Living With it

Irish Writing in 2016

D. Joyce-Ahearne

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          “not embarrassed

by life but ignited, knowing others not alone

are awake too, feeling something”

                       - living with it, Rebecca Gimblett

There are several young writers in Ireland today who are doing something important. They are doing something that takes a huge amount of energy and intelligence and human effort. They are doing something new.

To claim anyone is doing something new implies that there is something old and there is. The prevailing idioms in use today have expired or were never alive to begin with. To understand what these contemporary writers are doing it’s important to know what they are not doing, what they are raging against and what has preceded them.

The first is, and always has been, “Art”.“Art” has never existed but has always, and still is, the prevailing and preferred type of art. “Art”, in a nutshell, is art about art. It is not based on an experience anyone had, ever.It is poetry about poetry. If a twenty-something Irish poet in 2016 writes a poem in which fireflies metaphorically are their “soul” or their “love” they are writing “Poetry”. They are not turning their lived experience into art, they are propagating an idea of “Poetry” that is validated by tradition. That is to say it is validated simply by its continued use. The most common form of “Poetry” is this pseudo-Romanticism that is not a native experience of the present, but rather the propagation of an idiom that was valid at a certain time to express the experience of the time. Its use then was a radical break from what went before but its use now can only relay “Poetry”.Fireflies cannot represent our feelings anymore. They cannot and they have not been able to for a long time.

“Poetry” is always written in a dated idiom and so it is always very safe. It’s what Beckett called the “cut-and-dried sanctity and loveliness” of much Irish poetry in the thirties. It has not gone away.

After “Art” there are other, linked though different, idioms on which we need to call time. These are all variations on the theme of the post-modern condition.

There is the card-carrying post-modernist for whom cynicism and irony are the only sureties in our decentred present. Exhibit A. This idiom, both specific to that particular story and its use generally, is underpinned by a fear of being accused of sincerity. To claim to be sure of something, with the twentieth century behind us, would be naive, and so the only thing we can be sure of is our own subjectivity. The only tone available to us is one of irony that we ever thought it possible to be sure of anything, and cynicism that there might be those who think it still.

Exhibit B of this idiom is Beckett’s attempt to remove every possible frame of reference in the quest for the one nothing we might be sure of, the bare minimum of common experience: "the unnullable least least".

C is the opposite: the application of, what James Bennett (to be discussed below) called “ever more impossible angles of awareness” in the hope that possibly, by applying them all at once, the writer might attain a god’s eye view of something, anything, again and perhaps be able to sincerely say: “I feel that”.

Again, the purpose of this very contemporary formula of highlighting so many alternative points of view (descending often into nothingness) is to show that the writer does not believe that their experience is the universal. Because to be accused of being sure of or believing in anything, in a world without fixed points of knowledge, is the worst possible accusation. They would laugh at me, the writer feels, I would be the butt of the irony and the cynicism that is all I know.

This is an idiom that forever sees the writer constantly undercut themselves and pull the rug out on the preceding sentence, as they tend towards either a Beckettian nothing or an “awareness of an everything”, which can be taken to mean an awareness of subjectivity. This safeguards the artist from the inexcusable accusation of sincerity, of losing themselves in the art: of forgetting that they’re lying.

This is the zeitgeist and the general post-modern idiom has been accepted by many to be ground zero for expression, one that we cannot move away from. But this idiom is expiring. Like the “Art” that is simply art of another’s art, the irony and cynicism that underpin people’s lives today (and inform their art) are not the results of personal and disillusioned lived experience, but a condition that is assumed based purely on the knowledge that there was once a belief that such things as sincerity and truth existed. This idiom is being used as a hand-me-down.

The final idiom that makes up the backdrop against which these young Irish writers are moving forward is a movement of faux avant-garde intellectualism among the very well-read middle class, who have said ne plus ultra to radical expression and have shanghaied the term avant-garde. These are very intelligent and comfortable people who are perpetuating, or perhaps irrelevantly improving on, what has gone before as experimental.

An establishment aesthetic of “avant-gardism” is an idiom that tangibly hurts people because it is an appropriation of a weapon for change by those who would not benefit from it. The products of this idiom are boring and sterile exercises in hyper-intelligence, the products of third-level education and readily available hours of leisure reading.

