Reflections on Art and Poetry

My reflections here are arranged in three parts: (1) a personal response to seeing Seamus Finnegan’s I AM OF IRELAND directed by Ken McClymont and staged at The Old Red Lion Theatre in London; (2) a set of abstract reflections on the nature of art; and (3) a personal statement of my own view.


Wherever there is art there is violence. It is the bellicose tenderness of the creative sensibility. It is part of the Lamb’s war against the forces of commodification, amnesia, secularism, meaninglessness, and mortality. A dark Light of the soul invading and annihilating assumptions, reason, and social layers. Pricking the conscience with questions: what is a nation? What has become of the mosaic of Irishness? What things hunt and haunt individuals and memories? What of the nightmare of Anglo-Irish relations? Can antagonism between present and future ever be dissolved? The coercions and perversions of thoughtless language are attacked by the scorched earth poetry of an anointing space – this is the experience of seeing I AM OF IRELAND. It is a Mass of remembrance, a sacrament uncontaminated by the world outside and the temptation of easy answers. It is as if Georg Büchner and Tadeusz Kantor spent decades in Ireland and I AM OF IRELAND was the result. The cast gnaw at the state of the nation, at the state of its consciences, and at the barrenness of early Twenty-First Century logic. The “smug arrogant careerist professors of ‘Irish Studies’” would do well to meet their eye. The cast also exposes the wounded polyphony of memory, voice, and sacrifice. Carving them onto the eye through expert handling of staging, gesture, and vignettes. The presence of the cross and religious vocation plunge the viewer into a haunting illogic…a deeper mystery unnerving to today’s trends. Spiritual rootedness is hunted by the malaise of the times. The essentials of imagery, poetry, and prayer enable the second half of the performance to make vital incisions. It arrives at a liturgical poetry that strips away so as to welcome – and perhaps to release – an open silence at the core of self, memory, nation, and art.


What is the role of art in a society ‘orphaned of transcendence’?[1] What happens to poetry when it is uprooted from its organic origins in religious ritual and sacred incantation? What happens to art when these ontological umbilical cords, linking it to the sphere of the sacred, and to the level of transcendence, are cut? What conditions their relationships to a society crafted in the image of deracination? What happens when retrieving symbol, metaphor, rhythm, from the chaotic chasm of language is no longer regarded alongside its ancient kindred, that is, the Stone Age extraction of flint from the earth, the dance of form with matter, of profane with sacred, of earth and hand, of eye and flint?[2]

Philosopher Jacques Maritain pondered the relationship between contemplatives and artists: ‘The Contemplative and the Artist, each perfected by an intellectual virtue which rivets him to the transcendental order, are naturally close. They also have the same brand of enemies. The Contemplative, who looks at the highest cause on which every being and activity depend, knows the place and the value of art, and understands the Artist. The Artist as such cannot judge the Contemplative, but he can divine his grandeur. If he truly loves beauty and if a moral vice does not hold his heart in a dazed condition, when his path crosses the Contemplative’s he will recognise love and beauty.’[3] One likeness uniting contemplative spirituality and the experience of art lies in its via negativa, its link with negation: an epistemology of sacramental openness. As Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century monk and ascetic, wrote: ‘prayer is the absence of concepts’.[4] Bernard Kelly, in the Twentieth Century recognised this: ‘We shall go no further without a certain mortification of the mind. Beauty is not a sensuous glamor, neither is it a logical descant upon things. It is not a link in the chain of discursion and rumination of which our mental life is largely composed, but has the character of originality, of freshness. It is not one of a train of concepts, but a reality at which we halt.’[5]

