Kevin Higgins reviewed a collection of politically engaged poetry in Issue 33 (September 2008).
Dave Lordan, The Boy in the Ring (Salmon Poetry)
In the small world that is the Irish poetry scene Dave Lordan is, to say the least of it, an unusual case. His poetic imagination is politically engaged in a way that sets him apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. Lordan was born in Clonakilty in 1975 and now lives in Dublin. For Irish poets of the previous couple of generations, opposition to the political and cultural status quo (whatever form that opposition might take) was more or less a given. Until the 1990s there was, for most, no way to be a poet in Ireland and not be opposed to things as they were.
The Irish feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s had its poetic counterpart in Eavan Boland’s 1982 collection Night Feed, the Catholic church was pretty wickedly satirised in poems such as Paul Durcan’s ‘Priest Accused of Not Wearing Condom’, and the brave new Ireland of the late 1970s was starkly taken to task in poems such as ‘Cuchulainn’ by Michael O’Loughlin: “At eleven-fifteen on a Tuesday morning / with the wind blowing fragments of concrete / Into eyes already battered and bruised / By four tightening walls / In a flat in a tower-block / Named after an Irish Patriot / Who died with your name on his lips…”
Suffering poverty is one thing: poets have a long history of being fairly okay with poverty, both their own and other people’s. But living under the then very real yoke of the Catholic Church—the constitutional ban on divorce, homosexual acts between consenting men illegal until 1993, the sale of condoms completely illegal until 1979—was bound to provoke opposition from artists. I think it was Trotsky who wrote that artists are petit-bourgeois in revolt against the role society is trying to force them into, or words to that effect. Until at least the late 1970s all Irish writers had to worry about censorship, and Irish women writers had to constantly fight against the silence which had been imposed on their mothers and grandmothers. In the Ireland of the recent past if you were a poet, or artist of any sort, what you were for may not have been at all clear, but you typically knew what you were against.
In the past twenty years many of these issues have either ceased to be or been greatly ameliorated. The church is nothing like the force it was. Censorship is a distant abstraction to young writers starting out now. These days a poet is far more likely to draw the wrath of the left, for not toeing some ‘party line’, than he or she is to be condemned by the powers that be, who are, to be frank, so secure in their position of ideological supremacy that they don’t care what poets say about them. Yes, free market capitalism has, with impunity, put its hands into pretty much every area of Irish life over the past decade or so. Most artistic types don’t like this, or at least think it has gone too far. But they are not alone in not having a clue what is to be done about it.
Voting for Enda Kenny (with a bit of Éamon Gilmore thrown in) seems unlikely to change much. And to the bulk of artists, as to most people, the existing far left seems to be more about the past than the future. Even the most apolitical poet knows about what Stalin did to artists, and no-one wants to revisit that. Those few who do loudly engage with political issues tend to follow the formula of writing a stream of vituperative letters to the editor (everywhere from the Irish Times to the Longford Independent) in which they often conclude by sniping at their fellow scribes for not being similarly engagé. For most, excepting those tragic few on the far left who are impressed, it is clear that this sort of ‘political engagement’ is more about death than life. ‘Notice me!’ the sad scribe shrieks. ‘Before they screw down my coffin lid!’ But the world has more important things to attend to. And so the scribe shrieks all the louder. The value of the politically engaged writer has rarely been more open to question than in Ireland right now.
In this context Dave Lordan’s explosion on to the Irish poetry scene over the past couple of years has been a revelation. Towards the end of 2005 he won the Patrick Kavanagh Award. This March he won the Strong Award for Best First Collection, and was also shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, which was won last year by a little known Co. Derry poet by the name of Séamus Heaney. Lordan’s rise is also proof that what is sometimes called the literary establishment is very open indeed to good political poems, however revolutionary they may be. It would perhaps have been more politically advantageous for his comrades if, when his first book appeared, instead of Lordan being brought to Dún Laoghaire to be given a big award, all copies of The Boy in the Ring had been seized in an early morning Special Branch raid on Salmon Poetry’s headquarters in Clare and Lordan himself exiled to Inisboffin. But it was not to be.
In his poetry Lordan is open about his politics. His point of view is usually that of participant rather than bystander, as in the case of ‘Migrant’s March, Genoa, July 19, 2001’:
The slogans surging up the back of fifty thousand throats
to greet them in our provisional republic.
A- Anti- Anti-capitalista.
Un altro mondo é possible.
Noi siamo tutti clandestini.
A language we all understand.
Is there any such thing as Ireland?
The closing couplet well brings to life the way participation in big political movements can help us transcend the apparently commonsense realities around us. The experimental five-page ‘Excerpt from Reflections on Shannon’ and ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ also both overtly engage with politics in a way that your typical poet believer in all things Irish Times would not:
I ask you again
What the fuck is silence;
And who ever heard
The dead requesting it?
I have, on occasion, heard Lordan’s poems criticised for being somewhat bombastic and more than a little relentless. It’s important to know that Lordan considers the ‘stage’—i.e. reading his poems aloud to an audience—to be more important than the page—i.e. having his poems quietly read from a book by solitary passive readers. When he is on form, he is one of the best performers Irish poetry has to offer. I once saw him perform ‘The hunger striker sings his death’ to a Galway audience which included a woman from a Protestant unionist background in the North who up to that point had more or less believed that the H-Block hunger strikers were just a bunch of guys who had starved themselves to death years ago to make some obscure political point. After the reading this same woman turned to me and said: “Now I get it.” As a poet Lordan has an ability to animate a subject in a way that far outstrips most of even the better public speakers on the left.
