One of the many wonderful scenes in Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds has Jem Casey, "the Poet of the Pick and the Bard of Booterstown," kneeling to assist the injured King Sweeny, a man of words in his own right: "poet on poet, a bard unthorning a fellow-bard," O'Brien inscribes that moment. Almost inevitably I thought of that scene when I finally sat down with Notes from His Contemporaries: A Tribute to Michael Hartnett, a substantial book of poems and prose that landed on my doorstep around a year ago.
A poet of remarkable range and depth who is yet generally overlooked, and thus underestimated, by readers and critics alike, Michael Hartnett died in 1999 at the young age of 58. Commemorating one of Ireland's most intriguing poets of the last half of the twentieth century, this large-format softcover - compiled and privately published by his son Niall—is aptly titled, as it invokes a series of engaging poems, "Notes on My Contemporaries," that Hartnett composed in the late 1960s praising and appraising a number of his fellow Irish poets, some of whom return the favor here. Poet on poet and bard on bard, indeed.
Hartnett may be best known for his early poem "A Small Farm," which opens memorably: "All the perversions of the soul / I learnt on a small farm. . . ." He is also legendary for his decision in the mid-1970s to abandon (temporarily, as it turns out) the English language to write only in Irish; he made his intention known in a powerful poem titled "A Farewell to English":
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
Yet his output was prodigious and included not only his own poems in English and in Irish but also indispensable translations of seventeenth-century Irish-language poets Dáibhí Ó Bruadair and Pádraigín Haicéad and early eighteenth-century poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille. Tellingly, though, every time I browse around in the sampler of his work gathered in his Collected Poems, published in 2001 by Gallery Press, I end up contemplating one knotty line, in his "Note" on contemporary Thomas Kinsella, that seems to sum up Hartnett's own poetic vision: "To poets peace poetry never yields."
And that is certainly an essential theme that emerges, with multiple variations and permutations, from the memories of and tributes to Hartnett gathered in Notes from His Contemporaries. Remembering a period of particular darkness in her own life, short story writer Emma Cooke recalls picking up the telephone and hearing Hartnett's voice reciting to her a line from one of his early poems: "Sad singing in darkness is our burden." As many of the contributors observe, Hartnett's poetic introspection probed the darkness of both the inner self and the world outside the self, and his poetry may have been the saving grace in a life frequently destabilized by the poet's weakness for drink and by shaky health. The final stanza of Gabriel Fitzmaurice's poem written in memory of Hartnett—"So What If There's No Happy Ending?" — indeed suggests as much:
Open the door into darkness,
There's nothing at all to fear —
Just the black dogs barking, barking
As the moon and stars appear.
In "End," a poem as brief and yet also as expressive as a calligraphic brushstroke, Peter Fallon, Hartnett's publisher at Gallery Press, sums up his life in similar terms:
End of sureness, end of doubt —
when the darkness
like a light
Yet most contributors also emphasize the remarkable resiliency of Hartnett's spirit, as well as his hospitality and generosity and the good companionship he provided whether in a pub, in a country kitchen, or on a long car ride. One of the stories attached to the poet is that when he was a young boy, a flock of wrens landed and perched on his shoulders—"a necklace of wrens," Hartnett himself referred to this event in the title poem of a dual-language edition of a selection of his poems written originally in Irish. (At the time of the incident, Hartnett was living with his grandmother on a farm just outside Newcastle West in Co. Limerick: she interpreted this phenomenon as evidence that he would become a poet.) Thus, as his friend Pat O'Brien observes, when he died, many of his acquaintances and admirers naturally thought of the essence of Hartnett in avian terms: "everyone one spoke with . . . would resort to images of birds. Sometimes to try to express the lyric sweetness of his poetry even when its note was ominous about the world and its brutality against people and nature and culture. Sometimes to hold the man in a worthy metaphor. He walked the country lanes, or the city streets with the grace of heights. He would always seem ready to take flight, to leave the heaviness of the earth, the concerns of the day, the gravity of his health for clearer skies." Michael Coady casts him specifically as a wren:
You were a wren in your ways and shapes,
King of the birds that could roost in the holly,
Land on the leaf or dart to the light,
Drop out betimes and go into hiding . . .
Organized alphabetically by contributor — from Leland Bardwell to Macdara Woods — Notes from His Contemporaries stands as a monument of words to Hartnett the poet and the man. Clearly, Niall Hartnett had no trouble lining up a Who's Who of contemporary Irish poetry to help remember his father: John Montague, Seamus Heaney, and Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Pat Boran, and Greg Delanty, Paul Durcan, Liam Ó Muirthile, and Gabriel Rosenstock. (Moreover, he managed to capture most of the contributors in handsome black-and-white photographic portraits that add to the appeal of this book.) While the poems testify, at times touchingly, to Hartnett's place of high esteem among his peers, several of the prose pieces offer valuable insight into the mind of the man and the poet. One of these is an interview from 1987 conducted by fellow poet Dennis O'Driscoll, whose wide-ranging questions prompt engaged and engaging responses. Asked about his readiness to employ "rhetorical language" in his writing, Hartnett acknowledges the influence of 18th-century Irish-language poets (and fellow Limerick men) Seán Ó Tuama and Andrias MacCraith: "When I was quite young, I became very conscious of these poets and, so, read them very closely indeed. Through them, without going into their elaborate syntax, I became unafraid of rhetoric as such." On whether Irish or English is his default language, he replies: "I've got over the notion of having intellectual schizophrenia about it. There was a period, especially in the beginning, when one line would come out in English and the next in Irish. 'The Retreat of Ita Cagney,' for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don't know."
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's account of how Hartnett came to write his poem "Foighne Chrainn" ("Patience of a Tree") is likewise illuminating. She tells how the poem was inspired by her encounter with a malevolent female spirit known to haunt the Bearna Gap in the vicinity of Templeglantine, Co. Limerick, where Hartnett lived at one point. The folklore involving Spiorad na Bearnan centers on her being imprisoned in a tree that was then burned down by seven local young men. After six of them "came to a bad end" for their shared misdeed, the seventh fled to London, but according to Hartnett's poem, he still could not escape his fate: "Bhí an scian roimh ann / 's cé gur miotal í an lann / snoíodh an fheirc as díoltas crann" ("The knife was waiting there / and though metal formed the blade / from a tree's revenge / the hilt was made").
Perhaps someday Michael Hartnett will find his deserved expanded readership. Notes from His Contemporaries can only help in that regard, as making my way through the poems and the anecdotes, the praise and the appraisals, I found myself drawn irresistibly to the Collected Poems, which must ultimately be his claim to enduring recognition. His son recognizes that too in the simple dedication of the volume he conceived and compiled: "For the Poet."
Thomas O'Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.