Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Poetry and Violence by Brendan Kennelly

Poetry and Violence [1]

I would like to begin this talk by reading a poem to you – a translation into English of a poem originally written in Irish. It is called Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire – A Cry for Art O’Leary. The poem was written by a woman, Eileen O’Connell. It is a cry of grief, of revenge, of love, of hated, and of a deep, frustrated passion for justice. Art O’Leary was Eileen O’Connell’s husband. He was shot by a man named Morris because he refused to sell his horse to Morris for five pounds. According to the 18th century penal law in Ireland, a Catholic has to sell his horse to a protestant, if the protestant asked him, for five pounds or under. O’Leary refused to sell his horse. Morris shot him. Eileen O’Connell composed her Caoineadh – her cry for her man. I chose this poem because it is a poem about various forms of violence – sexual, religious, political, forms of violence that occur again and again throughout Irish writing. But it is far more than that: here, the woman’s passion is fiercely real; this fierce, passionate, violent reality creates the poem’s momentum, its primal, driving, driven rhythms. It is, above all, a cry – a violent cry, beyond words, put into words. It intrigues me most of all for the way the woman’s violent feelings are somehow changed even as they are expressed in this unrelenting rhythmical momentum.

In order to give an idea of this transfiguring rhythm, I shall read a few lines from the Irish, and then, without comment, pass straight into the English. Remmber that the poem is a cry – the heart’s pure violence, dragged down into language, elevated by it, and transfigured in it.

A Cry for Art O’Leary

Translated by Brendan Kennelly)

My love
The first time I saw you
From the top of the market
My eyes covered you
My heart went out to you
I left my friends for you
Threw away my home for you

What else could I do?

You got the best rooms for me
All in order for me
Ovens burning for me
Fresh trout caught for me
Choice meat for me

In the best of beds I stretched
Till milling-time hummed for me

You made the whole world
Pleasing to me

White rider of love!

I love your silver-hilted sword
How your beaver hat became you
With its band of gold
Your friendly homespun suit
Revealed your body
Your pin of glinting silver
Glittered in your shirt

On your horse in style
You were sensitive pale-faced
Having journeyed overseas
The English respected you
Bowing to the ground
Not because they loved you
But true to their hearts’ hate

They’re the ones who killed you
Darling of my heart

My lover
My love’s creature
Pride of Immokelly
To me you were not dead
Till your great mare came to me
Her bridle dragging ground
Her head with your startling blood
Your blood upon the saddle
You rode in your prime

I didn’t wait to clean it
I leaped across my bed
I leaped then to the gate
I leaped upon your mare
I clapped my hands in frenzy
I followed every sign
With all the skill I knew
Until I found you lying
Dead near a furze bush
Without pope or bishop
Or cleric or priest
To say a prayer for you

Only a crooked wasted hag
Throwing your cloak across you

I could no nothing then
In the sight of God
But go on my knees
And kiss your face
And drink your free blood

My man!
Going out the gate
You turned back again
Kissed the two children
Threw a kiss at me
Saying “Eileen, woman, try
To get this house in order,
Do your best for us
I must be going now
I’ll not be home again.”
I thought that you were joking
You my laughing man.

My man!
My Art O’Leary
Up on your horse now
Ride out to Macroom
And then to Inchigeela
Take a bottle of wine
Like your people before you
Rise up
My Art O’Leary
Of the sword of love

Put on your clothes
Your black beaver
Your black gloves
Take down your whip
Your mare is waiting
Go east by the thin road
Every bush will salute you
Every stream will speak to you
Men and women acknowledge you

They know a great man
When they set eyes on him

God’s curse on you, Morris
God’s curse on your treachery
You swept my man from me
The man of my children
Two children play in the house
A third lives in me

He won’t come alive from me

My heart’s wound
Why as I not with you
When you were shot
That I might take the bullet
In my own body?
Then you’d had gone free
Rider of the grey eye
And followed them
Who’d murdered me

My man!
I look at you now
All I know of a hero
True man with true heart
Stuck in a coffin
You fished the clean streams
Drank nightlong in halls
Among frank-breasted women

I miss you

My man!
I am crying for you
In far derrynane
In yellow-appled Carren
Where many a horseman
And vigilant woman
Would be quick to join
In crying for you
Art O’Leary
My laughing man

O crying women
Long live your crying
Till Art O’Leary
Goes back to school
On a fateful day
Not for books and music

But for stones and clay

My man!
The corn is stacked
The cows are milked
My heart is a lump of grief
I will never be healed
Till Art O’Leary
Comes back to me

I am a locked trunk
The key is lost
I must wait till rust
Devours the screw

O my best friend
Art O’Leary
Son of Conor
Son of Cadach
Son of Lewis
East from wooden glens
West from girlish hills
Yellow nuts budge from branches
Apples laugh like small suns
At once they laughed
Throughout my girlhood
It is no cause for wonder
If bonfires lit O’Leary country
Or holy Gougane Barra
After the clean-gripping rider
The robust hunter
Panting towards the kill

Your own hounds lagged behind you
O horseman of the summoning eyes
What happened you last night?
My only whole belief
Was that you could not die
For I was your protection

My heart! My grief!

