Ive spent the last six months travelling about, giving recitals from my book Going Home to Russia: Ireland, the UK, Canada, Italy. Some day Id like to publish a blow-by-blow journal of this kind of living - a kind of Forked Lightening Logbook - one night stands from Hull to Bolton, from Montreal to Cape Breton, from Coleraine to Castlecomer, from Olivetti to Perugia - but, just for now, Id like to report that I brought along with me for company the tapes of Van Morrison. The operative word is company.
Being an artist of any kind is by definition a lonely occupation. But in addition to the nature of the job there is the fact that socially its lonely (I mean socially as well as spiritually) because I dont like the company of literary people or, rather, there are very few literary people in whose company Id want to be in or, rather I dont find literary people companionable - neither their violence nor their holiness.
Literary people seem to me to specialise in a unique blend of insincerity and sanctimoniousness; its a combination that makes me cringe and I am glad to take refuge in my Sony Walkman. When I wake up in the morning in a bedroom on the seventeenth floor - after the initial shock - I reach for my Sony Walkman.
But its now only the actual Jaws themselves - its that whole mafia of literary wheeler-dealers comprising James Bond academics, Ayatollah publishers, hysterical columnists, club critics, who bestride the one vast literary bidet on the slopes of Parnassus; there they squat all year round, hooded fossils, self-regarding, satisfied, oblivious, brooding, conspiring.
There are exceptions. There have been times when I have carried my Sony Walkman half-ways around the world without ever taking it out of my bag; with Tom McCarthy in Yorkshire, with Anthony Cronin in Russia, with Jennifer Johnson in Montreal, with Dermot Bolger in the Hague, with Seamus Heaney in Boston,with Medbh McGuckian in Saskatoon.
The day I arrived back from Canada - Saturday March 19 - was the day Ireland reached its nadir. After twenty years mucking around in the depths of our own nadir, we finally got there, just before noon on Saturday March 19. I was half-asleep - having got off the jumbo from New York at 8.15 am. But strangely enough - strangely - it was on the evening of the same day that Van Morrison from East Belfast climbed up on an open air stage outside the Bank of Ireland in Dublin. And not only that but he chose to collaborate with Mícheal ó Súilleabháin, a traditional musician par excellence who, precisely because he is a truly traditional artist, is more avant-garde than the avant-garde.
And not only again but - and this is the cake beneath the icing - their finale was On Raglan Road.
Van Morrisons rendition of Patrick Kavanaghs On Raglan Road is fitting because it brings together the two finest poets in Ireland in my lifetime. No other Irish poets - writing either in verse or in music - have come within a Hondas roar of Kavanagh and Morrison.
Both Northerners - solid ground boys. Both primarily jazzmen, bluesmen, sean nos. Both concerned with the mystic - how to live with it, by it, in it; how to transform it; how to reveal it. Both troubadours. Both very ordinary blokes. Both drumlin men - rolling hills men. Both loners. Both comedians. Both lovepoets. Both Kerouac freaks. Both storytellers. Both obsessed with the hegira - from Monaghan to the Grand Canal, from East Belfast to Caledonia. Both originals, not imitators. Both first-time cats, not copycats. Both crazy. Both sane as sane can be. Both fascinated by at once their own Englishness and their own Irishness. Both obsessed with the audience and with the primacy of audience in any act or occasion of song or art. Both fascinated by the USA. Both Zen Buddhists. Both in love with names - placenames as well as personal names: Cypress Avenue, Inniskeen Road; San Anselmo, Islington; Boffyflow and Spike, Shancoduff; The Eternal Kansas City, The Rowley Mile; Madame George, Kitty Stobling; Jackie Wilson, Father Mat; O Solo Mio by McGimpsey, John Betjeman on Drumcondra Road.
You hear talk about the Leaving Certificate Poetry Curriculum. They say that they might change it. But you dont hear them saying that they might put Van Morrison on the Leaving Certificate Poetry Curriculum. Van Morrison, are they a group? asked whizzkid EEC Commissioner Peter Sutherland in a courtroom in 1982.
