He didn't choose Irish: it chose him
Michael Hartnett believed, very simply, that a poet is born, not made. Around his person there seemed to be always a certain psychic disturbance, giving rise to a feeling reported by many that there was something otherworldly about him. His grandmother saw it early. Equally, for all their meticulous craftiness and word-wizardry, there has always been in the best of his poems a sense of an otherwhere, as if he travelled between the world we say we know and some other contiguous but veiled reality. This, I believe, is the key not just to his character but to his poems.
There is something otherworldly, in several senses, about the first section of A Farewell to English, the title poem of the collection. Hartnett is sitting quietly in a bar when, unbidden, “like grey slabs of slate breaking from / an ancient quarry”, the words come tumbling into his mind: “mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin . . .”
He is honest enough to ask “what was I doing with these foreign words?”, but his sense of poetic honour compels him to follow the summons, to allow the imperative to have its way. The poem begins to speak itself, the lost language puts him faoi geasa, he has no alternative but to accede. Everything else follows.
Hartnett, we must allow, knew what he was about; it was his business to follow where summoned. Many years later, long since returned to English, he would utter a plaintive cry: “I have poems to hand, it’s words I cannot find.” Not long after that, and not long before his death, walking one night on Dartmouth Square, when I gently suggested he was killing himself with drink, he fixed a cold eye on me and said, simply and finally: “My poems are written.”
A Rebel Act is an act of love, a book that surveys the life and achievements of Michael Hartnett with a workmanlike attention to detail. Pat Walsh has opened the ground, and done a good job of it. Neither full biography nor comprehensive exegesis, his book is a loving and valuable homage to a great poet. Nevertheless, to understand Hartnett there is no alternative to studying the poems, and studying the poems to remember: we do not write the poems; the poems write us.
Theo Dorgan’s most recent collection of poems, Greek, is published by Dedalus Press