I LIVE IN MICHAEL HARTNETT by Eileen Casey
(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2013)
The title of a new publication – launched at Éigse Michael Hartnett – is taken directly from Paula Meehan’s poem ‘Hagiography’. Meehan describes the moment of seeing an estate named in Michael Hartnett’s honour: ‘Very aboriginal to be beneath a sign at the brand new estate: / Address – Michael Hartnett Close, Newcastle West.’ The poem goes on to recount the reply received by Joan MacKernan, Limerick County Arts Officer, on asking children at a poetry workshop if anyone had heard of Michael Hartnett, and Meehan brilliantly captures the excitement of a child being able to geographically locate himself thus: ‘The lad who cried “Miss, Miss, I live in Michael Hartnett.” ’ Lifting that line as an overarching title for the anthology is inspired, as each contributor strives to forge their own unique proximity to Munster’s Poet Laureate.
Michael Hartnett died in 1999, leaving behind a lasting legacy. For a working-class poet in mid 20th-century Ireland to have his work still studied and read at national and international third-level institutions is one mark of his achievement. But his influence extends as far afield as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where his poem 'Gné na Gaeltacht' / ‘The Gaeltacht Face’ was set to music by Bill Whelan and performed for President Barack Obama during Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House in 2011. A recipient of an American Fund Literary Award and a member of Aosdána, Hartnett’s first collection was Anatomy of a Cliché (Dolmen Press, 1968, while thirty-three years later his Collected Poems (Gallery Press) appeared posthumously in 2001.
Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Theo Dorgan, Brendan Kennelly, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Macdara Woods are just some of the seventy plus poets acknowledging a link to Hartnett’s and his legacy in I Live in Michael Hartnett. James Lawlor, the anthology’s editor, describes their poems as having a range of sentiment borne out of loss, sadness, humour, and warmth. Lawlor, having completed his MA on the work of Michael Hartnett at Queens University, Belfast, is well equipped for his task. A native of Carrickerry, Co Limerick, he began his interest in Hartnett while studying English and Media at Limerick University. As part of his course he also had to design a website and soon he had e-mails coming in from readers of Hartnett’s work around the world. Michael’s son Niall chanced upon the site and subsequently made contact, and now co-edits the website with James Lawlor.
I Live in Michael Hartnett extends the remit of the poetry anthology in that as well as acknowledging Hartnett’s craft, it pays homage to the man himself. Theo Dorgan described Hartnett as ‘other worldly,’ while Seamus Heaney spoke of him as not being like anybody else. It is unsurprising then, that in I Live in Michael Hartnett he is re-imagined as, for example, a stuffed exhibited curlew, a felled willow tree, a displaced rural inhabitant, a displaced urban inhabitant, an avant-garde lyricist and a pre-Cromwellian Gaelic bard.
It is a very valuable exercise for a poet to take stock, to dwell on crucial poetic influences, poems that herald and sustain what Billy Collins described as a ‘chronic love sickness for poetry’. In First Loves (Scribner, 2000) a number of established poets talk about such seminal poems. Seamus Heaney, for example, on ‘Dactyls of Derry’, describes so tenderly the ‘bits of blow-in in the daily talk, like leaves in a gust, alive and familiar and a delight’. First Loves focuses its various contributors on works by William Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, W H Auden, Ezra Pound, Emily Dickinson, among others. I Live in Michael Hartnett, however, has as its complete preoccupation one poet’s influence on his peers and successors; surely a huge achievement in terms of shining a light on the various levels of poetic connectivity and continuity.
Writer Valerie Sirr’s offering ‘Hartstown Haiku’ pays tribute to Hartnett’s celebrated use of the short form in ‘Inchicore Haiku.’ In my case, in a poem ‘Willow Man’, I write about an occasion in July 1993 when Michael Hartnett read his work, to much acclaim, in Tallaght, Co Dublin: ‘I would have waited / even longer for that first glimpse of him leaning / through the doorway as if a birthing were taking place.’ I was always truck by the fact that Hartnett and my father both shared a common occupation, that of telephonist; Hartnett worked for a time in the Exchange in Exchequer St. As a child I remember being fascinated by the idea of all those wires being plugged into conversations, especially as my father was a quiet, shy individual. The fact of him being responsible for connecting up so many voices yet struggling to instigate a conversation is not without some irony. I wondered how Hartnett, too, thought about all those conversations, ‘flying on witcheries of wire through air’ (‘Willow Man’). What strikes me most, however, is the disappearance of the willow trees which grew close to the Tallaght venue where Hartnett read his poems; ‘replaced by a shape shifting landscape, / apartment blocks rise like totem poles.’ However, ‘willow roots, like language itself, go deep’.
Hartnett’s A Necklace of Wrens: Selected Poems in Irish with English translations by the author, was published by Gallery Press in 1987, and reprinted in 2000. It is appropriate that the poet’s bi-lingual ability is also acknowledged in the anthology through the inclusion of poems such as Declan Collinge’s ‘Adharca Broic’ and Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s ‘An tIasc’ / ‘The Fish’.
I Live in Michael Hartnett, a joint initiative of Limerick Writers’ Centre and Limerick County Council, is a fitting tribute to both the man and the poet and will no doubt direct readers to Hartnett’s significant body of work. I Live in Michael Hartnett is available for €15 from Revival Press and selected independent booksellers.
Eileen Casey lives in South Dublin. Her poetry collections include Drinking the Colour Blue (New Island) and From Bone to Blossom (AltEnts). In 2011 she received a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship.