Giles Foden on the art of writing

The foreword to The Ogham Stone, UL’s journal of creative writing, explores what language can do and the craft of its featured writers

Mysterious and otherworldly as they are, it is questionable whether the marks on Ogham stones can be described as literature. Many of them seem to be monumental inscriptions remembering the dead. Probably they also had other social values, ones of which we can hardly begin to fully comprehend the significance over such a distance of time: denotations of territorial bounds; a cipher for another alphabet of runic origin; waymarkers for pilgrims and travellers; a cryptic alphabet used by druids as a code in resistance to the military authorities of Roman Britain; something to do with hand-signals or the number tallies of merchants . . . these have been some of the suggestions, but who knows?

Some things scholars are more certain about. A connection grew over time between the Ogham letter-names and types of tree or shrub, probably because the letter shapes looked like forking branches. For example, the fourth letter of the Ogham alphabet, four right-side downward strokes, came to be associated with saille, the Irish for willow (Latin salix, English salley or sallow). Perhaps Yeats, who knew about these things, was thinking of the old Ogham form when he wrote his famous poem Down by the Salley Gardens.

If anyone next asks me what literary value is all about, I'll tell them, go and stand on the Living Bridge in Limerick and you will know that it is about connection and dynamism

But all these questions of Ogham are much disputed by the experts, and the job is made harder by many inscriptions being defaced or worn away. All that survives of the Ogham stone in Ardfert, Kerry, is transliterated as “CT (A) N QLOG”.

This is different from literature, different too from history or even those tales which touch on legend – such as those told about my ancestor from the early 1900s, Father Barton, who is remembered in Ardfert parish as a sharp-tongued priest (he was once forced by the Bishop to apologise for saying that the teachers in nearby schools were not fit to teach pigs; he did so a few weeks later by saying he stood corrected, they were fit to teach pigs).


Despite the seeming distance, however, there is maybe a connection between Ogham and literature as we think of it now, in one of the origins of the word ogham itself. For it finds a possible root in the Irish og-úaim, "point-seam". According to the leading Ogham scholar Damian McManus, this refers to the mark made by a sharp weapon. There is an analogue, again maybe, with the Greek word túpos, meaning "type" but possibly also connecting to "tip", with an array of meanings thus:

1. A blow, pressing
2. The results of a blow: mark, impression
3. mark, figure, image, outline
4. General character of a thing: sort, type
5. Text, content
6. Pattern, example, model
7. Summoning

Maybe Ogham began as this kind of scraped pattern-making, like the marks round the top of an ancient Greek vase.

Pattern-making is one way of describing what literary writing is, too, but we can’t be entirely certain of all its values either. One day in the far digital future people could look back on the literary productions of our own era with the same puzzlement as we look back on Ogham, as it cannot necessarily be expected that deep scholarship will continue. It certainly seems, with the advent of the Donald, that we are entering another Dark Age. But it is not all his fault; scholars too must share some of the blame for their own auto-da-fé.

Therefore we must be grateful for institutions such as the University of Limerick, which continues to support ventures such as The Ogham Stone, a beacon of light fostered, during these days, by those attending the university's Master of Arts programme in creative writing.

Personally I think "does this work?" is a more useful question than "is this any good?"

Questions of value often arise in creative writing teaching, with the most basic expression being that of the student who asks the tutor, “is this any good?” One is often tempted to give the answer that Joseph Conrad gave to himself, describing the feeling, in his autobiography, A Personal Record (1912), of getting to the end of a piece of writing:

“Here they are. ‘Failure’ – ‘Astonishing’: take your choice; or perhaps both, or neither – a mere rustle and flutter of pieces of paper settling down in the night, and indistinguishable, like the snowflakes of a great drift destined to melt away in the sunshine.”

Personally I think “does this work?” is a more useful question than “is this any good?” These questions of technical competence, albeit that they seem to become more existential the older one gets, are maybe slightly different from those that hover round literary value itself. I mean by literary value those reasons why we think we should read certain pieces of literature, or literature in general, though that is perhaps another thing again: those reasons, anyway, to do with feeling and cognition, society and the individual, the national and international . . . all those things that literary critics simultaneously disabuse us writers of believing in and chastise us after the event for not having fulfilled.

