Remembering Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West

Michael Hartnett was an esteemed poet from a young age, but his assurance about his creative destiny had its dangers.  In the following edited essay, first published in The Irish Times on February 16th, 2009,  MICHAEL SMITH recalls a significant artist whose early death at 58 on the 13th of October, 1999 can be viewed as an accident of time and place.  

The author, Michael Smith himself, poet and Aosdána member, passed away in November 2014. His contribution to the arts as a teacher, poet, editor, translator and publisher cannot be overstated.  He had a profound impact on the Irish literary scene. He has been described as a classical modernist, a poet of modern life. Born in Dublin in 1942, Michael Smith was the founder of New Writers’ Press in 1967 and had been responsible for the publication of over 100 books and magazines. He was keen to promote the modernist tradition in Irish poetry, publishing the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Anthony Cronin,  and Michael Hartnett, among others.

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As with many relationships, even the most intimate, it is often extremely difficult to pinpoint the original meeting. I can only say that it was in the early stage of our enrolment in UCD that I first met Michael Hartnett. I cannot recall the circumstances of that first meeting. I can’t even remember what academic subjects Michael had chosen. What I do remember is that James Liddy (and perhaps John Jordan) had agreed to pay his first year’s fees. So the lad from Newcastle West in Co Limerick was indeed going to receive some patronage. This patronage was bestowed purely on the strength of his poetry. Michael was recognised as a gifted poet from a relatively early age, and quite rightly so.

Michael almost never attended a lecture, so far as I recall. I was little better myself. The whole novelty of being university students was more than enough for both of us. Study was for others. Unlike Michael, I was deeply rooted in my Dublin working-class background, whereas, for Michael, Dublin was a kind of playground, despite his Limerick working-class background. But that working-class background was something we shared.

I think Michael had no other ambition than to be a poet. I think he gave little thought to how he would survive financially in the future. Was he feckless in this regard? Probably. Did he come to Dublin with the naivety of Kavanagh, expecting wonderful things? I doubt it. He didn’t have that innocence. On the other hand, he wasn’t cynical. John Jordan and James Liddy had accepted him as a gifted poet. The future was in the lap of the Muse.

What memories I have of him are selective, like all memories, I suppose. Often we would walk home together after a drinking session in McDaid’s, where we were usually treated to drinks by James Liddy and his friend, Patrick Clancy. Patrick Kavanagh was still holding vociferous court there at the time. Michael had already had his first confrontation with Kavanagh in the Bailey at the launch of the first issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by John Jordan and published by the Dolmen Press. That confrontation is too notorious to need detailed repetition. Michael made an adverse comment on Kavanagh’s poem (to Kavanagh himself, although Michael didn’t know who he was) that begins: “I am here in a garage in Monaghan.” Kavanagh’s reaction was violent, upturning a table full of drinks.

Michael was living in digs in a cul-de-sac off the North Strand, so our walk home often overlapped. I recall him voicing his strong disapproval of Kavanagh’s raucous behaviour in McDaid’s, saying that if anyone in Newcastle West behaved like that, he would be barred from the pub, and why should a poet be made an exception of.

He had great admiration for Yeats, though, oddly, not so much as a poet but as a businessman. He admired Yeats’s business acumen.

In his digs, under the bed, Michael had a small brown cardboard suitcase which he opened for me once to show me a huge quantity of beautifully scripted poems. I sometimes wonder what happened to all of this material.

There were, of course, other young poets in UCD at the time: Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Brian Lynch, Eamon Grennan, Malachy Higgins, to mention just a few names that come to mind.

In the case of the first three, and including myself, James Liddy was undoubtedly the extraordinarily generous mentor, with John Jordan a reserved encourager.

Of all of us, it was Michael who was held in the highest esteem by both John and James. And that esteem was well-deserved, for Michael arrived in Dublin as an already accomplished poet who was not looking for, nor needing any, teachers in the art of poetry. Much has been made of Lorca’s influence on Michael, largely because of his later version of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, but really it has more to do with the precocity of the early work of both poets.

I have never met any poet who was more assured of himself as a poet than Michael was. It was his destiny. All else seemed of secondary importance. But however impressed by that I was, I sensed a danger in it, recalling Wordsworth’s lines in his poem “Resolution and Independence”:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof come in the end, despondency and madness.

I knew, and indeed Michael knew, that there was no money in poetry (Kavanagh had learnt that years before) and that he would have to earn his living at some stage in the future – but he seemed unconcerned by this. Writing poetry was a lifetime’s work, regardless. I sometimes think that a lot of Michael’s problems of later years came from that dedication. Yes, he did later earn his living in the international telephone exchange on Andrews Street, but he found it boring and was only too glad to escape from it (even during working hours) and head for O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street to drink pints with some other of his escapee colleagues from the exchange.

