Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees in Them (The Poet’s Chair: Writings from the Ireland Chair of Poetry), by Paula Meehan, University College Dublin Press, 110 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1906359911
The Ireland Chair of Poetry, where a poet of national distinction is appointed for three years to a roving professorship, is one of those absolutely daft good things that the powers that be in Irish life come up with now and again. As with the formation of Aosdána, everyone is astonished at the success of what was potentially an embarrassing idea. This Ireland professorship is as unique as a hedge school, bringing furtive teachers down from the mountains where they’d hidden; and calling all children to the bottom of a barley field; to that shade by the blackthorn bush where two streams always meet in Irish poetry. This innovative, first-mover risky thing has taken hold and has accumulated a splendid new authority from the names of those poets who are willing to take a punt on three years of commitment, from John Montague to Harry Clifton, from Michael Longley to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Bob Collins in his foreword to the present book praises “the energetic and selfless engagement” shown by Paula Meehan during her now closing term as professor.
Meehan’s elevation to the post seemed like a crowning moment for women’s poetry in Ireland; but it paralleled the simultaneous elevation to posts of influence of both Gillian Clarke and Carol Ann Duffy across the Irish Sea, creating an impression that year of complete female leadership of the poetic worlds of Great Britain and Ireland. Meehan seized the historic moment; and in the lectures collected here she has created both a sourcebook and a catechism for new kinds of poetries. These lectures offer a new open architecture for a different kind of person-centred Irish poetry. This is not the usual alternative, the post-doctoral Beckett-Coffey route, but the modernity of a personal presence in the poem, a poetry beyond rhetoric. Utterly outmoded nationalisms and loyalisms are set aside and in their stead a person-centred aesthetic is established; an aesthetic that derives from the direct treatment of all things, including honey bees.
Her first lecture here is a series of nine “meditations” on poetry, on what she calls the “always mysterious purposeful flight of bees in my bonnet”. Her journey begins with an irate teacher and a poem about her dead dog, Prince. The teacher tells the child-poet, who has offered a canine elegy rather than a three-page essay, that she has a bee in her bonnet about those compositions. The incident creates a cascade of associations, from Little Women to a singing neighbour to Irving Berlin lyrics, to the smell of those intensely blue starflowers, borage, outside her writing window. One can see the poet’s method and the poet’s intention here – nothing will be offered in instruction that has not been part of a deep interior life, however at odds with the demands of the world this life may be. Our nostrils full of borage, we tumble with our professor into Marianne Moore’s poetry and its drastic revisions, an encounter that ignites “the quiddity of the world, the thingness of creation” in the author. It is all downhill after that, as Sister Philippa might have predicted, including an early encounter with Dracula himself, the lyrical John Borrowman. After expulsion from school, the young poet was sent to the Lichtenstein sanctuary of Marino, away from the dark influences of the Finglas Sudetenland. But a bookshelf in Marino held the non-prescription drug of Emily Dickinson’s poems, the Modern Library Selected with an introduction by Conrad Aiken. This is what the fourteen-year-old rebel read: “I died for beauty, but was scarce / Adjusted in the tomb, / When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room.” The task of her life was established, and the journey really begun. “Maybe the truth in poetry is not in the words per se,” she writes. “The individual words have autonomous force, I would say magic power, in terms of their auditory force on the physical body, and the shadow power too in the ghost life of the word …”
It’s at this point that the poet-professor might begin to lose us more fractious, damaged creatures. I mean, we feel we’ve heard these awkward awful claims before and they make us want to leave the room the way Philip Larkin left the theatre during a performance of Synge. Ordinary chaps, we hate high claims for art. We refute them as merely intuitive, chancy; as not counter-intuitive and sourced in a reliable critique of ordinary living. Yet Meehan here is only mustering an argument that will be grounded in lived experience on the prison-island of Ikaria, the subject of the McNeice poem in Ten Burnt Offerings. Her flights of fancy, her bees in a bonnet, are quickly grounded in a reading of McNeice and Euripides – and in the urgent news that Doris Lessing has died; Lessing of The Golden Notebook, “my handbook of womanhood and the inner city of my body” that so influenced the young poet. After these thoughts, organically part of them, or a continuation of them, there’s honey and yoghurt for breakfast, and after that, with such tastes in the mouth, there’s Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The Bees. Meehan eats words, reprocessing words like wild honey, and, in the words of Duffy, their “scent pervades / my shadowed, busy heart, / and honey is art”. Meehan is in a highly personalised creative zone while thinking on these matters, a zone she trusts absolutely as a mother trusts her contractions; in this territory the body is a walled city with its own laws. Her lecture concludes with the memory of a film scenario for which the poet and her producer friend failed to get funding: a bunch of teenagers wanting to steal the Tarot cards of Yeats who become the victims of strange happenings, “Not supernatural things but ordinary magical things”. As strange things had happened to Yeats after he wrote about bees, Meehan’s thesis warns us all that the smell of honey comes only where the walls are loosening.
