Bernard O’Donoghue on “Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie” by Richard Murphy, in Irish University Review [Special Poetry Issue, guest ed. Peter Denman (Sept. 2009).

[ Source: The Free Library - 17m. Articles & Books - online; accessed 07.07.2011.]

Everyone knows, but still remarks as if it were something new, that Wordsworth’s ambition to write ‘in the language of a man speaking to men’ was apparently not successful. The ideal of writing in an unliterary language, in a real vernacular, seems to be rechampioned in every generation. It is invoked both for and against existing writing. In his De Vulgari Eloquentia in about 1290, Dante argued (in Latin) the case for composing The Divine Comedy in the Italian vernacular rather than in learned Latin. As an example of the unvernacular, Macaulay grumbled in 1831 about the language of Dr Johnson: ‘All his books are written in a learned language, in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love, a language in which nobody ever thinks’. (1) The obligation implied in all this is one which weighs particularly heavily on poets; in an Irish context, Yeats stated it most dramatically and memorably in his late ‘A General Introduction for my Work’: ‘I tried to make the language of poetry coincide with that of passionate, normal speech. I wanted to write in whatever language comes most naturally when we soliloquise [...] upon the events of our own lives [...] I sometimes compare myself with the mad old slum women I hear denouncing and remembering; “How dare you”, I heard one say of some imaginary suitor, “and you without health or a home”’. (2) Nevertheless, Yeats concludes that he ‘must seek, not as Wordsworth thought, words in common use, but a powerful and passionate syntax.’ (3)

Wordsworth was far from unique in failing to remain true to his ideal. There are far more striking failures: T. S. Eliot’s embarrassing vernacular at the end of the “Game of Chess” section of The Waste Land, for example; or even worse, Yeats’s own “Ballad of Moll Magee“:

Come round me, little childer;
There, don’t fling stones at me ... (4)

It is a lot easier to illustrate such failures than the vernacular successes (amongst the latter are perhaps some of Child’s Ballads, Robert Burns, John Clare, Augusta Gregory, and Hugh MacDiarmid). The poem I want to consider here, Richard Murphy’s “Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie” (5) seems to me a striking, and at first glance surprising, success in this area. The success is surprising for a variety of reasons: the principal one that Murphy, an Oxford-educated Anglo-Irishman, might not be expected to be the most obvious reproducer of a local language, as he readily concedes himself. He discusses his heritage at various points in his lively and revealing memoir The Kick, noting in Connemara his ‘precarious footing as an outsider, a divorced Protestant with a British accent in a village then under the sway of a priest, who had no liking for me or for Protestants or for Brits.’ (6)

The context and prehistory in Murphy’s writing of the vernacular success of the “Maisie” poem are significant. Although some of his Anglo-Irish forebears came from Mayo, there is no doubt that literary predecessors were at least as influential as family ones on his decision to follow the sleepy resolve of Gabriel Conroy at the end of “The Dead”, ‘to set out on his journey westward’. Obvious influences are Synge’s living on Inis Meain and Yeats’s taking up residence in Thoor Ballylee. Murphy had made the remarkable decision in the 1950s to settle down in Cleggan for the summer months and to operate first one (bought in the hot summer of 1959) and later two Galway hookers to ferry visitors over to Inishbofin. And in 1969, he bought High Island as an even more remarkable west-locating venture.

In poetic terms, Murphy’s journey westward was a resounding success from the beginning. His highly successful first book Sailing to an Island (7) made much of its impact in the three sailing poems comprising Part One. The title-poem which opens the volume is decidedly English-poetic in style:

Encased in a mirage, steam on the water,
Loosely we cast where hideous rocks jag,
An acropolis of cormorants, an extinct
Volcano where spiders spin, a purgatory
Guarded by hags and bristled with breakers.
                                   (Sailing to an Island, p.13).

The elaborate diction describes sailors as ‘those who must earn their living / On the ribald face of a mad mistress’, and recalls that this boat ‘belched its crew / Dead on the shingle in the Cleggan disaster’. The second poem, “The Last Galway Hooker”, celebrates Murphy’s boat, the Ave Maria, which an introductory note tells us was built in Galway in 1922 (Murphy plied it until 1964 when he sold both his boats). The headnote concludes with a significant ‘Metrical Note’: ‘The typical line has four stresses (though not of equal emphasis) which fall usually into two groups of two stresses each.’ The opening lines set the pattern as follows, with the words that contain the stresses in italics, and the caesura (which is long) marked with an apostrophe:

Where the Corrib river chops through the Claddagh
To sink in the tide-race its rattling chain
The boatwright’s hammer chipped across the water
                                   (Sailing to an Island, p.16 )

[Itals. substituted for stress marks.]