And Michael was good company, a wonderful raconteur, witty, and possessing a fund of knowledge of all sorts of arcane subjects. He had an extraordinary memory. Yet always it was as the poet that he was treated, in whatever company he found himself. That was the identity he had chosen or had been chosen for him. I think he never abandoned that. And therein lay a danger, the same sort of danger that beset Dylan Thomas, for one cannot always be a poet. There has to be a life apart from being a poet, at least for poets without personal financial resources or the resources of a generous benefactor. Ezra Pound had his wife’s money behind him, and also financial support from his doting father. Neither Michael nor Dylan Thomas had anything of the sort.

For Thomas there was the horrible scrounging and, later, the equally horrible American readings. For Michael, after his stint in the exchange, there was very little, and he seemed to live a hand-to-mouth existence, even when later he returned to Newcastle West with his wife, Rosemary, and their two children. Later, a cnuas from Aosdána came in useful, and some prizes he won and some royalties he managed to squeeze out of publishers.

To attempt to be a professional poet in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a recipe for trouble. The days of the literary salons, such as Æ’s, were well and truly over. That left the pub, which unfortunately became Michael’s court, where he met his admirers who provided him with the kind companionship he needed, treating him to drinks and accepting him as a poet.

Was there anything else he might have done, any alternative? There was not at the time any such thing in Ireland as a poet in residence. So Michael made do with what was available.

A poet is not like a novelist who must toil daily and for long hours if he or she is to be productive. For the poet, the Muse is fickle and her visits are not on demand. So the poet must wait, never sure what the future holds for his work. When his own lyrical gift began to fail (though not until he had written some of the best poems written by an Irish poet in his time), Michael turned to translations from the Irish, translation always being a good means of keeping one’s skills honed.

Why did Michael turn to writing his own poetry in Irish? I think that this, too, was part of his attempt to be accepted socially as a professional poet. After all, in the old Gaelic order there had been such an acceptance. That order, however, was long gone and could never be recovered. After his early-evening court sessions in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, his admirers (often cultivated and literary civil servants) would head off to their respectable homes in the suburbs, leaving Michael as an abandoned court jester (which, in due course, he was becoming). Let it be said that there was no malice in this among those who patronised Michael with drink and small loans of money. But they had families at home and a job to do the next day.

Michael’s early death, whatever the medical causes, can be viewed as an accident of time and place. In a sense, he was a martyr to poetry. Gifted, even a genius, but nonetheless a martyr. If only . . . It’s useless now to ponder such possibilities.

MichaelHartnett

An Enthralling Companion….

"I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special."
“I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special.”

 

Dermot Bolger movingly remembers his friend the poet Michael Hartnett who died 16 years ago this month.  This is an edited version of a commemorative piece which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th 2005.

In Ireland there is nothing better for making new friends than an early death and, because in death Michael Hartnett has acquired so many friends, I should firstly say that I didn’t know him well enough to claim any special friendship.  I was far younger than him and even though I edited and published three of his books I never lost my awestruck sense of being privileged to be in his company.  I was a sensation I felt as a young man on the first night we met and a sensation I still experienced on the last morning he phoned me some weeks before his death on October 13th 1999.

The first book of poems I bought, while still a schoolboy, was the small New Writers Press 1970 edition of Michael’s Selected Poems.  On the cover he looks little more than a schoolboy himself.  That book had a huge effect on me and remains among my most precious possessions.  I first met Michael around 1980 when I ran literature events  in the ramshackle building housing  Dublin’s Grapevine Art Centre.  John F Deane had bravely established a new organisation called Poetry Ireland, and Michael travelled from Limerick to give a benefit reading for it. his opening words to me were to inquire if I knew of a bed for the night, and my opening words to somebody whom I viewed as a hero was to offer him one in Finglas.

It was after midnight when we reached Finglas but Macari’s chipshop remained open on Clune Road.  Years later in Inchicore Haiku Michael wrote:

In local chippers

Queueing for carbohydrates

A dwarfed people.

We queued for our late-night carbohydrates.  Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work.  My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop.  He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism.  The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.

In 1984 I wound up sitting in a pub between Michael and Michael Smith, who had published that earlier Selected Poems.  Both Michaels became emphatic that not only should I re-issue  the long out-of-print Selected Poems, but that the new volume should include every English language poem he had written up to and including his Farewell to English.  Michael Hartnett assured me not to worry about copyright issues, he would take care of that.  I was young and naïve, but even in my innocence I should have been slightly worried when he explained how he cleared copyright permission for his wonderful translations of Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads.  He phoned Lorca’s brother in New York, explained that he was once deported from Franco’s Spain and after he had read aloud one translation the voice at the other end said, “Spread the word”!

