Saturday, 16 June 2018

Getting Inside All Impermeables -- James Joyce and the Purposes of Parody.




A paper given by Philip Harvey at the Bloomsday in Melbourne annual seminar, held upstairs in the Imperial Hotel, Melbourne, on the morning of the 16th of June 2018.

I.

“Introibo ad altare Dei”

We are alerted to parody from the very start in Ulysses. When stately, plump Buck Mulligan intones the introit words of the Latin Mass while shaving in the open air, high above Dublin Bay, we are reminded instantly of how words can have a straight meaning or a not-straight meaning, depending on the context. Mulligan’s delivery is word perfect, only this is happening in a bohemian Martello Tower, not in the Catholic church down the road, where the words would be delivered with a different kind of reverence.

Is Mulligan being blasphemous? Or is Joyce simply indicating to his readers that this character is irreverent and to expect more? It sets the scene for a novel alive with parodic playfulness, a novel reliant on the assumption that very little is just as it seems.

By startling us from the start with an act of parody, Joyce unsettles our expectations about novels and story-telling. Can we rely on the narrative voice for authority and guidance? Actually, we are going to hear multiple voices in Ulysses. We are going to be left to interpret these voices and their true intent for ourselves. Joyce is not going to use inverted commas when he parodies.

A little later, Mulligan jests at Stephen Dedalus’s theory on Shakespeare.

-         What is your idea of Hamlet? Haines asked Stephen.
-         No, no, Buck Mulligan shouted in pain. I’m not equal to Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive reasons he has made to prop it up. Wait till I have a few pints in me first.
He turned to Stephen, saying as he pulled down neatly the peaks of his primrose waistcoat:
-         You couldn’t manage it under three pints, Kinch, could you?
-         It has waited so long, Stephen said listlessly, it can wait longer.
-         You pique my curiosity, Haines said amiably. Is it some paradox?
-         Pooh! Buck Mulligan said. We have grown out of Wilde and paradoxes. It's quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.
-         What? Haines said, beginning to point at Stephen. He himself?
Buck Mulligan slung his towel stolewise round his neck and, bending in loose laughter, said to Stephen’s ear:
-         O, shade of Kinch the elder! Japhet in search of a father!
-         We’re always tired in the morning, Stephen said to Haines. And it is rather long to tell.
Buck Mulligan, walking forward again, raised his hands.
-         The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus, he said. (Ulysses 20-21)

Mulligan here parodies a theory, Dedalus’s “idea of Hamlet”, that later in the day is actually expounded correctly by Stephen in the National Library. In other words, Joyce prepares the reader for the theory by first giving us a spoof of it. He communicates and forewarns from the get-go through parody. He has reversed the order of things. Parody usually follows the thing parodied, while here the parody comes first. Leaving us to ask: who are we to take seriously? Mulligan? Dedalus?  Joyce? Anyone? What is straight and what is slant? What is sláinte and what is pogue mahone?

II.

Whichever way we progress through Ulysses, from back to front, or the other way, we find that Dubliners are parodists themselves.

The episode in the editorial office of the Freeman’s Journal is run through with arguments about good and bad English because such places are testing grounds of daily usage, acceptable and unacceptable English, normative and pretentious English. Which, we observe, is what’s going on in parody, in both its malign and benign forms. Parody is an imitative yet critical game where written experiment tests out the feeling of a writer and expands our imaginative responses as readers.

Stephen Dedalus, a person who takes himself much too seriously, composes romantic celtic prose virtually parodic by its nature, that does not survive the scrutiny of the hard men at the newspaper office. He writes lyric poetry in the style of Elizabethan song that would be parody, if that were Stephen’s intention. That it is not his intention and the poetry is removed from experience and unconvincing, only adds to the dilemma and pathos of his youthful artistic crisis.

Leopold Bloom’s monologues contain frequent references to everyday language that has been misremembered or misunderstood and that therefore comes out as parodic mimicry of the things Bloom has absorbed. Bloom is always getting things half-right, meaning half-wrong usually, and this is expressed to comic effect throughout the book, a kind of running parody of reality as it’s meant to be. Or is it?