He gives his reader/listener the feeling that the people he writes about are not simply pawns in the political argument which undeniably does underpin many of his poems: he also cares about them as human beings. Lordan is an engaged witness to what is going on, rather than a propagandist trying to fit the world into some pre-conceived scheme. It is true that some of his poems are better heard aloud than read on the page but, as I’ve said, that is part of his plan. Lordan is one of a group of younger poets emerging in Ireland right now for whom reading their poems to live audiences is at least as important as being read on the page in the quiet of the reader’s living room. Others would include Cork poet Billy Ramsell who was shortlisted for the same Strong Award which Lordan won. One blogger commented that this year’s Strong Award seemed to represent the arrival in Ireland of “some sort of performance poetry”. And they were, in a sense, on the button. Many of the old boundaries have been eroded or kicked away, and the Irish poetry world is undeniably a more open, less snobbish place than at any other time in its history.
There have, yes, been one or two old guarders keen to pour ignorant scorn on the open mic and poetry slam scene which has sprung up in most of the key urban centres in Ireland over the past five years: they are the sort of people who would no doubt amend Yeats’s exhortation to future generations from “Irish poets, learn your trade” to ‘Younger poets, know your place’. A professor of Irish Studies based at a major American university—a pillar of the literary establishment, if you will—recently likened the aforementioned naysayers to those old men who like to whinge away to themselves about how ‘There’s never anything any good on the telly these days!’ Sadly, they have had some (albeit ineffectual) encouragement from those who should know better. In 2006 a poet member of a many-initialled Trotskyist group published an article in which it was argued that young poets would be better off going along to hear an elderly socialist playwright read his work in a small provincial hotel than wasting their time constantly reading their own work to audiences. Controversy ensued in the pages of The Irish Times, Poetry Ireland News and elsewhere. It is true that young poets should read the great poetry of the past: absolutely. But when a member of a Trotskyist group starts running around trying to stir up deference among the young, we have, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, ended up in a very queer street indeed. But I suppose we all make mistakes. In contrast, Dave Lordan has been a staunch advocate of the new poetic openness, even when this has meant not exactly toeing the party line.
And his best poems seal the argument. His ‘Explanations of War’ is one of the finest anti-war poems I have read in years:
See all those bright lights whizzing around in the sky—
They are only the stars throwing a party.
And the shaking you feel beneath you,
The shaking that jars your teeth and your bones—
That is only the way the earth dances.
And the bangs and roars, the cracks and blasts and booms—
These are only the sounds of little spirits tuning their instruments…
But by far Lordan’s greatest quality as a poet is his empathy. George Orwell once wrote that he found it hard to imagine that the typical “polysyllable-chewing Marxist” of the 1930s could possibly have been motivated by a love of anything, let alone the working class. He came to the conclusion that capitalism offended many of them not because it was unjust but because it was untidy. Lordan is a different sort of Marxist, and one rarely spotted in the English language poetry world. He has a genuine anarchic love of those who, as your Auntie Mary might put it, ’give us all a bad name’. His ‘Ode on de winning of de Entente Florale’ ironically and viciously celebrates Clonakilty’s win in that competition by giving voice to the at times Waffen SS-like prejudices of the organising committee: “Told ye so. Told ye we could win it / ’Spite de filth o’ de likes o’ ye / With yere baseball caps and yere baggy pants, / Yere ghetto blasters and yere nigger music…/And de trainee hoors hangin’ offa ye.” Lordan’s use of the demotic brings to mind the work of poets such as Linton Kwesi Johnson and Tony Harrison. And indeed, if English as it is spoken by the Afro-Caribbean community in London and the white working class in West Yorkshire can be brought into poetry, then why not Clonakilty? I trust the committee who masterminded the town’s Entente Florale triumph are suitably proud of Lordan.
His empathy is at its sharpest when dealing with the issue of suicide, which a number of the poems here do. Far ahead of unaffordable house prices and traffic jams, youth suicide has been the real curse of Ireland’s Tiger years. ‘Mail for a dead guide’ is written in the form of a letter to a friend who killed himself. Lordan is the first Irish poet to seriously and credibly engage with this subject. He is breaking new poetic ground in the way that, say, Cathal Ó Searcaigh was when he began publishing poems about being a young gay man growing up in rural Ireland back in the late 1970s. Lordan’s empathy is born of the fact that he is never an outsider to the issues he writes about, and has clearly done near deadly battle with his own demons in the past.
I finally get to this morning‘Dying for Ireland’
but cringe at thoughts of my father
at the front door explaining
my mother’s Antigonian wailing…
In true Irish martyr fashion
I’ve decided not to give a warning.
Lordan has until recently been best known as a fairly brash political poet. But there is a huge vulnerability there too, which will, I think, be the making of him as a poet. It has enabled him to take his poetry into the until now uncharted terrain of modern Irish loneliness and despair at their worst. Every secondary school in Ireland should, as a matter of urgency, book Dave Lordan for a visit under the Writers in Schools scheme. We all know the old Auden cliché about poetry making nothing happen, but in this case it might actually save lives.