Despite the poem’s subject, the metrical form Murphy sets out here is familiar as the standard way of representing the stress-pattern traditions of English, from Old English poetry to Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden. The poem also of course is not unmindful of one of the great translations from Irish, “Anach Cuan” by Padraig de Brun, a version of Antoine Raftery’s lyrical lament in Irish about the drowning of nineteen people on the river Corrib near Galway in 1828, almost exactly a century earlier. (8) This may indeed constitute a further connection with Yeats who was very aware of Raftery’s life in the area around Gort, Co Galway, commemorated in the poem ‘The Tower’ and elsewhere.

The last of the poems of Part 1 of Sailing to an Island, “The Cleggan Disaster”, returns more extensively to the story mentioned in the title-poem. The story was told to Murphy by Pat Concannon who is the central figure in the text, recounting his eight-hour struggle for survival in a rowing boat during a famous storm in October 1927. The poem is an unquestionable and original success, but still in a mode familiar from the traditions of English poetry. It is not a negative criticism to say that it, like its two predecessors, thrives on poetic devices; indeed they are a contribution to its success: ‘not a flicker of a fish’, ‘the lightning flaked / in willow cascades’, ‘the wind began to play, like country fiddlers / In a crowded room’. It concludes with a lyrical series of elegiac stanzas of ubi sunt in a different measure: ‘Where are the red-haired women / Chattering along the piers / Who gutted millions of mackerel?’ The subject-matter of all this is Irish and local, but the language and the poetics belong to English. “The Cleggan Disaster” has major importance as a long narrative poem of compelling excitement and animation that it is not easy to find equalled in its era. But, reading through it, although there are vernacular touches like ‘The oarsmen were calling Concannon to let go, / Take it easy for a while’, or the more self-conscious ‘Darker it’s getting’ (Sailing to an Island, p.26, p.24), the prevailing language is a kind of standard English narrative, very successfully employed. Though Murphy had received the story of the disaster from Concannon himself, the poem adapts his voice to the literary eloquence of the English tradition.

However, “Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie”, ten years later, although it is thematically continuous with these three poems, its language and poetic manner are totally different. It represents a major innovation, despite the familiarity of its subject within Murphy’s corpus. Murphy’s circumstances in the interval between the two books had changed, by making his westward move more decisive. When he bought High Island in 1969, he built an austere cottage on it that could be inhabited for the summer months, in the footsteps of the medieval monks who had settled more permanently along the Atlantic coast on such islands, including this one. Like “The Cleggan Disaster”, the poem draws on a received narrative; but it is clear from the start that it will draw on it much more directly. The story this time comes from Pat Cloherty, another Cleggan friend of Murphy, recounting not his own experience but the loss of a hooker called The Maisie in 1884, as described in local narrative. There is an immediate irony here: the substance of the poem is Cloherty’s telling - his ‘version’ - as the title indicates, which is as prominent as the events it is relating. The irony is that the voice and personality of the teller are more evident here in this narrative than in Concannon’s description of his own experience. In a ‘version’, the language is foregrounded, in a way that the rather Conradian narrative of the Cleggan poem did not need to be. And, formally structured though the poem is, Murphy purports to present the language unmediated.

The poem begins with a classic instance of the art concealing art which emerges as the distinguishing hallmark of the text as a whole:

I’ve no tooth to sing you the song
    Tierney made at the time
         but I’ll tell the truth.

There is plenty of dialectal strangeness here: is ‘tooth’ used in this way, in Irish-English or in Irish, to mean ‘note’ (as in ‘he hasn’t a note in his head’)? It doesn’t matter; the usage serves its purpose at once. We might note, on closer examination, how ‘tooth’ and ‘truth’, though they are two lines apart, are a kind of slant rhyme of the kind that Austin Clarke brought into English from Irish in his ‘Celtic-Romanesque’ mode. This kind of stylistic feature recurs in the poem: for example in the echoing ‘ei’ vowels (‘Clare’, Cahir’, ‘mainsail’, ‘foresail’) in

She passed Clare and she came to Cahir
    two reefs tied in the mainsail
        she bore a foresail but no jib.

As the storyline develops, it is clear that here too we have moved from the world of Joseph Conrad in “The Cleggan Disaster” to that of J. M. Synge in Riders to the Sea and The Aran Islands:

The men were two stepbrothers
    drownings in the family
        and all through the family.

Everything in the poem continues in an Irish tradition, of language and poetics as well as subject matter. Some of the effects of language are taken directly from the speaker’s mouth with no recasting at all, it seems (like ‘I’ve no tooth’):

hugging it hugging it O my dear

And it blew and blew hard and blew hard.

But the crucial thing to note here is that, despite the affinities with earlier Irish literary traditions and the claimed closeness of the language to the speech of Cloherty, the poem is extraordinarily original in form. The three-line stanza, with its progressive indentations, is unique (to my knowledge), and achieves a plainness of great effectiveness, most notably at the poem’s end which reads like a cemetery inscription:

Kerrigan’s wife was brought from Cross
    home to Inishbofin
       and she’s buried there.