All of the aforementioned idioms lack humanity because they do not reflect the lived experience of today. They do not try hard enough. The writers discussed below are not guilty of that.These are writers trying very hard. They are fully aware of what has gone before and when it went. They are the living poets that Woolf said “express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment”. These writers are in step with time, not following it. They are exquisitely aware of their historic moment. Their work is experience crafted in real time and it is new and bold.

James Bennett and Anna Walsh are two young Irish writers who are, very carefully, looking for ways out of the post-modern idiom as it exists today. They are not resigned to the artistic stagnancy that a Post-History would resign them to. They are still contending with what might be called post-modernity but they are not responding with safe and sad pretty things or exercises in irony or clinical intelligence. They are neither lazy, perfunctory cynics nor do they have a naive belief in truth. They are giving us the lived experience of 2016. They are staking their humanity in their work. They are daring to and there is a palpable agency to their writing. This sense of endeavour is something that has emerged from, and manifested itself in, their projects in different ways and over time. The internal shift within these writers’ work marks what has gone before and what is coming to the fore.

Anna Walsh, 24, from Mullingar, has become the most relevant poet in Ireland in the last six months, one of the few writers conveying real life. Walsh’s recent development as a poet is representative of the broader shift among young artists away from the dated idioms outlined above.

Some of Walsh’s earliest work, such as My Name is Laura Palmer, showed traces of the Joycean “delight in language” that so many Irish writers seem to delight in while saying nothing at all (not an accusation levelled at the poet here). Her early poems were measured and savage studies of interiority and though many of these earlier pieces (Confessions for example) were excellent, they were du jour. They were in keeping with the prevailing poetic depiction of interiority today, which is that of the self as a state of self-inflicted solipsism.

sharing a film with you is indicative of Walsh’s earlier poems. “i wonder what it would be like to fuck you” the narrator wonders, propped up beside, perhaps even touching, the poem’s you. But the narrator doesn’t get any further than that. The sex is played out in their head and they are left with feeling only “the rock ache in [their] stomach”.

The poem is suffused with denial and anxiety of the real: fear of engaging outside of one’s own mind. There is no agency; there is no sex. These earlier works frequently portray interiorities that are so cripplingly self-aware and self-contained that the voices, anxious at feeling anything, seem to instead describe their own capacity to feel, their own self, rather than exist as it.

This self-awareness to the point of isolation and desensitisation results in the lived experience of Alone With Nobody (published in September 2015 but written in April 2015, around the same time as Confessions and sharing a film with you), in which “nobody throws declarations of love like punches/the flesh of the bone is too near to us to touch” and “we have all given up smoking and staying up late/and looking for the one”.

These early poems are in marked contrast to what Walsh is doing now. There has been a reconceptualisation of interiority in her project and a change in voice to go with it. Her recent work has railed against a poetics that understands the self as simply an isolated, online-living-facilitated (to be broached later) wormhole.

The move is part of a growing rejection among certain young writers, of poetry that conveys lived experience that is a mere by-product of life as an internal monologue, and of the detachment from the physical world that facilitates such poetry.

This shift in Walsh’s work has been towards portrayals of being that are founded on human effort, voices that endeavour to exercise themselves in the external world and with other people. These are poems that address the effort of living and its worth. They are the result of labouring towards, and pushing beyond, what we understand to be the truest thing that can and should be said today.

For too long there has been a contentedness with poetry which propagates an idea of the self as something that exists solely as an introverted running commentary, lacking in any human agency or sense of something bigger than itself. This is an experience of interiority which, defined by its disconnect from the physical world and the rest of humanity, leads to the destruction of empathy for others and of any means of calibrating what are genuine emotions and what are neuroses. This uncertainty, in turn, facilitates the anxiety around self-awareness common to much of this poetry and leads to the irony and cynicism that then seem like the only recourse for talking about the self.

This results in poetry that is lacking in emotional truth, produced by poets who have come to believe in an inherent irony in being and who can only treat the self with cynicism.These poems lack a sense of human effort to actively live and try among others (and the torture that comes with this). The poem becomes a self-contained space for self-satisfaction with an inner turmoil that can never be sincerely conveyed and so “feelings”, and rarer still experiences, are just reduced to excuses to write poems.