My man! My darling!

In Cork
I had this vision
Lying in my bed:
A glen of withered trees
A home heart-broken
Strangled hunting-hounds
Choked birds
And you
Drying on a hillside
Art O’Leary
My one man
Your blood running crazily
Over earth and stone

Jesus Christ knows well
I’ll wear no cap
No mourning dress
No solemn shoes
No bridle on my horse
No grief-signs in my house
But test instead
The wisdom of the law

I’ll cross the sea
To speak to the King
If he ignores me
I’ll come back home
To find the man
Who murdered my man
Morris, because of you
My man is dead
Is there a man in Ireland
To put a bullet through your head?

Women, white women of the mill
I give my love to you
For the poetry you made
For Art O’Leary
Rider of the brown mare
Deep women-rhythms of blood
The fiercest and the sweetest
Since time began
Singing of this cry I woman make
For my man

When one reads a poem like that, I think one is entitled to ask: what do we do with the violence of our emotions? And further – how is it that, so frequently, we, as critics, tend to obscure or hide or minimize the violence that is at the heart of such good poetry? Why do we kill poetry with intellectual politeness – with fatuous phrases like “It seems to me”, when we should be saying “I believe”. But even politeness has an ironic violence. You notice that I wrote (unconsciously) that politeness “kills”. The poet who, in our times, has the reputation of dealing most frontally with violence is the English poet, Ted Hughes. When asked about violence in his poetry, he has this to say:

When my Aunt calls my verse “horrible and violent” I know what she means.
Because I know what style of life and outlook she is defending. And I know
that she is representative of huge numbers of people in England…
What she has is an idea of what poetry ought to be… a very vague idea, since
it’s based on an almost total ignorance of what poetry has been written. She
has an instinct for a kind of poetry that will confirm the values of her way of
life. So to define their use of the word violence any further, you have to work
out just why her way of life should find the behaviour of a hawk “horrible” or
any reference to violent death “disgusting”, just as she finds any reference to
extreme vehemence of life “frightening somehow”. It’s a futile quarrel really.
It’s the same one that Shakespeare found the fable for in his Venus and Adonis
Shakespeare spent his life trying to prove that Adonis is right, the rational
Sceptic, the man of puritan good order. It put him through the tragedies before
He decided that the quarrel could not be kept up honestly. Since then the
Difficult task of any poet in English has been to locate the force which
Shakespeare called Venus in his first poem and Sycorax in his last.
Poetry only records these movements in the general life….it doesn’t
Investigate them. The presence of the great goddess of the primaeval world,
Which Catholic countries have managed to retain the figure of Mary, is
Precisely what England seems to have lacked, since the Civil War…where
negotiations were finally broken off. Is Mary violent? Yet Venus in
Shakespeare’s poem if one reads between the lines eventually murdered
Adonis….she murdered him because he rejected her. He was so desensitized,
Stupefied and brutalized by his rational skepticism, he didn’t know what to
Make of her. He thought she was an ethical peril. He was a sort of modern
Critic in the larval phase…a modern English critic. A typical modern
Englishman. What he calls violence is a very particular thing. In ordinary
Criticism it seems to be confused a lot with another type of violence which is
the ordinary violence of our psychotic democracy…our materialist, non-
organic democracy which is trying to stand up with a bookish theory instead
of a skeleton. Every society has its dream that has to be dreamed, and if we
go by what appears on TV the perpetual tortures and executions there, and the
spectacle of the whole population, not just a few neurotic intellectuals but the
whole mass of the people, slumped every night in front of their sets… in
attitudes of total disengagement, a sort of anaesthetized unconcern watching
their dream reeled off in front of them, if that’s the dream of our society, then
we haven’t created a society but a hell. The stuff of pulp fiction supports the
idea. We are dreaming a perpetual massacre.2

In this assiduously-created hell, masquerading as a society, modern England may well be dreaming “a perpetual massacre”, as it sits content and stupefied before the TV in a trance of symbiotic terror. The same is true of a good deal of modern Irish Life; Ireland is, in certain respects, as mummified by television violence and soap-operas as England or any other country. But in Ireland the massacre is not merely dreamed on television; it is enacted in the streets of Derry and Belfast and other places. The horrors of history are alive and well; and they have always been investigated, brooded on, and dramatized by Irish poets. Ireland is a small, relatively
poor country – a small, congested place with a lot of hatred in it. There is a tourists’ Ireland; there is a terrorists’ Ireland; there is an Ireland of sentimentality, nostalgia, four green fields, Cathleen ni Houilhan, patriotic ballads sung in pubs to the musical accompaniment of Guinness being gulped; an Ireland of image-making, flawless middle-class Catholic respectability, flawless Protestant politeness with nice accents and good taste; an Ireland of endless opinions, comments, judgements, talk (always talk), and letters to the Irish Times about the first cuckoo of the year, and the last true Republicans of the century.

And there is an Ireland, increasingly, of money, with all the polished, ruthless violence that money can bring; an Ireland, increasingly, of big business and cut-throat competition; an Ireland that is busy burying peasant superstition and practicing a new bourgeois style, with all that that means and implies. And meanwhile there are bombs in shops, in streets, outside police barracks; there are assassinations and revenge-killings and corrective kneecappings. And there are always the innocent victims of this savage, tireless historical process, this appetite for death. The kind of violence I’m talking about now, the violence engendered by history, is the violence of hatred. Hatred is a dynamic force, a stimulating, animating power. Hatred hates indifference. Hatred loves its own annihilating expression, wiping out distinctions between innocent and guilty, adult and child, man and woman. Hatred tolerates no humane hierarchies of kindness, gentleness, affection, considerateness. Hatred sneers at the futility of intellectual subtlety. And hatred is, above all, a devoted servant to a cause. Hatred revels in devotion, in an act of unswerving service to a cause. In serving that cause, whatever it be, hatred is exemplary in its attention to its own unshakeable purpose. Yeats captured the situation when he wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come:
Great hatred, little room
Maimed us at the start;
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart;

The beat of that fanatic heart can be heard clearly and frequently in Irish poetry. Here is a typical poem about hatred at work. It is by James Simmons. It is a ballad called Claudy. Terrorists leave a car containing bombs, in a village. They go to a nearby town to telephone a warning. The phone doesn’t work. The consequences are horrific. Good poetry captures consequences.

A Ballad

The Sperrings surround it, the Faughan flows by,
At each end of Main Street, the hills and sky,
The small town of Claudy at ease in the sun
Last July in the morning, a new day begun.

How peaceful and pretty if the moment could stop.
McIlhenny is straightening things in his shop,
And his wife is outside serving petrol, and then,
A child takes a cloth to a big window-pane.

McCloskey is taking the weight off his feet,
And McClelland and Millar are sweeping the street,
And, delivering milk at the Beaufort Hotel,
Young Temple’s enjoying his first job quite well.

And Mrs McLaughlin is scrubbing her floor,
And Artie Hone’s crossing the street to a door,
And Mrs. Brown, looking around for her cat,
Goes off up an entry – What’s strange about that?

Not much – but before she comes back to the road
That strange car parked outside her door will explode,
And all of the people I’ve mentioned, outside,
Will be waiting to die, or already have died.

An explosion too loud for your eardrums to bear,
And young children squealing like pigs in the square,
And all faces chalk white and streaked with bright red,
And the glass and the dust and the terrible dead…

For an old lady’s legs are ripped off, and the head
Of a man’s hanging open and still he’s not dead.
He is screaming for mercy while his stands and stares
And stares, and then, suddenly, quick, disappears.

And Christ! Little Katharine Aikin is dead
And Mrs McCloskey is pierced through the head.
Meanwhile to Dungiven the killers have gone
And they\re finding it hard to get through on the phone.

Lying under the increasingly bland surfaces of Irish life, are various degrees of pathological hatred.

At this point, I would like to say that I believe that poetry is the language of the heart, shaped, directed, controlled, moulded and ordered by its colleague, the sympathetic, vigilant and discriminating intelligence. Poetry pays attention to feelings; and it finds its life in these feelings. By paying attention, constant attention, poetry discriminates, defines, and celebrates what it discovers. Poetry, like hatred, is therefore a kind of education, demanding dedication. But where poetry is the language of the heart in all its human vacillation and uncertainty, hatred is the language (word-language or bomb-language or gun-language) – the language of the heartless in all its stamina and unfeeling devotion. A person in love is potentially happy, or, potentially, a victim; a person in hate is unquestionably beyond such possibility of fulfillment or vulnerability. A person in hate becomes the instrument of his hatred. His heart is a stone. And yet, it could be argued that political and historical changes have been brought about by the stony-hearted. So any poem about this kind of violence must confront this problem, this contradiction: any change, the sort of change that brings about new civilizations with, perhaps, accompanying great works of art, admired by the sensitive, analysed by structuralist and deconstructionists in a formal, sophisticated idiom – that sort of change is often brought about by men and women who have precious little time for the sweet fruits of civilization, the consolations of poetry, the challenges and comforts of art. At the roots of good taste lies barbarism. In museums reposes evidence of murder and massacres; enthroned kings and popes rule and advise, pronounce and pontificate, to a background of blood. Yeats put it cogently:

Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent meant, might rear in stone,
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known –

Violence is the begetter of sweetness and gentleness. Murderous disorder is often the source of that beautiful, unruffled self-possession and order which are associated with style.

Men with fanatical political causes embody this contradiction; they, the agents of change, are driven by a purpose that cannot change.
The most interesting parts of Yeat’s poem Easter 1916 debate this problem of change and unchangingness. Yeats cannot solve it. His moral intelligence as a person is repelled by what his imagination senses to be brutally true. The law of nature, or the law of God, is the law of change. In Dublin, Yeats knew men whose lives were devoted to radical change. He saw these people as “Hearts with one purpose alone”. All around them, everything changes in nature,

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seen
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream
The horse that comes from the road
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Creatures that live from “minute to minute” consciously or unconsciously partake of the universal changes that never cease, either within or outside them. But if the heart’s a stone, what price change? Yeats says of the revolutionaries that they may have been bewildered by “excess of love”. He does not, in this poem, speak of hatred – and this is, I think, one of the poem’s shortcomings. This evasiveness in the poem helps to account for its flag-waving, rhetorical conclusion. He does begin to explore the situation created by the fact that

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart
O when may it suffice?

but the swerves away from that question and from further exploration with

To know they dreamed and are dead.

Well, yes, they dreamed. And they acted too. And they set in motion these changes that have helped to produce a small, modern country. But did not that “excess of love” (if it was such, or such only) also lead to, or point the way towards, both the new middle-class Irish society, and the “Northern Troubles”, as that warfare is called. The stony-heartedness that resists change within itself, because its sole purpose is change in society, becomes part of the forces that it helps to unleash. It has its own messianism. That messianism may, generations later, pick up willing disciplines and devotees. In fact, such discipleship is inevitable, so that the unborn will be burdened, in their time, with the responsibilities of the “stony heart”. Irish history is so riddled with violence, so packed with horrors and persecutions of various kinds, that any significant body of poetry out of Ireland must take account of both that violence and its consequences.

A young contemporary poet, Michael Longley, looks at history, and sees wounds, the wounds of people, the wounds of history. Longley is a Northern Unionist; his father fought for the English, with the Ulster Division, at the Somme. His father survived that war, and died later when his wounds turned to cancer. Longley links his father’s death and burial with the burial of three young English soldiers, and the death of a bus-conductor, murdered by a youngster of teenager, as the family prepared to watch television, after supper. I choose this poem, Wounds, because it depicts the consequences in a atmosphere of domestic normality. A boy, becomes the instrument of history’s blind hatred, kills, because he himself is both victim and instrument. This poem is a striking example of the grotesque normality of that violence which is the consequence of previous violence which is itself the consequence of previous violence – and so on. What is appalling is the reader’s realization of something about the very nature of violence – that is, its fertility, is spawning, helpless fertility, endlessly begetting itself in infinite form, like a demented Proteus.


Here are two pictures from my father’s head –
I have kept them like secrets until now:
First, the Ulster Division at the Somme
Going over the top with “Fuck the Pope!”
“No Surrender!”: a boy about to die,
Screaming “Give ‘em one for the Shankill!”
“Wilder than Gurkhas” were my father’s words
Of admiration and bewilderment.
Next comes the London-Scottish padre
Resettling kilts with his swagger-stick,
With a stylish backhand and a prayer.
Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
“I am dying for King and Country, slowly.”
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.

Now, with military honours of a kind
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A Lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think “Sorry Missus” was what he said.

What is “civilized” in us must condemn violence, as leaders of governments do with predicable clichés and platitudes. These do not diminish the sincerity of leaders; but they do emphasise the ready-to-hand slogan-like quality of their condemnations, as if leaders sensed something hollow in their own rhetoric of condemnation. If what is “civilized” in us must condemn, what is exploratory and creative in us must enquire and ponder.

What is violence?

