Thursday, 17 November 2011

Scrutinising Ireland's President-Poet

It was amusing to read the comments that predictably flooded in from indignant folk, mainly out of or related to Ireland, following Carol Rumens' deconstruction of Michael D Higgins' poem 'When Will My Time Come?'. "Mean-spirited", "churlish", "nasty" and "mad woman" were some of the epithets used with reference to the article or its author, both in the chain of comments below the piece and on other forums.

The first I knew of Rumens' piece on The Guardian website (which I often read) was from a parochial defence of Higgins in the following Saturday's Irish Times (which I often don't). For what it's worth, I feel there's an issue with Rumens' article in that its title (possibly not her own choice) and first paragraph question the very claim that Higgins is a poet, rather than what he writes or his approach. (Interestingly, on her own website Rumens begins her welcome note with "I hate attaching labels to myself. Am I a poet? I hope so but how can I be sure?") But this kind of ultra-defensive reaction a critical piece elicited from people interested in poetry was rather revealing.

What was particularly notable was how, even in such minds, the poetry got relegated to insignificance the moment its maker attained a national office - even one of a largely ambassadorial nature. Few, if any, confronted the poem itself or its deconstruction. This lack of belief in the relevance of poetry brought to mind a disparaging comment made about Barack Obama by one of his opponents in the run up to the 2008 US presidential election: "he's a poet, not a fighter".

Michael D Higgins has been a politician and a public figure for a long time, with a real, active and well-documented championing of human rights and the arts. His poetry is viewed as something he does in parallel, and harmless - though published by relatively mainstream presses. As far as I'm aware there's been little serious critical attention given to it (the pats on the back of the sure-isn't-he-great-writing-poems-too sort don't really count).

Isn't the very reason he has now been voted president of a state enough to make his words and how he has used them ripe to be scrutinised - harshly, if necessary? It's not OK for arts bodies, other poets etc just to publicise and celebrate the fact that they have a president who has also written poems. I hope, without holding my breath, that in publishing the "offending" article Carol Rumens and The Guardian end up causing a critical shift beyond their initial intention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unlike you, I was unfamiliar with Carol Rumens' work until I saw her "criticism" of Michael D. Higgins' poem in The Guardian on 1 November. I feel that it was the tenor of the piece, which was dismayingly dismissive and disparaging, and its timing that elicited the type of reaction that you describe. I was astonished to read that the writer of this short article is a Professor of Creative Writing, as the offering of less than 500 words contains errors in spelling and grammatical usage. Maybe that's what constitutes the creativity, or is it the vitriolic and vituperative tone that does so? It's certainly unlike any deconstruction of a poem that I have ever read before. I thought that I had mistakenly wandered onto the website of The Daily Mail. It would be unfair of me to base an evaluation of Ms. Rumens' literary criticism on this one piece. That would be akin to making an assertion that a published poet is not a poet, based on having read a single snippet of that person's work in the genre. The whole piece smacks of a rather territorial attitude and reads as if it was dashed off in ill-advised haste. Whoops, indeed!