Molly Bloom seems to have the same weakness of recall (if that’s what it is) as her husband. Her vast repertoire of songs includes lines she changes in order to satirise them or make an alternative point, songs she quotes or misquotes in incongruous contexts, and songs that get the treatment (like ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’ itself), so that their original mood is forgotten through absurd rendition. Not weakness of rendition: it’s creative license, alive to the possibilities of words. Molly is also a brazen parodist of other people’s words. The things she does with metempsychosis are a leitmotif of her current situation with Poldy, and what she could do with the term leitmotif doesn’t bear thinking about.

Parody is one of the treasures in the bag of tricks that the Irish use to make fun, make time, or make a point. Then, parody is a literary device, one that is not simply comical or mocking, one that may be more admiring and respectful of that which it parodies than any slavish copy. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Oliver St John Gogarty, one of the models for Buck Mulligan, was a well-known parodist in Dublin, but that’s as far as it went: Gogarty had an ear for mockery and burlesque. Here is his sonnet on Keats’ poem on Chapman’s Homer:

On First Looking into Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathosexualis

Much have I travelled in those realms of old
Where many a whore in hall-doors could be seen
Of many a bonnie brothel and shebeen
Which bawds connived at by policemen hold.
I too have listened while the Quay was coaled,
But never did I taste the Pure obscene -
Much less imagine that my past was clean -
Till this Krafft-Ebing out his story told.
Then felt I rather taken by surprise
As on the evening when I met Macran,
And retrospective thoughts and doubts did rise,
Was I quite normal when my life began
With love that leans towards rural sympathies,
Potent behind a cart with Mary Ann?

All well and good, but it is essential to appreciate that parody for Joyce is not an end in itself, but always serves some artistic end. In this respect he parts company with Gogarty. Put it down to his Jesuit schooling, if you must, but Joyce’s classical education taught him to push the form beyond its limits, into some new means of artistic expression.

III.
 
All of which brings us to the great showpiece of parody in Ulysses, the episode we celebrate today set in the maternity hospital. The opening lines are a mock incantation “Deshil Holles Eames” three times of a Roman hymn to the goddess of fertility, and echo the mock incantation of Buck Mulligan that opens the book.

Joyce launches forth on a linguistic charade of the history of English style. The episode’s structure is foregrounded bluntly, as he shifts from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English, from Latinate ornament to Shakespearean Fancy, from the balanced standards of Augustan English through the sentimental romantic gush of Victorianism.

Joyce wrote to his sugar mummy, Harriet Shaw Weaver, during composition of Oxen: “the most difficult episode in an odyssey, I think, both to interpret and execute.” (Ellmann 475)

Joyce’s idea was to mimic the growth of the language with that of human nine-month gestation in the womb and it’s difficult at first to disagree with the critic (John Gross in The Oxford Book Of Parodies) who found this idea “surely a sadly half-baked one”. (Gross 257) Only problem is, there’s very little description of gestation in Oxen, very little about the progress of pregnancy, as such. There is a great deal about Mina Purefoy’s labours, extending over the biblical three days, an immense amount of medical ;humour about virility and fertility (or lack thereof) of the Irish race; and plenty about drinking and eating, notably those very suggestive sardines. But are we really seeing the growth of a language?

The cumulative effect of the parodies is to collapse notions about evolution of a language, as after a while one style is interchangeable with another. In fact all styles are transitory products of time, with evolution, in the sense of progress or improvement, a misnomer. T.S. Eliot read the episode as a revelation of “the futility of all English styles.” (Ellmann 476) Not only that, this could be seen as Joyce’s purpose. Languages grow and change, but it is mistaken to say that the English of Charles Dickens is an evolutionary advance on that of William Shakespeare.    

IV.

