Feature Articles

THE SILENT ARMY by Joseph Horgan
(PI News January/February 2010)

Watching writers, artists and actors campaigning recently in support of funding for the arts, and insisting upon the social importance of culture, was in so many ways encouraging. Is there anyone involved in the arts who would describe artistic disciplines as insignificant? Anyone who would seek to trivialise creativity? And who among us does not value their own work? Is there not even, in the case of the poets in particular, somewhere within us some sneaking belief in the sacredness of our work? Not, God forbid, in some Bono-haunted sense, but in an acknowledgment of the depth, the other, the essence, the truth that poetry can achieve. So why was this display of activism also, in a genuine way, somewhat disheartening?

A 2009 summer editorial for THE SHOp, the excellent Co Cork magazine, recently reflected upon a positive response to a call for poets to address what might be termed ‘social concerns’. It applauded the work that arose as a result, the fact that poets were willing to write about ‘dark but important subjects’. Some questions though, on looking at that editorial, hung in the air. What, prior to this plea, had the poets been writing about? Why did they need to be asked? Why did the poets need pointing in a certain direction? After all, look at the context. This Ireland we now have, this commercial entity, this Ireland Inc., this substitution of an economy for a country, while this was being constructed, where were the poets? What were they saying about it?

Clearly, if that editorial is anything to go by, not very much. Were our interior worlds so hermetically sealed? By any judgement a radical economic, social and cultural upheaval occurred across this country during the boom and what did Irish poets say to that? Did they say anything? An all-embracing political hegemony blanketed the discourse and the social conduct of our society. A new consensus about competition and enterprise and wealth was instantly reached. How did the artists react? We are not, after all, talking about party political bias here, about the grind of the political soap opera. We are talking about a fundamental reconstruction of the way Irish society operates, of how it conducts itself. That is what all those years of the boom, in effect, were. Did we truly have nothing to say about that? Were we too removed to be concerned by, to notice, the new gods of shopping, celebrity and money? Are we really above all that? Is our silence to be understood as superiority? Are we so special? Is that our response, that this is nothing to do with us and if so, is that not a dangerous stance? The idea of an aesthetic immunity for artists, writers, poets, is a heavily loaded one. It creates a host of questions. When does silence become acquiescence? When does a lack of concern become tacit approval? When does a remove from become a co-option into the corporate project? When does the standing army of silent poets become the servants, the colleagues of power?

WH Auden famously said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ and in the world of action, the commercial world, the world of the free market, that is quite true. On another level though, in the world of thought, the world of the mind, it does. Poetry does resound, poetry reverberates, poetry responds and it is the nature of that response that is most valuable. This response of poetry is not made in order to be relevant. Poetry doesn’t need to be relevant; that could quickly lead to faddishness, a chasing after attention. No, poetry must respond in order to be true. Can we really live as artists and have nothing to say about the society we live in? Can our work just look the other way? Can we write poetry about only a fraction of the truth?

Cecil Day Lewis wrote in the 1930s of poetry having a ‘sacred indignation.’ Will it be said of the Irish poets of the recently departed boom years that they felt no indignation until they faced the loss of funding? That they were, in essence, just like any other special-interest group? Is this art, this poetry of ours, merely a creed of indifference? Are we, as WB Yeats said, simply ‘self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting’? Is that all we are? Is that our truth?

Joseph Horgan’s first collection, Slipping Letters Beneath the Sea, came out from Doghouse in 2008. A book on landscape and memory is due out in 2010 with Collins Press. He was shortlisted for the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune prize in 2003 and won the Patrick Kavanagh Prize in 2004.

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