As I write this lecture, the ink from my pen is violating the whiteness of the paper. When I eat, I know (usually) hat a creature had to be killed so that my stomach may be satisfied. Beautiful, and unbeautiful women are often wrapped in the skins of several animals. Men, women and children walk, their feet cosily wrapped in death. If, as a teacher, one plants an idea in a student’s mind that may be partly responsible for, say, a gesture or act or word from that person which may cause hurt to another, is one violating that person? How much violence is there in education? How many victims of intellectual rape are there in Universities? How much “happy” home-life depends on silent, and silently, mutually agreed-on, forms of violence? How violent are so-called passive women? What violence lies in Daddy’s concern, his future-moulding concern for his son? How much are children violated by parents, parents by children? What violence begins to be born in us when we are too embarrassed or bland or indifferent o confront the problem of violence in ourselves? And can the “struggle for control” lead to other forms of violence? Above all, perhaps, what violence is there in our desire to possess – to possess houses, cars, jobs, each other? One thing is sure – the violence engendered in us as a result of discovery and admission is less damaging than the violence, frequently disguised as morality, engendered in us when we lie to ourselves. That is why the poetry of recognition and admission, no matter how clumsy or awkward, must always be preferable to the poetry of stylish evasion. There are many examples of both kinds of poem in the work of the same poet. Yeats, Ireland’s greatest poet, is a good example. When Yeats is talking about being noble or candid or dignified or distinguished or vaguely aristocratic or honest (God help us!) then I prefer to think that Yeats is – just talking. But, in the next poem or the next breath, Yeats can admit the violence in his nature, and, without mentioning a word about candour and honesty, he wins our hearts with his honesty and candour.

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age:
They were not such a plague when I was young.
What else have I to spur me into song?

There, in a nutshell, is the core of the matter. The imagination of a man or a woman can be nourished by the same violent feelings and forces which would most likely repel that same man or woman in his or her attempts to live an ordinary, decent life. The light of poetry often finds its origin in the darkness of our natures. It is no wonder at all that Plato banished poets from his ideal republic. Or so my classical friends tell me.

Because poetry is, among other things, an interrogatory art, an art of relentless questioning. Ibsen called poetry “the soul’s tribunal”: when we read poetry, really read it, we are putting ourselves on trial. Do some people relegate poetry to the level of mere entertainment, or consolatory escapism, precisely because the close, intense study of it can result in a brutal state of self-revelation> So we condemn what we are not prepared to confront.

Because Irish life has so many kinds of violence in it, Irish poets have responded in a great variety of ways. So far, I have, for the most part, concentrated on public manifestations of violence, and their consequences. Public institutions and the lives of private individuals meet in ways both obvious and subtle. In Ireland, the most powerful single institution is the Roman Catholic Church. Over 95% of the population are Catholic. The Church is omnipresent, omniscient, and apparently, omnipotent in Ireland. It is a predominantly male institution, though there are nuns everywhere. Only recently have Irish women begun to show any defiance against the Church; women were content, or seemed content, to go along with the fact and the implications of male domination. No divorce! No contraception! Sexual pleasure, outside of marriage, is a sin! Even within marriage, the purpose of sex is the begetting of children. And this must be the purpose – even if the mother is ill. Serious illness is no excuse. Many Irish women have died because of this kind of tyrannical, male-clerical thinking.

The Irish poet who most confronted and demonstrated this kind of tyranny is Austin Clarke. His autobiography Twice Round the Black Church is a stirring account of his own experience in the Catholic Church, and of his life when he left it. In this passage, for example, he describes his first confession at the age of seven. What we witness is a clerical assault on a child’s consciousness.

At seven I made my first confession. I cannot remember how and when I was
prepared for the sacrament of penance. No doubt I conned the penny
catechism in class and learned the sixth commandment, which forbids all
looks, words and actions against the virtue of chastity, speech with bad
companions, improper dances, immodest company keeping and indecent
conversation. In eager anticipation I set forth, proud of having now attained to
the theological age of reason and in awe, knowing that the confessor was the
visible representative of Christ. I went up Mountjoy Street that morning on our
side of the street, past the Protestant orphanage, Wellington Street corner, and
glanced up at the bit clock over the public house.
In Berkeley Road chapel, I read the name of Father O’Callaghan over a
Confessional and, kneeling down, waited till the last penitents had left. Then I
Opened the side door on the left of the confessional and found myself in the
Narrow dark recess and, in a minute, the panel was drawn back. I told my little
Tale of fibs, disobedience and loss of temper and then Father O’Callaghan
Bent towards the grille and asked me a strange question which puzzled me for
I could not understand it. He repeated the question and as I was still puzzled
he proceeded to explain in detail and I was disturbed by a sense of evil. I
denied everything but he did not believe me and, as I glanced up at the grille,
his great hooknose and fierce eyes filled me with fear. Suddenly the panel
closed and I heard Father O’Callaghan coming out of the confession box. He
opened the side door and told me to follow him to the vestry. I did so,
bewildered by what was happening. He sat down, told me to kneel and once
more repeated over and over his strange question, asking me if I had ever
made myself weak. The examination seemed to take hours though it must
have been only a few minutes. At last, in fear and desperation, I admitted
to the unknown sin. I left the church, feeling that I had told a lie in my first
confession and returned home in tears but, with the instinct of childhood,
said nothing about it to my mother.

