Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Hidden Ireland: a reading

I have recently been reading Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924), his account of Gaelic civilization and poetry in 18th c. Munster. In all my reading of Irish material, I had never got around to this book before, though I am well familiar with some of the poets Corkery deals with – Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, et al. With all the knocks Corkery has taken from revisionist historians (e.g. L.M. Cullen) for supposedly being narrow or backward-looking, I suppose I had almost believed that The Hidden Ireland would indeed be everything its critics have said. Or not said. To use one example, in Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (1996), Joep Leersen barely gives Corkery a mention (except to dismiss him for being a Gaelic League nationalist), when The Hidden Ireland is such an obvious precedent to Leersen’s own work. In fact the two books deal with largely the same time period, the same themes, and much of the same material. Does Leersen really feel that Corkery can be so safely ignored? Without taking too much away from the impressive qualities of Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael – apparently he does.

To be fair, Leersen draws more from contemporary source materials for the bulk of it than he does from more recent criticism, relatively speaking, but one big influence he does acknowledge is Foucault. “Foucault,” Leeresen says, “has questioned the traditional generic divisions between literary, historical and scientific texts,” and this multi-genre approach is central to Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael, as well as to imagology as a wider discipline (“the imagologist,” Leersen explains, “studies the textual expression of an image, and the historical context of its textual expression, rather than its pretended reference to empirical reality”). Yet, in part, this is exactly what Corkery was doing 80 years ago. Primarily a study of Gaelic poetry and poets, it also draws on the history of Lecky and others, the memoirs of Clanricarde and others, the essays of Romain Rolland among others; and the list could go on. It is an attempt to place the poetry in its historical context, but also to focus on aspects of Irish cultural history which had theretofore been ignored. Corkery was of his time, as we all are. Patrick Walsh offers an eminently sensible corrective to the revisionism of Cullen (a “revision” of revisionism?) in his article “Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland and Revisionism” (2001), in which he points out, “The Gaelic League was not wished into existence by romantic nationalist ideologues, but resulted from the unique conjuncture of the political, social, historical, economic, and linguistic conditions of Ireland at the turn of the century.”

I am not trying to offer a defense of nationalism as such here. I think nationalism can be progressive, and a useful strategy in a liberation struggle – as it was for Ireland – but it can also become a conservative straight-jacket – as it was for Ireland later, when the aims of Pearse and Connolly were subverted to the strictures of the Catholic Church and isolationism. But can’t the nationalism of a small, oppressed country still be a bulwark against the homogenizing imperialism of oppressor nations? For these do still exist in a very real sense. (Perhaps nationalism is not even the correct word anymore, because it can also imply exclusion, which is not my intent at all.) In asking this question, I am also familiar with Manuel De Landa’s spectacular book A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (1997), where he writes:
First, although it is true that nation-states swallowed their minorities and digested them by imposing national standards for language, currency, education, and health, the solution is not simply to break up these large sociopolitical entities into smaller ones....To simply increase heterogeneity without articulating this diversity into a meshwork not only results in further conflict and friction, it rapidly creates a set of smaller, internally homogeneous nations. (Hence the balkanization of the world would increase heterogeneity only in appearance.)
At the same time, I can only agree with Corkery in his introduction to The Hidden Ireland: “After all, all that aptness in mechanism means control of force; it is natural. What is not natural is that ‘progress’ should spell ‘uniformity.’ If those whose very dreams have become mechanical still see any use for the arts, it can only be that they pay lip-service to old saws. How anyone who cares for literature can bear to see a language, any language, die is a thought beyond us.”

James McCloskey’s study of the Irish language’s current situation, Voices Silenced: Has Irish a Future? (2001), is also framed in anti-nationalist terms (do I sense a trend?). Nonetheless, McCloskey’s thesis is indisputable to anyone but the most banal of fascists. “The effort to support Irish,” he asserts, “is in fact one strand, or ought to be one strand, in an international effort to open cracks, however small, in the dreary homogeneity of culture and ideology created by global capitalism.” My impression is that the point of Corkery’s nationalism was not to make English-speaking Irish people feel belittled, embarrassed, or threatened, but to arrive at a place where the Gaelic language and culture would no longer be threatened either. That is, a state of mutual respect. Or perhaps, in De Landa’s terminology, a “meshwork.”

