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Tongue of Water, Teeth of Stones

Tongue of Water, Teeth of Stones: Northern Irish Poetry and Social Violence

Jonathan Hufstader
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Tongue of Water, Teeth of Stones
    Book Description:

    In a 1984 lecture on poetry and political violence, Seamus Heaney remarked that "the idea of poetry was itself that higher ideal to which the poets had unconsciously turned in order to survive the demeaning conditions." Jonathan Hufstader examines the work of Heaney and his contemporaries to discover how poems, combining conscious technique with unconscious impulse, work as aesthetic forms and as strategies for emotional survival.

    In his powerful study, Hufstader shows how a number of contemporary Northern Irish poets, including Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, Ciarán Carson and Medbh McGuckian, explore the resources of language and poetic form in their various responses to cultural conflict and political violence. Focusing on both style and social contexts, Hufstader explores the tension between solidarity and art, between the poet's need to belong and to rebel. He believes that an understanding of the power of lyric points towards an understanding of the source of social violence, and of its cessation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5747-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In “Clonfeacle,” an early poem published in 1973, Paul Muldoon writes of a river where Saint Patrick is said to have washed: “A tongue of water passing / Between teeth of stones.”¹ Over half a century earlier, Yeats had also written of streams and stones:

    Hearts with one purpose alone

    Through summer and winter seem

    Enchanted to a stone

    To trouble the living stream.²

    In Yeats’s poem, the stream stood for the vibrant, changing life of nature and art; the stone represented the fixed ideology of those bent on violence to achieve their ends, a menace of fixity and death...

  5. 2 Seamus Heaney
    (pp. 21-86)

    It is generally acknowledged that Seamus Heaney is a great political poet and that he has written about the long Northern Irish struggle in such a way as to promote peace and understanding—an achievement which must have constituted no small claim to the Nobel prize for literature which he received in 1995. In his Stockholm lecture, he presents himself as one who long and slavishly pursued goals of political correctness and responsibility, “bowed to the desk lire some monk bowed over his prie-dieu . . . Blowing up sparks for a meagre heat. Forgetting faith, straining towards good works....

  6. 3 Michael Longley
    (pp. 87-110)

    So writes Michael Longley in the early seventies, assuming the role of Fleance, the son of Banquo who escapes his father’s fate by hiding under the stage whereMacbeth(here taken as a symbol for the whole Northern Irish political carnage) is being played out. Thus imagining himself as an innocent victim of other people’s vile behavior, Longley the poet distinguishes himself from all the other poets in this study, even Medbh McGuckian, by his apparent refusal—one which finally proves deceptive—to admit or accept any personal involvement in the Troubles.

    I say Longley the poet, because Michael Longley...

  7. 4 Derek Mahon
    (pp. 111-138)

    “Once upon a time it was let me out and let me go,” Derek Mahon wrote in 1995, implicitly referring to his Fire King's utterance in 1975, “I am through with history.”¹ The only way one can really be through with history is by suicide, which is what the Fire King intends, having no choice other than to die by his own hand or as the victim of violence in a Northern Irish world of “sirens, bin-lids and bricked-up windows.” Born in 1941 and raised in a Protestant suburb of Belfast, Mahon has often written of sectarian conflict from the...

  8. 5 Paul Muldoon
    (pp. 139-188)

    Paul Muldoon’s poetry abounds in scenes of sordid violence, made all the more perplexing by the joking style used to describe them. The visitor to Muldoon’s Ireland regularly encounters explosions and murders, bodies raped or chained to fences—catastrophes unidentified by historical coordinates and unexplained by poetic reflection.

    Although born in 1955 (he is six years younger than Paulin and seven years younger than Carson), Muldoon began to publish his major work in 1977, not long after Heaney’sNorthand Mahon’sThe Snow Party.In this astonishing production between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-two—Mules(1977),Why Brownlee Left...

  9. 6 Tom Paulin
    (pp. 189-218)

    Tom Paulin’s poetic voice, as it champions enlightenment politics, cannot withstand its own anger. In his argumentative essays concerning literature and politics, including the polemical introduction toThe Faber Book of Political Versewhich he edited, Paulin has continually spoken in favor of poetry that argues passionately for a cause, following the example of his hero, Milton. Paradoxically, though, Paulin the artist has always found it difficult to achieve the univocal, outraged resonance of “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints.” Paulin’s own outrage, a fire maintained by the friction between his democratic ideals and the base politics of the world...

  10. 7 Ciarán Carson
    (pp. 219-260)

    Ciarán Carson likes to characterize his speech and even his thought as incoherent. “I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering,” he says in 1987, telling how the experience of being in a Belfast riot, and more generally of being surrounded by social violence, impedes direct speech.¹ He repeats this claim to unintelligibility in 1996, writing of “the gargled doggerel of this dumb poet,” but now does so in a triumphant manner, his bottle of orangeade held up to the sun like a trumpet.² It is in the implied battle between style and personality...

  11. 8 Medbh McGuckian
    (pp. 261-286)

    “I began to write poetry so that nobody would read it,” said Medbh McGuckian to Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill in 1992, claiming full ownership of the cryptic style which has set her apart from her Northern Irish contemporaries, even Muldoon.¹ Until the publication ofCaptain Lavenderin 1995, McGuckian’s obdurately coded verse, preoccupied with a secret inner world, had resisted critics’ efforts to read her poetry in some public context. If Peggy O’Brien’s advice to “admire what we cannot understand” represented a widely shared view of McGuckian, it was difficult to see what more could be said about her.² With the...

  12. 9 Conclusion
    (pp. 287-294)

    “I confess,” says Dillon Johnston, “a partiality toward difficult poetry, poetry written, and required to be read, at the forward edge of language.” Writing in the Preface to the second edition of hisIrish Poetry after Joyce,Johnston continues: “Complexity of thought and our inevitably partial and tentative understanding of the sources of emotion and, even, of consciousness—an understanding that evolves or perhaps just changes with our historical moment—justifies difficult poetry.”¹ For my part I confess that I do not share Johnston’s partiality so much as his sense of requirement. Reading Northern Irish poets, I often long for...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 295-308)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-318)
  15. Index
    (pp. 319-326)