Irish poets, we complete our Fall 2021 countdown, and Ethna McKiernan

I fear this is going to be one of those bad elegies, one where the writer goes on too much about themselves and not about the person who has died. I’ve already mentioned that I find myself unacceptable and self-absorbed when I talk about myself, and saying that again only digs the self-dug hole I’m going to speak from today deeper.

In the mid-1970s when I moved to Minnesota from New York I connected back up with Dave Moore who I knew from a year in my aborted attempt at college. Through Dave I fell in with a literary group that varied in size and was herd-of-cats led by Kevin FitzPatrick. The group had just started  a little magazine they called the Lake Street Review,  Lake Street being a long commercial and industrial street that ran east/west through the center of Minneapolis: bars, gendered barber and beauty shops, warehouses, grocery stores, used car lots, a high-towered Sears linked to a rail-freight line and distribution center behind it, neighborhood movie theaters and former such theaters now grinding porn, the recording studio where “Surfin’ Bird”  was recorded, a small attempt at a non-suburban shopping mall built on the tract where tractors and tanks were once factory-built, a “hardly a foot we can’t fit” shoe store whose upstairs apartments housed Robert Pirsig when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Literary magazines generally preferred foreign words, or landscape landmarks like rivers, lakes, or mountains for their names. Yes, there were lakes at the west end of Lake Street, a self-improvement plan for nature dredged out from what had been swampy wetlands as part of a series of landscaped urban parks that circled Minneapolis — but let me be clear to those who aren’t from around here: calling an artistic enterprise The Lake Street Review was something of a provocation. This was a group of working-class writers with a non-academic outlook toward poetry.

The groups earliest meetings were held at a bar, and Dave noted to me that a large portion of the informal membership was made up of bartenders. Let me also set one other demographic fact: this was a group of men moving from their 20s to their 30s. Eventually the membership thinned out, and the remainder continued meeting in rotation in the members homes and apartments.

As the clan leader, Kevin was generally gentle and accepting. A high-school graduate, working in an urban ER, the again’er in me was attracted to the outsider stance, but Kevin also wanted the magazine’s public work to be acceptable to the parents and grandparents of us young men. The 1970s had still extended the “generation gap” of the 60s, so the “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” you also couldn’t say on the pages of the Lake Street Review.  Feminism was mysterious, like women generally were to these young men, but those women were talking about it  which made the mystery unsettling. Anything gender-queer was probably beyond the pale.

I liked those folks, but some of this rankled me. Kevin’s desire to speak across the generation gap as a poet was more noble than I appreciated at the time, but I wanted to go much more radically into discussions of sexuality and sexual roles than Kevin did, and what work I shared with the group privately I thought was underappreciated and misunderstood. I skipped off to two other groups sometime in the 80s, only to return to the Lake Street Writers Group after more than a decade away.

By this time the group had become smaller and more fixed in membership and was no longer concerned with the discontinued magazine. Four or five others, interesting writers and persons in their own right, were regulars, and then not; until by the last few years it became a quartet that would meet every month to share and discuss work in progress.

So when that group ended, it was Kevin FitzPatrick, Dave Moore, Ethna McKiernan, and myself. I’m not sure exactly when Ethna became one of the group as it was likely during my sojourn away from it. At one point she was one of two women generally attending, but as we contracted into the quartet, she was the only woman. As we aged it’s possible that this was less of a filter or division, even if it didn’t disappear. Another thing that happened as we condensed: the group had become predominantly Irish-American. Ethna’s father had been a force in the Irish cultural renaissance, something I was almost entirely ignorant of,*  and Ethna’s speaking voice retained a distinct Irish pronunciation undertone. Kevin and Ethna took it upon themselves to establish an annual Twin Cities St. Patrick’s Day poetry reading, a reminder that non-descript leprechauns, green plastic hats, sham-shamrocks, and ever-filled and spilled red cups and flushed faces were not the sum total of Irishness.

