From an unpublished series of essays
Radical: Forming the root, basis or foundation; going to the root, origin.
Radical: Of qualities – inherent in the nature or essence of a thing or person.
Radical: Of politics – one who holds the most advanced view of political reform on democratic lines, and thus belongs to the extreme section of the Liberal party 1802.
Shorter Oxford Dictionary
In the light of what I have said about an emotional response to the world (perhaps, it is the case that such a response is based on a moral understanding) and in light of the discussion of how that may have found its way into my work I want now to consider two words which have been used by others to describe my writing. The words are ‘radical’ and ‘celebratory’ and I want to conjoin them here in this context because, taken together, they seem to me to indicate a positive way of seeing and seeing is a fundamental element in making poetry. I propose here to tease out some of the implications that arise from these words, especially when they are considered together. I do not detect a tension between the two; rather, I find that they confer insight into a certain unity of moral purpose within the writing.
In an interview for the Linen Hall Review Damien Smyth brought up, in what I thought an interesting way, the question of a religious, ceremonial, celebratory and ritualistic element in my poetry:1
Q. In your poem ‘Her Recipe’, you describe a wake-house:
A white cloth;
A black cross; two candles;
A dish of oil;
A dish of salt.
I am interested in the connection of feeling between it and the poem, ‘In Another Room’, where:
…I beat the orange and white
Egg into pulp
…There is oil in the cupboard;
I’ll heat that and ease these scones into it
…While I toss in the white, sliced onions,
And a few pale-fleshed mushrooms,
There is no permanence in flesh.
Q. There is a definite ceremonial, almost religious feel here. How strong for you is the pull of ritual?
A. I think it is very strong but it must not be allowed to be strong without consideration, without thought. I think the rituals of one’s life that one makes and creates and gives credence to, are terribly important. But it is important not to take on board pre-fabricated rituals from outside.
Turning to the radical, Cahal Dallat considered some aspects of my work in his essay ‘Deep Rivers, Dry Houses: Some Radical Writers from the North West’. (The first four words of the title are taken from a song by James Simmons.) He said:
Burnside…has a sharp insight into the feelings that underlie many of the louder political posturings so often identified with Ulster, an insight into nonconformist but strictly conforming values, long dormant memories of radicalism, the relentless undercurrents of Calvinism and the rejection of the rootlessness that is so much a theme for Samuel Ferguson and John Hewitt. Burnside tackles those conflicts in the same quiet yet profound way that Hewitt pioneered, starting with self-knowledge, examining and adopting or adapting the older myths and legends and the lore of place and place-names, while cherishing what is good, decent and courageous in Ulster’s people. 2
He goes on:
Burnside’s heroes include James Hope, Wolfe Tone, Ferguson, Mary Ann McCracken, all those who represent radical Ulster and the spirit of Enlightenment that rose in the 1790s.
I take the term radical, as I understand its significance, to be one of commendation so I do not want to weaken its adjectival strength. I suspect that there are characteristics that are associated with the Presbyterian, Dissenter or Seceder traditions and culture, and that were carried to Ulster from Scotland in the eighteenth century – namely, a tendency towards schism and splintering and, above all, distrust of external or imposed authority and an adherence to conscience in all matters. Professor RL Marshall, who taught at Magee College, was brother to Marshall the Sperrins Mountain poet, and was one-time chairman of the board of the First Derry School. In 1942 he said:
Presbyterians could starve and die in the Siege of Derry and such service was permitted and even grudgingly acknowledged; but no Presbyterian was fit to be that city’s civic servant. All over the land they were called before the Bishops’ Courts for taking part in Presbyterian worship or Communion; their preachers were goaled and fined; some of their humble meeting-houses, built not by the State but by their own sacrifice, were levelled or boarded up; their children were branded as illegitimates, and their wives with an evil name… 3
For historical reasons Presbyterians (who with Anglicans and Roman Catholics make the three most enduring strands of Ulster society) view political or religious authority with suspicion and view any form of compromise with an equal suspicion. As John Dunlop has noted, ‘They are a difficult people to deal with’.4 In some ways their greatest strength, their determination to have their ‘particularity’ (the word is used by Dunlop) recognised and respected ¬ is, in other ways, also their greatest weakness. Dunlop goes on:
Anyone who thinks that these people from this tradition are going to be domesticated and turned into easy-going people who will agree to nearly anything, does not appreciate that the traditions which inform their lives have been with them for some hundreds of years. They will not be worn down into a uniformity which destroys their particularity.5
At one level, I must assume that I, too, share some of these characteristics, passed on in some form of cultural transmission that is best thought of as folk or community memory. (‘The Cathedral’ speaks of ‘seceders’ not being welcome and of ‘scarlet’ women; some of the short stories concerning the tension and suspicion between small farmers and government officials.) At another level, I see the Ulster Presbyterian experience both informing (its influence, for example, on American governance) and being part of a wider progress (a general and historically linear re-alignment of power within societies) of human culture and civilisation. However, nothing is automatic and the tensions between freedom and captivity, power and enslavement are ever present.
