Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Speech delivered for the launch of Leanne O'Sullivan's latest book Cailleach (Bloodaxe 2009)

Leanne O’Sullivan is a very popular person. Not every poet is a popular person so that’s something worth mentioning and not every popular person is a good poet, but there are some poets whose popularity exceeds their talent, underscoring how rare it is to find a poet whose talent matches her popularity. Leanne has distinguished herself through her talent from a young age. Before the advent of Leanne and Billy Ramsell on the scene it looked as if a great twenty year outflow of poetic talent from Cork and from UCC had come to an end. After a greatly disappointing decade of silence, people took pleasure from the simple existence of these two young poets striving to make things happen on the page. One older poet who at a certain point hadn’t yet read Leanne and who I think like many of us had been jaded by the constant stream in these islands of good-looking young women pushed upon us as the new Sylvia Plath, Nuala Ni Dhomnaill or Medbh McGuckian; this older poet turned to me and one evening asked “But is she any good?”
I responded with great feeling in my voice “She’s more than good. She’s the real thing.”
What did I base this opinion on? Certainly not the garland of prizes she had won before the age of twenty or the breadth of specialist publications she had been published in. Because quite frankly I know of some wonderful poets who have not won prizes or who have not even published widely in journals before producing a book. Nor was it because of the famous endorsers, the likes of Billy Collins, because frankly I’ve known of young poets being endorsed for all the wrong reasons.
My opinion was based on the poems in Waiting for my Clothes (Bloodaxe 2004) those poems revealed a poet with a wonderful sense of metaphor with a facility for bringing into being sentences, cadences of the most wonderful felicity, a unique poetic expression which signalled the arrival of a new original, found voice.
There was a time when the making of myth wasn’t about the concealing of truth but the revealing of truth, the sort of truth which cannot be accounted for through the discourse of fact. A physical geographer could tell us many things about the Beara peninsula, the location of dormant volcanoes, the point where one type of rock beds down with another, it could be a description peppered with words such as drumlins and moraines, locutions such as “major tectonic lineaments” or “lithospheric “block” boundaries”, sounds not without their poetic possibilities, but which appearing at the point of a professional academic’s nib contain little of the truth we turn to myth and poetry for.

In Cailleach Leanne O’Sullivan performs a poetic operation which involves the resurrection and resuscitation of old local myths which have not had the currency of national sagas. These myths have arguably had more life in them than the stories of Lir and Fionn and Setanta and Grainne precisely because they haven’t been codified but have continued to grow and morph in the mouths of generations of Beara locals. It was the function of myth before the centuries of scientific authority eradicated myth from most of our lives, to grow and evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in life and it was always in the minds of poets that Myth reached its full truth-bearing potential.

In Cailleach we have a living breathing part of Ireland whose truth is encapsulated in a language which makes no allowances for The Celtic Tiger. The ephemeral nature of the Tiger economy is acknowledged in a truthful account of the Beara peninsula without reference to bungalows and holiday villas, BMW motors and combine harvesters, without reference to a young immersing themselves in take-away curries and Bacardi Breezers. The fisherman whom the Cailleach lusts and loves doesn’t work on a factory ship.

Much of the discourse of Celtic Tiger Ireland will soon be redundant and in a generation or two incomprehensible to anyone not a social historian. In Cailleach Leanne O’Sullivan has couched her new myths in a language which will be more enduring, enduring when it tells us of waves sweeping out like bursting glass or the milk-warm scent of cattle being woven into someone’s clothes.

Eavan Boland talks about the place that happened and the place that happened to you, a third place is the place which is the object of the word happened where writer is the subject. After tonight Beara isn’t merely the place that happened to Leanne O’Sullivan, it’s the place Leanne O’Sullivan happened to.

And if I didn’t have the respect an Irish poet has for the fermented juice of the vine, I would at this very moment be shattering a bottle of Champagne over this book about a jagged, shardy peninsula, shaped itself like a giant, tectonic ship, thrusting into the ocean.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Introduction to poetry reading Shanghai March 14th 2009

A complaint which has been heard by everyone who has spent a lifetime professionally around books, whether as a librarian or bookseller, editor or book reviewer, is from the occasional individual who claims that they can never read novels because they are not true, that they can only read factual forms such as histories, biographies, travelogues etc.

Well of course most if not all people in this room will recognise the naivety of such a statement, because we know that not all histories, biographies etc. are strictly factual. Yet the stated complaint illustrates perfectly a recurring problem for many readers; the inability to understand the difference between truth and fact.

Take two recent news stories: the United States dispatching a flotilla of destroyers to the South China Seas in the past few days and Prime Minister Wen, commenting publicly for the first time about the investment of trillions of Chinese foreign reserves in US debt and the caution of the Chinese authorities in the face of the precarious American ability to repay that debt; these two events are undeniable facts, but their presentation in close juxtaposition in a text speaks volumes about the truth of Sino-American relations. Now if these two events had never occurred, arguably a novelist or a poet could still have written about them, actually invented them, presented them in the same way and even as invented non-factual events in a writer’s imagination they would have still conveyed the same truth behind Sino-American relations.

This is how writers convey the truth all the time through non-facts. Historically the truth has often been portrayed through myth and in ancient myth, events were rarely portrayed in a realistic way, so if we hired an ancient writer of myths to relate the events of the last couple of days, he might write about a huge pod of enormous whales containing entire armies of American soldiers in their bellies or a Prime Minister Wen whose tongue was possessed by a spirit or a ghost with an agenda of its own, making the Prime Minister speak as he did.

Myth received a very bad name in the West in the 18th and 19th Century because during the Enlightenment there was this huge pressure, wherever the intellect operated, to verify all truths as verifiable facts. This is how fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and Koran emerged. In the minds of these people Adam and Eve actually existed, because fundamentalists cannot get their minds around truth that is not expressed through fact. Political fundamentalists have this problem too.

The Marxist-Leninist regimes of Europe provided the greatest service to Western literature by resurrecting the use of myth in the work of poets as a means to portraying the truth. Because the apparatchiks were unable to decode surrealist and expressionist literary techniques many Polish, Czech, Bulgarian and Estonian poets were able to write without compromising their own truth or attracting the eye of the censor.

The great thing about such contemporary myth-making techniques is that they can be used in the service of conveying not just political truths but personal truths and that is what I am mainly doing in my most recent book Making Music – where there are many poems linked through the shared extended metaphoric possibilities presented by angels.

I will read first from this new book which was completed by the printers last Monday when I was already in Shanghai, so unfortunately I don’t have copies with me but they are available to purchase through my website I will then read from Perplexed Skin and I do have copies of that with me.