Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Gwyneth Lewis and Cultural Outwardness

I am thinking of Gwyneth Lewis' poem 'Mother Tongue'. I am thinking of the speaker's thirst for access to other languages, outside of the local or prescribed experience, and the sheer pleasure of imbibing words words words that we may not properly know yet but which alter our taste buds forever. I am thinking that we can always reach back into languages we have known - that we never lose the learning of them. I am thinking that the more ‘language-lives’ we have access to, the broader, richer and more multiform our frame of reference and the more relevant our writing to the world around us. I am thinking: the larger our kitty, the more we are likely to discover and explore. The deeper we can go. The greater the satisfaction in the writing act itself.


In marginalised societies specifically, inwardness is thought of as high virtue, insularity and stubbornness of vision signs of a courageous up-holding of heritage and traditional values. But when a hitherto marginalised community finds itself wielding a dominance of sorts, force to be exerted upon the further-marginalised – a caste-level down – then where-to for inwardness? Where are things to be said from and in which way are they to be understood?

"…what seems to me the most extraordinary aspect of the controversy about O’Searcaigh in Nepal is that an Irishman, well acquainted with the poverty suffered by his own nation, should fail even to realise that, in a third-world country, he could be perceived as a rich exploiter of those in contemporary poverty. Recent Irish legislation on immigration seems to show a similar national blind spot. Are the Irish, who fled the famine and went all over the world as emigrants, often becoming wealthy in the process, now proving less than hospitable to the new immigrants into their home country? Has the lyric tone evoked by O’Searcaigh – and refused, it now looks wisely, by Muldoon, Ni Dhomnaill, Heaney and others – helped to blind the poet to the change in the balance of economic power which has taken place in the new, tigerish Ireland ? The tunes you play in your poems do matter, because they facilitate or inhibit what you can say and the breadth of your human sympathies outside your own cultural circles: they can stop you thinking."
(Gwyneth Lewis, Criss-Crossings: Literary Adventures on Irish and Welsh Shores, Poetry Review, Autumn 2008)

To be shown our shortcomings is hurtful. It is also dangerous. It may destroy part of us, particularly if we’ve always been told how wonderful we are. It’s not easy to accept this jolting out of our comfort zone. But we must be ready to accept it or even look for it for the change it might bring about. Such willingness becomes our stepping stone towards maturity - artistic, cultural and otherwise.

In a recent interview Ricky Gervais, creator of The Office, made an interesting comment about the difference between being an amateur and a professional comedian. He said: “it’s a strange thing. I stopped being funny when I became a comedian.” What he means is that, in order to become funny in a sustained way, he gave up being personally hilarious. In much the same manner, I feel it’s important that poets have a healthy distrust of the lyrical which, as professionals, they know is not an absolute moral quality but simply an aesthetic effect to be manipulated. Like the painter and decorator whose house is in bad order, the sign of a good poet might be an artist who eschews “the poetic.”
(Gwyneth Lewis, Criss-Crossings: Literary Adventures on Irish and Welsh Shores, Poetry Review, Autumn 2008)

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