That little drama begins in a confession box. One can feel there, in that poem, the power of the priest over the child. And that power breeds in the child a sense of evil. And so it was, and often still is, not only with priests and children, but with priests and women. I would like to read you a poem by Austin Clarke which represents a woman going to confession, to a Redemptorist priest, a missioner. She tells him it is ten months since the birth of her last child. The Redemptorist priest says this is a sin; and he cannot forgive her until she conceives again. She protests a little, but in vain. She goes home, her husband makes love to her that Saturday night, she conceives again, she dies giving birth. It is a simple, frightening parable of the power of priests over women; of the violence done by an institution against a single, fragile, vulnerable woman. And this poem is also an excellent illustration of the kind of poem that Austin Clarke perfected – imagistic, anecdotal, making use of dialogue and brief, vivid, effective moments of characterization. The poem is, in effect, a little drama, a small play in a confession-box as a result of which the woman dies and the priest goes on his proud, powerful way, self-inflated with rhetoric and images of hell-fire. One gets in this poem a sense of the male conspiracy between priest and husband which has always been strong in Ireland. It is the woman who suffers as a result of the violence implicit in the “morality” of the institution of which she is a member, and in the doctrines of which she, presumably, believes. The violence done to her, her actual death, is brought about by the very fact of her belief. One wonders how many women have died because of their sincerity.

There is reference in this poem to Adam and Eve’s; it is a church in Dublin. The poem is entitled The Redemptorist. It is important to realize that the dialogue takes place in the extremely quiet privacy of the confessional.

The Redemptorist

“How many children have you?” asked
The big Redemptorist.
“Six, Father.”
“The last,
When was it born?”
“Ten months ago.”
“I cannot absolve your mortal sin
Until you conceive again. Go home,
Obey your husband.”
She whimpered:
The doctor warned me…”
Shutter became
Her coffin lid. She twisted her thin hands
And left the box.
The missioner,
Red-bearded saint, had brought hell’s flame
To frighten women on retreat:
Sent on his spiritual errand,
It rolled along the village street
Until Rathfarnham was housing smoke
That sooted the Jesuits in their Castle.
“No pregnancy. You’ll die the next time,”
The Doctor had said.

Her tiredness obeyed
That Saturday night: her husband’s weight
Digging her grave So, in nine months, she
Sank in great agony on a Monday
Her children wept in the Orphanage,
Huddled together in the annexe,
While, proud of the Black Cross on his badge,
The Liguorian, at Adam and Eve’s,
Ascended the pulpit, sulphuring his sleeves
And setting fire to the holy text.

What Austin Clarke gets at, in a ruthless, penetrating way, is the hypocrisy engendered by the violence of the institution of the Church, directed against its members, especially women. Some three thousand Irish girls go to England to have abortions there. This suits perfectly. There are, you see, no abortions in Ireland. That means we’re pure. But you can have an abortion in England. Aren’t the English terrible? As a race, we Irish are so casually hypocritical in such matters that it is almost unbelievable.

And yet, precisely because of this blend of tyranny, hypocrisy and oppression, Irish poets have always celebrated the integrity, energy and heroic common-sense of women. The best of O’Casey’s plays are a celebration of women’s courage and endurance. Joyce’s Ulysses finishes with Molly Bloom’s torrential affirmation of life. Later novelists such as John Mc Gahern, Brian Moore and Edna O’Brien concentrate much on women’s fighting spirit. Beckett’s understanding and presentation is profound and comprehensive. And Thomas Murphy’s recent play, Bailegangaire, is a wonderfully poetic celebration of the sheer spirit and stamina of women.

