Why shouldn't poets do the State some service?


When Taoiseach Brian Cowen called for poets to celebrate Ireland as a brand to get the country ‘back on track’, the idea was seen as philistine – but is such a request so unreasonable?

IN A SPEECH at the end of June to announce the appointment of Harry Clifton as Ireland Professor of Poetry, the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, offered some observations of a poet’s role in society. He suggested that the poet might embrace the uncomfortable and the unacceptable. A poet, or a writer, “can say what others fear to say” and can “confront what others would rather avoid”.

Cowen went on to touch on a matter that many poets might prefer to avoid and perhaps he did so in a way that was clumsy and over-direct for an address scheduled to be delivered before so many subtle minds.

Having referred to the “difficult times” we currently inhabit, the Taoiseach asserted that the arts and culture would have an important role in getting us “back on track”.

“Ireland is a brand,” he added. “Our country, her landscape and her culture, are known the world over. We must connect with that brand now and use it to give us the competitive advantage in a globalised world that is increasingly the same.”

Most of the negative comments on the Taoiseach’s speech focused on his use of the concept of “brand”. One senior poet, Derek Mahon, warned against the commodification of the arts and attempts to use them in building “brand Ireland”, an idea he regarded as essentially “dense and philistine”. Some attention, however, might also be paid to the phrase “back on track”. It would seem to be an article of faith for the Taoiseach and his Government – and, to be fair, probably also for most people who voted for them – that getting back on track, returning to that glorious age of loadsamoney that fizzled out two years ago, is what we are all praying for nightly.

You would need, however, to have been deaf over the last decade not to realise that many Irish poets, writers and artists were at best ambivalent about the track the nation was on. Indeed, some appeared to take extravagant pleasure in being mortally offended by the vulgarity, materialism, philistinism and vacuous triviality of their fellow citizens.

Most galling of all was the mutation of some of our new class of super-wealthy entrepreneurs into public benefactors, and when one of them began to talk about the need for the monetisation of culture . . . well, really!

Responding to the Taoiseach’s words on June 30th, Harry Clifton insisted that the space traditionally occupied by the poet needed to be defended against “the university ideologue, the modulariser, the smurfitiser, the harvardiser”, lest the mind become just a commodity to be traded and sold to the highest bidder. Clifton’s drift here is not entirely clear, and one might be inclined to ask for clarification were it not considered vulgar to ask poets what they mean.

What seems to be suggested is that poetry – and perhaps, by extension, literature as a whole – does not require interpreters or commentators; that it can do without being taught in the university; and that culture does not need to be endowed by wealthy individuals or institutions.

This apparent subjection of all cultural practice to the sacredness and autonomy of the creative act flies in the face of all history and common sense; if taken to its logical conclusion it would impoverish us all. Poets, in traditional aristocratic societies, were one of the few classes of people with uncallused hands (priests were another) – the privilege of immunity from manual work, it must be said, often went to their heads.

Duke Ercole of Ferrara – celebrated by WB Yeats – dispensed his gold to artists and scholars as Irish chieftains did to their filí. For this there was usually a certain quid pro quo: while there may or may not have been a requirement to produce endless verses in praise of the chieftain/patron, one certainly did not refer to the cast in his eye.

Contemporary Irish poets, with the exception of the few who have been blessed by the market, look to the State for support, and some, a minority, get it – and quite properly so. In return they may be asked, like the Renaissance artist and the file, to pass on their skills and wisdom to others, as Harry Clifton will shortly be doing in a series of lectures in Irish universities. Importantly, the State, at least in this era and in this part of the world, does not tell poets what to write. Nor is it overly vexed if the hand that feeds gets the occasional nip.

Has all this now changed, and will it be a requirement henceforth that poets in receipt of State aid should sing of Ireland and its brand? Or has the controversy that followed the Taoiseach’s remarks and the poet’s response been something of a storm in a demi-tasse, born of misunderstanding and a confusion of the roles of artist and public servant?

Generous sponsors of the arts and culture, from the 15th-century Duke Ercole to the 20th-century Charles Haughey, have never been entirely innocent of a political agenda. The word “brand” may be relatively new, but the idea is not. Duke Ercole wished Ferrara to be distinguished from other Italian city states, not by its prowess in war – which it did not have – but by its cultural sheen.

Eamon de Valera’s 1943 St Patrick’s Day speech also represented a brand; indeed the cosy homesteads, sturdy children, athletic youths, happy maidens and persons enjoying “serene old age” cry out for visualisation in a 90-second film or television slot. (Dev, it should be emphasised, did not offer this as an image of the Ireland he had created but of “the Ireland we dreamed of”.) If we have now given up our former pieties we still, as a State, wish to convey a brand of our non-Gaelic Ireland that is mysteriously, indefinably, not-England.

Ireland, of course, is more than a brand. It is a country and a people, a society, an accretion of history and cultural practice. But for the politicians and public servants whose job it is to provide our employment, our wealth – and hence our room for leisure and culture – there is no avoiding the fact that the State must also be conceptualised as a brand, a potential destination for investment competing with many others, which requires skilled presentation and perhaps some massaging of the truth.

I am sure that low corporation tax rates and high numbers of clever graduates are more important in this endeavour than Joyce and Beckett, mist and mystery, ceoil and craic. So is it not churlish of the arts community to withhold its assent to a contribution to national survival in a context that might now be described as not just difficult but dangerous?

The poet looks in the mirror in the morning and is pleased to see yet again a fearless truth-teller. The State does not wish – indeed would not dare – to change or command his words, but wonders if they might be of some use. In these hard times, perhaps the poet should hold his nose, give the gift of his person to the commonality and, unaccustomed as he is to the practice, leave just one of his feet on the ground.