John Hewitt - Selected Poems

Every poet in Ulster should take a lesson from the old master, writes Fred Johnston

A poet, asked to read in Belfast, later told me in Galway that I was considered by some Northern poets to be ‘difficult’. Mention of my name elicited head-shakes, and they can’t all have been due to excess of drink. 'Watch him', the poet – who was not Irish – was warned.

Being an east Belfast man and stubborn, I consider it an honour to be disliked by my countrymen. If your own can’t despise you, who else has the right? And I am in good company.

Celebrating the centenary of John Hewitt’s birth, it is difficult to avoid the circumstances of his famously being rejected and despised as a ‘communist and pro-Catholic’ by the illustrious guardians of the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery. Being disliked as an artist in Belfast has always meant being disliked by small groups, coteries. Now that it’s alright to celebrate Hewitt, and has been for some years, it seems alright also to gloss over the events at Belfast Museum. The glossing positively shines here in the Longley/Ormsby Introduction, the outrage receiving, by my count, four lines.

But the depth of the blow to Hewitt, not to say the betrayal that sent him literally to Coventry, is not registered. We are left to do the mathematics ourselves, and detect that Hewitt was at Belfast Museum for 20 years.

Like my own Belfast tribe, Hewitt was Methodist and on the political Left. It is almost certain that Hewitt’s visits to army camps in various parts of Ulster lecturing on art and Marxism - Uncle Joe Stalin being everyone’s friend at that period of the Second World War - coupled with the communal bourgeois guilt of those who later felt uncomfortable with the Soviets, contributed at least as much as any perceived ‘pro-Catholic’ tendencies to his dismissal from the museum. But Hewitt was happy enough in Coventry. It was open, rebuilding itself, diverse, a change from Belfast and its social and cultural neuroses. At 50, a good age to decide no longer to tolerate fools, Hewitt set about building a gallery.

The introduction to John Hewitt: Selected Poems is lucid, detailed, and needs no revamp here. We are still left with the fact of Hewitt and the fact of his work to sample for ourselves. He understood the varied and complex substrata of Ulster society and his 1974 Rhyming Weavers & Other country poets of Antrim and Down (why the full title is so infrequently referred to I do not know) proved that a strong and vibrant cultural identity, a heady brew of Scots and Scots-Irish and Gaelic, Protestant, Catholic and indivisibly rural, had existed outside the confines of Belfast. Had existed and one must add, continues to exist.

Perhaps not without utter coincidence was this study published during one of the bloodiest periods of the Troubles. There are still, certainly in the Irish Republic, those who would deride the notion of Ulster Scots as a language, and I might recommend this little book to them.

Hewitt dared to connect the various with the particular; he suggested and then laid down, if you will, through his poetry, the nature of Ulsterness in all its varied hues. He was able to note that the landscape, as one passed from the north of Ireland to the Republic, did not alter (‘The Frontier’) and, even more daringly, implied therefore that we might all be sitting on the same island, even in the same acre.

He was aware that the province of Ulster had been colonised and had spread the psyche of colonising to eventually settle and administrate that other colony that became the United States. Only a defiant Ulster pragmatism, (and an inherently Godless one, in spite of what the inherently Presbyterian emigration ballads of the 19th century imply) one might argue, could have carried that off and thrown in seven US presidents for good measure.

Hewitt was a fine poet, a rich stylist, a political seer, a no-nonsense intelligent observer of his countrymen, better at his poetic last than any Ulster poet living and writing today: stand up now who would dispute it.

His ‘image,’ if one might use such a vulgar word, is hampered somewhat by well-intentioned but ill-serving ideas of his being an ‘ikon’ of Northern regionalism, his reputation as a sensitive, often quite personal poet restored here in this book even as one continues to feel that Hewitt’s reputation as a poet is over-shadowed, nay, virtually determined, by his Rhyming Weavers. . . and his own becoming – inadvertently? – the oracular spirit of a revised cultural Planterism.