In “The Solace of Artemis”, her second lecture, Meehan is back in her alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin, where she begins with the ancient Irish brown bear, extinct here for ten thousand years but still living in the DNA of every Arctic bear. But bears bring her to “arktos” and her mythical Bear Mother, Artemis of the Aegean: Artemis protector of children and wild places. The TCD classicist WB Stanford is remembered with great affection. Meehan admires his The Enemies of Poetry, with its argument for the sovereignty of poetry. She retells his argument: “Poetry is not sociology, poetry is not history … poetry is a way of telling the truth about what it is to be human.” She sees Artemis as both an alabaster girl in a shop window on Francis Street and as the Roman Diana, moving swiftly with a quiver full of arrows through an eternal Arcadia. The poet’s bear family, the carers and custodians, include a crucial grandfather, Wattie Meehan, who teaches her to read. One night the young poet propels herself into a red-hot winter fire, burning her hands – the memory itself is launched forward to be enveloped by Adrienne Rich’s image of formal poetic training as a pair of asbestos gloves. Out of this bookish Arcady of the inner city, a high-windowed corner of Sean McDermott Street that looked out on Gardiner Street, the poet was eventually propelled into the New World of Eastern Washington University and the care of a great poetic father bear, James J McAuley: “It was a lucky day that I became his student.” Her stay in the American North West would lead to an encounter with real bears, a she-bear and her cubs raking berries from the bushes with a timeless animal grace. This encounter left its mark, as it should, as did that first New World encounter with wise bears Galway Kinnell and Gary Snyder – Snyder teaching her not the formality of verse but how to breathe: “To slow the entire cosmos down to the awareness of this one breath, the simplicity of it.” Here was a world of Micmac folklore, of bear brides, and Stories from the Six Worlds: Micmac Legends. Back in Dublin, thanks to Catriona Crowe and the National Archives, Meehan would dig deeper, wider, into the ursuline world of the North Inner City, Lower Tyrone Street, Summerhill. All the while through the writing of poems, of lore and bear-lore, a child with burned hands is consoled.
By the time we reach her final lecture, Meehan is throwing yarrow sticks and the I Ching. But only to slow the world down a bit, as in the first breaths of Buddhism. She is on the margins of water, on Papa Stour in the Shetland islands or on the star-fort that commands the view over Kinsale harbour. In the former place she was full of airy lightness, and in the latter full of confident expectation as the speck in the ocean slowly becomes the seventy-footer yacht of her own homeward Sailor Poet: “When he stepped ashore I asked him what it was like out there. ‘A vaaaast ocean.”’ The theme of her lecture is water: “All my life, as far back as I can remember, I have dreams where I live in water, can breathe in that element …” In her search, she goes back to old wells, but also to the well of poetry, that spring of freshness in Gary Snyder’s Regarding Wave with its crucial poem “What You Should Know to Be a Poet”. Snyder’s handbook here, his directive myth-kitty, includes knowing everything about animals as persons, the names of trees, flowers and weeds, at least one kind of traditional magic, and “the illusory demons and illusory shining gods”. Meehan in her life and method has been one of his star pupils. She is practically the Snyder Consul for Europe. Here too, in a dream, she helps Seamus Heaney onto a long-boat that has sailed up the mouth of the Liffey. The mornings bring books, which are really packaged dreams – one from a patient in St Patrick’s University Hospital, one Kathleen whose mother was a fish. This statement introduces us to a quandary: what is the difference between a statement in therapy and a statement in a poem? The one may be disturbed while the other may be insightful: “I might direct the workshop participant to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s beautiful poem ‘A Recovered Memory of Water’ in its translation from the original Irish by Paul Muldoon.” This train of thought, this light skipping, or deep skipping, from one domain to the other, from life to poetry, from one language to another, is typical of Meehan’s deeply satisfying intelligence; and her learned sense, or senses. Holy, holy, holy, is what she says before remembering her father walking down Gardiner Street to the river, raising her on his shoulders to save time in the dark. The image is perfect, it is a clear glass of water flung at the audience in UCD on November 26th of a year in the future.