In an essay already quoted Maurice Healy engages in an examination of a radical, non-conforming element in my work. I want to quote from Healy at some length because I think he has usefully identified some of my concerns:
The idea of our continuous historical memory, for Burnside, is particularly strong when the United Irishmen and the adventure of 1798 are recalled. Their experiment in unity haunts many of the poems throughout Burnside’s published work. The poet is clear, however, that the spirit of past insurrections cannot be conjured with nor their ghosts summoned to appear before the jury of modern consciousness; but we can scrutinise the relevance of the principles they struggled to implement. There is no need for hermeneutics in order to understand their aspiration to apply universal criteria of freedom and fairness to the political economy of human society. These themes are keenly represented in some major works such as ‘The Cathedral’:
And our own John Hewitt
Channel and focus for wide
Opinion and rich debate
Or Mary Ann McCracken
Garnering learning from France
And knowledge from new industry
In her mind the two married
In pursuit of common good.
Elsewhere the symbols of protestant radicalism are mentioned. Burnside ties these symbols up with the land, husbandry, and language as real subterranean currents in northern Irish life:
That man in Tyrone who scratched out the shape
Then planted secretly the thistle’s form
Bordering his fields in green hedge foliage
An Ulster essay on the Jacobite cause
Written on soil using root, branch and leaf.6
All Burnside’s work and especially ‘The Cathedral’ echo the cause of the protestant radical tradition through the ages, its political principles of universal values. However, this tradition is also represented in a specific body of literature. Indeed, the Dictionary of Irish Literature reminds its readers that Burnside “is frequently described as ‘the truest heir’ to John Hewitt”. The same entry also remarks upon vigour of Burnside’s descriptions of landscape, ‘its savage beauties, its people, and the ubiquitous rumblings of the past.’7 If anything this is an understatement of the thematic compactness of these poems.
Fundamentally, Burnside calls for an intellectual engagement with the world, for a suspension of presupposition and unthinking platitude:
Each one of us here is poised to plead his, or her, Preserved place in the honeycombed ranks of truth.8
Although this poem is entitled ‘Hitch-Hiking With an Existentialist’, there is no sense of absurdity or meaninglessness; rather, it exhibits a sense of foundation and, perhaps, security. It is as if the Biblically based authority of Protestant realism – which is quietly questioned in other poems – has laid its own granite foundation in the poet’s mind. The poet describes a child gathering small shells and bits of wood from the shallows of Lough Swilly:
The whole universe is there in his hand; he can make it
Or he can break it. But first, he will understand and know it:
One piece of God’s creation confronting another. 9
It could be said that these three lines move respectively from ideas of microcosm to epistemology to theodicy; it could equally be said that they have adapted a concise formulation of farm life in rural Antrim to the poet’s world-view. Both statements are true.
There is a hint of protest embedded in what might be termed the ordinary understanding of the term ‘radical’ and without overstating it I do think that there is something of that in my poetry. For example, one day, without warning, workmen turned up in the grounds of Magee College in Londonderry and began to cut down the fine mature trees that formed an integral part of the college grounds. I was in the College on that day and joined with others in what was a spontaneous protest against the destruction of a wood of mature trees (forming a parkland laid out in the late nineteenth century):
Like a racket, the sound of the buzz saw
Draws us closer to where they have fallen:
Like Samsons sheared at the knees
These summer evening lovers lie
In sweet-scented greenery, they embrace,
For the first time, their own long shadows;
Each dry flat stump a disappointment
Inserted between desire and consummation.The words come bumbling after. The leather
Booted protesters trampling the weed, Love-
Lies-A-Bleeding. Planners and protesters
Locked in dispute can make nothing of it.