Upon examination, the devices by which Murphy achieves this plainness are sustained through the poem, and they are often effects well established in handbooks of poetics and even classical rhetoric: repetition (‘it blew and blew hard and blew hard’); breach of rules of punctuation - apart from capital letters at the opening of each stanza and the caesural gaps as in the ‘hugging it’ line, there is no mark of punctuation in the poem; phonetic echoing in the occasional rhymes and half-rhymes (‘found’ / ‘Sound’; ‘Pier’ / ‘there’); and so on. In summary, the poem’s impression of plainness is achieved in a form of highly worked intricacy, as plainness always is: the trick of seeming ‘clear / as the bleb of the icicle’, as Seamus Heaney memorably phrased it at the end of ‘North’. Of course Wordsworth did sometimes achieve the impression of a man speaking to men (‘If Lucy should be dead!’), but that is as much of a rhetorical structure as anything else.

“Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie” is all the more effective for being distinctive within High Island, both in subject and form. The three sailing poems in Sailing to an Island constitute a compelling block of narrative; this poem in High Island stands out like a rock in the sea. Formally too it is unique; the recurring themes of the volume are entirely in keeping with the poem’s setting (travellers, birds, history, buildings, all located in the west of Ireland), but the language of the rest of the poems is invariably standard. It is more spare than the language of the earlier book, but Pat Cloherty’s voice is the only element of dialect here. No doubt Murphy has taken over many of the words and phrases of the original narrative, in the time-honoured way of oral tradition. In that tradition, many effects are not to be assigned to the characteristics of a particular voice; the repeated phrases - ‘the sea claimed him’, ‘he’s buried there’, ‘it blew hard’ - are classic oral formulae, open to mild modification. Here these formulae are mixed with more particular cultural and linguistic details: ‘missing Mass to catch the tide’, ‘like a person’d be in prayer’, and the grammatical irregularity of the double negative ‘the sea never came in / near that mark no more’. (9) This plain narrative tapestry is indeed a complex of intricate threads.

So what is the place of this poem (which I believe to be a major masterpiece) in the modern Irish - and English - poetic tradition? What kind of enablement might it offer to later poets? Richard Murphy’s place in the narrative of both traditions is now seriously underrated; when High Island was published, only Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and Philip Larkin had a comparable standing amongst poets published in London. In the poetics of the Irish tradition in particular he is as important a mediator from Yeats to the modern writers as anyone - comparable to Louis MacNeice or Patrick Kavanagh. In this way he belongs to the high tradition of modern Irish poetry in English. But the “Maisie” poem does something else perhaps even more remarkable. It is written in an oral tradition. But that tradition did not exist; it had to invent the world that it belongs to. Other poets share details with it; Heaney’s ‘fother’ at the start of Wintering Out, or his etymological explorations in ‘Broagh’ are distinguished relations. (10) But Heaney and most other writers hold back from full-scale oral telling (even restoring standard English forms, as Heaney notes himself in relation to John Clare). By creating an oral poetic world for Pat Cloherty’s version to belong to, Murphy really is doing something genuinely vernacular. We might want to propose ‘synthetic Scots’ as a parallel; but that language, to my ear, for all its poetic excellence lacks the impression of local authenticity that Murphy achieves here. It is surprising I think how few Irish poets have followed his lead in attempting to write a ‘version’: the new poetic genre that this poem creates. But perhaps this is because such an authentic vernacular is very hard to construct.

The poem is included in the following books by Richard Murphy: High Island (London: Faber and Faber, 1974); Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1974); The Price of Stone & Earlier Poems (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1985); New Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1989); Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 2000).

1. Lord Macaulay, ‘Samuel Johnson’, in Critical and Historical Essays: The Complete Writings of Lord Macaulay, Vol. 2 (Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Co, 2004), p.384.
2. W.B.Yeats, ‘General Introduction for my Work’, in Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), pp.509-26 (p.521). The essay was originally published in 1937.
3. Yeats, ‘General Introduction for my Work’, pp.521-2.
4. W.B. Yeats, The Poems, edited by Daniel Albright (London: Everyman, 1990), pp.48-50 (p.48).
5. Richard Murphy, High Island (London: Faber & Faber, 1974), pp.25-7. Later references will be noted in parentheses.
6. Richard Murphy, The Kick: A Memoir (London: Granta Books, 2002), p.227.
7. Richard Murphy, Sailing to an Island (London: Faber & Faber, 1963). Later references will be noted in the text in parentheses.
8. “Eanach Dhuin”, in The Connaught Journal, Thursday, 4 Sept. 1828.
9. It strikes me as interesting, incidentally, that an important short poem in the volume is called ‘Double Negative’.
10. Seamus Heaney, “Fodder”, Wintering Out (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p.13 and “Broagh”, Wintering Out, p.27.

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