At Work: Poet as Housewife

MŒire Mhac an tSaoi
I am filled with the conviction that I appear in this role under false pretences. I am certainly a housewife - though not a particularly dedicated or successful one - and I certainly write verse, but neither of these pursuits is in any way the result of conscious planning. I am that anachronism, the middle-class Irishwoman of the twenties, conditioned to a quietism so absolute that, until I was thirty, I did not make a single independent decision as to what course my life should take; authority and ineluctable circumstances dictated what I did and what I became. I am not sure, even now, that it was not a good formula for contentment, even for happiness. It required, of course, a belief in Divine Providence to make it tolerable: a confidence that one was part of an eternal purpose; conditioning ensured that confidence also.
The poetry was equally a cultural phenomenon. On both sides of the family people bought poetry, recited poetry, wrote poetry, and my long Gaeltacht acculturation did the rest. I can never remember not having an absolute facility for metrical form - nor can I ever remember making a conscious decision to write a poem. Emotion translates itself into verse in my mind, and the finished product is implicit in the resonance of the first phrases that present themselves. Quite often the poem that emerges shows little overt connection with the circumstances that produced it, although I myself remain aware of the connection, historically, so that my poems for me fulfill the function of autobiographical notes, rather meagre autobiographical notes. The process is entirely aural - I hear my poems before I write them - it is also almost automatic, with very little conscious choice involved and very little revision once they go down on paper. I know how what I want to say must sound and I listen for it till it comes. Objectively, I think these procedures are symptomatic of an undoubted talent for verse which my Jansenist education precluded my taking seriously. In so far as I have done that at all it is from a sense of duty -- not to poetry, which to my mind has probably no valid function in the contemporary world, other than, perhaps, entertainment - but to the preservation of the Gaelic language! Since I can write passable verse in very good Irish, my convent-girl's conscience tells me it would be as wrong not to make it available, to such readership as it
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?IY co~mand, ~s it would be to allow myself to become vain about Its pOSSIble ments.
A:s I look back over what I have written here, it strikes me as pretentIOUS and bleak, and yet it is no more than the plain truth. Probably not al! of the truth, but certainly an important aspect of it. I. am a houseWIfe who writes verse. Had I not, relatively late in hfe, b~ome a house-wife, I would still have written verse. The mechamsm .would have remained the same; the metaphors would have been dIfferent.
There is one way in which my kind of poetry is a convenient one for ~y way of life: ~t leaves your hands free. It is, however, destructIve of concentratIOn on any accompanying activity. It is danger~us to ~come engaged in while driving a car or, as it might ?e, fI?'I~g. ChIpS. It is alw~ys in the nature of an imperative mtrusIOn, It can never be a pnmary preoccupation.
Other people's poetry is a different matter. I am privileged to have a.n enormo~s store of poetry by heart: not only Shakespeare and MIlton, Fernter and Gear6id Iarla, but an endless succession of songs an~ ballads in several languages. The existence of this repertory IS an extraordinary comfort and happiness; as sensible as warmth, or ~ood, or colour. It is on this I draw in the face of the soul-destroymg monotony that goes hand in hand with the quasisacr~me~tal nature o.f ~ome-making. My self-respect as a writer conSIsts m .the conVIctIOn that what I write myself will one da
    occupy a mmor, but not negligible, niche in this canon.     y
    .     On a go.od day nobody needs encouragement: your husband is
kmd, your chIldren are handsome and loving, the Sunday joint was perfect: On a bad day, humanity sickens, life is not only pointless but actI~ely r~pulsive, l?ath~ome. and cruel. Happiness is personal' and partIcular, depreSSIon IS umversal. Occasionally my kind of poe~ry salvages a fragment of personal certitude from a grim enVIronment -. not ne~essarily or even usually in a happy mode, but at least ~ f!xed pomt from which to work back towards the bearable. ThIS IS a sa~et.y-valve and a saving grace, but it is quite a rare occurrence, and It IS a faculty I have not cultivated. On the other hand t?e great surge of human communication that is poetry other people.s, constantly refreshes and invigorates like the sight of the sea. Do mland d~ellers I wonder yearn for the open steppe?
I ~m a housew~fe who writes poetry. Before that I was many other things. You wIll not. however, find them directly reflected in my work. The early poems are set in Arcadia, not because they are
mere versions of pastoral, but because that was the climate of my prolonged and protected adolescence, and the climate of my interior life until my marriage, well into middle-age. It was then that I made one of my few deliberate decisions: that decision was to write, not in the persona of the archetypal woman of my imagination, although she was intensely real to me, but as myself, myself as perceived by society, middle-class, middle-aged, suburban. It was a decision made in response to criticism; I am not dissatisfied with the results, but it is only fair to say that they do not seem to have impinged much on the reading public. they prefer the Gaelic Romancero; yet it seems to me in retrospect that the Dublin housewife is as much a dramatic creation as the earlier rural colleen. For modesty's sake my poetic process seems to require the interposition of a role between the essential self and the audience.
I do not feel old. I think that, with the release from material obligations which accompanies my time of life, some major theme may yet present itself that will absorb my remaining energies and stretch my capacity. True to character, I am passively waiting for its advent.
Page 22, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28