Long before any of these writers, however, James Stephens wrote about the way some women fought against the bland tyranny of men (that sort of tyranny, of which even men themselves realize they are guilty.) I have chosen James Stephens because he is a rather neglected figure. He was a contemporary of Yeats: he was a tiny little man (he has been referred to as a leprechaun): he was an orphan who is said to have been helped, when very young, by various women who took pity on him. In his novels, The Crock of Gold, Deirdre and The Demi-Gods, in his short stories, especially Hunger, and in many of his poems, Stephens has his women fight against their oppressive circumstances. Above all, perhaps, he is interested in how certain women fight for their identity in a world where so many forces combine to undermine that identity. In exploring woman’s identity, Stephens discovers the well-springs of his own compassion as a poet: he finds out the direction of his deepest sympathies. In this poem, The Red-Haired Man’s Wife, Stephen reveals the violence inherent in man’s sacred structures, such as marriage. These structures are created by man, and sanctioned by man’s God. This poem always reminds me of a line from Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi. It is spoken by the Duchess herself, after she has experienced violence, horror and humiliation. She says I am Duchess of Malfi still. Here’s Stephen’s poem, in which the woman realizes and protests against the bland tyranny she senses is at the heart of the marriage-union:


I have taken that vow!
And you were my friend
But yesterday – Now
All that’s at an end;
And you are my husband, and claim me, and
I must depend!

Yesterday I was free!
Now you, as I stand
Walk over to me
And take hold of my hand;
You look at my lips! Your eyes are too
Bold, your smile is too bland!

My old name is lost;
My distinction of racd!
Now, the line has been crossed,
Must I step to your pace?
Must I walk as you list, and obey, and smile
Up in your face?

All the white and the red
Of my cheeks you have won!

All the hair of my head!
And my feet, tho’ they run,
Are yours, and you own me and end me,
Just as I begun!

Must I bow when you speak!
Be silent and hear;
Inclining my cheek
And incredulous ear
To your voice, and command, and behest;
Hold your lightest wish dear!

I am woman! But still
Am alive, and can feel
Every intimate thrill
That is woe or is weal:
I, aloof, and divided apart, standing far,
Can I kneel?

Oh, if kneeling were right,
I should kneel nor be sad!
And abase in your sight
All the pride that I had!
I should come to you, hold to you, cling to
You, call to you, glad!

If not, I shall know,
I shall surely find out!
And your world will throw
In disaster and rout!
I am woman and glory, and beauty; I
Mystery, terror and doubt!

I am separate still!
I am I and not you!
And my mind and my will
As in secret they grew,
Still are secret; unreached, and untouched,
And not subject to you.

That, from a woman’s viewpoint, is a poem about violence within a certain kind of marriage. As a rule, Irish poetry (with a few recent exceptions) has not really begun to explore the actual violence contained in marriage. Almost a hundred years after Ibsen, Irish poets are still tentative in explorations of “married” violence. Around marriage there is an entire mythology of happiness, peace, hygiene, promise, renewal, generation, valid or legal or legitimate sexuality. The bride is in white, usually; the man is impeccable. This is the Big Day, the once-in-a-lifetime event (especially if you happen to be an Irish Catholic). The implication of the Big Day is that marriage will lead to various forms of fulfillment. And no doubt it does, in certain cases. But in many other cases, it leads to other sates, other conditions. It locks two people together in what can be a kind of violent, exclusive intimacy, a private arena where each can throw the other to the emotional lions. The togetherness of marriage can be based on a recognition of the silent violence of the atmosphere in which the couple live, discover each other, look at each other, renew each other. In this respect, violence is a kind of education, a private enlightenment, a schooling in forms of determination and continuity. Here is Thomas Kinsella’s poem, Remembering Old War:


What clamped us together? When each night fell we lay down
In the smell of decay and slept, our bodies leaking,
Limp as the dead, breathing that smell all night.

Then light prodded us awake, and adversity
Flooded up from inside us as we laboured upright
Once more to face the hells of circumstance.

And so on, without hope of change or peace.
Each dawn, like lovers recollecting their purpose,
We would renew each other with a savage smile.

At the back of most of the poems I’ve talked about is some kind of response to the violence inherent in sexuality. The Church uses this violence to keep women down; one man uses it to establish his own mastery, another to renew both himself and his mate while his mate does the same. It would appear that poetry tells us that violence is inevitable and universal, that it has to do with vital and consequential change, that it appeals to the imagination of a person even as it threatens or even appalls that same person’s daily life. Or to put it another way: there are certain forces which, simultaneously, attract the imagination and repel the reason. Yeats’s last poem Under Ben Bulben is a celebration of what violence can lead to.

You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard
“Send war in our time, O Lord!”
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

The imagination instinctively realizes that violence exists everywhere, and has its own purpose. It goes further: violence is a kind of motive-power, a sort of emotional fuel, a key to developed action, a source of creative thinking, a restless, stirring, challenging origin of art and civilization.

