On Michael Hartnett's 'A Farewell to English'

An essay by Peter Kiernan

Peter Kiernan

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Excerpt from 'A Farewell To English'.

Her eyes were coins of porter and her West 
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house: 
her hair was black as the glossy fireplace 
wearing with grace her Sunday-night-dance best. 
She cut the froth from glasses with knife 
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar 
and her mountainy body tripped the gentle 
mechanism of verse: the minute interlock 
of word and word began, the rhythm formed. 
I sunk my hands into tradition 
sifting the centuries for words. This quiet 
excitement was not new: emotion challenged me 
to make it sayable. This cliché came 
at first, like matchsticks snapping from the world 
of work: mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin
they came like grey slabs of slate breaking from 
an ancient quarry, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach,
álainn, caoin, slowly vaulting down the dark 
unused escarpments, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, 
álainn, caoin,
 crashing on the cogs, splinters 
like axeheads damaging the wheels, clogging 
the intricate machine, mánla, séimh, 
dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin
. Then Pegasus 
pulled up, the girth broke and I was flung back 
on the gravel of Anglo-Saxon. 
What was I doing with these foreign words? 
I, the polisher of the complex clause, 
wizard of grasses and warlock of birds, 
midnight-oiled in the metric laws?

[From Michael Hartnett's Collected Poems (2001), by kind permission of Gallery Press]

On Michael Hartnett's 'A Farewell to English' by Peter Kiernan.

Dual tension. That of a dead language [1] and that of an acquired language. Also what suffers such a tension. The place where modern Irish writing is at any given point in time, is not, as in other literary traditions, at the head of that tradition, but at a continually new space that is the unresolution of a dead language and an acquired language in the same mouth. But every language is an 'acquired' language. The 'native' language only becomes so by amalgamation over time, it gradually conquers speech. In that sense no language is properly 'native' and all comfort in having a language that really belongs is just confusion as to the nature of language. These are two perspectives which must be resolved to one another. Solved again in light of one another.

Michael Harnett first presents this potential moral dilemma as an affect of a personal encounter with unresolution. A woman at a bar trips “the gentle / mechanism of verse”[2] and Hartnett is quickly given over to the process of poetry within him; “I sunk my hands into tradition / sifting centuries for words. This quiet / excitement was not new: emotion challenged me / to make it sayable”. He finds rising to him naturally a host of Irish words, considers them, and then, without warning, is “flung back on the gravel of Anglo-Saxon”. The memory of the almost use of this language is fresh and all the depth of its sound-structures still resonant. Yet it is not to be spoken in. It does not hold to him. The bewilderment and frustration Hartnett expresses at this sudden withdrawal into a nominally foreign language is the arrival of conflict; there is a confusion in him as to which language is his to work in. “What was I doing with these foreign words? / I, the polisher of the complex clause, / wizard of grasses and warlock of birds, / midnight oiled in the metric laws?”. Exactly what is in question is the possession at all of the one, Hartnett, of the other, English, as if it were the natural or right situation to exist. This question casts a shadow in both directions, upon the suitability of English for the purposes of the Irish poet and upon Hartnett himself. He finds himself in the situation where that language takes a natural hold of him. The problem is not present in choosing between the languages for purpose of use but rather is present in determining to which language the poet belongs and what that belonging means; if neither, if English, if Irish.

Harnett presents an as of yet intuited dilemma, asking 'how is that I, being what I am, am here, between two languages?'. The question is at this point only historical, both in the broader sense of how such a dual language tradition exists in the one identity and in the particular sense of how Hartnett arrives at exactly that point presented in the poem. A question posed both for the reader and to the poet, the one reading the poem the other making it. In the third section of the poem Hartnett lampoons Yeats and violently snubs the notion of Anglo-Irish literature. Yeats is parodically represented as a chef whose influence instructs Irish poets to “bemoan the scraps of Gaelic that they know: / add to a simple Anglo-Saxon stock / Cuchulainn's marrow-bones to marinate / a dash of O Rathaille simmered slow / . . . . sniff and stand back and proudly offer you the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew”. The method here is vicious and whatever the accusation is toward Yeats the real origin of the sheer spleen on display is clearly Hartnett himself, who inherits, as the contemporary situation which informs him as a poet, this Anglo-Irish situation.

