Not Heaney, Healy
Questions, Answers and
Explorations at the
Edge of Irish Writing
Randolph Healy is the most important Irish poet you’ve never heard of. He’s a leading poet in the first Irish generation since Beckett to wholeheartedly take part in an international experimental movement. He’s an innovator in his own right, too, not just a follower of international trends: his work is unique in the way it takes formal logic, mathematics and scientific data as points of departure. Most importantly, he’s brought an attitude to Irish poetry that promises to take it out of the clichéd territory of identity politics and sectarian tragedy. In a better world his name would be in the index of any history of Irish literature, a few lines down from "Gregory, Lady Augusta" and a line or two above "Heaney, Seamus." But the very things that should earn him a place in the canon of Irish poetry – his formal innovation and his opening up of a ground outside the nationalist tradition – have kept the Irish establishment well at bay. The lack of official recognition doesn’t seem to bother Healy, but it bothers me, and reveals a few unflattering truths about the narrow conservatism of Ireland’s much-ballyhooed love of poetry. Journal publication and reviews have come more easily for Healy on this side of the Atlantic, but even so the vast scale of American poetry, with its hundreds if not thousands of magazines and journals, continues to make it difficult for the work of any poet not backed by a large publisher or prominent academic program to come to light. So, on behalf an extraordinary poet caught between two indifferences, let me say this: Randolph Healy is the Irish poet most worth watching. Make room for his slim chapbooks on the shelf next to Heaney, Boland and Muldoon.
Looking across the ocean from the States it’s tempting to see developments in British and Irish poetry as playing themselves out in the sort of gigantic historical cycles beloved by Yeats. In Scotland we see the beginnings of what promises to be an important nationalist revival, with Robert Crawford taking the lead in the race to be the most Scottish of Scotland’s poets, and Irvine Welsh popularizing an aggressively regionalist dialect in prose. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, Healy and a group of innovative poets are struggling to emerge from the nationalist tradition launched by Yeats and rejuvenated by Heaney. Together, Randolph Healy, Billy Mills, Maurice Scully, Catherine Walsh, Geoffrey Squires, Trevor Joyce and David Lloyd constitute "Another Ireland" – the alternative to the official verse culture of the island.
Though not exactly a school or movement (each has followed an individual path of experimentation) these poets have started to develop the kind of mutually supportive environment familiar to American experimentalists. While there had been a few alternative small presses and magazines in Ireland before the mid-1990s (notably The Beau magazine and the hardPressed Poetry chapbook series), most small presses were of a sort well characterized by Billy Mills when he said that "if the Faber and Faber people represent the aristocracy, then these little houses are the solid middle class: decent, law-abiding and aspiring to better things". Small presses existed, but not the small press ethos as we know it in America. Things began to change in 1996 and, in the best tradition of Irish writing, the crucial event took place abroad, in this case at the "Assembling Alternatives" poetry conference put together by Romana Huk at the University of New Hampshire. It was there that Healy, Mills, Walsh, Scully, Joyce and Squires first found themselves in the same room at the same time, and since that meeting there have been a myriad of encouraging develops in Irish poetry, including the startups of Wild Honey Press, The Journal, the "Sound Eye" web site and an annual conference at University College–Cork, accompanied by the revival of the long-dormant New Writers’ Press, an important alternative institution of the 60s and 70s.
Randolph Healy has been central to these developments, and the shape of his career reflects the conditions under which innovative Irish writers have had to work. Born in Irvine, Scotland in 1956, Healy moved to Dublin early in his childhood, and left school at 14 to work at a series of dead-end, but otherwise enjoyable, jobs. After several years he returned to university, studying mathematics rather than literature, reading voraciously and writing what he describes as "short, trippy lyrics" until meeting Maurice Scully, who was then functioning as a kind of one-man avant-garde insurgency in Irish poetry. As Healy describes it, the meeting was more provocative than amiable: "[Scully] was one of a number of poets who were reading in a poetry roadshow to which I was attached as a punctuation mark, i.e., I’d play guitar between poets. I mentioned to him that I was writing poetry and he asked to see some. Later on I posted stuff to him and we met for a pint. He said it was awful and that for him it was particularly disappointing in that I was a man of ideas. The rider caught my interest and I began to experiment with what a poetry of ideas might look like." It turned out to be a kind of poetry that appealed to Scully, who published Healy’s first book, 25 Poems, in a small edition. Since then, the Healy bibliography has come to look like this:
25 Poems (Dublin: Beau Press, 1983)
Envelopes (Cambridge: Poetical Histories, 1996)
Rana Rana! (Bray: Wild Honey, 1997)
Arbor Vitae (Bray: Wild Honey, 1997)
Flame (Bray: Wild Honey, 1997)
Scales (Bray: Wild Honey, 1998)
A first collection, then nothing outside of journals for 13 years, and then something from a press in England, not Ireland. Then a sudden explosion: the three chapbook series of 1997, and last year’s series of linked poems. This record makes the strongest case I’ve seen for the importance of an alternative to the mainstream press. The growth of such an alternative in Ireland over the past few years promises to mean a great deal for Healy, the other poets of ‘Another Ireland,’ and anyone savvy enough to follow their work.