Poetry, like the moth to the flame, is drawn towards violence. But poetry does not perish because of this attraction. In fact, poetry is animated, vitalized, refreshed by the contact. This is so, I think, because poetry is neither moral nor immoral. It is amoral, it exists beyond conventional morality. If poetry merely reflected conventional morality, it would exist only in Christmas bards and after-dinner speeches. But poetry creates its own new fierce, vigorous code of morality. It was Synge who said that “before verse can be human again, it must learn to be brutal.” This is the real crux. If poetry is to be real, challenging, primitive and sophisticated a once, then it must observe and imitate that fundamental principle of life: in a million different ways, under the guise of politeness, concern, do-gooding, converting, enlightening, educating, loving, - people do violence to each other. Not to perceive and explore this in poetry is to open the floodgates of sentimentally and sententious moralizing. That is why I personally believe that poetry, far from being consolatory and uplifting like some Victorian pill to send you asleep, radiant with beautiful thoughts, poetry is dangerous, particularly if I is constantly and attentively read. Not all of it is like this; but a surprising amount of it is.

Let us look, for example, at Yeats’s Leda and the Swan. It is a poem about rape. The poem does not condemn rape; neither does it condone it; it represents it. And yet, if the poem could be said to teeter between condemning and condoning, I think that, after many readings, it could be argued that phrases such as “feathered glory”, “loosening thighs”, “strange heart”, “white rush”, and the sheer power of “engenders there” – all these veer towards a dramatization of the energy of the rapist, and not the plight of the victim. In the present act of violence, the future is born. Violence begets violence. Agamemnon is dead at the moment of the rape of Leda. Time and its fierce dramas are concentrated, focused in that violent sexual act. We are appalled at the barbarism of the truth. The god, in the shape of a swan, rapes the girl. The poem, beautifully made, contains this violence within its elegant framework. The formal elegance makes the violence more savagely real, and forces the intellect to accommodate, in one mental feat, the co-incidence of act and consequence. Morality, as we tend to understand it, has no place here. The present is furiously incenses, that the future may be unleashed.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her tights caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak would let her drop?

Poetry tends to recognize and demonstrate what a conventional morality will tend to outlaw and condemn. The imagination, when it is probing, serves no system, obeys no law but its own longing for exciting truth. What we call “violence” is only a par of that excitement”; gentleness, love, pity and mercy also come under its defining and dramatizing scrutiny. Many of us tend to be like Ted Hughes’s aunt – we tend to find a poetry that confronts violence somehow violent in itself, as if a poem were, totally, confined to its theme. It is not. A poem is limited only by the extent to which it fails to explore and present, as fully and truthfully as possible, the particular emotional world it has chosen, or been compelled by perhaps very instinctive forces, to explore and present. Ironically, Ted Hughes’s aunt may well be a good, albeit reluctant, guide to the value of “violent” poetry. The more disgusted she is, the better the poem is likely to be. Most of us do find violence frightening and disgusting; but this doesn’t mean, of course, that a poem successfully presenting that same violence is disgusting and/or frightening. But, long before Victorian times, and certainly after Victorian times, there are many people who like to see poetry as “beautiful”, “consolatory”, “uplifting”, “edifying”, “beneficial to the soul”. It may, indeed, be all these things: but it can also achieve the effect of the opposite of all these things: ugly, distressing, dangerous, even degrading, playing havoc with the spirit, if sensitively read. The treatment of violence in Irish poetry tells us that poetry cannot be denied its own full, adventurous, enquiring life. It will not be labeled, safely categorized, put into classified boxes.

Poetry, by definition, is always breaking through boundaries and categories. To try to inhibit or limit the function is to do violence to the very nature of the poetry, to make it the sweet, biddable, musical slave of our expectations. The poetry that deals with violence is more concerned with its own compulsions than with the expectations of others. It will not flatter or comfort or console; it will disturb, challenge, even threaten. Above all, it threatens our complacency. And, in a world that seems hell-bent on its own destruction, that threat to complacent unawareness is a valuable service. We are brought into closer, more articulate contact with fiercely energetic forces which are at work both within and outside ourselves. The poems I have read and spoken about represent some of these forces; they demand that we look at what we call violence face to face. Reading becomes a kind of encounter with the repulsive, even the unspeakable. Returning from such encounters, we are more aware, more conscious. What we choose to do, or not to do, with our state of temporarily extended awareness, is our own affair. “Violent” poetry, the poetry of uncompromising consciousness, the poetry of hard, raw reality, continues to do its work of dramatic demonstration, of ruthless bringing-to-mind, of accusation and warning. This work, as I hope I have shown, is difficult, discomforting, and increasingly necessary.

Brendan Kennelly

[1] Taken from “History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature”, ed. Joris Duytschaever and Geert Lernout, in COSTERUS, Vol. 71, Amsterdam 1988
[2] “Ted Hughes and Crow”, London Magazine, January 1971, p. 5 -7

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