So if we must step away from these standard understandings of this episode, we are left asking, why parody? He could have chosen any mode. And why at this stage in Ulysses? Why did Joyce bother writing Oxen of the Sun at all in this way?

a Drag show

Weird and odd are not common technical literary critical words, however when I look at this part of Ulysses these words come to mind. Oxen is weird and odd. It’s cock and bull in all sorts of ways. Readers unused to Joyce’s shifts of style must find it even stranger, because he leaves no signposts to tell us what’s going on. It is doubly surprising because the episode not only speaks throughout through ventriloquilism, i.e. Joyce gives the voices of a drag queen flaunting different period costumes, but it also is presented in a mode completely contrary to all previous modes of narrative control. It’s a bit like George Saintsbury played by Karen from Finance. It’s a bravura and poser performance. The only way to understand it is to go along with its full frontal parody.

b Imperial anthologies

Dublin academic Declan Kiberd draws attention to the episode as a send-up of the kinds of style manuals of English literature that Joyce would have seen as a student at Clongowes Wood and Belvedere.

Kiberd says: “The anthology of which he based many of his parodies was made by William Peacock. Designed to illustrate Darwinian notions of evolution, it was a smug selection of the best that had been thought and said over the centuries in which English developed as a modern literary language. Such anthologies were often brought to places like colonial India or colonial Ireland, to be studied there by native elites who might learn by imitating English masters how to assimilate themselves to the project of the British Empire. Like readers of this episode, students were asked in exams to identify the author of an ‘unseen’ passage, or to make an educated guess based on the period style of the sample. Versions of these anthologies, first tested in the colonies, would in time be brought home to Britain, for use in classrooms to initiate scholarship boys and girls from the lower orders in the classics of civilisation.”   (Kiberd 212)

I will admit that we indulged in the same exercise in the English Department of the University of Melbourne in the mid-seventies. The subject was called Dating, which one tutor described to me once as “very Cambridge.” Perhaps he was a “sometime regius professor of French letters to the university of Oxtail,” who can tell? It’s why, for some of us, this episode makes so much sense: Joyce is playing a word game, lodging in his novel the acclaimed writing of school rooms and university tutorials.

But Kiberd goes further: “Joyce’s aim was to escape being ‘captured’ by such systems and to produce a subversive reversal anthology of his own. He knew that the imperial mindset was obsessed with anthologies, often as a way of refusing to know a native culture in all its depth and rigour, when its turn came to be anthologised. Too often anthologies of Indian or irish writing contained only brief, exemplary extracts of major classic works. If anthologies of both British and native art were used by the imperial powers on the periphery of their global holdings, what Joyce attempts here is a radical inversion of the whole process. One of his objects right through Ulysses was to make his book unassimilable to such an anthology by refusing to settle into a single ‘hallmark’ style.” (Kiberd 212-213)

If we accept Kiberd’s theory, then not only is Oxen a parody of English literary styles, it is a parody of the whole project of enshrining English literature as an exemplar of everything true, beautiful, and good. Rather than treating the episode as just a bit of a laugh, a party trick where clever people like us spot the famous authors, Kiberd invites us, I think, to read it as a ferocious attack on the pretensions of Victorianism and its imperial ambition, a sensationally absurd reminder of how the British used their literature to keep people in their place, more particularly in this context (it can be surmised) the Irish in their place.

c Historic meeting

One of the great truisms of Ulysses is that Stephen finds in Leopold a father figure who liberates his creativity, while Leopold finds in Stephen a replacement for his own lost son. The two main narratives of the book meet when they meet. Yet this meeting occurs in the maternity hospital and, despite the climactic language of their companions, is something of an anti-climax. Indeed, the meeting is so obscured by the great panoply of parody, you could miss it if you blinked. The accidental nature and seeming insignificance of their actual meeting is in keeping with Joyce’s intentions of celebrating the mundanity of everyday life, of subverting fictional expectations about great moments in literature. Listen to this piece of Scottish Enlightenment logic:

