Countries Parting Ways Like Lovers

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

We have been lost without Marianne. The equilibrium of argument and opinion in our little coterie is askew. We haven’t experienced deadlock or actual ill feeling, but a certain dynamism has departed, and the disagreements that used to drive our decision-making have been replaced by diffidence.

Dimitri, who developed the strongest rapport with Marianne, has proposed a potential replacement, a specialist in colonial literature, who – from her academic perch in Banjul – has sent us a rather entertaining analysis of a poem by John Betjeman. Submitted for publication, it has also served as a sort of job application.

The choice of poem is perhaps a tad eccentric. The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellman in 1922 may not be everyone’s Betjeman cup of tea. It’s about a romantic path not taken: the poet unsparingly observes the wisdom and rightness of a rejection. This might conventionally have been rendered with the utmost melancholy and book-ended with a dying fall – but Betjeman goes at it at a hundred miles an hour.

Oh! The fighting down of passion!

Oh! The century-seeming pain –

Parting in this off-hand fashion

In Dungarvan in the rain.

‘That’s a gnat’s whisker away from doggerel,’ Kim said with uncharacteristic vigour.

The Dungarvan in the rain trope ends each of the five verses, which are dense with closely observed and creatively communicated detail – something our prospective colleague dealt with succinctly in her analysis.

Patrice wasn’t persuaded by her argument that the poem is about Britain and Ireland. The woman’s ‘golden hair’ described in the first stanza appears again at the end, as ‘streaming gold’. Her smile is “slow and sad” and her eyes are ‘slanting blue’.

‘She’s just a woman,’ he said. ‘She isn’t a whole country.’

‘Isn’t that a bit literal, Patrice?’ Dimitri asked. Sometimes Dimitri’s tone is more sarcastic than sardonic.

‘The country and the woman cannot be treated separately,’ Kim said. ‘Betjeman was threatened with assassination when he was posted to Dublin as a British diplomat in the 1940s. He sets the scene in 1922 – which offers a rather sinister context. Consider:

Gusts of Irish rain are sweeping

Round the statue in the square;

Corner boys against the walling

Watch us furtively in vain,

 I completed (no doubt redundantly) the rest of the verse:

 And the Angelus is calling

Through Dungarvan in the rain.

‘It’s a description of two people,’ Kim said, ‘but also a country at a particular stage in its history – immediately after separation from Britain.’

‘Which is the author’s point,’ Dimitri said.

‘She doesn’t make the point in a very rigorous way,’ Patrice sniffed.

‘I think she examines key themes very . . . competently.’ I might have chosen something more fulsome than ‘competently’.

‘Can you tell us more about her?’ Patrice asked.

‘She’s been in prison,’ Dimitri said.

There was across the Zoom-sphere a great silence, until Patrice asked, ‘Prison?’

‘She led a protest,’ Dimitri explained. ‘She got some of her students to follow her from the university down to the centre of town where they picketed the bus station.’

‘The bus station?’

‘The protest was about bus fares.’

And so, we considered the lady from Banjul’s choice of poem in a new light. Perhaps her perspective on a doomed love affair in the very south of the south of Ireland in 1922 was illuminated by experiences different from ours.

‘The metre is all wrong, though,’ Kim said, wrenching the discussion back to the mechanics of verse. ‘Once he sets off from the opening couplet, he simply can’t slow down. It’s a high-speed elegy for lost love – and speed doesn’t mix with heartbreak.’

‘It is the metre of a rainy afternoon,’ I said.

‘In a rainy country,’ Patrice added.

‘It’s about love in a cold climate,’ Dimitri said.

‘And our colleague from Banjul has thoroughly analysed the underlying themes,’ Kim acknowledged. ‘I do disagree with her conclusions, but I’d be happy to take that up with her in person.’

‘As would I,’ Dimitri said.

Patrice seconded.

‘Then, we have a new member of the team,’ I said.

After this, with a sense of considerable contentment, we moved on to other business.


