From “Books and Writings”, ABC Radio National
Summary: After many lifetimes of conflict and intransigence in Northern Ireland, the fragility of the peace process has fostered a language of precariousness. According to Irish critic Edna Longley, the poetry of this period has done more than just passively observe the effects of division, violence, aspiration and disappointment. She believes that the works of people like Seamus Heaney are organically linked to the emotional and psychological wellbeing of a Belfast at the crossroads of change. More than that, Edna Longley says if you can’t imagine poetry, you can’t imagine peace.
by Ramona Koval, Sunday 24/07/2005
Professor Edna Longley is one of the most influential critics writing on modern Irish and British poetry, and is one of the most powerful voices in contemporary Irish culture. While earning international renown for her many publications, she has also had a huge and enabling influence on the literary culture of Northern Ireland, especially at Queen’s University, through her teaching, and through the English Society that has flourished under her direction, giving much impetus to the creation of The Seamus Heaney Centre. Married to the distinguished poet Michael Longley, she was the recipient of an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin in 2003.
At the recent Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal, she gave a talk on poetry and the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Irish peace process is in crisis at the moment, although crisis has never been far away since the Good Friday Agreement was concluded exactly seven years ago. The unionist and nationalist communities are now more polarized than at any time since 1998. Extreme unionists -Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party-and extreme nationalist -Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams’ party- have more electoral support than their moderate counterparts. Also, for more than two years, the devolved partnership government set up under the agreement has been suspended. This is mainly due to the issue of decommissioning, that is unionists refusing to share power with Sinn Fein unless the IRA, with which it is linked, transparently gives up its arms.
A further issue, now very much out in the open, is that of paramilitary criminality. The extent of which the IRA has mutated into a mafia (the ‘Rafia’ as it’s popularly called) was highlighted by a 26 million pound bank robbery and by attempts to frustrate justice when IRA members murdered Robert McCartney, one of their own community. There are also suspicions that Sinn Fein, who have gained politically as well as financially from the peace process, have been more interested in the process than in peace.
But these recent events may have been a reality check. We are at a crossroads where the British and Irish governments are closer than ever before and democratic Ireland is united in its attitude. Two key issues now are whether Sinn Fein will recognize the police service in Northern Ireland, and whether there’ll be a split between Sinn Fein and the IRA. The crusade by the McCartney sisters to bring their brother’s murderer to justice has certainly exposed divisions within the nationalist community, but there are political divisions and paramilitary criminality in the unionist community too.
What has poetry to do with all this? Of course, it has no direct influence, even if politicians sometimes quote poetry in their speeches or are given quotations by their speech writers, but poetry is generally seen as the most distinctive creative achievement from Northern Ireland since the mid-1960s. A writer in the London Guardian recently spoke of Northern Ireland’s poetic golden age. Among the poetry’s qualities is the way in which it both manifests and explores cultural complexities of the politics that Northern Ireland simplifies. This is not just to say that poetry reflects the situation or reflects on the situation, poetry is part of the situation, that’s what enables it to model the complexities.
Since Northern Ireland is a place where Ireland and Britain entangle, the traditions of poetry itself are on the line, so to speak. That makes poetry self-conscious about its own processes and perspectives. It also make es poets highly aware of one another so that their poems engage in a shifting conversation on many levels. This conversation occurs within as well as between poems.
The British Council has just published a collection of essays called “Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined” with forewords from both prime ministers. This publication is itself a sign of good intergovernmental relations. The contributors include academics, politicians and journalists who have been interested, one way or another, in the peace process. My own contribution uses poetry to exemplify the difficulty of establishing where Ireland ends and Britain begins. This doesn’t just mean that poets come from both the Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist communities, nor does it mean that poets or poems have never taken political stances. It means that the poetry exploits all the cultural materials at its disposal, and it engages with questions of language, symbol and identity at a deeper level than do politics or cultural politics.
Northern Irish poets generally write in English, although alert to the Gaelic and Scots inflections in their local variety of English. But their take on the English language varies since, of course, the same language in the same place may be conditioned by different cultural codes and religious or metaphysical systems. Northern Irish poetry is thus especially self-conscious about language, in all its senses. Perhaps this makes the poetic conversations a model of a genuine peace process, as well as of cultural complexity.
Commentators sometimes reduce Northern Irish poetic conversations to a simple matter of poetry and the troubles. Thus, after the mid-90s ceasefires, journalists would ask poets and other writers, ‘What are you going to write about now?’ Not every answer to that question was polite. One serious answer was that it might be time for readers to read differently rather than for writers to write differently. Another answer was that Northern Ireland remains a place where irreconcilable t historical narratives coexist, where there are few agreed memorials to the dead of 30 years, let alone of older wars, so that genuine peace process could take generations. Ciaran Carson’s poem, ‘Romeo’, one of a sequence based on the police alphabet, makes this point. It also offers an ironical version of cultural complexity.
One reason why I prefer the term ‘interculturalism’ to ‘multiculturalism’ is because the latter concept can polarize groups and close mental frontiers. There’s a view that our peace process is in crisis precisely because it’s been too much based on bringing in the extremes, because the structures of devolved government institutionalize the existing polarity, and because it thus gives politicians too few incentives to really converse. Dialogue itself can become a clich? in politics, if not in poetry. Dialogue has even become a propaganda verb in the mouth of certain politicians. These politicians boast of dialoguing…there’s been a lot of monologuing about dialoguing. The poet Louis MacNeice once wrote that a monologue is the death of language. Perhaps Northern Irish poetry is variously trying to prevent that death. If dialogue and poetry and the troubles skirt clich?, obviously poetry and the peace process has its dangers too. I would argue that poetry is not ipso facto pacifist, otherwise it would have no place for anger.
