Michael Hartnett


Safia Moore

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It is thirty years since Raven Arts Press in Dublin published Inchicore Haiku by Limerick poet Michael Hartnett.  The volume heralded Hartnett’s return to writing in English after ten years of working solely in Irish, and is essential reading for anyone interested in Irish poetry. Hartnett showed early career promise in both English and Irish, and earned several major literary awards between 1974 and 1990, including election as an inaugural member of Aosdána in 1981. Once considered Seamus Heaney’s literary peer, Hartnett is now relatively unknown outside Ireland and commentators on Irish poetry tend to cite his work only when the discussion involves the language issue.   

Ambivalent critical responses to Hartnett may be born of frustrating efforts to pigeonhole his work. Eamon Grennan sees the task of analysing Hartnett’s poetry as ‘wrestling’, whilst Michael A. Kinsella refers to the poet as being ‘often in a muddle’ and describes Hartnett’s Collected Poems, as ‘rebelliously, if not ambitiously, incoherent’. Kinsella supports his view by quoting Hartnett’s 1987 interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, in which the poet describes his own poetry as ‘difficult to pin down’, stating, ‘neither am I a butterfly nor is my other self a lepidopterist’.  In the 2013 article ‘No Pact With Progress’, Marion Kelly observes that, ‘Poets who can’t be easily categorised tend to fall through the cracks of academe, and it would seem that Hartnett has suffered accordingly’.

Kelly challenges Pat Walsh’s approach in his 2012 biography of Hartnett, A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, which pivots on Hartnett’s very public declaration in 1974 to write only in Irish, linking this choice to the poet’s personal decline.  Similarly, in his review of the 2006 publication Remembering Michael Hartnett, Bryan Lynch suggests contributors to the first critical volume devoted to Hartnett place too much emphasis on ‘examining the politics of translation’. He goes further, saying Hartnett’s A Farewell to English ‘with monotonous regularity, is seen by academics as central to the work, [but] is surely peripheral to it’. These are valid points. Any comprehensive study of Hartnett’s publications confirms that an emphasis on the ‘Irish versus English’ language question, can end up skirting around the artistic and philosophical core of his poetry.

Literary critics regularly overlook key psychological issues unless the author’s biography points to a history of therapy, for example in the cases of Samuel Beckett or Sylvia Plath. It may be tempting to link Hartnett’s perceived artistic inconsistency to his alcoholism, but this is arguably a symptom rather than the cause of an innate malaise. It is my conviction that psychoanalytical findings on early attachment and identification processes illuminate Hartnett’s work and lend it coherence. Inchicore Haiku provides many opportunities to support this theory, and a psychoanalytical approach renders Hartnett’s whole oeuvre less challenging and more accessible.

In Hartnett’s formative years, his parents removed him from the nuclear family and sent him to his maternal grandmother, Bridget Halpin, for fostering.  Paul Durcan, a close friend of Hartnett’s, has observed that he frequently returned to this period in his life ‘as if to a well’. The early emotional detachment from parents and siblings may well explain themes of isolation and identification with the outcast, which dominate publications such as The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Prisoners. However, Inchicore Haiku contains some of the most striking images of Hartnett himself as a perpetual outsider, epitomising Durcan’s take on the Irish poet as a ‘native who is an exile in his native land’. Ambivalence of attachment to family, place and wider community influences Hartnett’s poetry as much as Heaney’s strong identification with these early influences shaped his work. Accepting this key concept will reward anyone preparing to read Hartnett for the first time, but it will also enrich the understanding of those who are more familiar with his work.

Inchicore Haiku is dominated by the poet’s reflections on existing in an ‘elsewhere’ following the breakdown of his marriage in 1984. Hartnett described his subsequent move to the Dublin suburb of Inchicore as a response to finding himself childless, houseless, and in turmoil over the relationship with his two languages. Inchicore Haiku’s epigraph encompasses both the inevitability of his return to English, and feelings of shame and betrayal after this reversal:

                                                         My English dam bursts

                                                         and out stroll all my bastards

                                                         Irish shakes its head.

 Hartnett’s assertion that he was unconcerned about Ireland as an entity composed of North and South, but was more interested in ‘my tribes’, holds sway here. Recurring images in the numbered haiku depict the poet as displaced tribal remnant or homesick exile, adrift in a modern, disappointingly soulless Dublin:


                                                          On a brick chimney

                                                           I can see all West Limerick

                                                           in a jackdaw’s eye.