Within a few months I was sitting down in his small cottage in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, near Newcastle West in Limerick going through old suitcases of poems with Michael and discovering material either never published or published once in magazines and then forgotten.  I spent two of the most memorable days of my life there working on Volume 1 of his Collected Poems and still like to recall Michael as he was then.

After the executions of the Easter Rising leaders in 1916, a British Army officer declared that while they all died like men, Thomas McDonagh died like a prince.  Wandering with Michael through Newcastle West or sitting down to eat  with his family, I felt a similar sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community which he loved and understood, was also marked apart as special.

But soon the world that I had glimpsed in Newcastle West was to implode.  Alone in Ireland while his family visited Australia, Michael seemed to drift irredeemably into the engulfing tide of alcohol that had always been a problem.  Aware that he had the proofs for me of some translations, I tracked his progress across Ireland and finally located him and the proofs in Dublin.  He handed me the proofs carried for weeks in his inside pocket and, ever the optimist, asked if by any chance I could loan him €5,000.

At that time the entire assets of Raven Arts Press consisted of a leaking gas heater and a cat, so I brought him for lunch instead and then to a double-bill of afternoon films.  The first – Ruben Ruben – was a comedy about a poet with a drink problem on a reading tour in America.  Michael chuckled through it.  The second – Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish – was shot entirely in moody black and white.  The only object filmed in colour was a solitary fighting fish in a glass tank.  Leaving the cinema and knowing that I could keep him from the pub no longer, I commented to Michael on this cinematic trick.  Michael gripped my arm  and, with the relief of a man who had known the delusional tricks of delirium tremens, whispered, “Oh thank God, you saw the fish too.”

Soon he was living in a bedsit in Inchicore with his marriage over.  His face, which had never aged, was suddenly old.  His chief defence against fate remained his sense of humour.  I brought him over some small sum of money for something.  There were virtually no possessions in that room where he had started writing the Haiku sequence that broke his silence in English.  But his sense of hospitality would not let me leave empty-handed.  He asked if I possessed a copy of the tiny 1969 edition of his poem The Hag of Beare and insisted on giving me the only copy he still possessed – Number 1 of that precious numbered edition.

He brought the manuscript of Inchicore Haiku to my small office in Phibsborough, driven over by two new Inchicore friends with impenetrable Dublin accents.  We launched it in the Richmond House in Inchicore, a whirlwind night.  But if that was a celebratory night in a crowded pub, which cloaked his personal pain displayed in the book, I saw far less happy occasions for him in Dublin pubs in the following years.  I know of nothing romantic about drink and the damage it does.  I do know that his new partner, Angela Liston, prolonged his life and brought some stability to a man now gripped by addiction.

His publishing affairs became complicated and so I drew up a contract between us, giving him back all rights to his work on condition that I acquired non-exclusive rights to his cheese-grater joke: “A man gives his blind friend a cheese-grater for Christmas, meets him in January and asks if he liked his present.  ‘No’, the friend replied, “I tried to read it but it was just too violent.’”

Occasionally after that, he would phone for a chat.  On the last morning he phoned, he told me how he had recently visited one of the men who drove him to my office years before.  The man was dying of cancer, his mouth covered by an oxygen mask, and he grew upset because the words he kept trying to say were indistinguishable.

Michael leaned over and said: “I know you’re upset because you’re dying and I can’t understand what you are saying, but I must tell you that with your accent, even when you were well I could never understand a word you said anyway.”

The man gave up trying to speak and laughed instead.  It takes courage to make a dying man laugh, but Michael Hartnett had courage in spades.  Courage, stubbornness and demons.  I had no idea he was soon to die, but something made me tell him that one of the proudest moments of my life – something I could unreservedly look back on as truly worthwhile – was editing his Collected Poems.

He accepted the compliment, told me his latest joke and then recited an extraordinary raw and heart-felt poem he had written for Angela Liston.  It was the last time I heard his voice and I can hear it still, with his laugh at the end which contained all that pain, humanity and unbroken dignity:

                                    I have been kicked around the place

                                    Been mocked and been pissed on

                                    But I find my way home to you, Angela Liston

                                    And my wrinkled, anxious forehead

                                    Amazingly has been kissed on

                                    And I am blessed by you Angela Liston.

He died on October 13th, 1999.  His Complete Poems and Translations  have since been superbly edited and published by Peter Fallon and The Gallery Press.  When I last passed through Newcastle West I stopped at dawn in Maiden Street where he was reared.  It was deserted but every shop window had a poster for Éigse Michael Hartnett, with his haunting quizzical eyes staring out.  Those eyes and that voice haunt me still.

".. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out."
“.. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out.”