Overall, it is difficult to place Meehan’s aesthetic, to categorise it or simply place it on a shelf of linear, developing theories or positions in Irish poetry. The cumulative effect of her thinking is one of a disassociated defiance. One could say that she belongs to a broadening and more sophisticated, holistic, Irish feminist vision. That she is a visionary writer is beyond question, but that’s not so much a feminist achievement as a mystical, teaching, priestly one. She is less a Vera Brittain and more an Emily Dickinson. But even to offer such comparisons is to miss the point; Meehan’s vision is welcoming, inclusive; embracing categories rather than creating divisive literary politics. On the other hand, it is not necessary to be moral in order to be an excellent poet. The impression of holiness that comes from these essays could be discouraging for certain kinds of scurrilous poets I know. There are rogues and ruffians among the poets, persons of such low moral character that a blackthorn stick as well as a pen might be found in their hands. They would smash a beehive if it was claimed by the next townland. While the insights contained in Western versions of Buddhism are valuable in the West they can also, without the worldly irony of the Dalai Lama, accumulate into a prodigious moral lacuna. There may be dark, awkward, smelly boreens into poetry. Meehan is aware of this, but, like Camus, she would always choose her mother above the most beautiful concept of justice in the world. Poetry, and one’s hopes for it, can also be as depressed as any Jeremiah. Louis McNeice’s God in his Greek Ten Burnt Offerings is a Quaker god. Meehan is uncannily close to him in many ways: as a poet she is life-affirming and wishes to feed us from the Friends’ kitchen of her thought. Her pure, rinsed being is offered in the service of others. But there is only so much public service that we can demand of even Louis McNeice’s and Paula Meehan’s poetry. Certain donations should simply be refused for the sake of the givers. As poets we must live with this one bitter truth – an entire life spent in Art couldn’t save a single beehive. Meehan would disagree, resolutely: “I recite my poem now as a spell against the frackers, energy companies who want to extract the natural gas from the carboniferous shale that underlies the whole of our beautiful lake district, Fermanagh and Leitrim …” But to admit the limited political power of art and to still want to write poems, that’s also an honourable starting-point. The cumulative effect of these lectures is magnificent and inspiring. Paula Meehan is, by a very, very wide margin, the most important thinking poet of her generation. In a world that has become more hopeless than hopeful, these deeply spiritual essays will be an important dressing-station in our worldwide, darkening battlefield.
Thomas McCarthy is a poet, novelist and essayist. Born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford in 1954 and educated at University College Cork. He worked as a Public Librarian for many years. In 1994/95 he was International Professor of English as Macalester College, Minnesota and Assistant Director of Cork 2005-European Capital of Culture between 2001 and 2006. His next collection of poetry, PANDEMONIUM, will be published in November 2016.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s essay on Paul Muldoon, “Rousing the Reader”. Here is an extract:
Wilde’s dictum “A truth in art is that of which the opposite is also true” is balanced by the opposite and equal truth, that language does bear a relationship to truth, and the poet’s job is to find a provisional balance between these two realities. The oppositions are frequently binary, fictions of poetry presenting themselves as both true and false. The invocations, the conjurings and the clues can cluster in a brace of lines that have the blatant form of a statement. In the opening poem of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing, “Cuthbert and the Otters”, “This style of nasal helmet was developed by the Phrygians // while they were stationed at Castledawson” has a seismological sense both of the actual shifts of history (it was the Celts who overran the Phrygians, in Asia Minor, it seems; conquerors and conquered have changed places – and they change places in the other sense too) and the steadiness of fact (the places haven’t changed at all). It is also absurd if deft, the absurdity recalling us with a bump to the world of what we know, or know we can’t know.