I first read a poem by Michael Hartnett while drinking a nuclear coffee in the very brown and very beige surroundings of the UCD Arts Block. I didn’t realise it then, but I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to attend a series of classes led by the poet Paul Durcan exploring the work of Hartnett. To have been introduced to Hartnett by a man who had known him so well and who was so eloquent in his veneration of the quality of his work, was electrifying. It set in motion a lifelong fascination with Hartnett, whose poems I come back to time and time again, often meeting a different poet each time I read them.
Hartnett’s early poems thrum with the language of force, passion and disdain. If put on the spot to recite a poem, I would choose Sulphur, a poem whose rhythm and imagery have been etched into my brain since first hearing it:
will engulf her
or else fire:
I am Zeus and I desire
Having heard Durcan recite this poem, in his distinctive style, these lines have followed me ever since and drift into my mind at the oddest and often most mundane of moments. For me, it is an example of a poem once read that cannot be forgotten.
There is a duality in the early poems that resonates throughout the whole body of work: the parochial versus the mythic, the lover versus the rejected suitor, the lyric versus the acerbic. The tension between the Irish and English language haunts Hartnett’s poetry and is never resolved. Vowing to write exclusively in Irish following A Farewell to English, he returned to English with Inchicore Haiku. There is a sense that Hartnett feels that he falls between the two languages, belonging fully to neither. This conflicted identity affects the reader too, when reading the work of a poet who mourns a language he forsakes. There are multiple Hartnetts, some unknowable to me: the translator, the Irish language poet, the English language poet. This elusiveness is both attractive and frustrating.
The intelligence and technical accomplishment of Hartnett shines through the spleen and pathos of Inchicore Haiku and for me is most evident in the poem Sibelius in Silence. We are at once in the landscape of Finnish folk tradition and the bog and birch of Ireland. The convergences between the life of the musician and the life of the poet are traced with the mellifluent dignity of a man who knows his last symphony has already been written.
I believe that Hartnett retained a youthful rebelliousness throughout his life and that he wouldn’t have had much time for those who sought to analyse him. All I am trying to say here (in far too many words) is that I have gleaned a lot of richness from his work and that if you haven’t read any of his poetry yet, I urge you to!
Author: Anne Daly