“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
— W.B. Yeats
“Irish poets have a hangover.
A hangover from the Victorian Era.”
— Dennis Greig
As the monsoon season flashes signs of the rains to come, I find myself in my annual routine of preparing my lecture for the annual Arizona Highlands Celtic Festival. It’s early evening. The kids snore in their beds. The dogs snore in the same bed. The breeze through the open window passing over them. The dishes are done. Most of the day’s debris is cleaned up. I’ve now opened all the windows of the house, and it’s as if the house has finally taken a mighty inhalation after seeing how long it could hold its breath.
On the dining room table, I’ve piled my books of poetry by iconic Irish poet William Butler Yeats; brilliant contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland; Denis Greig, peace activist and steel worker poet out of Belfast; and Patrick Kavanagh, the failed cobbler and farmer from Monaghan who made it big as a writer in Dublin. Some of my favorite Irish poets—some of my favorite poets period—I lift a book from the stack and open it at random to read whatever poem I find. Any poem will switch my mind over into their world. The key is to begin reading. So, I do.
My lecture at the Celtic Festival this year is titled Irish Poetry of Resistance: Yeats, Kavanagh, Greig, Boland. I’ve done versions of this lecture in the past, and I have plenty of notes typed up. So mostly I’m refreshing myself on the poems, making notes in the margins. I’d like that to simply be the case, but this year is a little different. The politics and conditions under which Yeats wrote haunt me when I think about the current political climate in the United States in 2017. I’m not sure what I conclude. Are things worse now than over there, back then?
No. Not even close.
When Yeats was in his prime and writing poetry in the early part of the 20th century, Ireland was occupied by a foreign army that enforced laws, economics, and culture that was not that of the people of Ireland. Those who spoke up were jailed or killed. Yeats by simply choosing to write about Irish myths and folklore was engaging in a political act. (What would look to be now as a small matter was in fact a political act.) Any serious writer in that day would have followed in the steps of those writers who lived in London, in the capital of the British Empire, and wrote about classical Greek and Roman motifs. Yeats, however, believed that an Irish subject matter was equally as interesting and worthy of study and attention. That attention was political.
Later in his career, as World War I unfolds and the Irish rise up in arms to repel their invaders by force, as the bombs and violence spreads, and the death toll grows, he begins to write directly about those actions. Such poems as “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “Easter 1916” engage the immediate political situation. When the bombs go off on your street, how could you not be involved? As the great historian Howard Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
Today, we are immensely fortunate not to have such violence from foreign invaders at our doorsteps, although there’s plenty of homegrown violence to go around. But for the most part, the battles we see are against our intellect, our minds, our sense of compassion, our patience, our understanding, our empathy. In 1916 in Dublin, school teacher and poet Patrick Pearse was executed by firing squad, along with many other intellectuals. We aren’t facing that, 100 years later, but the threat to teachers, to writers, to philosophers is there. It’s not by firing squad. It’s by being forgotten, sublimated by flat screens, sound bites, unsubstantiated anger, the desire for retribution against anything, endless frustration. In today’s climate a school teacher, a poet, such as Patrick Pearse, is more important than ever.
Perhaps it’s the actinomycetes (the spores in soil) that have now run rampant on this early evening and have emboldened my mind to consider these thoughts. Petrichor in July is a wonderful high! But, it is what we pay attention to, focus upon, that demonstrates our values. To spend our time with our family, our own thoughts, and to read a poem makes for the best arguments as to who we truly are. It’s a rebellion that matters most. Slainte.
Irish Poetry of Resistance: Yeats, Kavanagh, Greig, Boland takes place at 10 a.m. on Sat, July 15 as part of the 20th annual Arizona Highlands Celtic Festival at Foxglenn Park, E. 4200 East Butler. The festival runs Saturday through Sunday. For more info and a full schedule, visit www.nachs.info.