New Subscribers!

Albus McInerney edits a literary magazine.

In 1914, WB Yeats published a poem entitled To a Wealthy Man Who Promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if It Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures. It argues that art resides in a place above and beyond public taste and should be supported on its own merits – regardless of the popular will. Yeats’s aesthetic preoccupations were not ideally timed, as many were concerned in 1914 and in the years immediately afterwards with social and political issues that may have appeared more pressing. And in any case “the wealthy man” addressed in the title ignored the poem, while an entirely different wealthy man, imagining himself to be the subject, became an enemy of Yeats and launched a newspaper campaign against the Municipal Gallery.

Poetry, then, can have a somewhat scattershot impact (if it has any impact at all) and unintended consequences. A better known example of poetic misdirection is Every Breath You Take, the song that propelled The Police to global popularity in 1983. Generally taken as a catchy expression of loving commitment, it was written as a bitter meditation on psychotic possessiveness – and when you look at it in that light, I’ll be watching you comes over as less than cuddly and romantic.

I note these things in light of something that has mystified Patrice and me – and not in a bad way. More people are subscribing to our magazine.

Our circulation is moving from modest to slightly less modest. In the great scheme of things, where Instagram influencers are followed by millions and a single tweet can move markets, our subscription uptick is something of a blip (though it’s our blip and we intend to make the most of it). We are speaking about hundreds, not hundreds of thousands, of new readers.

Our sales graph has moved in the right direction just as graphs showing the spread of the pandemic are moving in the wrong direction, especially in countries where some thoughtless citizens and many disagreeable leaders have apparently abandoned common sense concerns about public health.

So, we can only conclude that in periods of crisis, things like poetry and fiction and art and film become more rather than less important – an argument that would certainly have gratified Yeats. This would explain the remarkable popularity of operas and musicals and plays that have (of necessity) been taken out of the theatre and repackaged for the internet. It’s not just because technology allows millions to watch Claire Foy and Matt Smith at the Old Vic online that their socially distanced drama has been a hit. It’s because in present circumstances drama is a salutary balm for the troubled soul.

Patrice takes the view that our new subscribers are seeking solace, and our next issue should therefore offer an alternative to uncomfortable reality.

But I think if readers are flocking to our magazine (and, yes, I know the connotations of amplitude in that verb may verge upon poetic licence of the irresponsible, perhaps even gratuitously misleading sort) in a time of global insecurity, we should take a more Yeatsian approach, and offer a measure of meditation on the difficulties as well as the consolations of the human condition. The point of the Dublin Municipal Gallery, in WB’s view, was to challenge

. . . what the blind and ignorant town

Imagine best to make it thrive.

It was to try and educate, rather than simply reflect the prejudices and preoccupations of public opinion.

The blind and ignorant town has not been absent from debates over how to protect ourselves and others from contact of the contagious sort. Facebook has been abuzz with dispiriting vignettes of people – particularly people in the United States – refusing on peculiar grounds to wear masks. Some of them have cited Big Brother concerns that few apparently identified in Sting’s cautionary tale about every breath you take and every move you make. Perhaps we can offer our subscribers, not an alternative reality but one in which today’s imperfect reality, complete with its flat-earthers, is better understood.

We need poetry that takes account of – but rises above – the vacuous inanity of dim but opinionated individuals who have managed to place themselves within reach of a municipal microphone. Perhaps lines, To the Lady Who Said She Would Not Wear a Mask for the Same Reason She Does Not Wear Underwear, ‘Because Things Gotta Breathe’.

Free Speech and the Principles of Poetry

Dimitri, our friend from the Balkans, has sent us an ode that is elegant and effective but which Patrice feels may be tinged with chauvinism, possibly toxically so. The poem is a series of deft vignettes about Balkan characters. The sixteen six-line stanzas are lively and well-observed.

But then there’s the chauvinism.

It sits like an unscanned line in a new translation of the Odyssey (and who among us hasn’t been jolted out of the ancient Aegean by just such an unexpected lapse?)

