Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Michael Hartnett

  • Grounded Poetry – On Being Local

    There’s a song called All the Way from Tuam, by an Irish band called The Saw Doctors, which has a line that goes (roughly) ‘No matter where you’re from, everyone’s local’. They were a lot bigger then – 2009, I’d guess, and they were being interviewed about their music. They explained that they had found, when they sang about their home town, their audiences would identify with it, all over the world. Audiences had shared similar experiences and felt the same, often ambivalent emotions,  about their own home towns. This seems to me to be an important point when considering what I am calling ‘grounded poetry’, because the big criticism of local or rural poetry is that it is narrow or parochial, uneducated and ill-informed, and of no real interest to the wider, more cosmopolitan reading public.

    There seemed to be a feeling at one time that, if you wrote about a particular place, landscape, event or custom, then it showed that you were only aware of that particular locality; that you expected your readers to attach an undue importance to that locality; or possibly even that you were restricting your attention to that locality for some cheap local popularity, because you knew that you didn’t have the talent or education to make it on the bigger stage. Class comes into this of course, as Clare soon discovered, but even Wordsworth suffered from it. To this day Liz Berry is often asked to justify writing in her local dialect, though I think myself her stunning collection, Black Country, should be justification in itself. Niall Campbell’s poems about his childhood home of South Uist do not create an romantic and exotic place to be sentimental about; they create the vivid sense of that locality because he is at home there, but they are as much about the experience of being at home anywhere as they are about that place. That is the root  of grounded poetry – no matter where you’re from, everyone’s local.

    Grounded poetry, because it is rooted in home territory, need not restrict its attention to the narrow lives and concerns of that home territory; on the contrary, a sense of rootedness and connection gives a different and a valuable perspective to the more universal vision. Sorley MacLean’s integration of  the clearances on Skye into a survey of, and commentary on the world-wide proletarian struggle, is perhaps the best known example, or perhaps Michael Hartnett’s poems in Irish and English, heavily influenced by Lorca, which gave Irish poetry links to European Modernist writing, thus bypassing the habitual deference to the mainstream of writing in English. Christine de Luca does the same for Shetlandic, as I wrote at length in Northwords Now, and David Morley for Romani which he includes without apology or sweetening in his poems. There’s a place for the broader perspective, but attention to what Welsh poets call ‘your own quarter mile’ may give poetry a more intense focus and greater depth.


  • Between Duende and Zen

    I’ve been thinking a lot about duende lately. It’s been on the edges of my consciousness since I started thinking about folk music while writing the Eurydice Rising Sequence (which seems a long time ago now). I was looking at traditional forms, the sean nos of Ireland, and the ‘traditional style’ of Scots Gaelic, and the most interesting thing I discovered is that there is almost nothing written down about it. Even the Mods, where the judging is exact and technical, don’t seem to have any defined criteria. There is slightly more discussion about sean nos, because there has been a significant style shift, from a melody heavily ornamented with grace notes to something much more simple, but again, no definition. The best I can find is ‘it’s got to have soul’. I can recognise it when I hear it, though.

    Sean Nos

    The stillness of the old musicians,
    singing at the bar’s end, eyes closed,
    is a thing you wouldn’t notice, unless
    you sing yourself. The skill doesn’t show
    in dynamics and drama, it’s rubbed hard
    down into the song’s grain till the voice
    glides silky and free and nothing comes
    between mind and melody. Sean nos
    is of the soul, a music gathered,
    in-dwelling, sung from the quick of the heart.

    If you want to hear the real thing, the best sean nos singer I have ever heard is Iarla Ó Lionaird from The Gloaming. Check out especially the track Necklace of Wrens, which is the setting from a poem by Michael Hartnett.
    While I was thinking about ‘soul’ however, the word duende kept cropping up, and I’ve been reading Lorca’s In Search of Duende. Lorca describes the duende as an earth spirit, possibly related to the Scandinavian trolls, or the British boggart, someone to keep on side if you want to live in places it has chosen for its own. More northern creatures are mostly seen as mischievous and unruly, although Halldor Laxness writes about a truly destructive demon called Kollumkilli (possibly a distortion of Columcille, because the demon lives near Celtic monastic ruins which the first Icelanders found when they settled the country) in his novel Independent People. The Spanish duende, on the other hand, is downright inimical. Peasant life in Spain is a fight to the death with the thing.
    And it’s a particular kind of fight, a bit like tai chi. I only had one tai chi lesson, and I’m so dyspraxic I couldn’t follow the instructions, but I did grasp the concept. In most fighting styles, you attack and recover, you are concerned with self-defence and holding a little energy in reserve, but in tai chi you commit totally to one mighty move, pouring all your energy into the most effective blow you can. A fight with duende is like that, and the art forms with duende, particularly the canto jondo, have that distinctive sound. I imagine that blues does too. Music is a powerful weapon against the thrawn-ness of adversity.
    We are experiencing adversity on a global scale and there is no doubt about it, even in the comfortable bits of the first world, and music and arts of all kinds are responding to it. The Dark Mountain project is one that I have been involved with, but everywhere you look, something is happening as people are trying to articulate the meaning of what is happening. But there are other patterns of behaviour too – spiritual renewals on a parallel with the Ghost dancing movement of the First Nations, or the development of monasticism in post imperial Europe; a return to nature as in the rivers and mountains movement in Classical Chinese poetry or pastoral poetry in Latin; an engagement with the ancestors and tribal traditions, radical politics and a fascination with magic.
    And here my thinking comes back to its origins. Because wherever these changes and upheaval and renewals happen, herbs become iconic. The shape of the herb poems I’m going to work on is beginning to come into view.

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