Robert Archambeau: The kind of experimental writing you do hasn't had much support in Ireland in the past. Was it difficult to get started without the support of a large 'scene'?
Randolph Healy: My father was a postman and, when young, wrote ballads. My mother, who grew up in Scotland, had a store of folk songs and was well read. Our family home had lots of books of poetry, so I grew up thinking of poetry as something people just did. I think this sense of it as being part of life was, in its unobtrusive way, extraordinarily supportive. Then, in the seventies, Dermot Bolger, who lived near me, was setting up a vibrant workshop/publication/festival/reading scene under the banner of his Raven Arts. Dermot didn't see what I was doing as poetry at all, but we got on very well and I used to play guitar at his events. It was through this that I met Maurice Scully. Dermot organized a roadshow of music and poetry, which included Maurice and myself. At the time Maurice was writing a very different kind of poetry to his more recent work: it was allusive, ironic, and discursive. But still different enough from the background radiation of intense urban lyrics to get me very excited indeed. Scully is a terrific reader and the immersion experience of hearing him read the same work eleven times in a handful of days was a milestone for me. We corresponded and met frequently and I'd be hard put to overestimate the amount of support he has given me. In 1983 he published my first chapbook, 25 Poems under his Beau Press imprint. . Shortly after this he went on his travels, taking in various remote parts of Ireland, and Italy and Africa. We continued to correspond, which was important for me.
RA: From this side of the Atlantic, it looks like the Irish experimental scene has started to heat up in the last four or five years. Is this impression correct? Did the New Hampshire conference have an effect over there?
RH: I think this is certainly true for me and for Trevor Joyce. Less so for Maurice Scully, Geoff Squires, Billy Mills and Catherine Walsh who have been writing steadily since the sixties and seventies. I remember talking to Maurice when we had got the letter of invitation from Roman Huk. It was so much at odds with our experience (I had two poems published in Ireland between 1983 and 1996) that we weren't sure if it was a practical joke or not. Since the Assembling Alternatives conference there, the Cork Conference of New and Experimental Poetry has run for three consecutive years. Trevor Joyce has started up his New Writers Press again, and written some extraordinary work: Syzygy, Without Asylum, Hopeful Monsters and Trem Neul (Just before the New Hampshire conference he had published his first book after a 19 year silence, Stone Floods, so the subsequent blossoming is very striking.) He has also set up a very interesting website called Sound Eye which makes interesting connections between the Irish writers at the conference and what Trevor calls the Diaspora, i.e. writers, like Tom Raworth and Fanny Howe, who would have Irish connections but who would be elided from the official maps. When I got home from Ass. Alt. I felt so full of energy. In three months I read over ninety books. Between September 1996 and the middle of 1999 I wrote Arbor Vitae, Flame and Scales. I started up Wild Honey Press, which has just published its 20th title. So I think the New Hampshire conference has changed everything for us. What an experience, over a hundred poets and critics in the space of three days. It felt like coming out of a sensory deprivation tank and walking into a New Year’s party. Apart from the excitement of the work itself, I was really bowled over by how open, knowledgeable and generous everyone was. (As it happens I hadn't met Trevor, Geoffrey or Catherine until going to Assembling Alternatives. It would have been worth it for that alone. )
"You need to be incorporated into the tradition to be an Irish writer and you exist as an Irish writer on those terms or you might as well not exist"
"You are only supported if you are a part of that tradition, that same tradition which must celebrate above all else your sense of Irishness and your sense of being part of an ongoing linear tradition of Irish writers, writing out of a sense of bondage almost"
RA: For many year politics has seemed to be the inevitable subject for Irish poets, but your work seems to come at politics obliquely, even when you write about colonialism, as in "colonies of belief". How do you see your work connecting (or not connecting) with the political?
RH: The word "oblique" suggests that there may be some that are straight, which I'm not too sure about. I can see how "colonies" with its use of logical forms can seem to be abstract, and therefore removed from vital processes among which one might group the political. But we don't have two bodies, one for analytic thought and one for passion. I don't see how any pretence at holism can refuse to allow these to intermingle. Also, the oblique can be very pointed. In the north of Ireland, people are sometimes stopped and asked to say the first ten letters of the alphabet. Since Catholics there tend to say haitch, and Protestants aitch, the answer becomes surprisingly political.
