Shedding Poetry’s National Baggage

Eight fragments about the possibility of poetry losing it’s national, ethnic background


In February 2015 I received two separate calls in a single morning: one from a national arts body in Ireland, and another from an organisation connected to the culture ministry of Cyprus. The first, before beginning to consider whether to sponsor a project with my participation, was seeking confirmation that I am indeed an Irish national. “We saw your name and wondered,” the man on the phone explained. The second call referred to an event I was due to take part in a few months later under the sponsorship of the Cypriot organisation in question. It sought to ensure that I wasn’t planning to read work that might offend particular national sensibilities. “We should be careful about how we present ourselves,” the second man suggested. And could I send them my material in advance?


A fellow participant in a public discussion once made the claim that Constantine Cavafy’s poems are untranslatable – in the sense that his poems would be lesser in any language other than the Greek. She suggested that another language would be unworthy of them. This is because, she appeared to argue, the Greek language is so rich that trying to convey through another linguistic structure what the combination of words in Cavafy’s poetry expressed would impoverish it. Apart from a dubious sense of linguistic superiority, her stance also displayed a failure to acknowledge the possibilities of meaning and conversation opened up by the process of translation. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that our discussion was taking place in a setting provided by The European Commission’s language office with a most definite nod towards multilingualism and exchange.

As for Cavafy, while he wrote in Greek he did so from a trans-local position, having lived and worked in then cosmopolitan Alexandria, and having also had spells in Marseilles, Paris, London, Liverpool and Istanbul. As quoted in A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (Yale University Press, 1999), Cavafy said:

I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria – at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.


The biographical note on Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugrešić (Telegram, 2007) states that she “entered self-imposed exile when Croatia’s late president, Franjo Tuđman, proclaimed Croatia to be ‘paradise on earth’ in the early 1990s.” Among themes that now seem prescient (such as The West’s gradual adoption of old Eastern Bloc surveillance strategies) the book includes a series of essays that consider the notion of ‘national literatures’, exposing the shaky ground it increasingly stands on. Ugrešić then wonders whether labels for writers such as herself – ‘transnational’, ‘post-national’, ‘cross-border’ or ‘para-national’ – are any more useful, or really mean anything.

In her essay ‘The Writer in Exile’ from Thank You For Not Reading (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003) Ugrešić considers the “tragicomedy” of the writer who, having left the country of her origin, the identity she is invariably given is that of a representative of that country:

Why does the rest of the world label me a Croatian writer? Because it simply does not know how else to label me. Everyone is someone’s writer, everyone belongs to some nation, everyone writes in some language, why trouble oneself with a statistically insignificant example of the dysfunction of national identities?

She goes on to consider writers having the name of countries in parentheses at literary gatherings, like “lists of competitors in the Olympics”. Or the Eurovision Song Contest: “Cyprus, five points, Poland, two points, Belgium, ten points…”


In 2012 I was invited to represent Cyprus at Poetry Parnassus – described as “the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK, bringing together poets from all the competing Olympic nations” – as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. While happy with the recognition, a country in parenthesis after my name felt odd. Cyprus is the place I was born and grew up in, where my ancestors are, but in which I never wrote or had an audience before. The territory I live and where most of my writing-related activities take place in is Ireland, while my artistic sensibility was developed during the decade I spent living in England, north and south. There were similar misgivings expressed by other participants in Poetry Parnassus. A year later, in her keynote address at the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, Brussels, Kapka Kassabova said:

At the Olympic event Poetry Parnassus, I represented Bulgaria. I accepted the invitation because it was an honour, but felt like a fraud – our family emigrated from Bulgaria twenty years ago, and I write in English. In the past, because I was living and publishing in New Zealand, I attended festivals as a New Zealand writer – and again, I felt like a fraud. Today, I’m honoured to be here as a writer from Scotland, a country I love and feel at home in, and I’m still struggling with that fraudulent feeling.