“Contemporaneously, a heated argument having arisen between Mr Delegate Madden and Mr Candidate Lynch regarding the juridical and theological dilemma in the event of one Siamese twin predeceasing the other, the difficulty by mutual consent was referred to Mr Canvasser Bloom for instant submittal to Mr Coadjutor Deacon Dedalus. Hitherto silent, whether the better to show by preternatural gravity that curious dignity of the garb with which he was invested or in obedience to an inward voice, he delivered briefly, and as some thought perfunctorily, the ecclesiastical ordinance forbidding man to put asunder what God has joined.” (Ulysses 538-539)

Joyce cloaks meanings about their meeting that would be more difficult using the styles of previous episodes. Its high artifice speaks of their respective dilemmas in code, saying the unsaid. Here is Joyce channeling Sir Thomas Malory:

But sir Leopold was passing grave maugre his word by cause he still had pity of the terrorcausing shrieking of shrill women in their labour and as he was minded of his good lady Marion that had borne him an only manchild which on his eleventh day of live had died and no man of art could save so dark is destiny. And she was wondrous stricken of heart for that evil hap and for his burial did him on a fair corselet of lamb’s wool, the flower of the flock, lest he might perish utterly and lie akeled (for it was then about the midst of the winter) and now sir Leopold that had of his body no manchild for an heir looked upon his friend’s son and was shut up in sorrow for his forepassed happiness and as sad as he was that him failed a son of such gentle courage (for all accounted him of real parts) so grieved he also in no less measure for young Stephen for that he lived riotously with those wastrels and murdered his goods with whores. (Ulysses 510)

d Alcohol

Procreation is the set theme of Oxen, but a secondary theme runs parallel, one that is more upfront, or downstage, than procreation, and that is drinking. Or more precisely, the consumption of alcohol. Is it not observable that the woman, who has been in labour three days, is in need of an anaesthetic while the young men, who have no need of an anaesthetic, progressively get themselves sozzled? Where’s the pethidine? The young men’s opinions and jokes get more outlandish the more they drink, such that it’s hard to know how to take them seriously. Our novice reader of Krafft-Ebing is described thus:

“Mr Mulligan handed round to the company a set of pasteboard cards which he had had printed that day at Mr Quinnell’s bearing a legend printed in fair italics: Mr Malachi Mulligan, Fertiliser and Incubator, Lambay Island. His project … was to withdraw from the round of idle pleasures such as form the chief business of sir Fopling Popinjay and sir Milksop Quidnunc in town and devote himself to the noblest task for which our bodily organism has been framed … He had been led into this thought by a consideration of the causes of sterility, both the inhibitory and the prohibitory, whether the inhibition in its turn were due to conjugal vexations or to a parsimony of the balance as well as whether the prohibition proceeded from defect congenital or form proclivities acquired. It grieved him plaguily, he said, to see the nuptial couch defrauded of its dearest pledges … He proposed to set up a national fertilising farm to be named Omphalos with an obelisk hewn and erected after the fashion of Egypt and to offer his dutiful yeoman services for the fecundation of any female of what grade of life soever who should there direct to him with the desire of fulfilling the functions of her natural. Money was no object, he said, nor would he take a penny for his pains. The poorest kitchen-wench no less than the opulent lady of fashion, if so be their constructions, and their tempers were warm persuaders for their petitions, would find in him their man.” (Ulysses 526-527)

They couldn’t have put it better in The Tatler or The Spectator. The successive parodies, each a little bit more unreal than the last, imitate mimetically the heightened state of the conversationalists, as they go from convivial to tipsy to drunk. That the parodies serve as disjunctions from sober, realistic judgement or expression becomes apparent in the last few pages, as they exit the hospital. All semblance of parody disappears. The text turns into a screed of disconnected word and phrases, representative of the disintegration of intelligible communication into that state Australians call ‘totally smashed’ and which is reminiscent of the worst excesses of Finnegans Wake. Childbirth has won the day, we are told in ironic language, but on the evidence at hand, so has alcohol.

