is my other self a lepidopterist.’
There are shocks too. I was shocked to discover how Hartnett’s collection A Farewell to English had been savaged by Ciaran Carson, an attack that seemed a very literal-minded response to Hartnett’s quasi-anarchist demanding of the impossible. Carson jibed: ‘Now had he called his book A Farewell to Poems Published in the English Language, that might have been more honest though no more explanatory of what exactly he is getting at.’ It is hardly a poetic reservation, and suggests a rift between Southern and Northern Irish poetry, though Carson also rottweilered North. Later, Hartnett was left out of Paul Muldoon’s ‘superleague’ anthology of contemporary Irish poets, surely a knee-capping offence. One gets the impression that some Irish poets felt unhappy about being caricatured as Yeatsian commis-chefs serving up ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’ (though of course Hartnett was undermining himself too). The essential poem ‘Chef Yeats’, one of the wittiest Anglo-Irish satires of all in that it so devastatingly satirises Anglo-Irish itself, should surely have won plaudits from any reviewer, not least because it contains its own critique. Carson was possibly guilty of a wilful misunderstanding of a Southern poet’s preoccupations, which might have seemed less urgent than a Northern poet’s. However, any south/north rift is later offered the healing bridge of Hartnett’s and Heaney’s mutual admiration.
It is numblingly absurdist to think of the difference in the reception of the poetries of Hartnett and Heaney. Northern Irish poets thrived while Southern Irish poets seemed virtually non-existent except to themselves; but Hartnett was no cultural attaché, no Faber diplomat. It is his seemingly rabid anti-Englishness that prohibits his work being filtered though the London system and then onto the international Anglophone reading public, a shame because English readers who really want to experience authentic Irish poetry, and the Irish mind, should be looking at Hartnett. Lack of championing is covert censorship. Though his poetry was not manufactured for the export market, Hartnett saw England, in terms of literary geography, as ‘a bulwark’ between Ireland and the rest of the world. England, insidiously, is the gaffer of the literary building-site with power to hire and fire Irish poets.
Hartnett is like Blake in that he is both reactionary and revolutionary. Both were reacting against a dehumanisng and degrading industrial capitalism and returning to more ancient if idealised realms of imagination:
They push us towards the world of total work,
our politicians with their seedy minds
and dubious labels….
Both were also aesthetic reactionaries. One thing I admire in Hartnett is his mixing of formal and free verses, rhyming and non-rhyming with alacrity. But I was disappointed to read about how he vigorously opposed open form poetics and ‘the Ginsberg type of thing’. (Interestingly, Kavanagh as an old man had been very pro-Beat, and Thomas Kinsella is still chasing a Poundian open form trail). The Hartnettian challenge to modern poetics of his poems themselves is much more substantial, say, in a classic poem such as ‘The Perpetual Moment’:
I have looked into the jackdaw’s
nest, ignoring their wild caws
to see a thing that always was.
I have looked at the pike’s spiked jaws,
at the pads on foxes paws,
to see a thing that always was.
It’s not that he makes you wish to reject the modern but he reminds you to question it, rather than merely succumbing to peer pressures, fads and fashions, false futures. Crucially, he stands by the ‘lyric I’, the efficacy of which depends on who the ‘I’ is. Yet he succeeded in being a kind of ‘avant-folk’ poet, partly thanks to his Lorca studies, a latter-day Celtiberian. In another sense, he was a stay-at-home Beckettian experimentalist; his ‘Farewell to English’ was really an ‘au revoir’, a committment to bilingualism.
The book is not quite a critical biography either, though it does go into detail about how the poetry of Hartnett was received by critics at the time, often with amusing results. I’d like to have heard more about the reception of the love poems. Certainly the story is a vindication of small press independent publishing by and for aficionadoes who can’t wait for the rest of society to catch up. The tale is rich with publishing heroes and critical villains. One funny criticism of the time was of the Selected Poems blurb claiming how Hartnett had been recognised as ‘a master’ by his contemporaries. The critic was really contemptuous of the ‘master’ clause. (One wonders who wrote the classic ‘This book of poems needs no sales-talk’ blurb… possibly the man himself?) But of course, it was true. Hartnett was a sublimely ridiculed poet. Full of natural frisson, his gestures were always greeted with loud grumblings, though some were affectionate.
The real originality of the book is in its examination of the dramatic events which underpin the title. This is why it differs from normal biographies, as described, though it is nonetheless a biography. Where Pat Walsh really brings his intellectual depth to bear is in the examination of the language issue. The ‘farewell’ is thoroughly debated in all its ramifications and is undoubtedly the core. Many voices are included. The vista of the politician Conor Cruise O’Brien endangering the survival of Gaelic by cutting off crucial funding, and Hartnett’s fierce opposition, is pivotal. Anyone who mixes poetry and activism would find inspiration here, and from Hartnett generally. Hartnett’s decision was hugely divisive and provocative, but as it divided minds it provoked thought. At first the reaction was muted, but it has snowballed ever since, resonantly as a Joseph Beuys ‘action’. Hartnett, like all great artists, is a conceptual artist too. That Gaelic today is in much better shape must surely owe something to Hartnett’s publicising of the language’s imperilled vitality to a wider congregation. Thus A Rebel Act’s wider agenda is to contribute to that debate, carrying on the ripple effect.
The book will be a treat for Hartnett fans but also a superb introduction to lovers of Irish poetry who, in a changed Ireland, are discovering that some of the acclaimed Northern Irish poetry is already socio-historical, that poems of the Troubles are no longer current, and that they must look elsewhere for an emotionally relevant Hibernian poetics. Hartnett, the most Irish of Irish poets, is also a universal. His tragicomedy is timeless. The world he created is ready for new visitors who will be welcomed as mental travellers, not tourists.