Healy breaks the two cardinal rules of Irish poetry: thou shalt ruminate endlessly on Irishness; thou shalt be a bard. Speaking of the poetry scene in the early 80s, when he was writing his first collection, Healy has said that "Irish poetry was very much centered on its own Irishness" and "the wild and drunken poet was very much the model." In this context, he turned to a poetry that makes use of scientific data rather than tribal memory, and that presents its matter in a way that can at first seem almost clinical when compared to the frothy rantings or moody ruminations of the neo-bardic tradition. Mathematics, logic and scientific data shape Healy’s poems in many different ways, some as simple as the series of ratios in the following poem, from Rana Rana!:
World War II
Fifty five million people were killed
at a cost per corpse of over
a quarter of a million dollars,
a third of their weight in gold.
Which took a total firepower of three megatons
Which is the energy
of a seven minute hurricane
or one hour of the world’s tides.
Who got a mention?
The history book names 117
or one in half a million.
a rise in technology
massive development in agriculture.
Indeed, by the equivalence of matter and energy
the firepower condenses to the mass
of a small potato.
How much does this represent
of all the energy used in human history?
Compare an electric fire to an earthquake
or a full stop to a small dog.
The graveyard would cover an entire city.
The gold would fill
The search for equivalents to the violence of the Second World War defamiliarizes historical events, but there’s more going on here than that. The absence of any kind of rhetorical pattern is notable: we don’t begin with comparisons that seem grand in scale, like the city-as-graveyard, and end with the diminishment of the full stop or small dog, nor do we work in the opposite direction, from the minimizing to the solemn. Healy doesn’t want to orchestrate emotions into a crescendo or decrescendo, he wants to give us a voice that seems disinterested, detached, without rhetorical design. Then, at the end, on a line with particularly devastating connotations (behind "the gold would fill" are gold fillings like those the Nazis pried from their victims in concentration camps), the poem breaks off. There is emotion behind the terseness and apparent disinterestedness of Healy’s voice here, and the abrupt stop (it could hardly be called a conclusion) comes as a critique of that voice, as if it were obscene or meaningless to talk about war this way. In its way, it is as powerful a poem about war as Yeats’ "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," or Heaney’s "Whatever You Say Say Nothing" but in an idiom entirely new to Irish poetry. Healy has fulfilled Pound’s injunction to take poetry and make it new.
Perhaps Healy’s most important and idiosyncratic formal innovation comes in what he has called his "argument poems," mid-length poems that take the abstract formulations of logic as a means of poetic structure. Here are the first few lines of one ‘"argument-poem," "Colonies of Belief":
Not everything is flat, like a board.
You have the regular roundness of a ball.
And not everything so regular either.
The geometric dance of atoms in
molecules becomes, closer, a blur
of energy or, further, sandy rubble.
So not everything, it appears, is the same.
Some things are different. And not everything
is different in different ways.
Things form classes. And a class is a point
of interest from a particular
point of view. And some things have a point
of view which is formed from a small area
around the thing itself. And some things have
consciousness which lets them change their point
of view. Unless they choose not to.
But they can’t choose always, and the few times
that they may get them carried away
imagining they can always choose,
which is power. Power to think the small
area around them from which springs
their point of interest forming their point
of view is the pre-eminent area
of the globe.
The poem goes on, becoming an examination of power, specifically of colonial power. And it does this without once using the words "England" or "Ireland" or "Celt" or "Tribe".
The value of logic, for Healy, has little to do with a quest for the cut-and-dried truth. As he puts it, "the main excitement of logic for me is that although it began as a quest for certainty, using rational procedures it uncovered the incompleteness of reason itself. The theorem demonstrating that a logical system is unable to prove its own consistency humanizes the discipline for meÉ.epistemological uncertainty is the dynamo". Instead of looking to arrive at incontrovertible conclusions, Healy puts logic to use as an aesthetic and a generator of new insights: "one can use it quite simply to change one’s syntax. Composing sentences in a formal way can allow one to regain the freedom to be open to ideas which ordinary syntax would fail to suggest". It allows one to escape from the already known and the lyric impulse. The argument poem as the New Sentence by other means.