There is, of course, the standard defence that art is, or at least ought to be, above politics – Wagner: horrible ideas, sumptuous music etc., etc.

Except that it’s not above politics. We can’t claim on the one hand that poetry is relevant and then pretend we are too precious to be held to account for the opinions expressed (or hinted at) in a bundle of rhyming couplets.

So, Patrice has a point.

And yet . . .

We could be blundering into a new kind of puritanism. If we ban this portrait of Balkan life on the grounds that the characterizations in one or two cases tend towards stereotypes (objectionable not because they are negative but because they are stereotypes) then what else will we ban? Anything that Patrice and I don’t like? Anything that doesn’t correspond to our inclusive view of the world? To do that would be to make our own morality the standard for everyone else.

There is the free-speech view (to which I instinctively gravitate). We may not agree with what this fellow says, but we’ll defend to the death his right to say it, etc., etc.

Or the rather more ethereal defence – that the quality of the art redeems the views expressed therein. But I can’t buy this at all. The dalliance with various types of chauvinism that were casually advanced by celebrated literary lions of the 1920s and 30s can’t be wished away on the grounds that they had a wonderful turn of phrase. If it is true that after the Holocaust there can be no art, then it’s equally true that before the Holocaust, artists should have shown a bit more moral fibre.

And in many cases, one could argue, the seeds of later folly grew naturally out of earlier achievement. Yeats found terrible beauty in the sacrifice of soldiers and civilians at Easter 1916 and moved less than two decades later rather easily into mild sympathy for a very Irish sort of fascism. Perhaps the corruption was already evident in the transcendent and widely acclaimed poetry of the 1920s eulogising violence.

Art undoubtedly imitates life. And life undoubtedly is messy.

But none of this lets Dimitri off the hook. There’s tolerance and empathy and plenty of artists have championed these sturdy pillars of civic decency even in the most torrid of times.

Dimitri is an asset to our magazine – he is clever and energetic and original – but I’m inclined to exercise an editorial veto here. He can send us another poem, one that doesn’t deal with people as though they’re all the same because they come from the same community. Chauvinism is chauvinism, even when it’s wrapped up in fine lines and caesuras.

If he takes umbrage, we’ll know that the problem in this piece is more than a lapse. And if he doesn’t, we’ll know that we travel on the same broad road.

Patrice will be pleased, I think. He’s been preoccupied of late with the need to take a stand for fundamental human values. Living in Hongkong, he is inclined to view principle as the last bastion of the righteous. The bastion in this case being there to protect freedom of speech and other freedoms from the overbearing reach of the mainland authorities. The mandarins in Beijing are philosophically indisposed, of course, to tolerating independent thought.

Yet, when I think about that, I come back to the question of Dimitri.

And I am in a quandary again.

Boys and Girls

Kim, our friend from Peoria, joined the conference call late and apologized, as people sometimes do, profusely and at a length that rendered the apology more disruptive than the lateness.

‘I had to wait for ages at the store,’ Kim said, ‘and with social distancing the line went round the corner, and some guy cut in ahead and there was shouting, and security were in the parking lot.’

I wondered about the detailed description – which came by way of excusing an interruption. I was at the same time intrigued by a captivating, if gratuitous, glimpse of American life.

‘There was a shooting?’ Dimitri asked.

Either Dimitri believes that every altercation in front of a US supermarket ends with weapons drawn, or he had misheard ‘shouting’ for ‘shooting’ or ‘lot’ for ‘shot’.

And then he added, ‘Can’t you people settle anything peacefully?’

When Dimitri and Kim first met last year – at a seminar in Brussels organized by one of those Francophone organizations mandated to spread bonne volonté around the globe – they hit it off. They share an enthusiasm for the Belgian Symbolists and dragged us all to a boite behind Lemonnier to drink absinthe.

So, I gathered that Dimitri’s question was intended to amuse rather than offend.

