Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Poetry and Social Relevance

A brief introduction in the form of a letter to Gabriel Rosenstock after he asked for some feed-back to his essay 'Poetry and Social Relevance' (see below)

Athens 20.9.2012

Dear Gabriel,

that is an interesting approach to depicting the relationship between poetry and society. Naturally the question about social relevance is a false question since poetry usually picks up things which are considered not to be socially relevant and thus gives values to things otherwise neglected or otherwise overlooked.

Kevin Cooper, photo journalist, does emphasize, however, something he learned during the conflict in Belfast, namely always to take such photos which show a human understanding of the conflict. And may this be a photo of two enemies standing side by side at a funeral and the photo draws attention that nearly their hands touch. Six months later these two sign the peace agreement. 

It reminds of one special part in your essay about 'Missing the bus', namely the touching of hands when the one guy gave fire to the other and he sits later in the bus and wonders how it could happen that he was touched or was he by a Protestant.

It is a beautiful poem that you selected. My attention to the conflict in Ireland was drawn first of all by Brendan Kennelly's essay 'Poetry and Violence'. As to the nature of conflict or violence prevailing at that time, alone his poem 'Nails' draws depicts how arbitrary violence caused by the wish to spread terror (panic) inflicts upon our societies more than mere pain. It hits innocent people, in particular children. We have done a lot of work in Belfast in conjunction with Kids' Guernica and therefore I am happy to read your paper on 'poetry and social relevance' in this conjunction. It relates well to what you have forwarded to me as well, namely that essay about Belfast, a city divided by peace (see below for source). As to experiences related to the existence of a peace wall in Belfast, and the entire atmosphere to be sensed when walking through the various communities, I could not help but compare it with Berlin when still a divided city until 1989. Alone to see that one gate which is opened only once a year for those wishing to march to their lodge up the road, that is something I think about very often. See for more materials about the Kids' Guernica action in Belfast with Bernard Conlon responsible and supported by Kevin Cooper, see http://poieinkaiprattein.org/kids-guernica/belfast-kids-guernica/ There is one more thing to say. When looking at the numerous murals, I came across one depicting and glorifying violence in First World War.

Protestant Wall mural in Belfast - memories of WWI

That made me realize further that the conflict is one of having glorified on both sides violence as a way to gain honor (recognition) from the Queen (Protestants fighting in First World War) or else freedom (Catholics fighting for their indepedence). Curiously enough while Ireland fought its way to independence during First World War, other European countries and cultures experienced the First World War as a turning point. Thomas Mann describes it well in 'Magic Mountain': they went to war as if an adventure and out of boredom due to having spend too much time behind desks and they came back shocked by all the violence. Paul Klee said thereafter any creation of beauty has to be out of memory since all beauty has been destroyed and that would make any expression thereof necessarily abstact. I find there prevails a kind of managerial - hotel - red light - cheap love culture which thrives on this boredom since the impression prevails as if no one makes any more some human experience worthy to narrate. Poetry should not strive to be socially relevant. It is already by making sure human observations are not left out and at the same time does not become a lyrical protest. As Foucault would say we have to discover these places of silence before the lyrical protest threatens to cover them up completely.

Hatto Fischer
Athens 20.9.2012



Missing the Bus: Poetry and Social Relevance


Gabriel Rosenstock


Poetry that has social relevance need not depict contemporary situations, or real situations, but when it does it can have an immediacy that appeals to an audience, or makes an audience feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Until recent times, many people – at least those who watch the news – if asked to conjure up a vision of Ireland, the unrest and violence in Northern Ireland would probably spring to mind. The poem that best describes that troubled society, in my view, is by an Irish-language poet, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Gearóid criss-crosses a lot between languages and his voice has been influenced by reggae, jazz, rap, traditional Irish music, Native American shamanism and Rastafarianism and he has revived the macaronic tradition in a curious way.

Poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson had a liberating effect on him, showing him the poetic value of the natural rhythms of street talk and the poetry of Padraic Fiacc paved the way for a questioning, urban vision. Gearóid’s poem Bus appears in the book Criss-Cross. Mo Chara (CIC 2011). Curiously enough, it appears in English, with my Irish-language translation.

The poem must be quoted in full. It manages to have a shattering effect while being quite understated, for the most part. At least, I find it understated. Some might find it frank, even rollicking or loud. For the uninitiated, let me explain that a ‘prod’ is a Protestant. A ‘fenian’ (or Fenian) is a derogatory nick-name for a republican or nationalist. ‘Shop ya to the dole’ means to report to the authorities that somebody is not entitled to social security/government benefit.

Liam Carson, a Belfast man, director of the Irish-language literature festival IMRAM, helped me to fine tune my analysis of the background to Mac Lochlainn’s poem: in order to imagine the social divide in Northern Ireland, picture a) the Protestant or Unionist community as similar in some ways to the Boers, and b) the Catholic or Nationalist (or Republican) community as the so-called kaffirs. (By Unionist we mean those who wished to maintain the Union with Britain while Republicans hoped for a 32-county united Ireland, but in each case one would have to ask, was the feeling mutual?)

Yes, the class divide was often as painful and as obvious and as totally unjust as the apartheid system, and the evil was compounded by religious animosity. A civil rights movement tried to tear the system apart by exposing the injustices, blatant injustices ignored by the Government in the South of Ireland as well as that of Britain. The violent response of Unionism and of the forces of the state to the not-unreasonable demands of the civil rights protestors created a political vacuum which was ready for the gun and the bomb.