Today, with European integration becoming ever more drawn, and the effects of globalization more and more tangible, many of Corkery’s arguments are oddly relevant. While his attack on Renaissance modes of art might seem in a sense anti-modern at first glance, what he was really trying to do was make a case for multi-culturalism and idiosyncrasy: “Caught up at second-hand into the art-mind of Europe – thus becoming international, their effect was naturally to whiten the youthfully tender national cultures of Europe. That is, the standards of a dead nation [Greece, or the Renaissance image of Greece] killed in other nations those aptitudes through which they themselves had become memorable.” Just look at the current euro currency notes, with their bland representations of “European” architecture, but which actually depict no real individual buildings. Corkery shows how the poetry of an Ó Rathaille still carries an intensity and power lacking in the Renaissance-influenced art of his (Corkery’s) day.

Now, James Joyce (for example) would probably have a different outlook on contemporary European art, an outlook that Corkery did not engage with. Nonetheless, aspects of Corkery’s view of the Gaelic poets have at least something in common with 20th c. modernism. Of Ó Rathaille, he writes, “His themes are scanty: one might, indeed, say he had but two; the first, Ireland and it broken...the second, himself, broken too; and sometimes these two themes become one....But in a lyric, the question of theme must ever be of small moment, the method of treatment being so nearly everything.”

To my mind, The Hidden Ireland is far from being a parochial or inward-looking work – in fact Corkery highlights Irish Gaelic links with the Continent (even while Ireland was suffering under the worst of English oppression), draws comparisons between Ó Rathaille and Whitman, Ó Súilleabháin and Villon, and highlights the teaching in the bardic schools not only of Irish, but also Latin, Greek, and English. Instead, this book is a defense of literature, of education, of multi-culturalism, and of multi-lingualism. It is not only a means of access to some of the greatest poets which any language or culture has ever produced, it is a dynamic reproof of the “whitening” forces that still surround us at least as much if not more than they did in Corkery’s time.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Encyclopedia Destructica

Thought I would let everybody know that the new issue of Encyclopedia Destructica is now out. It’s the first number of its second volume (“Bumba”), guest-edited by John Thomas Menesini, and comes out of the city of Pittsburgh. I am interviewed in it, and have two poems included as well. This is a really good magazine – it’s hand-assembled and bound, with the title sewn right onto the cover – which makes for an interesting little objet d’art in itself, aside from the contributors it comprises. (The others are Che Elias, Spat Cannon, Tait Johnson, Nikki Allen, Selena Orkwis, and Joseph L. Flatley with an essay on Superman as cultural trope. Menesini’s introduction is in the form of a confessional poem. The visual artwork is by Ben Hernstrom and Joana Ricou. All great stuff.)

Encyclopedia Destructica is well worth acquiring, and I don’t say that just because I am in it. I’ve been digging it ever since my contributor copy arrived this past week. Although I don’t think their website has yet been updated to reflect the new issue, at least as of this writing, check it out anyway here (it’s actually a cool site regardless, and will probably be updated any day now, and gives contact/ordering info). Part of the mission is “to raise awareness of the Pittsburgh contemporary art culture,” and this publication is a glimpse of what’s going on in Warhol’s home town, the Iron City. Encyclopedia Destructica is also one of the coolest titles ever. (Click on the photo for larger than life detail!)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Long May Federman Rot

Long May Federman Rot: A Review of Raymond Federman’s More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks (Replenishment)

This review cannot but be extremely subjective. Before reading this book I was unfamiliar with Raymond Federman as anything other than a name, often associated with Samuel Beckett – the two were apparently good friends, and Federman has published Beckett criticism and so forth. But I had previously read nothing of Federman’s work. Therefore I am not in the position to review this volume in relation to his wider oeuvre and am in a sense reading it in a void, taking it strictly on its own terms without the context of his other work. I should also point out that Replenishment is an imprint of Six Gallery Press, which has published two small volumes of my own. Disclaimers thus set on the table, we turn to the book itself.