‘The pot calling the kettle black,’ Marianne said, taking offence, apparently, in case Kim chose not to.

Marianne and Dimitri do not get along (she was not one of the party at the Brussels boite).

‘Shall we move on?’ Patrice asked.

‘I meant only that some parts of Europe rival the United States in the matter of trigger-happy citizens,’ Marianne said, not moving on.

Dimitri was – I am almost certain – being ironic, but Marianne is an earnest sort. She would, I fear, be comfortable with irony only if it were a symposium topic – Irony and the Ramifications of the Patriarchy, perhaps.

‘There wasn’t any shooting,’ Kim explained.

‘Excellent!’ I said, as though expressing collective and very heartfelt relief. ‘You hadn’t missed much. We are about to review Jasmin’s poem.’

Written by one of Dimitri’s most promising students, the poem, slated for pages 16 and 17 of the latest issue, contains the slightest hint of what may or may not be chauvinism.

‘I’m agnostic on the stereotyping,’ Kim said, displaying a commendable capacity to get to the point that had, I felt, been absent earlier.

‘What is your objection, Albus?’ Dimitri asked, in the manner of a professor challenging a slightly irritating tutorial student – affable but ready to pounce.

‘Perhaps Patrice . . .’ I replied with that species of awkward prevarication for which the adjective pusillanimous was invented. Patrice was the one who first raised the chauvinism issue, so it seemed to me appropriate that he should make the case.

‘My objection, Dimitri, is that the poem paints a picture of one particular group as though every member of that group were the same.’ Patrice said.

‘Like assuming all French people are fond of smelly cheese?’ Dimitri chuckled.

The conference lit up – electrified by a ray of indignation from Marianne.

‘But why wouldn’t we allow this to be said?’ Dimitri continued quickly.

A lesser literary pugilist might have carried on punching, but Dimitri knew better. The silence that filled the ether seemed somehow to make his argument for him.

‘We are committed to . . . an elevated view of human nature,’ Patrice remarked at last.

‘We could be sued!’  Kim said – making a characteristically north American reference to litigation that rather supported at least one stereotype.

Then Marianne surprised me.

‘Dimitri is right,’ she said. ‘The poem is effective. It expresses an authentic voice of anguish, even if it does so with a sometimes broad brush.’

Another silence, until broken by Dimitri’s voice: ‘That is very gracious. Thank you, Marianne.’

‘Albus, you have the deciding vote,’ Patrice said.

Damn! My natural habitat is very much on the nearest serviceable fence.

‘Well,’ I began, ‘I have been torn . . . Jasmin’s work certainly . . .’ I struggled for words.

Marianne was more direct. ‘She has put her finger on the pulse of the patriarchy!’ The alliteration was intentional, no doubt; but the pronoun was misplaced.

‘That is true,’ Kim said, about the patriarchy, apparently, rather than the pronoun.

I waited for Dimitri to clarify. But again he was silent.

‘Let’s publish the piece then,’ I said.

What is the point of poetry if it doesn’t undermine assumptions from time to time?

In due course Marianne will grasp that Jasmin is a boy. Perhaps Dimitri will enlighten her.

The Wrong Conversation

Clearly, the metrical innovation of mid-nineteenth century narrative verse is a bit of a minefield, particularly when you take into account the deconstructionist shenanigans of the 1970s, so, I found myself wondering about the Longfellow piece. Patrice, characteristically, had no qualms.

‘If you’re not prepared to take risks,’ he said ‘then the cut and thrust of literary discourse is not for you!’ He uttered the words with a sort of gentle melancholy, knowing, I think, that I would rise to the bait.

‘Then I’ll schedule a call with Doctor Parnell,’ I said.

Patrice is in Singapore, I am in Spain and Doctor Parnell is in the western United States, so scheduling was an issue, but we settled in due course for eight o’clock in Los Angeles, five o’clock in Madrid, and eleven o’clock in Singapore. Doctor Parnell would have to get up early; Patrice would stay up late and I wouldn’t have to do anything at all.

