Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Footnote Poets 2a/4 Joseph Campbell and Literary History.

Joseph Campbell 1879-1944

NB: This Joseph Campbell is not the prolific author of books on Mythology. In his youth this Campbell's poetry was published under the Irish form of his name, Seosamh MacCathmhaoil. He told Austin Clarke that he gave this up when he heard a young woman asking for a the poems of Seo-Sam MacCatwail. 

For over a century young people ‘interested in writing’ or ‘wanting to be writers’ have signed up for university literature courses, only to discover it’s like an English speaker travelling to France to study English in French. For anyone who wants to learn how to write poetry, current academic approaches to it are not helpful.

One of the products of an interest in a poet like Campbell is how visible this becomes.  So first I want to use him as an example of something, and then consider some of his poems.

If you go looking for Campbell the poet in the literary histories of the time: The Pound Era, A Colder Eye, you won't find him. Although a quote from a letter stands at the head of Forster’s second volume of Yeats’ life, Campbell has no other appearance, although other sources suggest Yeats tried to get him out of prison in the 1920s. He turns up twice in Moody’s first volume of Pound’s life, but in neither case is his poetry mentioned. He was one of those poets, including Hume, Pound, and H.D who met in London at the Tour Eiffel café, meetings which  lead to the later ‘Imagist’ movement or Non-Movement.  According to Moody, Pound remembered him more for his conversation and Moody remembers him for the fact he recited Pound’s terrible ‘Ballad of the Goodly Frere’ at a public meeting.

Campbell died alone in his cottage in 1944.  Austin Clarke, himself more a sidelined poet than a footnote, edited a collected poems in 1963 arguing a case for Campbell’s poetry in his introduction and claiming he was the first Irish poet to use free verse effectively.  A volume of  ‘The Journal of Irish Literature’ was dedicated to him in 1979 and a biography written in 1988 by Norah Saunders and A.A. Kelly. Helen Carr, in her magnificent The Verse Revolutionaries pulled his early life out of the footnotes and into the main body of her text. But that book is unusual for a lot of reasons.

His presence in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry 1800-2000, written by Justin Quinn, is more characteristic. It’s a fine example of why the academic study of literature is a bad way of trying to learn how to write a poem.

Campbell appears three times in the index:

Tyanan and Carbery, along with other poets such as Lionel Johnson, Joseph Campbell, Padriac Colum, George Russell, James Stephens and F.R. Higgins followed the poetic templates forged by W.B.Yeats (p50).

The world may indeed have been falling apart, but that was all the more reason to assert and maintain the cultural integrity of Ireland. Poets such as F.R. Higgins (1896-1941) and Joseph Campbell (1879-1944) prosecuted exactly this programme (P80).

…this figures MacNeice as a flash in the pan, beside Revivalist poets such as Joseph Campbell and Lyle Donaghy, both subsequently and justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history (p90).

The last first.

 It is the job of Historians to select what is of importance to their narrative and no one can object to them either selecting or voicing judgments. What I always object to is a judgment like this one that never makes the grounds of the judgment available to the reader. Is Cambell 'justly' consigned to the oblivion of literary history because his poetry was mediocre, or because he was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, or because he never played the twinkly eyed mystical Irishman to the English Gallery? Or because he was a white heterosexual male and they are currently out of favour, though in Campbell's case the phrase 'white male privilege' could only be ironic?

Campbell is never quoted in the Cambridge History. However the criteria for inclusion can be seen in the pages that follow his first appearance.

Tyanan and Carbery, along with other poets such as Lionel Johnson, Joseph Campbell, Padriac Colum, George Russell, James Stephens and F.R. Higgins followed the poetic templates forged by W.B.Yeats (p50).

These poets are named, but grouped and set aside. You could dispute the accuracy of the statement but what follows this magisterial summation and implicit dismissal is a full page and a half of discussion of the work of Eva Gore- Booth. 

If Campbell has been ‘justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history’ then the implication is that Eva Gore-Booth’s work deserves our attention. As it becomes obvious that as Poetry it doesn’t, then some other criteria must be driving this history.

Yeats wrote a poem about her, and Quinn reprimands him: ‘Gore-Booth’s political and cultural involvements were much more complex than Yeats admits and his poem is inaccurate in its assessment of her subsequent career'. The criticism, that what seems to most readers to be personal reminiscence fails as objective political/biographical/ historical analysis, should alert the reader to what comes next.

Quinn quotes from three of her poems, which presumably do not deserve to be condemned to the oblivion of literary history. To be fair I’ll include all three quotations in the order they are given.
How a great Queen could cast away her crown,
The tumult of her high victorious pride,
To rest among the scattered fir-cones brown
And watch deep waters through the moonlight glide.
They brought her forth at last when she was old:
The sunlight on her blanchèd hair was shed
Too late to turn its silver into gold.
‘Ah shield me from this brazen glare!“ she said.
For thee Maeve left her kingdom and her throne
And all the gilded wisdom of the wise
And dwelt among the hazel trees alone
So that she might look into Niamh’s eyes.

No sorrow of lost battles anymore
In her enchanted spirit could abide;
Straight she forgot the long and desolate war
And how Fionavar for pity died.

Ah, Niamh, still the starry lamp burns bright
I can see through the darkness of the grave,
How long ago thy soul of starry light
Was very dear to the brave soul of Maeve.

These are competent poems, the kind that were written in vast quantities by intelligent, literate people at the turn of the last century when writing competent poems was an acceptable pastime.  But do these poems rate a place in history except as an example of the kind of competent poems written by intelligent literate people?

I would say no, this is not good poetry worthy of attention at this distance and my reasons for saying so:  it has the usual problems.

An ornate diction strives to be ‘poetic’ with its ‘thee’ and ‘thy’ and phrases like  ‘The tumult of her high victorious pride’.   Needless adjectives pad out the line to meet the metre’s demands:  in the first quote ‘brown’ in the third line, ‘deep’ in the fourth, The straining for rhyme which involves inversions or distortions of the natural word order or the addition of superfluous information all contribute to a lack of precision in the diction: do we need to know the fir cones are brown, or that the waters are deep? 

The poems have a  superficial attraction on a first reading but won’t bear scrutiny.  A phrase like ‘the gilded wisdom of the wise’ in this context seems to be doing very little. As a description of the emotion that lead Maeve to throw it all away and live in the forest gazing into Niamh’s eyes,  (how does she do this when we’re told she’s living alone?), ‘very dear’ is simply inadequate.

Quinn introduces the first extract by claiming that Gore-Booth used mythology to get back to the real world, but there is nothing recognizably real about this.
It’s obvious that Gore-Booth is not being ‘justly consigned to the oblivion of literary history’ because a) she’s female and b) according to Quinn the third extract has something to do with lesbianism and its delicate expression:
‘This does not openly express Lesbian love, but like a lot of gay poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it tactfully gestures towards it…’

Historians write history according to their own versions of what’s important. I think it's important to keep this in mind. If the book is about the poetry written by women during the first quarter of the century, then it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad poetry, it is evidence to make a point. If the purpose is to track the ways in which non-heterosexual passion is covertly expressed in verse, any verse will do. The danger lies in assuming that this academic use of poetry is the only thing that matters. Identity poetics are popular; I don't think they are a good thing.

If academic education is about learning to read like a critic, then learning to read like a writer is a different skill and not often taught.


David X. Novak said...

I looked him up in David Perkins and found this:

Unknown said...

Many of Campbell’s early volumes are available on — TG4 carried a nice documentary on Joseph two years ago. he is an unique poet of the dank earth and half-hidden lights.