This image is extremely powerful on several levels. Firstly, it illustrates the depth of an individual’s attachment to the native environment – home presents itself anywhere, any time because it is rooted in the psyche. Secondly, the jackdaw mocks, passing judgement on the poet’s reduced circumstances, and taunting him about his failed utopian ambition to be a Gaelic poet, surviving on his craft in rural West Limerick. Thirdly, the use of birds in Inchicore Haiku enlightens when interpreted alongside D.W. Winnicott’s psychoanalytical theory of ‘object relations’.

In Playing and Reality, Winnicott suggests that the ‘object’ is fundamentally a symbol of the union between mother and child, and states that, ‘the use of an object symbolizes the union of two now separate things’. All individuals relate to certain objects as part of the process of identity formation, but environmental conditions play a vital role in determining what becomes of these objects. Hartnett identifies strongly with birds, substituting them for people, and this reflects his childhood identification with nature, which he uses to impressive creative effect in Inchicore Haiku. Attachment to nature and birds contrasts with detachment from mother, father, direct ancestors, and native community articulated in other poems such as ‘Mountains Fall On Us’ (The Killing of Dreams), ‘That Actor Kiss’ (Selected and New Poems) and ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ (A Book of Strays).

Hartnett’s grandmother is an exception to this pattern of detachment, and the poet particularly identifies with her links to an older, ‘pagan’ Ireland. The bird’s main role as ‘object’ in Inchicore Haiku seems to be as a unifying link to that other, now lost environment (the West Limerick countryside where he lived with his grandmother), and that other life of family ties, tradition, and the Irish language, which the poet has deserted. It is essential to note the complex intermingling of these elements, avoiding simplification by concentrating on one alone. Instead of feeling rooted, the poet is adrift in an undistinguished suburb of Dublin, where even the birds are a disappointment. West Limerick birds such as goldfinches are superior to the city’s common ‘puffed sparrows in sunpatches/like Dublin urchins’.

Hartnett’s story about fledgling wrens landing around his neck as a young boy, auguring his fate to be a poet, is relevant here.  In ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ he articulates the isolation and suffering that accompany his vocation: ‘Their talons left on me/scars not healed yet’.  Significantly, Irish folklore regards the wren as an undesirable and treacherous bird, and this seems to suit Hartnett’s self-image as exile and traitor in Inchicore Haiku.

Images of the suffering exile emphasise the poet’s dilemma throughout the eighty-seven haiku. For example: 


                                                               In the sad canal

                                                               my face and a broken wheel

                                                               - debris of dead tribes. 


                                                               My beloved hills,

                                                               my family and my friends

                                                               my empty pockets.


                                                               Blackbird, robin, thrush?

                                                               I cannot place the singer.

                                                               Exile blunts the ear.


                                                               Dying in exile.

                                                               To die without a people

                                                               is the real death.

Mention of ‘dead tribes’, the absence of ‘family and friends’, of dying in exile ‘without a people’, suggests a tragic tribal displacement outside the poet’s control, but this is not the case. Hartnett does not shy away from accepting responsibility for his detachment from his ‘people’. Personal failings are the source of his guilt and on several occasions, Hartnett records the shame of a traitor:


                                                               My father, now lost,

                                                               give me the mind of a Christ

                                                               - I drink with Pilate.


                                                               A pint of Guinness

                                                               - black as my Catholic heart,

                                                               black as broken vows.


                                                               Dead faces watch me

                                                               - people I have wronged and loved.

                                                               Milk sours in the cup.


                                                               Banished for treason,

                                                               For betraying my country.

                                                               I live in myself. 

Self-blame is a common reaction in the psychologically tarnished, as is an attempt to seek souls who suffer similarly.  If Hartnett sees himself in the role of betrayer, he also portrays Dublin as inhabited by citizens who betray and have been betrayed, or at least sorely neglected by a government with little regard for tradition. Declan Collinge describes Inchicore in 1985 as, ‘conspicuous in its dereliction. The economic slump of the mid-eighties had affected its working-class population and unemployment was very high in the area.’ Hartnett’s imagery illustrating the mood of the place is stunningly effective: ‘politicians’ promises/blow like plastic bags’, ‘the electric Angelus/- another job gone’, ‘margarine generations/are pale in spring sun’.  However, the old Barracker, ‘watching all the slums/replace his tribal village’ exemplifies the core problem. The poet describes an Ireland, which is alien to his Gaelic ideals, and a people whom he barely recognises. Significantly, in 1985 Hartnett also published his translations of Dáibhí O’Bruadair, the seventeenth century Irish poet described by Peter Sirr as the ‘laureate of disenchantment, cast adrift in an Ireland he no longer recognises’. In the introduction to his translations, Hartnett records an ‘obsession’ with O’Bruadair, which began at the age of thirteen.