Myself, if I was Minister for Education, Id bring in a new curriculum in the morning and top of my list would be Kavanagh and Morrison. All of Kavanagh and Morrison - not my selection or Saint Augustines selection or Barry McGuigans selection or Dean Martins selection but the entire oeuvre and let the audience (students are a free audience - not a concentration camp of suitable victims) pick out what they like and what they dont like. Having been Minister for Education, Id like then to be a member of the audience and for my essay in the Leaving Certificate Examination at the end of two years listening to Morrison, I might choose to offer the following Top Thirty of Morrisons poems:
And Id state in my Leaving Certificate essay that no Irish poet since Kavanagh had produced poetry of the calibre of those thirty compositions. Even the very titles are original. Id state that in order to introduce William Blake to an audience you dont necessarily give them poems by William Blake. You give them Morrisons Listen to the Lion.
Id write a love letter to the examiners about my favourite Morrison poems. Id tell them about Summertime in England, which to me is an Irishmans Hymn to the Englishness that is in all of us if we care to look inside ourselves - which, of course, so many of us dont, except when we are eating young English soldiers for lunch.
The middle of the poem contains some of the sweetest lines in the 20th century Irish poetry.
It is also a humorous poem and each time he sings it, down the years, Morrison improvises; like Kavanagh, he is a maestro of the improvised line. In fact, the only new development in recent Irish poetry was Kavanaghs introduction of the jazz line and Morrisons continuation of it. Kavanagh was a great tenor sax who was content to blow his horn in the sunlit angles of Dublin street-corners in the 1950s. He was the King of Anonymity.
Id tell them about the spiritual adventure of Morrisons poems which parallels Kavanaghs philosophy on not caring. From No Guru, No Method, No Teacher Id quote the poem In The Garden and the lines:
Id quote a refrain from Alan Watts Blues:
Id quote the pearl from Queen of the Slipstream:
Id quote from Hard Nose the Highway:
Id write about Morrisons visit to the Church of Ireland in his Tir na Nog as if it was the only church in Ireland. There was just this one church in Ireland and one day, after thousands of years, a man stopped there, a man called Morrison, and he wrote a poem about it - about this strange place, this strange site, this strange building called The Church of Ireland.
Maybe Id tell them also that I like Morrison because I know that his work comes from the same level as my own poetry - the level of daydreaming; that hes out to annihilate ego; that hes after same nothingness as Kavanagh was after. In this sense, hes really not a poet at all, no more than I am. Hes after the musical technique of how to live.
Id wind up by saying that in the end only two things count; that poetry is of its very essence part of an age-old oral and placename tradition (known in Irish as the dindsenchas) and Morrison is a modern Irish exemplar of that ancient tradition; and that, secondly, in anything to do with anything we call art, it is in the end all about audience - so that even if, say, youre a writer, it is what you read that counts most, not what you write. The reason that many poets write awful poetry is because they dont read or listen or watch; they are too busy listening to their egos or parading their competing nationalism, instead of being part of the audience that we all are. As Morrison says in Tore Down a la Rimbaud:
In 1973 on RTE television Morrison sang a poem which he called Drumshanbo Hustle. I have never met him and I am glad to say that I know little or nothing about his personal life - an achievement in anonymity which is as refreshing as it is inspiring. I think of him simply as The Drumshanbo Hustler or, in his present incarnation on Raglan Road, as The Secret Signatory who, over a span of twenty-five years, has given us a body of work to put beside the legacy of that great other Irish jazzman of the twentieth century, Kavanagh:
I gave her the gifts of the mind, I gave her the secret sign thats known To all the artists who have known true Gods of Sound and stone And word and tint - I did not stint - for I gave her poems to say With her own name there and her own dark hair like the clouds over fields of May.
Sean-nos (there should be an accent on the o) is a Gaelic word which literally means old style and it is the term used for a particular style of unaccompanied singing, often in Irish. If any reader wants to sample the style, seek out the greatest modern exponent of the genre, the late Joe Heaney. (back to reference).