Soon after the Iraq war began, an anthology was published in England called “101 Poems Against War”. But the poems themselves, including extracts from the Iliad, do not necessarily line up in such a clear-cut way. Perhaps bad poems against the Iraq war are not better than bad poems in favor of the Great War. The English poet Coventry Patmore wrote, ‘The end of art is peace,’ and this saying has been an ironical refrain in modern Irish poetry. For example, in 1912, WB Yeats quoted it in an angry poem about Ireland’s philistine attitude to the arts; ‘Delight in art whose end ist peace’. And in the 1980s, Paul Durcan wrote despairingly: ‘Lament in art whose end is war, our slayings are what’s news’. To follow the history of ‘the end of art is peace’ in Irish poetry is to realize that peace is not an abstract or transcendental commodity. Nor is it just a negative phenomenon, the absence or comparative absence of violence. Peace is first specific to its historical context. Second, I would suggest it is defined by qualities contrary to those that characterize the war it eventually resolves.
I now want to glance at three conversations about peace, which might be read from Northern Irish poetry. The first conversation concerns the ingrained habit of thinking in polarized terms. The second concerns images of peace, and the third concerns the role of art or poetry itself. In poems written between the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement, we often find images of opposed pairs; Ciaran Carson’s Cain and Able, Capulet and Montague, Billy and Seamus. Michael Longley’s sonnet ‘Ceasefire’ has Priam and Achilles engaged in a difficult dialogue. That poem was published in The Irish Times just after the IRA announced their ceasefire. Of course, most wars involve two sides, but Northern Irish poems often imply that there’s something wilful about a polarity, a sense of otherness which both sides sustain and are actually alike in sustaining. They, in fact, are poems of civil war. That is, they register the paradoxical closeness and mutual awareness of the combatants. Paul Muldoon’s ‘Whitethorns’ is a parable of this intimate polarity. Here one farmer has violently hammered paling posts into the ground to ‘keep our oats from Miller’s barley’. Muldoon then transforms an image of polarity into one of multiplicity. Muldoon’s ‘maxed out, multilayered whitethorns’ seem to be an optimistic, idealistic symbol of the Good Friday Agreement, as ushering in pluralism, abundance, diversity, decency, conversation, ‘parleying’. Michael Longley’s ‘At Poll Salach’, written just after the agreement was signed, offers a more tentative floral image. So, poets contrast images of growth with images of dead matter or frozen winter. These images consort with the consciously pastoral landscape of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Tolland’ which also marked the IRA ceasefire. In ‘Tolland’, which mixes images from Denmark and Northern Ireland, Heaney represents peace as a luminous post-tribal landscape. He also represents it as space suddenly opening up. There’s a similar sense of sudden spaciousness in Ciaran Carson’s later poem ‘Breath’:_Carson’s comparison of a British army helicopter to a washing machine points to another image cluster in these poems; images of peace as resumed domesticity or a focus of desire in civil war poetry since home ground is also the battleground.
Sinead Morrissey’s ‘In Belfast’ dwells on signs of ordinariness and signs of commercial normality. Yet, although normal life is in evidence, imperial signs are also present, and this poem again represents peace tentatively; breathing space has opened up but that space is precariously situated between the tenacity of the river and the iron sky.
The problematic word, ‘home’, is important here as in Heaney’s ‘Tolland’ and in other poems written during the last 35 years. Speculation as to whether, or on what terms, Northern Ireland can be seen as home contributes to poetry’s definitions of the peace that ends a civil war. Besides symbolism of organic growth, space and everyday normality, there’s also significant body language in these poems, including images of the hopefully healing body or body politic. After all, there have been more than 3000 deaths and many maimed, and elegy has been a prominent poetic genre. Medbh McGuckian’s elegy, ‘Drawing Ballerinas’, was written, she says, to commemorate a girl who died in an IRA bombing. The poem paints a picture in which the girl’s violated body is somehow resurrected as an icon of space and whiteness. Once again, a breathing space like Muldoon’s ‘Whitethorns’ and Heaney’s new beginning and conditions of light and space, this seems to be an optimistic projection of peace and unity. McGuckian’s note to the poem quotes Matisse. Matisse, when asked how he managed to survive the war artistically, replied that he spent the worst years drawing ballerinas. McGuckian is neither copping out nor saying, I think, that the end of art is peace. Rather, she suggests that it doesn’t serve peace if art succumbs to the terms of war. Because Northern Irish poetry has continued to be aesthetically as well as culturally self-conscious it has kept it options open, and perhaps thereby other options too. The poetry continually revises its own scripts as history moves on slightly. A feature of the poems that I’ve been reading is their multilayered elusiveness, they revisit poems written earlier in the troubles and they draw on several traditions of war poetry and pastoral poetry.
I come lastly to Seamus Heaney’s fine prose meditation, ‘Cessation 1994’. This response to the IRA ceasefire also revisits an earlier creative moment; a moment in the 1960s that mingled political and artistic advance. Heaney’s retrospect sees no gulf between the poetic and political conversations of that pre-troubles time. And then Heaney goes on to talk about a week on the road with David Hammond and Michael Longley in May 1968 when he brought a program of poems and songs to schools, hotels and libraries in unionist and nationalist areas all over Northern Ireland.
Heaney ends ‘Cessation 1994’ by, again, talking about space, and also perhaps about imagination. He argues that some transcendental dimension is ultimately necessary to the grounding of peace. He speaks of something whose deepest roots are in the transcendental beyond the horizon. So perhaps this is a final way in which these poems connect poetry with the peace process. They collectively imply that peace not only requires real conversation, pragmatic negotiation and the slow dismantling of civil war mindsets; like poetry, peace must also be imagined.
The talk was recorded in Montreal earlier this year for Books and Writing which is produced by Ramona Koval and Michael Shireffs.