This is the easiest and laziest of all current artistic idioms because it simply accepts irony as the only available mode of being rather than truly trying to recalibrate what we understand life to be today. Such poetry cannot be an exploration of self. It can offer nothing but a descent into a snide and unfeeling death-in-life.

Walsh’s brilliance is in her understanding of, and ability to convey, both the self as an entirely subjective state of interiority and as one of the many selves that make up our understanding of humanity. Her current work renders the commonality of self in the shared lived experience.

She does not ignore, or claim to surmount, the anxieties, neuroses and doubt of the individual alive today. She gives them some much needed perspective by contextualising them in the too often forgotten frame of other people and the outside world. She reminds us that the self is an experience universal to humanity and that the body is its site. It is our means of existing in the external world, in real life, and it is only through human engagement (with all of the emotional co-dependency and social anxiety that comes with it) that we can truly know the self.

days pass is a liminal poem in Walsh’s treatment of interiority. The poem deals with coming to terms with the difficulty and necessity of having skin in the game of life. The narrator’s opening revelation, thatyou will find you cannot help but put a name/on the things you love”, is qualified with what exactly this new idiom is identifying: “all these terrible/human things”.

The narrator oscillates between reaching “a point where/you can call your small things happiness” (embracing the naming of this new experience) and “pulsing with the hate of/it, of every dirty raw thing”. Though there is an embrace of the body actual (a move forward from the physical illiteracy of sharing a film with you), the poem ends with the narrator struggling with anguish undeniably couched in the external world and others: the gaze of the other.

The poem highlights that the switch from one mode of self to the other is not a move from despondency to agency. Walsh’s poetry of the self as an agent in the external and shared, unknowable but vital human experience, is a truer depiction of the reality of the individual than the poetry it was born in opposition to. But living in real life does not mean delighting in life (a phrase that leans towards an idea of “Life” akin to “Art”). Her work is the poetry of the walking wounded as opposed to that of the living dead.

Walsh understands that the difficulty of sincerely expressing real life in 2016 is premised on how hard it is to sincerely live real life in 2016. The recognition in her project of the need for agency results in the poetry she is writing now: poetry which endeavours. This holistic understanding of life and art today is what makes the work of Walsh, along with that of Bennett, avant-garde.

The effort exerted in their crafting of experience is predicated by the effort that is exerted on a human level of understanding what is an experience worth crafting. (In discussing such a humanising turn in literature one runs the risk of conflating societal and literary modes of engagement, writer and persona, but the direction that these young writers are going in demands a radical re-evaluation of what we understand writing to be the site of in 2016.)

Poems such as a heightened awareness and Living in Debt, see Walsh strike at the actual value of being alive with growing confidence. As this happens she will no doubt face accusations of being naive. It is worth noting now then that agency is not optimism and is most definitely not naivety. Any claims associating her work with a “delight in life” would stem from either missing the point or from the lazy cynicism mentioned above.

When Walsh writes in i will die afraid but i do not want to die alone that

the brokenness

of the world is one broken person

seeking another broken person

and what exists between them

it is a collected and penetrating engagement with that world. It is an understanding that living with others is the site of the self and so poetry that foregrounds an understanding of human engagement becomes a poetry doing, rather than a poetry that is simply self-awareness afraid of itself and unable to get past itself. As Walsh’s approach becomes more confident the easier it becomes to identify cynicism and irony as simply being other approaches, either unenlightened or lazy ones, rather than last words.

If Anna Walsh’s work can be seen as an assertion of the self into the external, the recent work of James Bennett, 23, from Wexford, has been a deconstruction of the specifics of our historic moment and their role in shaping both the self today and the prevailing idiom used in conveying it.