Kassabova’s contribution to Poetry Parnassus included a talk in which she referred to the kitsch element in tribal allegiances such as the national. Katharine Kilalea (representing South Africa) and I were both asked by our ‘home’ journalists whether we thought we ‘deserved’ to be the country’s representative, given that we didn’t live there anymore. I welcomed the question for the same reason I sometimes accept invitations to present my work regardless of the suitability of the forum: it can be more valuable for artistic approaches and outlooks to be displayed in environments that don’t expect or naturally cater for them, than only speaking to those who will receive them kindly.


Following Michael D Higgins’ election to the office of Irish president in 2011, Carol Rumens offered a deconstruction of one of his poems in an article in The Guardian as an argument that Higgins’ poetry is so poor it barely merits him being celebrated as a poet-president. A hot reaction followed from people purporting a connection to Ireland, in the comments section below the online piece and in other forums. "Mean-spirited", "churlish", "nasty" and "mad woman" were some of the epithets used about Rumens – who was described consistently as a ‘British’ poet. A defence of Higgins in the following Saturday’s Irish Times was led by the then director of Poetry Ireland, Joseph Woods:

For someone who is a poet to be elected to the highest office in the land is an extraordinary thing [...] It’s a defining moment, and for another poet, another member of the tribe of poetry, to come out with something so mean-minded is very short-sighted ...

Further commentary was notable by its willingness to relegate poetry to minor significance the moment its maker attained national office. It revealed a mindset in which literature becomes irrelevant as long as it upholds national perceptions of achievement: if and when it enters the public arena, poetry becomes a vehicle for the propagation of the nation state, a tourist promotion of sorts.


Responding to writer and editor Dave Lordan’s question ‘What is an Irish Poet?’ for a feature in online journal The Bogman’s Cannon in 2015, Billy Ramsell wrote: “You can try to isolate currents in the Anglo-stream – in that relentless, shifting tide – and label them as definitively ‘Irish’. But good luck with that.” David Wheatley, on the same subject, was more forthright: “Poets are not representatives of either their race or their nation. I am not a team player.”


In Gwyneth Lewis' poem ‘Mother Tongue’ the speaker thirsts for access to languages outside the local or prescribed experience. We can always reach back into languages we have known: we do not lose the learning of them. But we can acquire the skill for language learning. The more language-lives we have access to, the broader and more multiform our frame of reference, the more attuned we are to the fast-changing world around us.

Increasingly in our aggressively nationalist times, inwardness is thought of as high virtue; insularity and stubbornness of vision are promoted as signs of a courageous up-holding of supposedly threatened heritage and values. But if an insular or marginalised community finds itself wielding a dominance of sorts, a force to be exerted upon the further-marginalised, where to for inwardness then? In what way is power to be understood?

In a 2008 Poetry Review essay discussing among other things the necessity to eschew the poetic – which she likens to comedians consciously giving up being personally hilarious in order to become professionally funny – Lewis wrote about the dangers of lyrical writing:

Are the Irish, who fled the famine and went all over the world as emigrants, often becoming wealthy in the process, now proving less than hospitable to the new immigrants into their home country? Has the lyric tone [...] helped to blind the poet to the change in the balance of economic power which has taken place in the new, tigerish Ireland? The tunes you play in your poems do matter, because they facilitate or inhibit what you can say and the breadth of your human sympathies outside your own cultural circles: they can stop you thinking.


In ‘A Cat in the Throat: On Bilingual Occupants’, first published in Jacket Magazine in 2009, Caroline Bergvall considers the correspondence between body and language taking place in writers who reject their mother tongue and “clear their throat” in order to create new spaces for the “re-embodying and re-appraisal of language’s spaces”. It’s a process through which a comfortable state of belonging is refused in the quest for something new and disruptive. This in turn leads to a constant interrogation of the structures and power dynamics inherent in patterns of language use and senses of ownership. Increasingly, writers live in territories they did not grow up in and work with languages through which their speech was not developed: a multi-accented, multi-faceted mode of expression that becomes richer, more unsettled and exploratory through the multiplicity of influences under which it performs. The conflation of mixed language writing and multiple cultural references uncovers new spaces through which to understand the world, and forms internationalist and revolutionary spaces to inhabit.