Wednesday 21 March 2018

Prophets may be weeping, but I think the poets are too

The President's new poem lacks religious and political reality

Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins
Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins

Emer O'Kelly

There's been some play made of President Michael D Higgins's prescience since he made public the text of his poem The Prophets are Weeping, because the special edition of Charlie Hebdo published to commemorate the 11 staff murdered in Paris by Muslim extremists had a cover showing Mohammed weeping - months after the poem was composed.

But for some there was a teeny suspicion that maybe the poem was. . . well. . . a little bit trite, since "the gods are weeping" has been used as a regretful moan about the unacceptable since, well, since gods capered on Mount Parnassus.

The Prophets are Weeping is a lament (it follows no particular poetic form) inspired by the flight of refugees from northern Iraq and from the civil war in Syria, so it has the highest of motives. It says, in part:

"The sun burns down/On the children who are crying,/On the long journeys repeated,/Their questions not answered./Mothers and Fathers hide their faces/Unable to explain,/Why they must endlessly,/ No end in sight,/Move for shelter, for food, for safety, for hope."

Indeed. How recognisably, instantly, predictably, right. Who would argue? It is vicious, savage, unforgivable that children (and indeed adults) should be subjected to such a cruel distortion of their lives. We can only applaud the sentiment.

But President Higgins's poem merely states the obvious, in terms as flat and uninspired as a United Nations official describing the situation at a press conference. It adds nothing to the way we react to the horror; it offers us no flight of the spirit or the imagination to deepen our understanding, or even intensify our anger.

It does not fulfil the role of poetry.

And with all due respect to the President's office, its publication from Aras an Uachtarain seems to suggest an authorial self-indulgence that is a bit alarming. Such a route into the public world would be described elsewhere as "vanity publishing".

Much more significantly, the poem posits the "prophets", by which we can take it the poet means the various leaders/founders of the various "great" religions, as being outraged by the terrible migrations across the Middle East, forced by war and inhumanity since time immemorial (and long before Christianity made its appearance) to suffer, endure, and often die in their attempts to find sanctuary.

Rationally, it is not possible to accept such a fuzzy, feel-good cop-out.

The President, who was criticised by many people for not including God in his Christmas message to the people of Ireland at home and across the world, seems in this poem to be arguing that God, be he Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ (the ones with particular applicability to the Middle East), is a god of peace, who turns away and weeps at human cruelty: God - be he Allah, Jehovah or Jesus Christ - is outraged because such happenings fly in the face of his teachings:

"The Prophets are weeping,/At their texts distorted,/The death and destruction,/Imposed in their name."

Really? The difficulty lies in the texts of the "great" religions. Those who want to use them as a road-map for peace among the nations interpret those texts as great pleas for peace, which promise damnation for those who fly in its face. (So either way, damnation rather than solace comes into it.)

But if you have a fancy for world religious domination, it is every bit as easy to find justification in the great texts for a cruel, unforgiving god who is bent on vengeance.

Take just one example: in the New Testament, Jesus faced the women of Jerusalem, clustered in misery to try to give him solace on his hideous, tormented journey to the final torture and release of execution.

And with his flayed body bent beneath the weight of the instrument of his ghastly death, he told them that what was happening to him was not for them to weep over: they were to weep for their children and descendants, because those descendants would pay the price.

And by gum, did Christianity trade on that in the following centuries to wreak violent havoc on the "daughters of Jerusalem." Up to and including the Holocaust.

The texts of the great religions, read rationally and without previous indoctrination in childhood, are a road-map to indulge in our most visceral instincts. If those instincts are for tolerance, decency and open minds, it's possible to justify any gentle way of life, even to the extent of the "lilies of the field" who "toil not, neither do they spin". (Great: but who does the work?)

The reality is that humanity prefers to wage war in the pursuit of peace than to clasp hands and exchange tokens of brotherhood.

It is the great thunderings of rage, violence, and vengeance in the religious texts that are used to justify world political and religious domination: they satisfy the human instinct for power, and, tragically, allow the fundamentalists of all religions to claim legitimacy for horrors which include the current brutalities of Islamic extremists, however often and vehemently they are disowned by their more moderate religious brethren.

So to claim that the "prophets" are weeping at the "distortion" of their texts is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking; and from a popularly acclaimed intellectual like President Higgins, it is a capitulation to populist feel-good sentiment. It's easier to cry than to do something.

Perhaps, and I write with the greatest respect, the President's poem might have achieved a better result if he was a better poet. Frankly, The Prophets are Weeping is clunky, awkward and formless, and its language is banal.

In 2012, President Higgins's collection New and Selected Poems was savaged in Books Ireland by the critic and academic Kevin Kiely, who said he could be accused of "crimes against literature".

He also said that Michael D Higgins, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, and the late Catholic mystics John O'Donohue and John Moriarty "make up a school of the bland, the imprecise and the ultimately incomprehensible."

A year earlier, the English poet Carol Rumens, who has taught at Queen's in Belfast, in UCC, in Stockholm University, in Hull, and was visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Bangor in Wales, caused a few ripples by writing in The Guardian that it was "almost sacrilegious to mention him alongside Irish poets who actually do make decent poems."

She was referring to an anonymous review of Michael D Higgins's work which compared him to Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly.

And however Irish hackles may rise at such a sweeping - not to say immoderate - damnation, the problem remains: national pride aside, Michael D Higgins is not a very good poet. And poets who aren't very good don't often do justice to profoundly serious issues.

Sunday Independent

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