The John Hewitt International Summer School

Writers from all over the world arrive in honour of 'a poet to be thankful for.' Watch an exclusive video below

In the sunlit foyer of the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh, John Brown of Books Upstairs sits behind a selection of literature from all over the world.

The earthtones of Lucy Caldwell’s play Leaves rest next to the day-glo orange of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On the right is Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover!, bound in rich purple. But there are no books by John Hewitt to be seen.

‘I’ve sold out,’ Brown explains. ‘The Collected Poems was the first to go. Every book, gone.’

20 years after his death, Hewitt’s work retains its relevance and appeal. The annual International Summer School welcomes authors, broadcasters, dramatists and poets to Armagh for a week-long series of readings, workshops and discussions in a celebration of Hewitt’s spirit and ideals.

Born in 1907, Hewitt came to prominence as one of Northern Ireland’s most individual and assertive poetic voices. In the face of destructive and dogmatic religious and socio-political creeds he hoped that pacifism, humanism and tolerance would lead to mutual understanding between people of all cultures.

Featuring writers as diverse as Dr Ian Sansom, Joyce Sutphen and Chinese dissident Yang Lian the 2009 Summer School addresses the theme ‘Unfettered Thought: Belief in the Future?’, taken from Hewitt’s poem ‘The Glens’.

I fear their creed as we have always feared
the lifted hand against unfettered thought.
I know their savage history of wrong and
would at moments lend an eager voice,
if voice avail, to set that tally straight.

While Hewitt’s reputation is not as great as, say, that of Louis MacNeice, his work is recognised and he is remembered as an important cultural figure.

In 1976 he became the first appointed writer-in-residence at Queen’s University, Belfast, preceding the famous generation of Northern Irish writers that includes Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley.

While many of Hewitt’s collections were privately printed, The Day of the Corncrake (1969) was published by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society and in 1974 he joined the Blackstaff Press with whom he published until his death in 1987. The Collected Poems of John Hewitt was issued in 1991.

As poetry editor of the quarterly Threshold magazine, Hewitt was first to publish poems by Paul Muldoon and in 1966 he welcomed Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph.

In his role as Keeper of Art at the Ulster Museum he exhibited work by established British painters Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore alongside emerging Northern Irish artists like TP Flanagan and Basil Blackshaw.

The Ulster Museum would play a decisive role in Hewitt’s future. When he was denied promotion to the Directorship of the Museum in 1957 he moved to Coventry, holding the position of Art Director at the Herbert Gallery until 1972. Here, in addition to the duties of the post, he was able to hold readings by Heaney and offer a space for other Ulster artists to exhibit.

Heaney’s own appreciation of Hewitt appeared in the Sunday Tribune upon his death in 1987. ‘In the Ulster of the forties and fifties,’ Heaney remembers in Stepping Stones, ‘[Hewitt] was something of a cultural and intellectual standard-bearer, combative and authentic, left-wing and puritan.’

While Hewitt’s combative nature left some people cold, Heaney remarks that Hewitt is ‘a poet to be thankful for.’ Heaney’s poem ‘The Schoolbag’ is dedicated to his memory. In September 1960 Hewitt became an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy, and in 1979 he refused an OBE offered under Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government.

In the present day, Hewitt is remembered not only by having a bar named in his honour (The John Hewitt, on Belfast’s Donegall Road) but publicly, in speech and in print. Irish President Mary McAleese quotes Hewitt regularly, and writing in the Guardian, Nick Laird recalls Hewitt’s necessarily ambiguous position on national identity:

‘I'm an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I'm an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I'm European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.’

Kiran Acharya

The John Hewitt Spring and Summer Schools take place each year at the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh. All are welcome and bursaries are available. Visit the John Hewitt Society online for more information.

Selected Poems by John Hewitt (ed Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby) is available from Blackstaff Press.