Across the grass the saw rattles. Each trunk, seduced
In turn by the blade, sprays out dry wood chips.10
The resulting poem responds to what I saw as the essential violence of the act. Brendan Kennelly in his essay ‘Poetry and Violence’ extends his discussion beyond ‘the ‘Northern Troubles’11 as that warfare is called’ to include mental and moral violence within relationships such as marriage and within societal processes such as education. I think there is another kind of violence, the violence that mindlessness commits upon the treasures of human achievement and the fruits of endeavour.12 The cutting down of trees may be seen as an act of violence, a rape of nature and is presented as such in this poem; a tree is a metaphor for life, a planned parkland a biological metaphor for an organically based culture that unites man and nature. To destroy such a thing, especially when it is part of an educational establishment, and when the purpose is to create car parking space, seems to call for reflection on our values. I cannot but be struck by the contradiction between the feelings of dismay experienced by those present that day and the vision for unfettered access to education articulated by the founders of the College:
No surly janitor shall stand at the gate to say to men of any denomination, ‘Here is a fountain of science and piety at which you may not drink.’ On the contrary, men of every creed and no creed, if they conform to the laws of order and decency, may attend its lectures and share its literary distinctions.13
I do not consider it ‘radical’ to contest every detail of every clause of every sentence or to rail against every action I happen to disagree with: that is not the point. My understanding of what the word ‘radical’ means leads me to a different conclusion. The word that most readily comes to mind when considering Primo Levi is ‘curiosity’, but it is a curiosity of a most oddly detached kind and curiously linked to courage. In this, Levi has an affinity of mind with the poet Lucretius: an ability to look at the bleakest of scenes and to find there, in the landscape, or in the looking, something to celebrate.
When Primo Levi published a personal anthology, The Search for Roots in 1981 he brought together under that title thirty pieces of writing that he considered essential reading. In the preface he says of his choices, ‘It is not my job to explain why…the reader who wishes can enter the passage and cast an eye on the ecosystem that lodges unsuspected in my depths, saprophytes, birds of the day and night, creepers, butterflies, crickets and fungi.’14
What one has to stand against is any kind of reductive force that might seek to impose conformity. Conformity even to a ‘radical’ position. The view I hold to might be characterised as centre-left, liberal humanist. However, I do not know what to call myself; I am not committed to any party or traditional ideology; I take comfort from Primo Levi’s ‘saprophytes, birds of the day and night, creepers, butterflies, crickets and fungi’ and from MacNeice’s ‘soundlessly collateral and incompatible’ world. In my view, the interconnectedness of things is a fundamental and the joy in finding that within the flux of life is an essential.
In his introduction to the book Peter Forbes says of Levi, ‘in a world saturated with knowledge and theory vendors, he quietly found his way to places no one else had discovered’, and from these he ‘reported back’ through his writing. He reported back from a place where, despite the possibility that we are alone in the universe, ‘the eternal problems, not only of knowledge but of practical living, are amenable to our reason.’15
Lucretius’s great achievement was to make a connection between the physical and the moral worlds: with superstition and irrational fears banished by scientific knowledge, men and women could lead a balanced life, enduring hardship without tormenting themselves even further with demented phantoms of the imagination, and in good times enjoying the delights that nature has provided. In Lucretius the world of sensation is a joy: it sings with the sights and sounds and feel of the world, with the spirit of animals enjoying their animality.16
It is simply that the radical, non-conformist and humanistic traditions seems to me to express something of human potential at its best – this is evidenced by individuals who, ‘casting a cold eye on life, on death’, have been consistently courageous and honest about the human place in the universe. This is the thread that runs from Lucretius through to my own work. My experience is, I am well aware, dimly perceived, viewed through the lens of my own time and place. It seeks to find the best in the world that we have, from the past we have inherited, and to create new things as we proceed onwards, growing and developing as human beings. In this, democratic, civil morality in the form of human relationships must be fostered and totalitarianism, of whatever degree or variety, resisted. It strikes me that, somewhere in the universe of a healthy human society, the regenerative power of the earth is critical; the sustaining and vital nature of the relationships between the human and natural worlds is paramount:
She watches him, his lovely arms bared,
Peeling away the birth coat, stripping
The foal of its wet, tight membrane
His thin, puncturing fingers
Groping again and again for the life-start;
She feels his lips wooing the foal to its feet,
She leans with him, blowing life into the mouths
Of newborn calves and lambs, she observes him
Lying, his shirt peeled away, his arm delved deep
Into the cold uncleanness of their well
Drawing out the black slime that lies there, unseen,
Thick and dark… 17
There is something in the physicality of the relationship that is of pivotal importance, something recognised here:
By twilight, by the light of the half moon, a fact
Light as thistle-down creeps in over the tiled floor
Stretches a revealing mulch over the lucid white-
Ness of the sink, inviting the light-headed to dance
On the polished floor, tempting the light-minded to tip
Hats before images dulled in the black-backed mirror.
Moon-glazed, the form and colour of text and crest dissolve.Outside, the chiselled letters fill with rainwater. 18
It is not my wish merely to find compromise between the “two tribes”, to order from the ‘either-or’ menu; to assert blame or to cry shame it is rather to try to assert that the people who make up the ‘two tribes’ can find alternative ways of living and of conducting their affairs. This should appeal to reason but, in many ways, there is a step beyond ‘reason’ and that involves utilizing the ability to apply imagination. I am on record as believing, ‘the creative imagination … is the key to a new civic order on this island.’19
In the interview mentioned above Smyth carried on:
Q. In ‘The Cathedral’ you write,
There is a law of accord to be obeyed;
Up or down there is no place for the dissenter
…The sign above each door states clearly
‘Seceders not welcome here’
In a poem like this, you broadcast your separation from what would be conventionally reckoned to be your tribe. There is a risk in that. Is it ultimately, do you think, the poet’s role to transgress or simply to acknowledge the transgression of others.
