Sunday, October 5, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Irish Literary Supplement, Volume 19, Number 1 (Spring 2000), p. 27.

Most of my direct personal contact with poet Michael Hartnett, who died last October at the sadly young age of 58, happened during a two-week period about seven months before his death. First I received an utterly unexpected phonecall from the man himself at 7:15 one morning, an oddly delayed reaction (or so it seemed) to an article of mine that included discussion of his poetry; I had sent the piece to him as a courtesy sixteen months earlier, but as it turns out, he had moved house shortly before I mailed it, and (better late than not at all, I suppose) the packet had just caught up with him. Then, a day or so later, a brief note from him arrived in the mail; obviously written before the phonecall, it closed: “If you’re still alive, drop me a line.” I did so shortly, concluding hopefully by echoing the promise he had exacted from me on the telephone that I would visit him the next time I traveled to Dublin: “Someday we shall meet, I’m sure. . . .”

Alas, we never did meet; nor did we communicate further after that quick exchange of comments and compliments. But when I heard of Hartnett’s death, I felt his loss almost as if I had known him personally for years—and, in a sense, I did know him peculiarly well. In fact, Hartnett entered my life by way of a non-encounter with him that has teased my imagination for more than two decades. The place was Tralee, Co. Kerry, the time the autumn of 1978. As bad luck would have it, I learned the morning after from the landlady in my B&B that a poet had entered a pub in the town the night before and commenced to recite poems in Irish for whatever pittance the patrons deigned to toss his way. The poet was Michael Hartnett (a.k.a. Micheál Ó hAirtnéide), and I knew just enough about him to understand that he was fulfilling in deed as well as in word the promise he had made in evoking and invoking his literary ancestors in the bold title poem of his 1975 volume A Farewell to English, re-issued earlier that year by Gallery Press:

00000But I will not see
00000great men go down
00000who walked in rags
00000from town to town
00000finding English a necessary sin
00000the perfect language to sell pigs in.

00000I have made my choice
00000and leave with little weeping:
00000I have come with meagre voice
00000to court the language of my people.

At once an iconoclast and a throwback, Hartnett aspired to realize the not-quite-paradox of both breaking with convention and embracing tradition. He aspired to reconcile, through a commitment to writing exclusively in Irish, the two halves of what Thomas Kinsella has called “the divided mind” of the modern Irish poet writing in English who hears across the silence of the vacuum-like nineteenth century the resonance of more than a thousand years of poetry written in Irish. As Kinsella described this condition in 1973: “I recognize that I stand on one side of a great rift, and can feel the discontinuity in myself.”

Eventually, Hartnett had second thoughts about his decision to write only in Irish—perhaps in due course, for as fellow poet Eamon Grennan observes in “Wrestling with Hartnett,” his fine essay included in the special Irish issue of The Southern Review in 1995, the trajectory of his work resembles “a journey that starts, stops, starts again, doubles back on itself, pursues false paths, tries different approaches, feels its way into the clear, and presses deliberately and forcefully ahead.” Many of the landmarks and the milestones of that journey are represented in his Selected & New Poems (published in 1994 by Gallery Press in Ireland and by Wake Forest University Press in America), a satisfying introduction to a poet who, while at times daunting to read both for the vicissitudes of his thematic and stylistic emphases and for the intensity and the density of his acute lyric sensibility, yet consistently rewards the reader attentive to the subtleties and the complexities of his poetic vision.

Hearing of Michael Hartnett’s death, I turned respectfully toward that volume—toward the autobiographical darkness of “A Small Farm” (“All the perversions of the soul / I learnt on a small farm”), the uncompromising social commentary of “The Retreat of Ita Cagney” (Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger” with the sexual stakes raised by its woman’s point of view), the formal elegance of “A Visit to Castletown House” (remarkable for the poet’s Yeats-like command of its eight-line stanza), the existential angst of the artist in “The Naked Surgeon” (“hope died out and left me there, / a naked surgeon, my patient dead”). In many ways that volume in its entirety testifies to the closing verse of “The Poet as Mastercraftsman”: “To poets peace poetry never yields.” Just as persuasively, it testifies to the authority of Hartnett’s Yeats-countering exhortation (a crafty sonnet, no less) omitted from Selected & New Poems but included in his dual-language volume A Necklace of Wrens in 1987:


00000Inniu chuir mé mo dhánta,
00000aoileach, scian, scealláin:
00000an pháirc mo phár bán,
00000an rámhainn mo pheann.