Bennett’s earlier poetry, wexford bridge for example, engaged with a similar contained interiority and isolation as that of Walsh:

i will not
you cannot
                     make me
the right
                   to never speak

The narrator of the poem refuses to engage outside of their inner monologue (the only exterior engagement mentioned is an attempt at “high discourse”, which was found to be “full of cowards”).  The poem is in keeping with the prevailing idiom discussed in relation to Walsh’s work, in that it is ultimately a rejection of the exterior world by the interior self. For Bennett, mortality (the body being alive: the physical reality of breathing and blood circulating) comes to represent the opposite to the prevailing poetic depictions of self. Bennett’s shift in subject from the exclusively interior self to a more holistic engagement of the self and external forces (social, historic etc) is predicated by a, similar to but more explicit than Walsh’s, move back to the body.

Bennett’s major work from this early period, God and the Devil, liminally contends with both the reassertion of mortal existence over the introverted self, and the rejection of writing that leaves the external world to its own devices, as if it had no bearing on the shape of interiority.

In the poem, God is scared at the idea of living forever, of being denied his mortality. The Devil asks him what he wants and he replies: “I want to die”. Paradoxically, this desire to die, as it is a desire for mortality, is a longing for life. Though God is engaged in eternal sex, which would appear to be the ideal in the quest for a physically engaged existence, the absence of death undeniably places his existence in a realm that is outside of real physicality.

Unfolding as it does in an eternal space of conflict between being “one tick away from nothing” and “almost everything” the poem is the Paradise Lost of late twentieth/early twenty-first century post-modernity. What is glaringly absent is the fall, impossible now in a world without fixed points of knowledge. What is left, for God and for the author, is endless play.

Neither God nor the Devil in their opening exchange, claim to know anything definite about their existence. It is not that God does not try hard enough, it is that his existence is one that does not allow for effort. He is damned to eternal “life” (a foreshadowing of Bennett’s recent engagement with online living, wherein we might arguably see ourselves as “immortal”, though perhaps a more apt word would be “untouchable”).

There can never be anything more written about this “life”: “I want to die” is the last thing anyone in this world could want to say. This poem accomplishes the “almost everything” available to it in the post-modern idiom of the existence it depicts. It attempts (the best that can be done with this understanding of the world) to stake the eternal lack of surety and the worthlessness of agency which is all that is available in the world that has shaped this idiom.

Bennett’s move from poetry to prose following this poem perhaps best conveys his dissatisfaction with the idiom he was employing and what it allowed him to convey. The change in medium has allowed for a radical development in project. His recent prose has seen a concrete addressing of actuality (whether this is something better facilitated by prose is not the question here) and a reconceptualisation of the self, which has come in his perfection of the Sad Boy trope.

The Sad Boy (or as applicable) is perhaps best described as the archetypal embodiment of the self that both Bennett and Walsh are rejecting. He is a victim of his own self-awareness and has no agency. He is, to varying degrees, aware of his situation but his lack of agency stands. Bennett, in his short stories five waking hours and Tavi, Tom & Me deconstructs the Sad Boy, taking him as found but also looking at him from the outside-in and engaging with the actuality that has moulded him. In Tavi, Tom & Me, Tom who is positioned in direct opposition to the narrating Sad Boy, writes in his journal:

[…] when i turn off the tv and go back to my tiny room that is putting me into so much debt and check twitter to see what i am competing with i become disheartened again. […] we all spend too much time twisting ourselves into ever more impossible angles of awareness. climbing to heights of disdain that are unquestionably dangerous. […]

the point is that on the internet no matter where you run to there are already a hundred other dickheads already there. and they’re all a tiny bit funnier than you or considerably better-looking or they have more friends. now maybe this used to be what it was like as a bright young thing running around the big city trying to make it. but at least if you’re out running around the city you might get a bit of fresh air and a drink. if the internet is the big city that you’re running around trying to make it in then no wonder you feel funny and anxious whenever you have to go and do something in the actual big city that you live in which by the way is becoming increasingly expensive and prone to explosions.

[…] it’s about the city that this kid lives in which used to be vibrant and affordable and you could go out all night and do outrageous things that were so funny and yet so profound and now all you can do is sit in your box room plugged into a screaming mass of other kids just like you. and you like some of them and you don’t like more of them but the overall effect of this swarm of voices is that you just want to blow the whole fucking thing up including yourself but of course you can’t do that because what would become of your insatiable impulse to speak and be heard. the likes and the laughs and the applause.

