Generational chasm

Jan 20th, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Young people become ever more disconcerting.  The confirmation class throw questions that seem complete non sequitirs.  When asked how the question arose, they establish logical links back to the matter being discussed; links that demand a more athletic mind to foresee.

Even waiting around is not what it was.  Humming or tapping out a rhythm have been superseded by the iPod and the MP3.  Silence is not an option.

My daughter has developed a habit of reciting poetry to herself while standing and waiting for things.  Two poems seem to recur.  W.B Yeats “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, is the most frequent,

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Yeats’ protest against the pointlessness of the Great War at least seems to have some point of contemporary reference; the unwinnable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are of no more consequence to Kiltartan Cross than the wholesale slaughter of 1914-1918.

The other poem is more baffling.  Presumably taught in school Irish classes, it is an Irish translation of Oliver St John Gogarty’s ‘The Ship’:

Tháinig long ó Valparaíso.
Scaoileadh téad a seol sa chuan.
Chuir a h-ainm dom i gcuimhne
Ríocht na gréine, tír na mbua.

‘Gluais,’ ar sí ‘ar thuras fada
liom ó scamall is ó cheo.
Tá faoi shleasaibh ghorm Andes
Cathair scáthmhar, glée mar sheod.

Perhaps its meaning is not important, how many people in former times understood Procul Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’? Perhaps it is the sound of the words that matters; perhaps to be always looking for meaning is to be too literalist.

Never advancing much beyond the Jabberwocky in knowledge of poetry, it is all beyond me.

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  1. How bizarre. I too often recite An Irish Airman silently to myself while waiting or walking. I think it may have come from the album of musical interpretations of Yeats’s poetry. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Shane MacGowan did their version of An Irish Airman.
    The other poem I do not know. But Valparaiso has long been one of those place of the imagination for me. My knowledge of it is slight – sea shanties, young Che’s visit on his motorbike trip – but some day I will see the sloping streets of that port.
    My own daughter tends to sing one or two verses, of her own composition I think, before going to sleep at night. When I hear the brief song it’s as though a window to some elfin otherworld has briefly opened. It’s lovely.

  2. I’m not sure about McGowan and poetry recitation!

    Here’s Saint John Gogarty’s original:

    A ship from Valparaiso came,
    And in the bay her sails were furled.
    She brought the wonder of her name,
    And tidings from a sunnier world.

    ‘O you must travel far, if you
    Would sail away from gloom and wet,
    And see beneath the Andes blue,
    Our white umbrageous city set’.

  3. Saint John Gogarty’s wife may have wished at times that he was less poetic – in the 1911 Census, he forgot he was married!

  4. valparaiso was a poem i was taught many years ago(approx 45 years ago)it was on the mandatory irish language exam list.
    To this day i still remember this beautiful poem in the irish language,as it conjured up beautiful images of far off places,where the sun is always shining,and people travelling from one continent to another,the majestic andes mountains.The sheer escapism of the poem was a great joy to me back then,when all other irish literature was doom and gloom-ie peig,jimin,and the other irish literary merchants of doom,who could not see further than their back yard or the fighing that existed not only between neighbours,but also within families.
    I would not worry about somebody reciting this,they like me are probably escaping the troubles of the real world that surround them,and living a nice sunny fantasy ,its only for a brief respite from reality.

  5. I think having the Irish language would be a great gift – I haven’t a word. It would give a parallel vocabulary with which to think about a world that is different from what surrounds us. A friend blames Peig for the marginalisation of the language. My daughter has ‘Harry Potter agus an Orchloch’ amongst her books – an attempt to bring Irish back to the mainstream.

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