00000Tiocfaidh na gasa ina ndideanna glasa
00000ceann ar cheann,
00000tiocfaidh an bláth bán is croí ina lár
00000mar sheile ón ngrian.

00000A dhalta, ná bí díomhaoin
00000ach bailigh do threalamh le chéile
00000mar táid filí na tíre
00000ag atreabhadh úir na hÉireann
00000is fágfar tusa I do bhochtán
00000gan phráta, gan dán.


00000Today I planted poems—
00000dung, knife, seed:
00000a field my page,
00000my pen a spade.

00000Green nipples will come
00000one by one,
00000white flowers, their centres,
00000like spits from the sun.

00000Learners—no longer idle,
00000but gather your implements
00000for all of Ireland’s poets
00000replough the Irish earth
00000and you will be bereft
00000of potatoes and verse.

With hindsight, I think that it is the spirit of that poem, a more distilled form of the spirit informing “A Farewell to English,” that has teased me for the past twenty-odd years that I have been (for the most part casually) visiting and revisiting Hartnett’s poetry: its expression of the poet’s heartfelt belief in—and his own cultivation of—the restorative power of enduring poetry. Surely this is the spirit that provoked what appears to have been the principal enterprise of the last fifteen years of Hartnett’s life and career—his recuperation by way of masterful translation of a trio of so-called “dispossessed” poets from the other side of that “great rift” that he, like Kinsella, gazed across. More limited in its compass than Kinsella and Seán Ó Tuama’s anthology An Duanaire (1981) and less “exotic” in its subject matter than Seamus Heaney’s celebrated Sweeney Astray (1983), Hartnett’s cumulative body of poems by seventeenth-century poets Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and Pádraigín Haicéad and early eighteenth-century poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille yet stands within the larger corpus of his work as a major legacy in itself to the furtherance of the Irish poetic tradition: “Irish poets learn your trade,” indeed!

Ultimately, then—perhaps even inevitably—when I heard of Michael Hartnett’s death I found myself drawn to his translations of Ó Bruadair in particular (published by Gallery as O Bruadair in 1985). For so much of what Hartnett evidently sought in his determined symbolic gesture of bidding farewell to English in the mid-1970s seems to be embedded in the artistic rigor and the thematic integrity that he clearly associates with his fellow native (putative, at least) of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick. Introduced to Ó Bruadair’s work in 1954, when he was thirteen years old, Hartnett has admitted that before long this file, this professional poet of the old Gaelic social order, became “the symbol of what I wanted to be.” Not surprisingly, his selections from the three-volume Irish Texts Society edition of his precursor’s verse focus almost exclusively on the downward spiral of the presence—and the practice—of poetry in Irish society during the politically and culturally turbulent decades of the seventeenth century. As his version of “Is Urchra Cléibh” (a lament written after the departure in 1692 of many of the Irish chieftains) reflects, Hartnett identifies especially with Ó Bruadair’s perspective as beleaguered guardian of a noble art:

00000To see the art of poetry lost
00000with those who honoured it with thought—
00000its true form lowered to a silly chant,
00000sought after by the dilettante.

Hartnett has observed of Ó Bruadair: “He was concerned with culture.” So too was his translator. Taking down from the bookshelf my dog-eared, pencil-marked copy of O Bruadair in the wake of Hartnett’s death, and remembering how twenty-one years earlier I had been so taken with the idea of a latter-day poet so literally keeping the faith of his literary forebears as Hartnett reportedly did in that pub in Tralee, I found the opening stanza (or rann) of the opening poem of that volume, a poem originally composed for the children of poet Cúchonnacht Ó Dalaigh (who died in 1642), an altogether apt epitaph for the life and the career of Michael Hartnett himself:

00000Bereft of its great poets
00000our old world’s in darkness.
00000The orphans of those masters
00000offer answers that lack sharpness.

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