A portrait of the artist as poet – An Irishman’s Diary on James Joyce

Biden saluted Joyce the poet

Joe Biden’s reference to James Joyce as an Irish poet, and not as novelist or short-story writer, may have taken some by surprise.    Photograph: Hulton Getty

Joe Biden’s reference to James Joyce as an Irish poet, and not as novelist or short-story writer, may have taken some by surprise. Photograph: Hulton Getty

 

We well know by now that America’s new president Joe Biden likes to quote Irish poets, particularly Seamus Heaney. His eve of inauguration reference to James Joyce as an Irish poet, and not as novelist or short story writer, may have taken some by surprise.

I suspect that the Dubliner himself would have approved and chuckled at the though of being name-checked by the leader of a country that once banned his magnum opus, Ulysses, a book that owes its template to another well-known poet from Greece.

In calling Joyce a poet, Biden’s choice corresponds exactly to the inscription on the plaque on his birthplace in Rathgar, where the author’s status as poet comes before his wider fame as the avant-garde writer who changed the course of the English novel.

His poetry is often forgotten or overshadowed in the Joycean canon by the later achievements of the prose works. His first published book, however, was the 1907 collection of poems, Chamber Music, a title that may or may not have suggested itself on an occasion when Joyce read a few of the poems to his friend Oliver St Gogarty in the company of a widow named Jenny.

According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, the widow needed to make use of a chamber pot screened off in the room and while doing so, Gogarty wisecracked “ There’s a critic for you.” The poems did, however, impress the influential poet and literary svengali Ezra Pound who commented that the “quality and distinction” of some of the work was due “in part to their author’s strict musical training”.

Lady Gregory, who championed the work of her friend WB Yeats, did not have such a high opinion of Joyce as poet – “not out of the top drawer” is her reported response, according to Gogarty.

As payback for this rejection, not only by Gregory but as he saw it, the wider literary establishment in his native city, Joyce wrote the satirical verses of The Holy Office in rage against “that motley crew”. He failed to publish it in Ireland, but did so later in Trieste. And there was a follow-up: Gas from a Burner is equally scathing in its denunciations of “ That lovely land that always sent /Her writers and artists to banishment”.

But Dublin remained dear to him, as Biden reminded us with his quote from Joyce – “when I die Dublin will be written on my heart”.

To be fair to Yeats it was he who brought Joyce the poet to the attention of Pound, declaring that “I hear an army charging upon the land” was a masterpiece. The poems of Chamber Music were considered to be love poems, although his brother Stanislaus disagreed and told Joyce that he did not like the book which he considered “ a young man’s book”. However, like Pound, he caught the musical notes in the dreamy language and was prescient in hoping that the poems would inspire musical settings.

Several composers, including Samuel Barber and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, set verses to music. Joyce himself referred to the poems as songs. As recently as 2017 a recording of arrangements by Irish composer Brian Byrne was released under the title Goldenhair.

After Chamber Music Joyce did not altogether abandon poetry. In 1927 Shakespeare and Company in Paris published the slim Pomes Pennyeach (he had a way with titles). Among the 13 poems, several of which turn up in contemporary anthologies, is the beautiful She Weeps Over Rahoon, with its echo of the closing moments of The Dead.

It could in fact be argued that a poetic strain runs through Joyce’s prose: Gabriel Conroy’s haunting words at the end of The Dead, Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy, the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake. In a reference to the Anna Livia episode, the poet Padraic Colum wrote that “ its author, the most daring of innovators, has decided to be as local as a hedge-poet”.

The Biden salute to James Joyce the poet is a reminder of his origins and if one poem alone earned him the title, it has to be Ecce Puer, written in 1932 on the birth of his grandson Stephen but looking back too on his relationship with his father, John, who had died a few months previously but lives on as a strong presence in much of his son’s writing.

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