‘The Men of Art have lost their heart’: poetry and the hunger strikes

The duty of the poet to respond is felt in the poetry of the hunger strikes, but only in the best poetry do the subtleties of that duty, and the subtleties of history, take prominence

A mural of Bobby Sands on the  Sinn Féin headquarters  in west Belfast: the political imperative for poetry  was for Sands the key criterion against which all contemporary verse was to be held accountable. Contemporary poets who didn’t deal explicitly with the political situation were, for Sands, disqualified from the title of “poet”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

A mural of Bobby Sands on the Sinn Féin headquarters in west Belfast: the political imperative for poetry was for Sands the key criterion against which all contemporary verse was to be held accountable. Contemporary poets who didn’t deal explicitly with the political situation were, for Sands, disqualified from the title of “poet”. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

In his poem, The Crime of Castlereagh, Bobby Sands turned his pen against the poetic establishment. Taking a form loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, Sands detailed the conditions in the Long Kesh/Maze prison, and railed against the apparent silence of contemporary writers: “The Men of Art have lost their heart”.

Many prisoners wrote poetry in the margins of the Bible or on cigarette paper, which could be folded small and was ideal for smuggling. Sands himself wrote with the refill of a Biro pen which he kept hidden inside his body. The political imperative for poetry, and perhaps more importantly for a particular type of poetry, was for Sands the key criterion against which all contemporary verse was to be held accountable. Contemporary poets who didn’t deal explicitly with the political situation were, for Sands, disqualified from the title of “poet”:

But they write not a single jot
Of beauty tortured sore.
Don’t wonder why such men can lie,
For poets are no more.

The question of the civic responsibility of the poet, and the abdication of that responsibility, was thrown time and again at Northern Irish writers. Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin spokesperson and later editor of Hunger Strike: Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike, described the artistic response to the strikes as “a deafening silence”. Attempting to remedy this, he famously approached the late Seamus Heaney, asking the writer to support the “Dirty Protest”. Heaney’s 1996 poem, The Flight Path, details the event. In a later interview, Heaney reflected that:

“The whole business was weighing on me greatly already and I had toyed with the idea of dedicating the Ugolino translation to the prisoners. But our friend’s intervention put paid to any such gesture. After that, I wouldn’t give and wasn’t so much free to refuse as unfree to accept.” 

The question of “civic responsibility”, for Heaney, led to “lyric defiance”. The hunger strikes became a question of poetics in part because the key figures of the strikes demanded a certain sort of poetry: a political poetry which was explicit in its allegiance and didactic in its delivery. Rather than seeking nuance, complexity, or poetic freedom, Sands’ Crime of Castlereagh demanded a certain subject matter, and a certain stance on that subject matter. What Sands, Morrison and others demanded, we might say, was not poetry at all, but propaganda.

And, in many respects, that’s what the poets who responded to that demand ended up giving. The otherwise great John Montague, in his poem Shadow (included in Morrison’s Hunger Strike), delivers a poem that fits the brief. Of Margaret Thatcher, he writes

Satisfied that her name is linked forever
with lengthening dole queues, humiliated miners
[…] and the dying hunger strikers
who wrought that Iron Lady
Into their chief recruiting officer.

This is the ballad form of history, not the poetic form. Its object is so clear, its sweep of history so broad, that a reader who (like myself) is no fan of Thatcher’s might find the experience of the poem so constricting and didactic that the natural instinct is to rebel. The poem itself becomes ironically a sort of tyrant.

Heaney, of all poets the most reprimanded for his apparent aestheticisation of the conflict in Northern Ireland, created his own subtle, self-reflexive reaction to the civic responsibility of the writer. In Station Island (1984), the speaker undergoes a pilgrimage, meeting friends and fellow writers along the way. The poems here are self-critical, full of doubt. The poet’s cousin Colum McCartney, a victim of sectarian violence, rebukes Heaney in an astonishing passage:

The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.

Here, Heaney adamantly questions his own role and process. By the end, after meeting the figure of a Francis Hughes, the speaker answers, in a way, Sands’ accusation against the “Men of Art”:

I hate how quick I was to know my place.
I hate where I was born, hate everything
That made me biddable and unforthcoming

If Heaney was accused of aestheticising conflict with “the lovely blinds” of Dante, the Irish-language poet Michael Davitt, in For Bobby Sands on the Eve of his Death, is also guilty. However, rather than being guilty of good but politically-evasive poetry, he is (in this instance) guilty of bad, politically-blunt poetry. This poem deals explicitly with the death of the hunger striker. The subject, however, is so plain beneath the metaphor that the whole poem falls flat. The fourth stanza, which brings in an extended metaphor completely unrelated to the rest of the poem’s imagery, is a heavy-handed attempt to disguise a political opinion as something “poetic”:

We wait,
ducks in our cushy down
staring at hens in the mud
and the strutting cock
threatening his own brood
and his neighbour’s
with a pompous crow:
‘a crime is a crime is a crime.’

(trans. Michael O’Loughlin)

If the image wasn’t unsubtle enough, Thatcher’s words coming out of the cockerel seal the deal. As in Montague’s Shadow, the poem buckles under the strength of the political ideal. In contrast to this, Heaney’s self-reflexive and self-doubting response is not only more effective but also more sensitive.

Similarly, when Paula Meehan asks, in her poem Hunger Strike (1986), “Any word? Any word? Any word?”, she is not simply showing an anxiety for news but also an anxiety for an appropriate poetic response. In Circle Charm, written in the wake of the “Dirty Protest”, Meehan figures the strikers as an absent presence within her work: “In every poem I write I keep aside / A place for you”. Likewise, Medbh McGuckian uses “found poetry” (a technique of lifting lines or words from source texts and reconstituting them into a new poem) as a way of burying the political imperative. For her, Sands is an “icon” behind the poems, rather than an explicit subject.

The duty of the poet to respond is felt throughout the poetry of the hunger strikes, but in the best poetry the subtleties of that duty, and the subtleties of history, are allowed to take prominence. The poetic response was, by and large, not what Bobby Sands or Danny Morrison might have hoped for, but perhaps that’s for the best. As Seamus Heaney writes in The Government of the Tongue (1989), the best poetry “floats adjacent to, parallel to, the historical moment”.

Seán Hewitt was born in 1990 and read English at the University of Cambridge, where he received his college’s Emily Davies and Lilias Sophia Ashworth Hallett scholarships and twice received the Charity Reeves Prize in English. In 2014, he was awarded Arts Council England funding for a series of poems, and in 2015 was selected as one of the Poetry Trust’s Aldeburgh Eight. He is studying for a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool

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