Will I ever get to Ethna in this post? To my shame, I will speak more in silhouette, about myself. In many ways I felt the junior member of this group. Kevin and Ethna has several collections published. Ethna got arts grants, had an MFA. Kevin and Dave had degrees from fine private colleges, I was a High School graduate. I gave up trying to publish shortly after my temporary leaving of the group, and it would have been understandable if it irked Kevin and Ethna sometimes that here was this opinionated yet apparently non-professionally serious person taking up their time. I retained a close friendship and collaboration with Dave outside of the group throughout the decades, and grew to understand and appreciate Kevin’s artistic goals, but no such closening happened with Ethna. I knew much less about the details of her life, and what bits I picked up second hand, sometimes from the poetry itself and not from her own conversation, indicated a life with more than it’s share of staggering life events. I also got a not-unexpected sense that men had been part of some of those staggerings, something that she didn’t express much directly in our group of three men and herself. Here’s a statement: I know more about the life-details of Emily Dickinson than I know about the life of a poet, my own contemporary, who I shared a few hours with every month.**

Kevin’s mature poetry never seemed to aim at beauty as such. It is a beautiful thing to find beauty were it isn’t. Ethna indeed aimed for beauty, sometimes comforting and sometimes fierce, and as the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Ethna got there some of the time, which is all we artists can do. Looking through her recently published Light Rolling Slowly Backwards, New and Selected Poems  it is easy to find that she was the most skilled poet in our little group, which sounds like fish-in-small-pond praise — but if you (who don’t know us) were to read her, I think you might find similar achievement to whatever other poets you read. When I read Kevin and Ethna’s last books during my yurt retreat early this fall I observed that while I had heard almost every one of Kevin’s published pieces in Still Living in Town in early draft form, I hadn’t heard many of Ethna’s. I know she attended more than one group sharing works in progress, but the amount of work new to me was surprising. I do plan to share one of her striking poems with you soon, but let’s wrap this long introduction up and get to the final part of my countdown of the most listened to and liked Parlando pieces from this past fall.

Two grey guys and a colorful woman

Three Irish poets: Yeats, McKiernan, and Campbell.

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2. The Folly of Being Comforted by William Butler Yeats.  Ethna never simply said something like “Read Yeats!” but before I encountered her I didn’t think much about him one way or the other. Now over the five plus years of this project you’ll have heard the fruits of that influence from her in my many well-liked presentations of Yeats. As I said when I presented it, Yeats was making a very specific point in his poem relating to his own life. I chose in my performance to stubbornly ignore what Yeats intended his poem to be about, and to instead sing it remotely to her on her hospice bed with my own intent. If I snub Ethna in this eulogy, I’ll ignore Yeats too. No respect.

It’s a challenge for me to work out my approximations of Jazz when I’m playing all the parts one pass at a time while being far from a master of any instrument. When it succeeds, as some thought here, I try to combine my simplicities (unimpressive I’m sure to a skilled musician) into something that still pleases when heard together. The highlighted title above will link to my original post on this where I discuss Yeats’ intended meaning, but you can hear my performance dedicated to Ethna with a graphical player (if you see that) or this highlighted hyperlink.

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1. Reynardine by Joseph Campbell.  Before the depths of their illnesses, I asked Kevin and Ethna if they’d heard of this early 20th century Irish poet, and they both drew a blank, which I’ve now found is generally true about this overlooked and worthy of more study poet. If Ireland is thought known for exuberant and willing to risk excessiveness expression, Campbell is never more masterful than when he’s compressing things to a handful of words.

Reynardine is a supernatural story in three short verses. From what I’ve been able to determine (see the original post on this) the supernatural element may have been introduced by Campbell, who took an existing long-winded run-of-the-outlaw ballad, and boiled it down with a shapeshifter element. After he’d done that, the resulting folk revival song, one sung by many of the best revival singers of the British Isles, always includes at least hints of that element. My presentation uses Campbell’s original lyrics, which I think are superior to those usually sung.

As far as it’s popularity here this fall, this is an odd one. The blog post presenting it wasn’t read much at all, and the likes for my explanation there of how Campbell transformed the Reynardine story were low in number. But the listens to the song (as with all the audio pieces here, available via Apple Podcasts or most other podcast directories) were easily higher than any other recent piece. To hear it now you can use the player gadget if your blog reader shows it, or this highlighted hyperlink.

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*I once joked, confessing my cultural ignorance there, that my idea of an Irish writer was Frank O’Hara. Joke or not, someone somewhere must have addressed what connections O’Hara’s poetry had with Irishness, but I haven’t found it.

** It was only a year or two ago, after my interest in Dickinson intensified that I found out that Ethna too had a deep appreciation for that genius. Of course, I have my portion of blame for this, just as with this inappropriate eulogy, but suspect she believed that I wouldn’t understand or have any sense of her experience or sensibility. I’d estimate she was wrong, but saying that only adds to my inappropriateness here today.

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