What has been overlooked in the "controversy" over Kevin Kiely's review of Michael D Higgins' New and Selected Poems, published in the February 2012 issue of Books Ireland, is that in the same batch of reviews Kiely also responds rather dismissively to Maurice Scully's most recent volume A Tour of the Lattice (Veer Books, 2011). I have no issue with anybody reading any text in any way that they wish - and whether they find it wonderful or objectionable I'll defend their right to write or speak about it without fear or prejudice. It seems important, though, to point out that there have been no dissenting voices over the way Kiely has trashed Scully's latest book in the way that poets, broadcasters and official bodies have rallied to the poetic defence of (president) Higgins.
I have heard Maurice Scully being described as Dublin's, if not Ireland's, best living poet - and done so in no sycophantic or PR terms. It's a rather simplistic statement, of course, but it does show the esteem in which he is held in some quarters. I find his work clear-minded and exhilarating, and rewarding repeated reading. Scully retains a commitment to poetry-making as its own event: over more than three decades he has been writing poetry that consistently treats language and the way it is used as its primary means and reason, and he continues to pursue an experimentalist mode that requires the reader to leave behind any preconceptions about what poetry might be. This is something that has seen him eschew the poetic mainstream - which would largely go on to neglect him anyway in its requirement from its poets to moralise, or to present a clear narrative arc, or to be anecdotal, or to display cause and effect with a dash of nostalgia or whimsy. Therefore Scully's poetry can be too much, or too little, for many. He offers an indication, by example, of what poetry might do, and displays like few poets currently writing in Ireland connections between words and music, between verbal imagery, phrase-making and musical composition.
In his review, Kiely writes that "Scully's poems are based on former schools of poetry" and proceeds to give examples from the collection that appear to be echoes of Beckett or imitations of Cummings. He dismisses his methodology as "pour[ing] his content into old moulds while claiming new forms" and goes on to compare him unfavourably to Brian Coffey, while criticising him for "reproducing" typographical shape and layout from Dadaism and other earlier movements "a century and more later". Then, among more put-downs (some coherent, others less so) comes what is for me the essence of Kiely's problem with this book, and presumably with Scully's work in general: "His repetitious method is to patch together detail upon random detail in imitation of reality with the presumption of being identifier of reality, but the level of communication is far too low."
The level of communication is far too low: if this is an honest reading of Scully's work then there's no sense in arguing that it might be misguided or wrong. I often turn to Kevin Kiely's reviews in Books Ireland looking for a refreshing lack of concern with pandering to Ireland's poetic community and its egos, and find myself amused by the bother his comments might - and sometimes do - generate: there's a definite need to upset the old apple cart far more regularly, and Kiely has recently been performing this role with reasonable success. If, as has been argued, a bad review from him has become a "badge of honour", then I expect to see his dismissive words appearing as endorsements on poetry books - though as yet I haven't found much evidence of that.
Nevertheless, I begin to perceive in his reviews a cozy acceptance of his role as critical agitator, as if he has begun to read his material with a relish for creating controversy for the sake of it. His language seems lazy and haphazard, and his arguments, previously generally valid, now increasingly shaky. These tendencies are of course counter-productive: in persisting with them reviewers can miss the gist of books by seeking to ferret out and attack weaknesses that may after all exist only in a stretched-out theoretical framework perhaps not quite relevant to the work at hand.
It seems that Kiely has read Scully's book with his ears (in particular) and his other senses shut. In his zeal to intellectually lacerate it he has forgotten how to take pleasure in the sounds and tastes and smells with which Scully's poetry is replete. He has ignored the fact that A Tour of the Lattice is a selection of previously published work, that it represents a window into the long book sequence Things That Happen. And if he really wants to test originality of approach, wide-of-the-guard sensibility, or concerns of a literary or political nature, he will find plenty of material to work with - provided he looks closely enough. Unfortunately, in (not unjustly) seeking to rubbish much of the poetry being published in Ireland, he is succumbing to the trap of dismissing some of the gems among it.
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