The moment Doctor Parnell came into view I sensed that the interview was to take an unexpected, perhaps even a bracing turn. Doctor Parnell was wearing rather striking eye shadow: indigo blue, I think. Her eyebrows were similarly assertive: they were painted a dark, shiny black and they rose to a point above her nose where they almost touched, like dislocated angel’s wings, or the carefully arranged tips of symmetrical autumn leaves. Her hair was arranged in a precipitous bun at the top of her head, kept in place by a bright yellow bandana. In addition to being about twenty-five years younger than her academic record – or, indeed, her prose style – would have suggested, Doctor Parnell was, to be blunt, disconcertingly glamorous.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ she demanded. ‘I’ve been waiting a whole hour!’

‘Hello, Doctor Parnell!’ Patrice began. ‘It is a great pleasure to meet you at last!’

I gathered that is what Patrice had intended to say before the doctor made her robust foray into the teleconference – and he had simply gone ahead and said it anyway. A film specialist, Patrice’s knowledge of cinema is prodigious; his knowledge of the world – not so much.

‘I got up early for this!’ Doctor Parnell said, ‘and you guys are an hour late!’

I wondered how I could possibly have miscalculated the time difference.

‘I do apologise,’ I said, concluding instantly that my supine tone rendered this a capitulation rather than an apology. I hadn’t mistaken the time.

‘About the work,’ she said, getting to the business at hand with breath-taking despatch, ‘how much are you going to pay?’

Patrice is undoubtedly more at home when musing on literary outliers: he was not the man to judge a correlation between advertising income and an article on mid-nineteenth century poetry. Doctor Parnell, I could only assume, was similarly adrift from the harsh realities of the market if she imagined a literary magazine might pay a sum worth discussing. We are very much in the Great Tradition that equates the spiritual rewards of the writing life with material penury.

‘We had thought we might begin by talking about your thesis,’ I said. ‘It’s certainly original!’

Doctor Parnell in her paper had advanced the view that Longfellow had made significant stylistic borrowings from the less well known early 19th century New England poet, H W Dangerfield.

‘My thesis?’ she said. ‘Do you want to do this or not?’

Patrice giggled. ‘Touché, madame!’ Patrice becomes more Gallic when he is rattled. ‘But we are an academic publication!’ he added, as though this were the killer argument. ‘We must observe a degree of . . . rigour!’

‘I charge the market rate,’ Doctor Parnell replied, a tad sourly, I felt.

Is this an imaginary market, I thought, but I didn’t say this. Instead, I said, ‘Doctor Parnell, we are not entirely sure that the parameters of your argument would find a ready audience, at least among our readers.’

‘Are you guys for real,’ she said.

At the top right-hand corner of the screen I saw that a new participant was asking to join the conversation. The name at least was familiar. I granted access.

‘Good morning!’ the new arrival said in a cheery, slightly patrician voice.

‘Who’s this?’ Doctor Parnell asked.

‘Your namesake, I believe,’ I said.

‘Doctor Parnell,’ I continued, addressing the younger of the two doctors. ‘Remind me of your specialist credentials.’

‘It’s all written down in the prospectus – coding, web design, digital marketing,’

‘Quoi?’ Patrice asked. I do not believe I have ever seen him revert so precipitously to his inner Gaul.

‘I believe we are in the wrong conversation,’ I told the tyro online marketing whizz. ‘You are speaking to the editors of “On Lines”, a poetry portal.’

‘Poetry!’ She uttered the word as though it were unsavoury.

‘You liked the Longfellow piece?’ asked the other Doctor Parnell still cheery.

Patrice, I think, would have lingered. He wanted to discuss a marketing plan with the digital doctor, since fate had delivered a rather exotic brand of expertise to our otherwise settled world, but she cut him off and hurried away to locate the people she had been scheduled to speak to.

Such are the perils of business in the age of Zoom.