These are, in part, the conditions which have created the Sad Boy. Online-first existence lends itself to his disconnected state of being: his hyper-self-awareness to the point of solipsism. It fuels his already listless introversion and further separates him from the physical world. The loss of the real brought about by online migration is integral to his inlook on life and the stifling ease of online living facilitates his lack of endeavour. One feeds the other in cutting the Sad Boy off from external human reality, while allowing him the false sense of existing “socially”.

Online, the Sad Boy can carefully curate his life rather than have it play out in the company of others, subject to the unpredictable and anxiety-inducing caprices of human interaction. However, the gaze of the other is less avoidable online than it is in the street, and so the Sad Boy’s crippling self-awareness becomes all consuming. Ironically, the anxiety brought about by online existence manifests itself more as an anxiety towards physical reality (because even the Sad Boy, on some level, knows people are alive somewhere before they are online), resulting in a further dependency on the perceived safety of existing as an online-first self.

The Sad Boy online exists in a double remove from the outside world. It amplifies and facilitates all of his defining characteristics: navel-gazing, rejection of the external and physical, isolation from others due to a refusal to face up to social anxiety.

He subscribes to an existence online that is increasingly becoming an apparent fix-all for human needs. Bennett writes in five waking hours that “the church of the culture” has become “the culture itself”. Online living, through social media, has become both prayer and entertainment, a religion that is “all mercy and no grit which in the end helps no one but gets a lot of quotes posted on Instagram”. The profile that the Sad Boy presents online is not simply his primary mode of cultural consumption and expression, but his assurance that he exists. It is this existence, the life of the Sad Boy, that Bennett diagnoses so incisively. Having done so, he begins to lead the Sad Boy back into the external world.

In both five waking hours and Tavi, Tom & Me Bennett establishes the character of the Sad Boy and then begins to tentatively move beyond him and towards someone new, towards a more engaged and assertive character. To say this someone is “post-internet” is too easy, as it misleadingly implies that online living is going away. Rather, Bennett posits a character alongside the Sad Boy trope that can identify his historic moment, deconstruct it, and endeavour within it: a self similar to the one found in Anna Walsh’s current work.

In Tavi, Tom & Me this character is Tom, who, as shown in the quote above, is very capable of deconstructing his circumstances and exerting himself within them, rather than becoming a by-product of them. In five waking hours, a certain realisation dawns on the narrator as to his situation.

The story opens with him “masturbating purely as an aid to sleep”, to again quote Tom’s journals. He decides on an “imagination night” rather than watching porn. As in Walsh’s sharing a film with you, the lack of sex highlights the absence of physicality from the character’s life. The option of porn here gives the added dimension of the loss of the real facilitated by the internet. The narrator’s failure to comprehend how Marlon Brando could be physically fit without going to the gym, simply as a by-product of living, emphasises his disconnect from his own body.

He fails to fall asleep and finds himself “thinking of concrete things. the worst”. The dread of concrete things is typical of the Sad Boy. The narrator tries to escape them by delving further into his own mind with sentimental imaginings of the past. But he cannot sustain this as even his denial of the real and retraction into his interior is continually undercut by his rabid self-awareness. And so he begins to spiral into this perennial state of flux that defines the Sad Boy.

But at this point Bennett injects into his narrator a change of direction, if not a change of pace. The narrator doesn’t act but he laments not having done so: “fuck. this gets harder every time. i wish i had gotten up earlier today”. Here, it seems, are the seeds of agency, which grow as the story progresses:  “some people say that suicides happen in clusters and that deep sadness begets itself. i think it should be stopped. maybe i will absorb it or my share of it. i think that means staying alive”. The narrator is edging towards the type of endeavouring self that both Walsh and Bennett are conveying in their work.

When he says “i would like to die at an intimate tropical breakfast” he is yearning for the mortal life that God was denied in God and the Devil. But not only is the gift of a godless, breath-filled mortality there for him to seize, it exists among others. He is not God, he is human and he demands intimacy, he demands to know the other. (The prevalence of sharing food is a recurring image in Walsh’s poetry also: as a space that celebrates both intimacy and the living body.)

