Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two-Birds (1939): A Poetic Symposium

Poetry (theory)

PAUL SHAHAHAN: Give them a bloody pick [...] give them the shaft of a shovel into their hand and tell them to dig a hole and have the length of a page of poetry off by heart in their heads before the five o’clock whistle. What will you get? [...] Do you know what it is, I’ve met the others, the whole lot of them. I’ve met them all and know them all. I have seen them and I have read their pomes [sic]. I have heard them recited by men that know how to use their tongues, men that couldn’t be beaten at their own game. I have seen whole books filled up with their stuff, books as thick as that table there and I’m telling you no lie. But by God, at the heel of the hunt, there is only one poet for me. (ATSB, [Penguin edn.] p.74.)

You can’t beat it, of course [...] the real old stuff of the native land, you know, stuff that brought scholars to our shore when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today ... and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it. But the man in the street, were does he come in? [...] You can get too much of that stuff. Feed yourself up with that tack once and you won’t want more for a long time. (Ibid., p.75.)

Poetry is a thing I am very fond of, said the Good Fairy. I always make a point of following the works of Mr Eliot and Mr Lewis and Mr Devlin. A good pome is a tonic. Was your pome on the subject of flowers, Mr Casey? Wordsworth was a great man for the flowers. (p.120.) Verse-speaking, they call it in London . (Ibid., p.121.)

“The Ballad of Father Gilligan”* [...] in the intermediate book [...] a very nice spiritual thing (Ibid., p.122.)

*This poem is by W. B. Yeats and was widely taught as accessible, popular Irish poetry in ballad form yet of literary standard. As with everything else in this theoretical account of poetry, the selection of Yeats’s ballad is profoundly tongue-in-cheek. The spelling “pomes”, above, is not an error: it points to the filtering of poetic lore through vulgar minds which is at the heart of the joke-treatment of the subject in the novel.
  It seems that “high-class literature” is remote from the understandings of contemporary Irishmen - though their estimate of their own “stuff” is by no means modest in the face of the exalted canons of literary modernism - of which James Joyce is the constant, if always unspoken, exemplum.

Poetry in At Swim-Two-Birds

FINN [reciting verses of St. Moling]  

My curse on Sweeney!
His guilt against me is immense,
he pierced with his long swift javelin
My holy bell.
Just as it went prestissimo
the spear-shaft skyward,
you, too, Sweeny, go madly mad-gone skyward. […]
My curse on you Sweeny. (p.65.)

[...] Bereft of fine women-folk,
the brooklime for a brother -
our choice for a fresh meal
is watercress always.

Without accomplished musicians
without generous women,
no jewel-gift for bards -
respected Christ, it has perished me. (p.67).

Watercress from the well at Cirb
is my lot at terce,
its colour is my mouth.
green on the mouth of Sweeney.

Chill chill is my body
when away from ivy,
the rain torrents it
and the thunder. (p.69.) [...]

Glen Bolcain my home ever,
it was my haven,
many a night have I tried
a race against the peak. (p.72.)


The bell-belling of the stag
through the woodland,
the climb to the deer-pass,
the voice of the white seas.

Forgive me Oh Great Lord,
mortal is this great sorrow,
worse than the black grief-
Sweeny the thin-groined. (p.82.)

Terrible is my plight this night
the pure air has pierced my body,
lacerated my feet, my cheek is green -
O Mighty God, it is my due. (p.84.)

I have journeyed from Luachair Dheaghaidh
to the edge of Fiodh Gaibhle,
this is my fare - I conceal it not -
ivy-berries, oak-mast. (p.89.)


Finn McCool [answering threnody:]
I do not relish
the mad clack of humans
sweeter warble of the bird
in the place he is.

I like not the trumpeting
heard at morn;
sweeter hearing is the squeal
of badgers in Benna Broc. (p.80.)

“A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man”

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night

When the stag appears on the mountain high,
with flanks the colour of bran,
when a badger bold can say goodbye,
MAN. (p.80.)

Jem Casey’s Workingman’s Song
Come all ye lads and lassies prime
From Macroom to old Strabane,
And list to me till I say my rhyme -

Your lords and people of high degree
Are a fine and noble clan,
They do their best but they cannot see
THAT THE GIFT OF GOD IS A WORKIN’ MAN. [... &c.] (p.121).

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