A glimmer of paradise, a meditative immersion, is one of the things at the heart of both prayer and experiencing works of art and poetry according to this way of looking. In a ‘momentary defenselessness in an abandonment to being’[6] the mind makes ‘a leap out of the derivative courses of the reason, and is aware of peril. It must make an act of faith in being, unprescribed by propositions; lay momentarily aside all its verbal certainties for the sake of a certainty deeper than concepts.’[7] This clearing, this incandescent castigation which breaks the captivities inherent in the endless cycle of propositions, dogmas, and merely verbal certainties, not to mention the epistemic cannibalism which is the stock in trade of many philosophers and scholars today, is both a point of contact between the religious person and the artist, and a point of discord and contention. For an artist subverts the traditional philosophical hierarchy which puts theology above ontology, and allocates philosophy the position of theology’s servant. An artist is an affirmation of a lived ontology of Mystery. Despite such differences both work against what Pope Francis has called ‘the degradation of awe’; and both work against the eclipse of the ontological mystery by a Western society captive to the forces of capital and technocratic hegemony.


I write because of the cast iron frailty, the lead coffin vulnerability, which pulverises life. The sacred role of a poet is faithful transcription of intimate communion in solitude with humanity, nature, the sacred, and the self. The simultaneously penitential and festal receptivity of this form of listening and waiting requires a poet to stand paradoxically sentinel and prostrate in readiness to set ink on the page. As a poet I try to have my hands cupped for sacramental drops falling from the everyday chalice.

I reject everything that seeks to mutilate the solitude inhabited by writing and reflection. The vocation of the artist consists in not letting anything mutilate the eremitic rhythm – the pollinating cadaver of silence – in which reflection, seeking, and communions are born. ‘Not but in all removes I can / Kind love both give and get’, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. All acts of ontological closure are anathema to an artist. The artist is possessed by the flosculus intimations of immortality found in words staining – with bellicose tenderness – the world’s abysmally dressed wound.

So much of life is mauled by emptiness. So much is captivity to illusion or marred by the brutality of misperceptions. Language is lacerated in the torture chamber of technological hegemony. In the name of a fanatical secularism many are mercenaries maiming a sense of the sacred which is systematically exiled from society. On the other side, reflection on the abysmal failure of what has been called “Western Christianity” to dress the wounds of the world – in terms of its failure to humanise humanity, to even remotely resemble the movement of Christ and his Apostles, its collusion in the banishment of the sense of the sacred, its openness to being used as a battering ram in games of identity politics and conflict between classes etc. – might be enlightening. Almost everywhere someone dispenses the drugs of deracination. I reject all these séances at shrines of servility.

The mercenary spirit of today’s capitalist society is victim and perpetrator of the malaise of deracination. Its method derives from the rage of uprootedness. Speaking personally, it never tried to convince me of its right to exist, its goodness, or the value of its ideology. Instead it tries to maim one’s spirit and lead one into captivity. Rarely does it open a dialogue with the individual. When it does, this dialogue is accompanied by a barrage of discordant noise, that is, the whole mechanism of coercion by which is seeks to dominate the human soul. By ruthlessly intertwining consent and coercion, it demands consent in continual acts of attempted rape and attempted murder. My vocation as a human being, a poet, and an intellectual involves implacable hostility towards it.

What is an artist? A subversive psalmist of unknown cathedrals of negation – spaces in which the light of creative silence, thinking and questioning, still falls. Citadels of the spirit from which these acid efflorescences reach out into the world, returning once more to the solace of exile.

Poetry is a liminal requiem, a votive offering, caught between the waters of thought and the earth of language. Writers are the anarchistic priests of being. Their vocation is to be eremitic scribes of the ontology they perceive and which perceives them.


[1] Erik Varden, The Shattering of Loneliness, p30.

[2] In Britain BC archaeologist Francis Pryor comments on ‘the importance of ritual and ceremony in the winning of flint from deep in the ground’ (p155). I like to think of the poet’s craft as something like this: a poet descends into the amorphous and dark womb of earth and retrieves living material for shaping.

[3] Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, p83.

[4] The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, p66.

[5] A Catholic Mind Awake, p118.

[6] Ibid, p119.

[7] Ibid.

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