Then there was Irish. A language lyrical as a rain-shower, staying close to the earth of things, and poetic in a manner utterly its own. And yet in poetry the dominant feeling seems to be one of decline.
Re-reading Michael Hartnett – a writer who saw the tension between these two viewpoints and tamed it into eloquence – one is struck by the clarity of vision with which his poems (whether written in Irish or English) survey their territory. Often the immediate concerns of Hartnett’s work are given weight and depth by what might be described as an awareness of history. The flight of time and the fading of love, as much as its violent termination, are weaved into a wider fabric of loss, one that encompasses the fluency and fecundity of a purely Irish literature which seems to be ever closer to resting in the relative obscurity of the past.
This historical sense lends a kind of hypnotic strangeness to the writing. Indeed the inherent musicality of Irish as a language is so exemplified in his poems that it becomes almost a theme in itself, subtly expressing the profundity of losing so rich a way of seeing and engaging with the world.
The poet himself does not emerge as a universal figure, but rather stands as a near-organic part of an Ireland which now is barely perceptible in the long distance of the years. Here we have the file or the later hedge-school bard: the noble and beggar-man in one, who “walked in rags from town to town” and now continues to haunt the spaces Hartnett so deftly navigates.
Yet all writing of the kind typified here holds resonance beyond the horizons it envisions for itself. We get the sense that the writer’s calling is not only literary, but also moral. After Hartnett, we feel that a “going back to the ways” of an older, and perhaps brighter, world is an aspiration that only poetry and its practitioners can fulfil. And the fact that many of these poems were written bi-lingually might suggest, in turn, that the figures Hartnett gives life and shape to can equally be translated from the plain of the various ‘Irish questions’ to that of Literature as a whole.
Continually we are shown that to write is to remember the past, and so to restore possibility to the future, while the importance of both is consequently regained. Poetry achieved is the ultimate end, for in it ethical and aesthetic fulfilment are fused.
Through Hartnett, poetry becomes passion incarnate – fluent in the pure run of itself, anger and awe given eloquence through art. His poems see spectres where they roam (of people, history, language), so that his gift is of resurrection, reviving a literature even as he laments its passing.