In his recent work Healy has continued to work with systematic forms, allowing them to structure his poems with the rigor of a Jackson Mac Low. Flame, for example, is a long work, which derives its structure mathematically. As Healy puts it, "the [highly eccentric] pagination, number of words per line, number of letters in words are based on a decimal expansion of phi ". In fact, this structure begins on the title page, which helpfully tells us that "[phi]lame," here, is "pronounced lame. What makes this especially interesting is that it is a system that allows for its own violation. David Annwn, writing on the poem, has pointed out that phi is also "a model for randomness" and that, while remaining systematically structured, it also has an openness to the "random possibilities that any sign-making opens up to us".
What is perhaps most remarkable about Healy’s systematic poems is that they manage to avoid the artificial gulf between intellect and emotion that is all-too-often evident in such works. From Oulipo to Fluxus and beyond, when we read systematic works we often find that the rebellion against lyric poetry’s emotional indulgence has been too successful. With Healy, this is simply not the case. His long poem Arbor Vitae, for example, is rigorously structured by an anagramatic model, and takes the repression of one language by another as its theme. At the same time, though, it is filled with intimate detail about Healy’s deaf daughter, about his struggle to negotiate between English and sign language, and about his anxieties for his daughter in a world she cannot hear.
RA: Some of the passages in your newest work are blacked out, and when I first saw them I thought of a censor's marker. But the more I looked at them the more they seemed like the kind of effect you can get when you highlight text on a computer. Since a section of the poem first appeared in an on-line magazine, I wonder if the way the poem looks has been influenced by computers and internet design. Has the computer had an impact on your work?
RH: The blackouts can be read in a number of ways. The more the merrier. Yes there is censorship, everywhere. A lack of desire to know being a particularly insidious form of censorship. There's the biological angle, we all have genes which are not expressed. Death, that's there. There's the public/private thing. The limitations of the senses, there are things we can't experience because they're off the scale. And among those things we could experience, much is filtered out, deleted by the means of perception. And so on. I have used computers. In Flame section III, I wrote a little program to work out a set of combinations based on a limited phonetic set. I wanted to find an alternative music to that provided rhyme, alliteration and so on.
RA: Writing a computer program that will itself write part of your poem would seem like a pretty radical step in some circles. It certainly opens up the poem to all kinds of aleatory possibilities. How does this relate to your idea of yourself as an author? It seems like you must see yourself as something other than the maker of a "well-wrought urn"...
RH: I think I'd be more interested in a well-wrought beetle. As regards the aleatory, I've been working, not so much with any opposition between chance and order, as with their overlap. If you push an idea hard enough very easily starts turning into its opposite. And that's where things start humming.
RA: Your work has started to incorporate more elements of visual poetry. This happens in Scales, but also in Flame, where a kind of 'total composition' seems to be at work. Page numbers are re-arranged, symbols are introduced, and several fonts are used. What is the attraction of this kind of composition for you?
RH: I wouldn't go for words like total. I prefer the incomplete. However, quibbles aside, I'm interested in form and gesture at the moment. My second daughter is deaf and uses sign language, which has made me much more aware of language as a spatial phenomenon. The page numbers in Flame represent the decimal expansion of the golden mean, a key symbol of order in Greek culture, which has turned out to be an irrational number whose digits therefore provide a random sequence. I'm fascinated by the dialectic between order and randomness. The obvious model is evolution, where random mutations of molecular chains lead to things like birds and trees. Flame is full of random procedures based on irrational numbers and on genetic mutation. The published version is part of a much larger text. (Deletion is a major force in evolution.) The appearance, or illusion, of pattern is partly due to the absence of forerunners. In nature the amount of wastage is huge. Life is by no means green. Pattern also arises because of the way our cognitive processes structure things. The Rorschach inkblot test is an example, in danger of becoming banal, of a very powerful phenomenon. Matter glitters with paradox. The stone that Johnson kicked to assure himself of stability of existence is now modeled as a colossal assembly of infinitesimal particles, each of which is modeled in turn as an infinite dimension matrix. The number above, phi, which appears all through nature, can be modeled as a point having no extension, or as an infinite decimal expansion. The flame, as a series of atomized continuities provided a huge referential pool which was threaded through by the forms and structures of phi and molecular evolution. So one of the compositional aims was to use reference and chaos to arrive at an interesting diversity of form and resonance. That might sound all very airy-fairy and abstract, but in practice the procedures tend to be very musical and at times uncomfortably personal.
RA: Although some of your early poems are miniatures, your poems have been stretching out, and lately you've been using the chapbook as a unit of composition. What's behind the urge to expansive composition? Is there something on an even grander scale in the works?