More Loose Shoes and Smelly Socks is a collection of odds and ends: short prose pieces, poems, manifestoes, which apparently did not fit in to any of Federman’s other publications. It is a chaotic mix, but this fact is not especially off-putting. What does add to the chaos, unnecessarily perhaps, is the lack of pagination and a table of contents, and the deliberate use of a hodge-podge of different font styles and sizes. I am told that the author intended the book to look as if it had just rolled out of his computer printer, unedited, and in this he has succeeded. Federman puts himself across as something of an avatar of postmodernism, and he wants the reader to be overtly aware of the medium as such – these are printed words, formatted on the computer screen, and don’t forget it! So in the poem “The Central Place,” the author, hyper-conscious of language even down to punctuation, writes,

this is a curious place free new and safe
a place that Federman both occupies and creates
and destroys at the same moment.

[skip the . makes me nervous when I see a final

As a postmodernist, Federman is obsessed with the meaning of postmodernism and constantly looks over his own shoulder, the self-reflexivity of the writing being a primary feature of the genre. If indeed it ought to be termed a “genre,” which I realize is sort of a reductive way to look at it. But occasionally it seems to me that this is in fact a genre which Federman has consciously chosen – though he would presumably counter that postmodernism is simply the post-World War II zeitgeist, the only form possible after the horror of the Holocaust. Being a Holocaust survivor (a topic dealt with in “Debris & Design of the Holocaust” and “The Key to the Universe,” among others), it is natural that he would tend to see the world through this lens. However, as far back as the nineteenth century there were already writers grappling with the indeterminacy of truth in a modern way, and, to go back much further than that, there was Heraclitus a couple of millennia or so before. I guess I’ve never totally understood all the hoopla about 20th c. postmodernism – something like it has been there all along.

Postmodernism, though, is Federman’s signature style, the style through which he is best able to put forth his point of view (post-structuralist “death of the author” notwithstanding – the author is quite present here!), and to discuss his favorite subjects, which include his writing and himself. He reminds me very much of Bukowski in this respect. He’s surprisingly autobiographical, and although Federman and Bukowski are generally on opposite ends of the spectrum as regards literary technique, both are somehow able to foster a cult of personality. Consider, for example, this passage from “Gaston – The Rejected Editor”:
Still, the lady Chief Editor could have informed me herself that she couldn’t see me, instead of leaving me in Monsieur Gaston’s hands. Besides, she was rather attractive, and who knows, maybe the sexy passages in my novel got her excited. Things like that happen.

This is quite Bukowskian in tone. I happen to like Bukowski, so by no means do I intend this as a negative criticism.

One other thing I do intend as a (minor) negative criticism, though, is the constant name-dropping of Beckett, or as Federman often refers to him, “Sam.” As these references began to pile up I wanted to respond, “Okay, we get the point; we know you were friends with the great man!” But he continues to do this every chance he gets. I wondered why he felt he needed to ride Beckett’s coattails, when he himself has been internationally celebrated and is clearly established as an important figure in his own right, particularly in Europe. And his talents are certainly on display here. His experiments in bilingualism, as in “Automatic Translation of Les Boudoirs de l’Internet” and “The Bilinguist,” are especially interesting and convey the subjective nature of language in a manner that straightforward discourse cannot. In short stories like “New Clothes” he further demonstrates his ability as a prose stylist with a comedic bent: “Yesterday my wife dragged me to the mall to retool me sartorially. Or, I should say, to re-dress my body.”

But the highlight of More Loose Shoes is the manifesto “Twenty Reasons for the Death of Postmodernism,” which fittingly appears in both French and English, and is the finale of the whole book. It shows that Federman, for all his conscious identification with postmodernism, is actually more farsighted. He knows that any such literary category is eventually going to become outdated when something else begins to resonate, or arises out of the circumstances of a new era. He recognizes that postmodernism is finally just a temporary label for one particular manifestation of a current of thought that will always run in opposition to mainstream literature and art, under whatever guise. He also admits that postmodernism per se was ultimately a hollow and nihilistic enterprise, and so could not be sustained forever. What will eventually take its place is uncertain, but: “...after a fixed period of bubbling at the surface, it sinks and recombines with other like elements to form again a part of the generative stew of art and culture, and that moment of rot is called the death of a movement.” Long may Federman continue to rot.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