Ethics (or Essex, as my colleague here on the MA course, Professor Joseph O’Connor, amusingly puts it in in this volume, in another’s voice) is important, too, and so is aesthetics, though I would always plump for the latter over the former. Another black mark!

We are often told that literary value is not what is expressed in the text, just as the voice of Joe’s voluble fellow, with his excess of discrimination (actually a failure of discrimination), is not the voice of Joe. Here is an august body, the New South Wales Quality Teaching framework, on this topic:

“Literary value does not include the values expressed or implied in a text but refers specifically to how one can attribute worth to a text in terms of its value to ‘civilisation’, a culture, a society, or a particular group of people. Each of these groups may attribute a different value to the text and use different criteria to do so.”

I have no animus against New South Wales in particular or Australia in general – every state now has mechanisms which seek to enforce good student outcomes. I offer the quotation only as a means to point out that pieces of writing often valorise those things that we (I mean, specifically, the community of writers and readers, constituted across time and space) seem to think are important.

To take some examples from these pages:

Eithne Reynolds’s paper boat launches us back to Chaucer’s invocation near the end of Troilus and Criseyde, “Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie” – and many a following analogue between the ship or boat and the literary work, no doubt because the latter invites us, writer and reader alike, on a voyage. The adventure is presumed to be a good thing, a literary value, though a reading of Mallarmé’s Brise Marine might cause one to doubt that.

In the tools and the kit and the tension and the precision of Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s poem, also published here, we see the radical object orientation of literature, the way it helps us build a world round things. Often this material approach (Henry James’s “solidity of specification”, Roland Barthes’s “reality effect”) is set against one in which primacy is given to the evanescent voice; but MacCarthy nicely reminds us that the mouth is full of pins.

Both voice and object are also put to useful work in two other pieces, Mike Gallagher’s Heaneyesque Sledge Hammer and Barry McKinley’s comic but also moving piece, The Boy.

This relation between words and things is one of the conduits for memory in writing. Sometimes the memory is more powerful, actively constructing new states of being, when the original priming object is destroyed, as with the levelled crop (corn, perhaps) in the poem by Orla Fey, or D’Agostini’s shed in Mr Henry, by Anne Griffin.

As for the Russian doll that must be sacrificed, in KS Moore’s poem, all writers know about that, across the very long, fairly unsteady spectrum from writers in prison to those whose only problem is that or those which Cyril Connolly characterised as “the pram in the hall” in Enemies of Promise. These constraints are different from those which concentrate and limit a literary form within its own terms, whether it be a sonnet or a thriller, but constraints they are all the same, creeping into the work from life either loudly, like the barking dog in Stephen Reid’s poem, or quietly, like the “murmurings of wind and water” in Eithne Lannon’s Binn Éadair.

I love the lines she gives us there, "Like a container that holds and pours / we are filled and emptied"; they remind me of Keats's Ode to Sleep. And if you read the contents of this journal in page order, they also prefigure the trials of miscarriage described in excruciating detail by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (what a phrase that is, "blighted ovum").

Apparently, it is according to the moment and location of fertilisation, the exact spot and place at which the sperm hits the egg, that certain of our bodily clocks and instructions for cellular growth are set. Perhaps something similar happens when the informing idea for a piece of writing first enters the writer’s mind. I certainly think one needs to go back and try to revisit that moment, in the course of writing, to verify that one is doing what was intended and that one is controlling it properly.

But there is much in writing that cannot be controlled. You may plan to get from Limerick to Dublin on the M7 but will also find yourself diverted by the seductions of individual words from the highway (slighe), to the main road (ród), from there via the connecting road (lámraite), to the side road (tógraite), and even the cow road (bóthar). If you find yourself down a bóithrín (or boreen, as this even more diminutive road is dubbed in English, which is almost another thing altogether), do not despair, as it’s often there that the gold is buried.