In a number of the haiku, Hartnett records the hollowness of consumer-based existence and registers his disappointment with modern Irish values in general:


                                                                In local chippers

                                                                queueing for carbohydrates

                                                                - a dwarfed people.


                                                                Women in the street

                                                                 all sleek suburban housewives.

                                                                 I turn away my eyes.

The poet presents Dublin women as products of consumerism, in stark contrast to traditional portrayals of females as poetic muse or aisling. His lack of identification distances him from these ‘sleek suburban housewives’ fully embracing modern city life.  On the other hand, Hartnett feels drawn to the outcast, the ‘old Barracker’, who helps him to form his self-image as tragic exile.

The comfort of community is certainly lacking in Inchicore Haiku, but it is not accurate to suggest that city life is predominantly responsible for this lack. Hartnett’s detachment from his wife and young family, his parents, ancestors, and the wider community in his native County Limerick, feeds into the isolation he elucidates. City and country are both ‘elsewheres’ which have failed the poet.  Edna Longley’s observation about a different geographical division in Ireland seems apt: ‘both parts of Ireland are failed conceptual entities’. Failure lies at the heart of Inchicore Haiku and Hartnett, as rejected son, failed father, husband, and Gaelic bard, occupies the edges of society. His identification with the periphery may be the feature that most informs his work and gives his displaced poetic voice its distinctive appeal.

In the last haiku, Hartnett’s dead father, perhaps representing the lost generation commemorated in ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ (A Book of Strays), reminds his son, ‘These are your people!’ With regard to the representation of a previous generation, it is worth mentioning two direct references to Hartnett’s father (haiku 20 and 87). Denis Harnett (there was a misprint on Michael’s birth certificate, which he decided not to change as Hartnett is closer to the Irish Ó hAirtnéide) died in October 1984 and Inchicore Haiku, published the following year, is littered with images of loneliness, isolation, and death. Tropes of displacement and exile in relation to Hartnett’s sense of place were discussed above, but it may be the case that the poet’s father’s death also heavily influenced the creative impulse behind Inchicore Haiku

Whatever the underlying causes of his sense of uprootedness and displacement, his life on the periphery, Hartnett honours the act of writing poetry as his saving grace:


                                                                     I make my sad verse

                                                                     but hope keeps interfering

                                                                     - forget-me-nots wink.

Views of artists/poets/writers operating outside mainstream society are nothing new. For example, Beckett referred to the ‘artist who stakes his being is from nowhere, has no kith’.  Being ‘elsewhere’ allows for the kind of detached freedom which Philip Larkin referred to in ‘The Importance of Elsewhere’, and indeed, may even help to make sense of the ‘strangeness’ within an individual’s psyche:

                                                                      Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,

                                                                      Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,

                                                                      Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:

                                                                      Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

The self-perceived strangeness Hartnett felt in the run-down streets of Inchicore no doubt assisted his identification with his original home place. This new ‘elsewhere’ may be akin to the ‘potential space’ where creativity thrives, according to one of Winnicott’s key theories. Winnicott refers to opportunities for creativity when discussing the potential space, which he describes as an ‘area of all satisfying experience’.   

Inchicore Haiku embodies the kind of conflicting loyalties, displacement, and isolation associated with so-called post-colonial poets such as Derek Walcott.  One could reasonably argue that Hartnett identifies with outsiders because the British imperial project in Ireland produced psychologically displaced natives.  But such an argument ignores Hartnett’s lack of attachment to the people in his early environment (with the exception of his grandmother), which from the individual psychological point of view, has more bearing on his recurring images of exiles and outcasts.

Inchicore Haiku confirms Harnett’s sense of belonging to West Limerick, but despite this, his broader identification with roots communes uneasily with his innate sense of displacement and detachment.  The resulting poetry is bound up as much with social and psychoanalytical issues, as it is with political, cultural, and historical contexts.  The defining element of Hartnett’s body of work is not his choice of a language, but rather his attempt to attain some unity between past and present.  His artistic approach to this involves identifying symbolic objects of attachment from his unsettled childhood in order to articulate his professional and personal turmoil in maturity.  Nowhere in his oeuvre is this more effective than in Inchicore Haiku.