James Liddy

Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006, 144 pp., ISBN 1-903631-71-8) is now finally out. Edited by myself, it includes poems, prose articles, criticism, memoirs, etc. on the Irish poet James Liddy. Among those appearing are Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Michael Hartnett, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Dermot Bolger, Eamonn Wall, Mary O’Donoghue, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, George Stanley, Dan Tobin, Jim Chapson, Zack Pieper, Bob Watt, John Menesini, and a spectacular letter to Liddy from Charles Bukowski, among numerous other writers both famous and obscure. Having worked on this project for over two years now, I want to thank Arlen House publisher Alan Hayes for having the will to put the book out, as well as every individual contributor (the list is really too long to give here in full). The cover is by Irish painter Paul Funge, and the whole thing is a great production. Of course, I’m biased. That said, anyone with an interest in Liddy, Irish studies, or Irish poetry in general – or, for that matter, in poetry in general – ought to get it! There are very few books of this kind, with this range, on such a great writer. In Ireland, booksellers Books Upstairs (Dublin), Charlie Byrne’s (Galway) or Kenny’s will have copies. I imagine it will be available on Amazon sometime soon. The publisher unfortunately does not currently have a website, but can be contacted by email ( or regular post: Arlen House, P.O. Box 222, Galway, Ireland.

Coinciding with the release of this Tribute, Arlen House has also published Liddy’s new collection On the Raft with Fr. Roseliep (ISBN 1-903631-83-1). The 62-page volume is vintage Liddy. Lines like “You must go on this raft/ the way down the river/ your mother and priests/ drinking and talking on it,/ changing their clothes/ like you will from good to/ bad, the river decides” (“Enrafted in Wexford”), which in a way gets to the heart of it. Referencing such bizarrely diversiform writers as Dáibhí Ó Bruadair, Djuna Barnes, and Jack Spicer (not to mention Jack White of the White Stripes), Liddy graphs a liberated consciousness and also gives a political statement of his own: “Mars, have mercy, direct wars within” (“Let’s Invade Ourselves Not Iraq”). To all of this, a great big YES! Anything by Liddy is essential. And the cover art is by Pauline Bewick. (See above for suggestions on how to acquire On the Raft.)

(Clicking on either of the two cover images will give a bigger version, for your viewing pleasure...)

As an aside, my review of Liddy’s autobiography, The Doctor’s House (Salmon, 2004), can be found on the site of the Galway-based online literary journal, west47.

Monday, May 01, 2006

David Stone

David Stone sends his latest book, The Lighthouse Poems, 1997-2001 (Publish America, 2004, ISBN 1-4137-2447-7). This volume collects some of his recent work that has previously appeared in chapbook form from CC. Marimbo, New Hope International, Experimental Forest, and other small presses; as well as including individual poems that have been published in various literary magazines (The Burning Bush among others). I have been a fan of Stone’s for a while now, and have reviewed him in depth in TBB (this unfortunately not available online). So without going into too much detail here, the book really drives home his major themes: the blackbird personage (“The crows approved the medicinal flavor/of the morphine...” “The Scarecrow”), the sea-port (“The water is a grey plastic sheet,/Tugging backwards,/Some said apocalyptically...” “The Harbor”), and the horror of modern life (“The freight train tripped/in undercity tunnel,/splashing acid, wrecking towers...” “The Sea Wall”). Stone is definitely not easy to read, yet he should be read! His poetry draws on such disparate influences as Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Surrealism, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the pre-Socratics, Nietzsche, Jewish tradition, the Holocaust, postmodernism, and the list could go on. This is 21st c. eschatology in the form of experimental poetry. The Lighthouse Poems can be obtained from Amazon or the publisher website.

Stone also produces the Blackbird anthology of poetry and collage/xerox/mail art, and issue 7 is great. Crazy, bizarre, challenging poems from all over the world, and interesting original artworks in one of the more under-rated mediums, the photocopy machine – most of it with a blackbird/crow theme. No price or ordering information supplied, but maybe you’ll stumble on a copy somehow.