I wish to suggest that the ultimate poetic effect of the parodies is to stimulate an increasingly heightened sense of reality that is actually disconnected in stages from objective experience, in other words, getting drunk. In such a state we can speak in an elevated way, think ourselves scintillatingly clever and wise, while all the time becoming increasingly absurd and incoherent, and revealing our own hidden feelings and attitudes. In vino veritas.  

e The male voice

Following on from this, we then ask, what to make of a series of voices that are, without exception, male. In the moment of #metoo it has to be asked how an entire discussion about reproduction and birth, about women’s bodies and women’s role, is made in comic vein, without any female voice being heard other than the screaming of Mina Purefoy, the woman in labour. While the men (Joyce included) launch forth on one sophisticated language exchange after another, boasts, banters, and ejaculations of almost every kind, the woman groans and yells next door in a language of few words, a language that cannot be parodied. Read this way, the episode depicts marked gender difference, the unequal relationship that exists between men and women in Dublin society. While it is the men who are in the privilged position of making idiots of themselves (and what better way of accentuating foolishness and pretension than through parody) the woman delivers yet another into this world, without much certainty about the future. As the men get progressively more inebriated, behaviour that today would be labelled ‘inappropriate’, the woman endures the extreme reality of childbirth, without any help from them, thanks very much.

Read in this way, the phantasmagoria of parody of the whole episode itself plays out the otherworldliness of the males, their self-preoccupation and self-interest, the insularity of their assumed superiority over women. except for the sensitive interpolations of Leopold Bloom, there is nothing in their talk that shows much insight into the lives of women, or that challenges the status quo of inequality.

f  Is Ulysses a novel?

When, as a teenager, I first tried to comprehend Ulysses, Oxen was weird and odd because I was told Ulysses is a novel, and novels don’t do that. Oxen not only broke the unwritten rules of English fictional narrative, it threw into question the trustworthiness and timeless naturalism that novels were supposed to possess. The author’s voice should be something we can connect with, the thinking went, just as we rely on say the telling courtesies of Jane Austen, the sonorous authority of Henry James, or the emblematic warnings of Patrick White.

Who is James Joyce to talk to us in this way? Which voice is his and which ones aren’t? Ulysses, like Finnegans Wake, is called a novel, but are they? What kinds of novels? Joyce’s employment of overt parody over sixty pages pushes these questions into the open. The gloves are off. The violent verbal mayhem at the conclusion of Oxen is only an overture to the hallucinatory scenes that follow in Bella Cohen’s brothel. Is Ulysses novel or mock epic? A phantasmagoria on Dublin? A Dublin street map with characters? Answers to these questions take days to address, with parody only one clue. Parody throws into question the authority, finality and acceptance of a written literature, even as it confirms canonical status by paying ironic tribute to such literature. By parodying great English writing Joyce is throwing doubt on its claims to absolute and permanent hold over Irish writing, even as he simultaneously is acknowledging the tie and the debt Irish literature has with English.

g A preface to FW, the breakthrough into a new way of writing

We know each of the eighteen episodes of Ulysses is written in consciously different styles. Joyce once told Stuart Gilbert that style is the subject of his book. (Kiberd 217) It’s in Oxen that this aspect of his work is overtly objectified in the form of a literary game. And it is this episode that is the most manifest harbinger of what happens after Ulysses, Joyce’s composition of a story in which everything about English style is stretched past breaking point; where notions of correct mode and acceptable expression are exploded; where English grammar becomes no more than a vehicle to glide a polyglot narrative of multi-lingual puns; where English diction itself is simply the mainstay for something linguistically much more complex, what someone has called Eurish (Prendergast); and where style is whatever you want it to be, whatever makes things happen.

In Oxen, Joyce is “already halfway to the technique of Finnegans Wake, Joyce has put English to sleep, revealing the deeper idiom of dreams.” (Kiberd 217) By parodying English style, it seems, Joyce wishes to bring English down to size, to prove that it’s human (even), to show it is manageable. One of the many paradoxes of Finnegans Wake is that while he would say he had done with English, in truth Joyce had so mastered the language that he could make it do new, never before seen or heard effects. The texture of the text is cross-weaved with inventive possibility.
  
V.