There has been a shift of sorts by the end of the story. The narrator proclaims that “i am in love. i am in love with breathing”. He would appear to have renounced being the Sad Boy, though Bennett leaves the story open-ended. The narrator is still, after all, just lying in bed and we know he is very capable of lying in. Bennett is working out the Sad Boy but he does not posit a successor of sorts until Tavi, Tom & Me.

Again, if there is agency in the narrator, and even in this instance optimism as to what life is like after the Sad Boy, Bennett, like Walsh, is far from naive. The conditions that created the Sad Boy do not go away, he simply learns to contend with them better. Any love of breathing and embracing of the lived experience in the physical world, simply means having as Beckett puts it, “Grace to breathe that void”.

This is the attitude of Tom in Tavi, Tom & Me, written after five waking hours. Rather than imbibe the conditions that would make them the Sad Boy, and perpetuate those conditions in their work, both Bennett as author and Tom as character (but also as endeavouring artist in his own right), identify and rail against them. Bennett stakes his new project here in opposition to the writing of, and by, the Sad Boy.

Tom is a character who tries very hard and of whom the narrator says when he sees him shooting his film, “he looked intensely happy. It was powerful”. Tom is the artist doing.

The narrator, in juxtaposition to Tom, comes to embody the poetics that Bennett has left behind. He is listless and self-aware to a fault. He tries to write and can’t. He is obsessed with Tavi’s body but will not act on it. He denies himself a physical existence and the intimacy of others. He identifies a sex dream he has about Tavi as the most beautiful moment of his life.

Just as God in God and the Devil is terrified of eternity, so too is the narrator scared of forever. But when he thinks of lying in bed with Tavi forever he gets a “feeling of calm joy in [his] chest”. Here again is the recurring and growing theme in Bennett’s recent work: the redemption in the shared lived experience. Tavi delivers a scathing indictment of the narrator as well as offering him the best advice possible: “You need to accept that you’re alive and that you’re a fucking human being”. This could be a motto of sorts for the new direction in which Bennett, Walsh and other young writers are heading.

This recent shift in the writing of these young artists has not simply been a question of “writing” as texts. Alongside the change in project there has been a surge of human and social energy among this group of young Irish writers in the last year. Central to this has been Cave Writings, a reading night that, above all else, foregrounded human interaction.

The Cave was a space for writers to try out new ideas and discuss their work if so desired but, primarily, it was a space where creatives of all disciplines could meet and get to know each other. It has led to a growing scene, both artistic and social, in which there is a real humanity at work as relationships grow alongside a developing creative discourse.

Online journals and self-publishing have made it so easy to work in isolation while still being able to get your writing out there. They allow the writer to read what their contemporaries are doing, without ever actually meeting them. The Cave has asserted the importance and benefits of knowing the writer behind the work. The question of what out there online means is being asked by James Bennett, who is currently putting together a zine of young writers and artists he met through the Cave. It’s a project that is in keeping with the recent direction of his work, as it explores the new importance that the tangibility of a physical object has been imbued with in relation to online publishing.

The zine will feature the poet Rebecca Gimblett, who is currently finishing her first collection and who has pushed poetry further in the direction Bennett and Walsh are going than anyone else so far.

The tactile nature of zines means they have a new weight as a space for art today in relation to online culture (which, as Bennett says, has become the church). With social media as the prime means of cultural consumption for many, writing online is easily ignored by dwindling attention spans or simply lost in the sheer abundance of other stimuli that is funneled into a medium in which the real and the unreal blend into one.

The zine will also feature Aaron Smyth, a visual artist whose representations of the body and interiority strike strong parallels to the work of the writers discussed above. Smyth was involved in the Cave’s Cave Paintings project and Gimblett has also read at several Caves. The recurring and varied collaborations among these young artists show the importance placed on human interaction in this creative sphere.

These writers and artists are working beyond lacklustre irony and cynicism. They are rejecting isolation and online-first living as the new mundane. They are developing a poetics and an idiom that questions and foregrounds our understanding of authenticity and effort today. But they are not just striving to create work that can sincerely convey the lived experience of 2016. Posing questions in real life and in real time, they are creating work that asks what we want that experience to be.