Many people were looking over their shoulder a lot, as you can well imagine, or keeping the head down. Today, even after over fifteen years of relative peace and a power-sharing government, the city of Belfast has more 'peace lines' – reinforced barriers that separate working-class Catholic and Protestant areas – than ever before. 99 peace walls or interfaces exist in Belfast! Even in so-called 'mixed' middle-class areas, there is an invisible barrier that separates people of different religious backgrounds. Thank you Britain, thank you for the Ulster Plantation and for all of your other colonial adventures. Wonderful work!


Here’s the poem. It defines an era:



I left the house, said fuck all to her, just walked out, said Joe

And I’m hurryin for the bus all fuckn stressed out

I’m joggin’ down the fuckn hill and my ulcer’s on fire

And I can hardly breathe trying to catch this fuckn bus, man

And then I missed the fucker of a bastard bus by about ten seconds

Fuckn disaster

I’m watching the fucker drive away

Blowing smoke fumes in my face


So I had to hang about on the Saintfield Road

Just hangin about like

Waiting on the next bus

Just waiting there, doin fuck all, dying for a pint

Just mindin my own business, like

When I see one of the middle class prods

From down the bottom end of the street

Walkin towards me. An I’m noddin hello

And bein polite an all, and hows it goin an all

Because I know his face

And we live in the same middle-class proddy street

And the war’s all over and all that crap



And then I’m thinkin

That maybe he even thinks I’m one of them

Cos I say fuck all and keep a low profile

And why wouldn’t  ya?

It’s not like I wanna socialise with my prod neighbours

They might burn me out

Except they’re all middle class

And don’t do that type of thing

Up there…


But they’d probably shop ya to the dole

For bein a poor fenian

Ya know


But anyway, he’s walkin right up to me

And he’s gonna speak to me…

And I’m wonderin what’s goin on, like

And he stops and asks me for a light

And so I fumble about and dig out the lighter

And it’s like a wee bit windy, so I try to light the lighter

And I hold up the flame, and it goes out

And then I say sorry and light it again

And it’s still windy

So he cups his hands over the top of mine

And makes a wee windshield for the flame, see

And he lights his feg

And he thanks me


And he walks on down the road


And then the next bus comes

And I get on the bus

And I’m sittin on the bus

And I’m thinkin this was all really strange

I’m thinkin that he touched me

He touched me

Like his hands touched mine

when I gave him the light, see


And I’m rollin down the Ormeau Road on the bus

And I’m thinking it’s the first time

I’ve ever been touched a Protestant


And I’m feeling strange

About the whole thing

He touched my hands, you know…

He touched me


That’s Gearóid Mac Lochlainn’s Bus. For me it’s the poem that encapsulates the Northern malaise. It’s colourful, engaging, self-mocking, street wise and full of humanity, expressing a tenderness that tries to live and breathe and come to terms with itself in a toxic community. It perfectly describes the kind of apartheid that existed in Northern Ireland and that still lingers there, smouldering in the wasteland of history.

A fellow-poet in the Irish language, Liam Ó Muirthile, reminded me of the irrelevance of relevance:

The world of composition is essentially a private one, but the poet himself, must of necessity share a language with his/her audience. Nevertheless the primary audience of the poet, his social sphere, is himself and the Muse. This has always been true, even though the social function of poetry has undergone many changes over the centuries. However, the status of the poet – the learned poet with an achieved body of work – is still quite high even in so-called Western society, which in itself may be a throwback to the ancient beliefs of the druidic power of the poet.”

Good point. Now let us move South, to the Republic. In the South, a literary apartheid (of sorts) has been in force but of course it would never call itself that! It is a division between the two languages, those who write in the older language, Irish (Gaelic) and those who write in English, among whom are many modern luminaries who fled the Northern troubles and were embraced by the South.

This cultural and linguistic chasm is not unique to Ireland, of course, and is much more prevalent than we are led to believe. One of the many poets I have translated into Irish, Germain Droogenbroodt, wrote to me saying, “All marginal languages, including Flemish/Dutch, have the same problem. The “imperial” language is American; but it is not language alone which suffers the effects of capitalistic imperialism: what about music, habits, food, drink? However, as we have recently seen in Europe, capitalism has been eating itself and continues to eat itself, like that famous painting by Goya.” Yes, Germain, that opens up another can of worms, doesn’t it!

Arrive in Ireland and our literary reputation is there to greet you at the airport or on a poster in a pub, Goldsmith, Swift, Shaw, Lady Gregory, Yeats, Wilde, Synge, O’Casey, Friel, Behan, Heaney and all the others, smiling in a benign fashion or staring wistfully into empty space. And where are the Gaels? Swept under the carpet for the most part. (The fact that many of our well-known literati, O’Flaherty, Brian O’Nolan, Frank O’Connor, Behan etc also wrote in Irish is often coveniently forgotten).

And so, if you write in Irish, even if you’re writing about something as innocent as roses in moonlight, you are engaging in an act of defiance, you are challenging the literary map makers, redrawing the literary tourist trail, in short, you are being a revisionist: the trouble is, nobody knows what it is you are writing about except for a few of your peers because as a literary language, the oldest in Europe after Greek and Latin, Irish has now gone underground, largely ignored by the media, most of it untranslated and therefore unknown to the world. Standards of literacy in Irish among the general population are appalling. How can writing in Irish have social relevance if it is not being read? What is one to do? Is it too late? Have we missed the bus? If so, maybe now is a good time to look around and talk to our neighbour. (In his language, of course!)

Gabriel Rosenstock


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