A. Well, I am also adopting a persona in that poem … I think that in terms of perception and of being able to perceive clearly, the poet has to be a transgressor … (the) activity itself is a transgression from the everyday, normal perception.
Q. In other works, the act of writing poetry itself is a transgression in the context of society. That strikes me as rather a passive sort of endeavour. Would you not see a need for poetry to transgress explicitly in what it is prepared to utter about community or tribe?
A. Well, it has to be assumed that we are talking about good poetry, about good art. It is a transgression, then.
I regard this as an unsatisfactory response to the question. But then the question is based on the premise that poetry should or must be ‘active’, that it must ‘transgress explicitly’. In further response to this, I would say that poetry should be dynamic so far as its internal life goes: that is where its significance may be found. Neither attack nor apology is an adequate goal for a poet.
We live apparently fragmented lives, confronted by divisions induced by outmoded ideologies that were constructed centuries ago, and within a cultural ecology that exists both inside and outside the individual. Seamus Heaney had recourse to a colloquial phrase ‘being in two minds’,20 indicating (in his case a fruitful) uncertainty. I first attempted to express this in 1990 and returned to the notion again in 2002.
…the clouds lifted and I saw Bedlam in your eyes
Alive and well inside your headUp here the look on your face changes
As the climate inside your head changes.
I am lightning and thunder, you say
Swim and swirl about your skull,
You want autonomy, you say,
You think that is being alone,
When we think in global, universal, humanistic terms we are all assembled on the foreshore, gathering driftwood, collecting kindling to keep ourselves warm against the coming night. I sympathise with the mind that perceived the fragile significance upon which this poem is built and I admire the courage of the writer:
I know the truth – give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it. 22
It is enough, for now, to appreciate the nature and essence of human experience, to find the courage to go forward and to celebrate both things. For me, something life-giving is present when the radical and the celebratory come together, forming two sides of the one coin.
1. Damien Smyth, ‘Defining the Inheritance’, interview with Sam Burnside, The Linen Hall Review, Vol. 6, Number 3, Winter 1989, pp. 5-9.
2. Cathal Dallat, ‘Deep Rivers, Dry Houses: Some Radical Writers from the North West’, The Glow Upon the Fringe, op. cit., p. 69.
3. Quoted in, John Dunlop, A Precarious Belonging; Presbyterians and the Conflict in Northern Ireland, (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1995), p. 26.
4. Ibid. p. 29.
6. Sam Burnside, The Cathedral, op. cit., p. 7.
7. R Hogan, ed., Dictionary of Irish Literature, (London: Aldwich Press, 1996), Vol. I, p. 205.
8. Sam Burnside, ‘Hitch-Hiking with an Existentialist’, Fahan Mura, op. cit., p. 21.
10. Sam Burnside ‘Inheriting the Earth’, first appeared in Gown Literary Magazine, Queen’s University, Belfast, August, 1989 and was reprinted in Review, the Magazine of Foyle Civic Trust, Issue 1, Spring 1990, p. 4.
11. Brendan Kernnelly, ‘Poetry and Violence’, Journey into Joy (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994), p. 33.
12. Great attention was given to the site for the new college and for the form of its architecture and the grounds on which it stood. From a speech delivered at the laying of the foundation stone of Magee College on 18 August 1856: ‘Having visited all the Scotch Colleges and the Queen’s Colleges in Ireland and also the Colleges that compose the University of Oxford, and many Colleges on the Continent, I am happy to say that in point of site the Derry College will excel them all.’ Cf. RFG Holmes, Magee 1865-1965, (Belfast: Theological College, 1965), p. 26.
13. Ibid. p. 27.
14. Primo Levi, The Search for Roots. A Personal Anthology, (London: Allen Lane, 2001), p. 5.
15. Ibid. p. viii.
16. Ibid. p. x.
17. Sam Burnside, The Cathedral, op. cit. p. 6.
18. Ibid. p. 5.
19. Sam Burnside, interview with Pol O Muiri, ‘If Walls Could Talk’, Irish Times, September 17, 1998.
20. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p. 202.
21. Sam Burnside, ‘Outside the City’, Walking the Marches, op. cit., p. 2.
22. Marina Tsvetayeva (1892 – 1941), Elaine Feinstein, Selected Poems, in 100 Poems from the Underground, (London: The Poetry Society/The British Council/The British Library, 1971).