RH: There's something of the move from specimen to ecology, from a description of a water flea to an exploration of the pond. While I am trying a broader scale, it would add that there is no attempt at completeness. I see the incomplete as a too precious, and too inevitable, a resource to overlook. Many of the poets who read at New Hampshire were working on a larger scale, which I found very exciting. Maurice Scully has written a 300-page poem, Livelihood. Trevor Joyce, Billy Mills, Catherine Walsh and Geoffrey Squires all have book length poems. In my own work I have been working on a fairly continuous trajectory beginning with logic, which for me represents reason stretched past its breaking point. If it lived up to its advertising it would be the last word in dullness, but its inadequacies and paradoxes keep it interesting. Next I used arithmetic as a net (many of the crises of modern logic arose from Whitehead's and Russell's attempt to deduce arithmetic from purely logical propositions.) to see what would happen. This was very demanding, but gave me a sense of the scale of the physical world. From this, as I mentioned above, I moved onto to more ecological considerations. This might seem very content based. But I have become interested in the narrative possibilities of form. A simple example. One of the main strands of Arbor Vitae is the history of deaf education, a history full of arrogance and oppression, in which repeated attempts were and are made to eliminate sign language. The sign, in Irish sign language, for yes, is made by holding one hand vertically and touching the palm with the tips of the other hand, held horizontally. Formally, this suggested acrostics, the vertical meeting the horizontal. Acrostics are also relevant here in that when read aloud, no matter how good your hearing is, you won't hear them. On an even simpler level the poem is in three sections mirroring the three letter of the word "yes", formally connecting the sign and the word. Finally, deaf education was initiated by the religious. They originally believed all deaf people were damned, because of a text in Romans (10:17 So then faith cometh by hearing and hearing the word of God). By the sixteenth century they decided that there might be some hope for the deaf if they could be taught to read the word of God. The Christian symbol of the cross is often described as the sign of contradiction, a meeting of horizontal and vertical. To get any kind of play from this kind of thing, I felt I needed to work on a larger scale.
RA: Your work can be quite challenging for a reader — wonderfully challenging, really. But difficult work always makes one wonder about its intended audience. Who do you write for? Is there an 'ideal reader'?
RH: At one stage I was exploring the question "how big is the mind?" and the results suggested something so huge that communication looked almost impossible. How could we avoid dissolving in our own private oceans? Then in exploring the question of common origin (family trees expand in the past but the human population contracts, therefore branches must be shared) one could envisage more connections than perhaps the more lively nationalisms would admit. So, I suppose that even if one were to determinedly write only for oneself, one would inevitably write for others too. In practical terms, being refused publication in Ireland for fourteen years relieved me of any burden, which an audience might have bestowed.
Healy’s work has the potential to enlarge and enrich Irish poetry, charting a path out of the nationalist tradition and expanding its formal possibilities. But Healy’s work can also be exemplary for American poetry, showing a way beyond the false binary of intellect and emotion. I’m willing to bet a pint that, this time next century, he’ll be in the anthology indexes a few lines down from Lady Gregory, a line or two up from Heaney. Any takers?
"Logic as a Starting Point for Poetry."
A short essay by Healy on his attraction to, and use of, logic as a poetic method. Difficult to find, well worth having. Printed in the defunct Irish journal The Beau #3/4, 1983/4.
"The Poet in the Information Age: An Interview with Randolph Healy."
Brief interview, available online along with a mini-anthology of the ‘Another Ireland’ poets. http://www.nd.edu/~ndr/issues/ndr7/contents.html
"Another Ireland" and "Another Ireland: Part Two"
Review-article by yours truly, dealing with poems by six Irish experimental poets, including Healy. Originally printed in the Notre Dame Review, #4 (Summer 1997) and #5 (Winter 1997-8). Reprinted as a pamphlet by Wild Honey Press, 1998.
Wild Honey Press
16a Ballyman Road
Bray, Co. Wicklow
"The Sound Eye"
The best online resource for experimental Irish poetry, includes some poems by Healy. Run by poet Trevor Joyce. http://indigo.ie/~tjac/sound_eye_hme.htm
"Vital Spirals Dancing: The Poetry of Randolph Healy."
Essay by Welsh poet David Annwn. In the English magazine Angel Exhaust #17 (Spring 1999). A very good special issue on Irish experimental poetry, entitled Colonies of Belief. If you’ve read this article you’re already in the know about the source of the title.
35 Stewart’s Way
Manuden, nr. Bishop’s Storford, Herts.
England CM23 1DR
"Review: Six Titles from Wild Honey"
Review of several chapbooks, including Healy’s Arbor Vitae. By the American poet and critic David Kellogg. Somewhat incongruously located in Samizdar #3, an issue otherwise devoted to Scandinavian poetry.
9 Campus Circle
Lake Forest, IL 60045
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