But all the while, as you make your immram, wandering like the hero of an old Irish tale, such a one as might have inscribed one of those old stones, it’s important not to forget the significance of the original idea and the initial conditions that gave rise to it. Don’t, in other words, like the man in Kenneth Hickey’s story, leave your umbrella behind, as everything that follows, even the seeming randomness of the aleatory, is a consequence of it.

The educative consuls of New South Wales stipulate that by Stage 5, students must know that “textual patterning is aesthetically pleasing”. And here it is on show in Jaki McCarrick’s spider poem, in the insect’s lacy weave and the “taut silver of her newest air-spun lines”: the “l” and the “i” and the “s” crossing over themselves between “silver” and “lines”. And here it is again in the “metronomic motion” of falling words in David Murphy’s Had You Been There.

Patterning, the quality which gives a text cohesion (full marks for that, cobber), is tertiary in writing to notation of reality, such as those “things I’ve noticed in my sister’s backyard”, as vouchsafed by the speaker in Monica Rowley’s poem, or “the strange fish to be studied” in Kiera McGarry’s. By tertiary I mean literally that the observation comes first. Next (secondary) comes combination of the observation into a grammar, which rises the notation from a basic to a surface level of language. Finally comes the third stage of patterning, which would apply to a total literary structure at all modular levels, and is one of the things which distinguishes literary language from ordinary language.

But all this is as arguable as the true meaning of inscriptions on Ogham stones. Even these notations of reality in which literary language begins, the scholars tell us, are pre-empted by the net that language systems in general, like McCarrick’s spider, spread over our perceptions. But there is something before language too, even closer to the body. It is the sound or movement before sense, that very real thing, the nod or grunt or fart dolefully celebrated by Marie Cadden – all of a piece with the bite and the outstretched arms and the spit conjured by Leah Jespersen, and also the walking dance of the Mexican girl in Josh Wann’s Cognate.

That poem speaks of “a composition of grace” and the next, by Glen Wilson, of “thick roots”. I am reminded now of Paul Muldoon’s lines in 7 Middagh Street where Yeats’s concerns about the political effects of his play The Countess Cathleen are first mocked (“If Yeats had saved his pencil lead / Would certain men have stayed in bed?”) and then answered: “For history’s a twisted root / with art its small, translucent fruit / and never the other way round.”

Anyone who bangs on about literary value needs to remember that it’s history that is wearing the trousers, and mostly men’s history at that: something put to rights, in the smaller domestic sphere, in Catherine Donnelly’s acidulous short story, The Sleeping Giant.

The further danger of speculations on literary value is that once they become institutionalised edicts, they risk overcooking the golden goose. And it is very easy to overcook a goose (one must presume it is already killed, being in the oven, but it is accepted that scholarly activity does need a frame).

Perhaps this overcooking is the danger that our Australian friends have fallen into, and their equivalents policing higher academic enquiry in the Research Excellence Framework in Britain, which insists on “originality, significance and rigour”. We can be glad that none of these authorities quite as yet speak lines from the Ruined Bodies section of the National Codex, as does the spectral mouth of the President in Jamie Samson’s story in this volume.

The dangers of the institutionalisation of literature are laid out in a recent book by the English critic DJ Taylor (The Prose Factory, 2016). There he identifies the creative writing course as one of the culprits. All I can say in reply is that teaching it, doing it – this slippery, awkward subject – here at Limerick, we are like the narrator of Philip Webb Gregg’s story in this volume: always ready to walk into the waves, recognising that writing is a process like the rhythm of the tides, like the rhythm of a heartbeat, like the way the Shannon slides on the river of itself down to the sea.

Sometimes I come out during a break from classes and stand on the Living Bridge that spans the river here on campus. I lean over and watch it darkly move below, jouncing a little as students pass to and fro behind me. It's a good phrase that, Living Bridge, a human being came up with it, just as human beings made the marks on Ogham stones. If anyone next asks me what literary value is all about, I'll tell them, go and stand on the Living Bridge in Limerick and you will know. You will know that it is about connection and dynamism – and you, too, reader, will know that also, absorbing the words gathered in this latest issue of The Ogham Stone.
Giles Foden is the author of several novels, including The Last King of Scotland, which won the 1998 Whitbread First Novel Award and was adapted into a film. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UL