James Joyce’s proclivity for parody is writ large in his mature work. Ulysses is, in a quizzical and haunting way, a parody of Homer. It also parodies other epic literature, including the Irish Celtic tale of Cuchulain of Muirthemne. Those who think this somehow diminishes Ulysses as an achievement might reflect on another great work of world literature that is even more essentially parody than Ulysses. One of the world’s most read books, especially in the Hispanic world, Don Quixote, is a book that only exists because of the chivalric stories and legends that inform it. But while Don Quixote is one of those big books one has either read, or should have read, Amadis of Gaul and other medieval knight’s adventures are only read today by specialists in the field. Miguel de Cervantes strikes the Renaissance death knell of the old code, he skewers it with the lance known as parody.

In preparing this paper I had toyed with the idea of composing an extension of the Oxen episode bringing us up to the Age of Twitter. Except, I thought, Joyce undid such repetition by ending the episode in cacophony. Another thought was to present a history of parodies of James Joyce himself. This is a fascinating part of reception history of the author, reminding us that parody is a form of literary criticism, and could be the subject of another Bloomsday seminar. But it’s Don Quixote who prompts me to conclude my thoughts about the transformative power of parody in Ulysses. Parody in Ulysses is a reawakening of ancient literature, fanning the embers into flame. Literatures as old and tangled as English and Irish have to find new ways and means of saying what must be said. This was a central challenge of modernism, so-called, and Joyce took to it with ferocity.

Yet in Ulysses, parody is also a sign to the future. Joyce is in the process of pushing both style and expression beyond all the norms that has frustrated his artistry as a young man. In Oxen he finds a way to turn upsidedown all the accepted forms of writing – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, playwriting, aphorism – with, in the process, finding a way into inimitable new strategies of wordplay. The result was his next book, one in which he wrote a short history of the world in language of multiple meaning upon multiple meaning. And I finish with this prophecy of Shem the Penman, the great ‘I’ written with his own bodily fluids, in the Daniel Defoe parody of Oxen of the Sun:

“… and he bought a grammar of the bull’s language to study but he could never learn a word of it except the first personal pronoun which he copied out big and got off by heart and if ever he went out for a walk he filled his pockets with chalk to write up on what took his fancy, the side of a rock or a teahouse table or a bale of cotton or a cork-float. In short he and the bull of Ireland were soon as fast friends as an arse and a shirt.” (Ulysses 524)    

Sources

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New and revised edition. 1983
Gifford, Don & Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses annotated : notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. 2nd ed., revised and enlarged. (University of California Press, 1988)
Gross, John (editor). The Oxford book of parodies. (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Kiberd, Declan. Ulysses and us : the art of everyday life in Joyce’s masterpiece. (W.W. Norton, 2009)
Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. With an introduction by Seamus Deane. (Penguin Books, 1992)
Joyce, James. Ulysses. With an introduction by Declan Kiberd. (Penguin Books, 1992)
Macdonald, Dwight (editor). Parodies : an anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm – and after. (Faber, 1960)
Prendergast, Christopher. “Pirouette on a sixpence”, a review of ‘Dictionary of Untranslatables’, London review of books, Vol. 37, No. 17, 10 September 2015, page 35

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Memories of Brian Doyle

Written for Eureka Street in May 2018, on the first anniversary of the death of Brian Doyle.

Some poets submit their work carefully presented, bio-lines attached, picture perfect. Other poets send a cache of new expressions with commentaries, back stories, a dozen bytes of miscellanea, sometimes regardless of the submission guidelines. A handful treat the submission email address as an opportunity to mailbox every new poem that fits the bill.

The late, great Brian Doyle was one of the latter. Unlike some other poets of the compose-dispose school, however, Brian’s poetry was anything but a matter of diminishing returns. No sooner had all the components of his latest composition clicked than it landed in the editor’s Inbox with some remark in the Subject line like “this one might tickle your fancy.” Frequently it was the one word, ‘and’. The poetry just kept on coming. 