Is what he rejects here however Irish writing in English? No. It is possible to point as far as his eventual return to writing in English and as close to this declaration in the fifth section of the poem that “Among my living friends / there is no poet I do not love / . . . . they are one art, our many arts.” to elucidate this. The emerging moral dilemma is more subtle. What Hartnett rejects here is the 'Anglo-Irish' conception of Irish literature. The point made is that the claim that the Irish language tradition of literature is meaningfully appropriated by the changed, contemporary, English speaking Ireland he knows is either absurd or malicious. 'Anglo-Irish' writing cannot claim to continue that tradition, for to do so would be to claim that it can take over, into English, the whole event of the destruction of that tradition, an event which cannot even be properly felt by contemporaries. In relation to ourselves, as the contemporary Irish, there is a point at which the older tradition simply drops off and the effort to recover it using the very language that destroyed it is straightforwardly insane. Instead what exists is a null point, a nothingness, between both situations, a nothingness expressed through the death and thus inaccessibility of that tradition and a nothingness that cannot be removed. What binds us to that Gaelic literary tradition is not how we appropriate it or continue it, but how we are not it and yet are exactly that which once belonged to it or understood it in the sense of belonging. This nothingness is of course the place of that dual tension, the place where creatively contemporary Irish writing exists, where it can be original-for-itself, with both language-traditions, the dead and the acquired, rotating around it, as a sky. The issue here is the indeterminacy of this belonging: for of what part of the nothing I partake I can not know. Here, in Hartnett, the problem of attempting to recover or appropriate the Irish language tradition is made lucid. We have no right to do so. Absurd because we cannot do so, malicious because if we do so it must be dishonestly, it must be for our gain.

“We woke up one morning / in a Dublin digs / and found we were descended / from two pigs.” one is the “brimming Irish sow” the other a “syphilitic” “English boar”. Hartnett, again with vicious wit, negatively renders the Ireland that yielded to the English influence in a way that derides it for its yielding. The 'Irish sow' permits the abuse of the 'boar' and there is, given the gendered way Hartnett presents both historical bodies, Ireland and England, a truly disturbing element of reference to sexual violation and sexual desire which Hartnett runs through the brutal metaphor, as well as an element of misogynistic betrayal of the 'masculine' poetic voice by the 'feminine' Ireland. The “English boar” is rendered with indifference to the Irish matter and with interest only in “a sweaty rut / and ownership of any offspring”, so greed and indifference. The contemporary situation is the resultant of the weaknesses of both, which Hartnett makes so cruelly trivial and brutal. Again however this anger can be turned inward by the reader, associated instead with Hartnett himself, who will in later passages accuse the same “boar” of “rape” shifting the tone toward intense sympathy for a violated and again feminine image of Ireland. In many ways Hartnett's disappointment with the Ireland that is, is because it is defined by what is not, what it failed to be. This disappointment mirrors the attitude of some of the Gaelic, Munster poets Hartnett admired [3]. However what it fails to be in this case, is the strength to not be a victim. In other words, the not being like England of Ireland, in its not having strong independence or identity, in its being violated, is what angers Hartnett, but he also recognizes the vicious illegitimacy of this victim-blaming, this anger toward his own self for being the descendant of this Ireland and this only deepens and strengthens and makes personal his anger, it becomes an anger also at himself.

It is this way that the moral problem finally matures. Harnett attacks both the 'Anglo-Irish' conception of literature and the 'Anglo-Irish' state [4] because both fail to integrate into themselves, that is to recognize and be unashamed of, the unrecoverable difference of that lost Ireland, which we are as such still in the process of losing, which Hartnett sees realized as the Irish language itself. What these institutions encourage us to do is exactly to allow ourselves to lose that past. To give it up. What these institutions present to us is the idea that it is only by suppressing that experience of difference, by adopting 'legitimate' forms of literature, 'legitimate' forms of politics, that we can exist holistically, in a way that does not self-contradict. The Irish language is the “conscience of our leaders” it is the “memory of a mother-rape they / will not face” for Hartnett the Irish language is the “final sign that / we are human, therefore not a herd.” It is exactly that which by committing to, he avoids forgetting. He avoids suppressing that other Ireland, which again only seems to exist through being lost, becoming an object in being lost. The moral compulsion for Hartnett toward the Irish language becomes clear, it is the only way he can write without each sentence being a betrayal of that knowledge within him of that lost tradition. The challenge Hartnett presents to the contemporary is clear: to articulate that knowledge in a non-trivial way.

[1] I am aware that this is obviously disputed; the sense of 'dead' here is somewhat metaphorical anyway. The contention however on my part is indeed that the language and culture endured so much trauma that a natural continuation of them that properly speaks for them is impossible. The existence of pockets of native speakers and many enthusiasts for the language does not recover the original language.

[2] I am using the Gallery Press edition of Hartnett's Collected Poems throughout.

[3] O' Bruadair in particular. At times Hartnett seems to write as if there were a resurrected O' Bruadair dwelling in his head. Hartnett mentions, interestingly, in his introduction to his own translation of the same poet, that he feels O' Bruadair would not have liked modern Ireland and one feels this is Hartnett's way of saying anymore than he liked his own time.

[4] “They push us towards the world of total work, / our politicians with their seedy minds / and dubious labels, Communist or / Capitalist, one wanting freedom - / only power.”