Imagine if you played darts.

Every time you went to the local pub the same gang was there, throwing the same kind of game each evening. So you went to the pub around the corner. And the same blokes were there, playing the same game. You took a bus across town, went into a pub; there they were again, same blokes. And between throws everyone talked about the last match, played the same way, in the same style – the same enthusiasts.

You could go mad. But sooner or later the noble game of darts would lose its appeal. You might even stop playing. Or you would emigrate – just to find a game played differently by different people.

Being a poet has seldom been easier. In Britain ‘slam poetry’, whatever one might think of it, has encouraged people to think of themselves as poets who might not, in earlier days, have made it into a small poetry journal. Workshops do their bit, whether they be held in your local or on a university campus. But in the UK, if you are a bored Scottish poet you can always head down to London for a different scene; a Welsh poet – at least one writing in English – can head off to Scotland if he or she so wishes. There is at least the hope of far away fields and different voices.

In Ireland, there is nowhere to run.

On an island roughly a hundred and sixty kilometres wide and four hundred long – think of a sort of expanded Isle of Man – there is very little opportunity, or space, for versatility. And islands are by their nature conservative. Poetry has become an industry, a sort of Riverdance in rhyme, with its out-front dancers and its chorus-line. Yet though the past twenty years have produced a growing army of poets in Ireland – boosted and encouraged by readings, festivals and publishers who are massively funded by the Irish Arts Council – they are dancing their way off the stage. There is no room for them. And critical standards – worthy matter for another day – have fallen proportionately. Irish poets surely cannot stand listening to one another by now. I have enjoyed talking to myself since I first managed to construct a sentence. One evening, standing behind a microphone and about to give a reading of my work, I suddenly realised, with an almost Pauline clarity, that as Irish poets, we did nothing else.

I felt that, no doubt against our wills, we were all one family living in the same house, wandering from room to room. Had we ever been anything else? In the Parnassian illusion of Dublin in the days of literary pubs it must have been akin to sleeping, rather incestuously, in the same bed. In London’s Soho, in the heady days of poets and painters and a couple of decent pubs and loads of myth, was it any different? How did poets escape one another? How did one define individuality in such a confined space?

We are now crowding into the little rooms of ourselves as if we had found an embassy wherein we might shelter from the depredations of the outside world. There are gangs and leaders, someone to run the bathroom, someone in charge of the kitchen, even someone acting as bouncer on the door. We squabble for space like Parisian clochards fighting over sleeping rights on a Métro street grille.

Literary festivals have proliferated throughout Ireland quicker than cases of swine flu. It has become part of a poet’s career to get invited to as many as possible in any given year; consequently, the audience for poetry being small, he or she will find him- or herself addressing many of the same people from festival to festival. Getting nominated for a festival appearance usually involves being friendly with the organiser or, that infuriating word, the festival curator, which title tends to lend to a literary festival the image of a zoo or a museum. In any case, as with magazine and even grander forms of publication, it is a question of being part of the family or friendly enough to be admitted to their already claustrophobic literary house.

But how long before one tires of the wallpaper, the same tedious conversation over breakfast, the same opinions? How can you stand up in the middle of the floor and fool yourself that you are either saying or listening to something you have not said or heard before a hundred times?

Peruse arts festival programmes. You do not have to be in Ireland to try this out. See how often the same names appear. Certain poets have virtually attained the position of writer-in-residence at some festivals, so predictable is their presence.

Imagine what it is like over here. In Ireland you can easily spot the friends, the spouses, the significant others, reading in twos and threes or giving poetry workshops. You look and remember that you saw the same configuration of scribes two festivals back. Or was it three? Or was it last weekend? Or perhaps you are in there with them, so tired of reading your own poems, the same poems, over and over, from a collection you no longer care about. Familiar faces from other audiences stare up at you – will you say something this evening you did not say last week in Listowel, Clifden, Dublin, Belfast or Hackballscross? You have nothing left. Maybe tonight is the night you break down and weep. But someone has winked-and-nodded you into another reading, another workshop and yes, they’ll be reading too so it’ll be great crack.

It won’t. It hasn’t been for a long time – neither for you nor for the audience, but they will not admit it. Irish poetry has never been in a healthier state, comes the Yahweh-thunderous pronouncement from the attic. If you are not a believer you will end up with nowhere to sleep. These house rules are rigid.

Now and then you want to behave like Charles Bukowski and, instead of reading your work, merely insult the audience. They will clap anyway. It occurs to you in the wee hours of the morning that they are clapping because they do not care; you might as well have been selling soap or, for the hell of it, recited There once was a whore from Peru/Who had a young man in the zoo, and so on. You know quite well that applause does not necessarily indicate that anyone was listening.

Friends review the new poetry collections of other friends, the media ask no questions or not enough, reviewers who say what they feel can end up fired; it takes just one published poetry collection to make a poetry teacher, it has long been about gathering prizes rather than polishing poetic talent: you know all of this, and increasingly the audiences know it too. You long for a political set-up where one of your better poems might land you in a gulag but here no one cares. You live in the house of poetry but no one will even accept rent from you. No one expects you to stand for anything or denounce anything. You are an ornament.

The Irish poetry world is small and its audience is small and it is inevitable that sooner or later we will all end up talking to ourselves. And slowly, inevitably, that conversation will dry up. We know – and it hurts – that the greater number of us are unrecognised anywhere outside our local parish, never mind the country. We can blow as hard as we like, threaten, wail, roar, but we have one Nobel laureate and the rest is silence. It is even worse with our cousins in Northern Ireland, where a group of university-reared writers have built themselves a castle in the middle of Belfast and barricaded themselves into it. The battery-hen atmosphere must be stifling.

Culturally, Ireland is shrinking. It has been for years. Since the Troubles in Northern Ireland ended, or at least were postponed, poetry there has had nothing to react to. It is difficult now to distinguish the work of a poet from ‘up there’ from one ‘down here.’ Homogenised, politically cloned, it may be that Irish poets have nothing left to say.

The only way, perhaps, that we can change the landscape of our own work, and thereby change or stimulate our audience anew, is by engaging fully in the politics of our day – and no one worth a bum-rest in Aosdána (the Irish academy renowned for its conservative political and social views and for not saying anything) is going to do that. We need to take risks, to fling open the windows of our stuffy, little house before it resembles the gothic edifice in which Anthony Perkins kept his mummified Mum on the hill behind the Bates Motel. Then we will not tremble if some brave critic descends into the basement to see what we have been hiding all these years.

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