The evidence, from line one onwards, was unmistakeable Doyle. Imitation was impossible, self-parody ditto. Gore Vidal loved to say that Tennessee Williams knew how to do only one thing, but he did that thing better than anyone else. Brian Doyle’s poetry was a bit like that. So many poems, so many ideas, but nearly all of them written in a trained story-telling voice that subtly divulged meaning through asides, exclamations, double takes, and other canny tricks. His skill at getting your attention (“It was in second grade that I discovered I could not see” is the opening line of ‘Sister Anne Marie’) and holding it is of a piece with his seemingly effortless digressions, wacky objective correlatives, and witty cultural insights. His confidence with this thing meant he could travel widely for subject matter.

I ponder the consistent squareness of his poems, square-shaped, on-the-level square talk, a square meal. They must imitate in some way his spoken voice as the phrases link and change, build and undercut, a confiding voice wishing to say as much as possible as clearly as possible effectively. Brian himself was no square. He was many-sided and apt to think right outside the box. Poetry was where he discovered the fullness of surprise. An editor, a reader, you and me, had to be on the alert. Part of his charm was unpredictability.

His belief in direct speech is indirectly explained in his various forays into poetics, as in ‘Demerit points for bad poetry’, published in Eureka Street in 2009:

“Anyone who has endured brief infatuations with folks who thought they were poets has, ipso facto, suffered through poetry readings during which small quiet poets gripped lecterns like the steering wheels of great ships, explained at incredible length the circumstances under which they committed their poems like raving sins, whispered their elephantine incoherent epic, and then, incredibly, explained at herculean length how the birds in the poem are actually symbols of revenge.

“At which point many members of the audience are contemplating the latter, and imagining a world where poets actually do have to get poetic licenses that require them to swear they will not suddenly use French phrases in their poems, personify favourite body parts of lovers, or write poems in which birds represent anything but birds.”

Brian himself probably broke the rules often enough (we note he is happy to suddenly use the Latin adverb ipso facto in his essay), enough to be a multiple offender who would have his license revoked, but he obviously does not wish to be remembered as someone who gripped a lectern like a steering wheel, whether symbolic or not. He never talks at you, always to you. And he continues:

“For poetry at its very best is the greatest of literary arts (not the greatest of arts, mind you - that would be music, or brewing beer), the one with the most power and passion in the least amount of space, the one that tries most gracefully to find the music in words, that delves deepest into the wild genius of language, that takes the sounds we make with our mouths and use them as keys to the deepest recesses of the heart and head.”

His themes range widely but an abiding motive of his writing is his great love of others. He writes about his family (the objective correlative may be an objectionable relative), politicians and dropouts, football barrackers and born theatricals, priests and nuns, next door neighbours and the faithful departed. His poetry is peopled with the humanity he was learning from all the time, themselves dealing with the limitations of being human. 

At the centre of this is Brian himself, the autobiographer who would be a poet, shifting from deep reflection on his own failings through to self-certain self-mockery, as in his poem ‘On the difficulty of translating the American writer Brian Doyle’, in which the exasperated translator concludes:

                                                        And a guy who says
He laughed so hard he passed a weasel, how am I to translate that,
I ask you? That kind of deliberately ridiculous and illogical image
Is what he trafficks in as the normal course of affairs, and it seems
To me that he savours this, that language for him is a vast wild toy,
Something to play with, something to start like a journey and then
See where it goes, something he walks into rather than commands,
Something that will reveal more of himself than he knew he knew.
Something that here and there is a wriggle or shiver for all readers,
And I have no word for that either - that sudden electric plummet
As an essay opens itself, or the startle of a reader recognising a joy
He or she has felt like a mysterious hand. Maybe will get better
With our words, maybe that’s what he is trying to say, maybe there
Will be better words the harder we try to write about what we can’t
Write about very well; or maybe he’s just a nutter with a typewriter.

I had the pleasure of meeting Brian Doyle personally over many years, even though he lived in Oregon and I have never been to Oregon. His poems arrived in the Inbox with ‘what about this?’ in the Subject line, square and many-sided, energetic and unpredictable, prompting all sorts of surprise responses, just as they do now when I type ‘Brian Doyle’ in Eureka Street’s Search line, and start reading