Hewitt’s work in these fields was necessary, vital certainly; yet one feels that the resulting image may have been created (speaking generally) in the likeness of some need or want in a post-Burntollet Ulster. One wonders whether even he, at times, wearied of it, much as a rock singer is forever bedevilled by that first, towering album. Some of the most beautiful poems here have no political, nor Planter-conscious leanings at all. ‘My Sister’ is what it indicates it is, a lyrical and emotive evocation of a beloved sibling:

               “ . . . taught me, for instance, how to tie my shoe,
               and headed me by candlelight to bed,
               and only once reported when I lied.
               I should have liked a brother, it is true,
               but that was in addition, not instead.”

Is he relevant today, now that another scuttle’s worth of Ulster poets, for the most part clinging like new-born chicks to the feathery breast of Queen’s University – wherein Hewitt was the first writer-in-residence, a post always fraught with its own restrictions - are claiming that, the Troubles over, the world is ignoring them? No scrap, no angst, no poetry – is that it? Whatever happened to creative imagination, one might ask. Or is that a question too far?

In Belfast’s newly-rarified, self-congratulatory air, Hewitt, alive, would have no place and, I’d venture, seek none. Yet Hewitt’s continued importance is that he stands outside, though he was no crazed ruralist, needing ‘the honey of the city hive,’ as he states in ‘The Ram’s Horn.’

One might be forgiven for considering that Hewitt saw the city as necessary and the countryside as an aspiration, a desire to be explored, so off he went. Yet this may be unfair to him in the long run. He seems to have nurtured a firm belief – again, as many city-people do – that an unwritten truth about himself and his heritage lay in the worked acres beyond the hill.

Those who wish to might compare and contrast the redbrick-and-neon-lighted Belfast wonderlands of Ciaran Carson’s poetry and other writings, though even he was drawn to rework Brian Merriman’s inherently rural 'Cúirt an Mhéan Oíche', which fact may produce interesting parallels with the work of Hewitt’s poeticising weavers of the same important period in Ireland’s history. Hewitt’s weavers roots him in tradition as firmly and absolutely as Carson’s flute-playing of traditional music.

Hewitt was no consumer of poetic glister. He watches, on our behalf, over the gate for the better, longer view. I might safely say that there isn’t one Belfast poet in ten today who could  - or would wish to - name or even find a rural Ulster poet writing after the style of those Hewitt documented: and they are still out there, they have not gone away, you know.

Hewitt was concerned with the greater, more quilted view of Ulsterness and, by implication, a greater good. Staring into a mirror and recording the colour of one’s moods didn’t interest him. He would have been wary, one imagines, of an organisation such as Aosdána, where poets and writers too often have had their political teeth pulled, living to acknowledge that

              “the pension which crippled his courage
              will keep him in daily bread,
              while he mourns for his mannerly verses
              that had left so much unsaid.”

                                                  - ‘A Local Poet’

No rhyming weaver, he, who has taken the soup. And now, of course, poetry and publishing the stuff is an industry, replete with take-overs, sackings, deposings, and infected with the kind of public political silence that comes with such territory. The Ulster, the Belfast, in which and of which Hewitt wrote and which stirred his imaginative consciousness does not exist now.

Even as Hewitt called forth and eulogised his weaving rhymesters, the Troubles had made a UK-supported industry out of Ulster writing and elevated some who were scarce poets at all to various degrees of status. Poetry became, God help us, respectable, a dowager forgiven every faux-pas. No wonder, then, that the end of the Troubles has exposed the holes below the waterline of the ship of Ulster’s writers, for thirty years-plus, drifted upon, thither and yon.

Hewitt is important today precisely because he may well have been, as the Blackstaff PR info describes, ‘a father figure to a generation of poets that includes Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley.’

But one feels he would have detested, this serious and concerned man, all flagoneur titles, tossed about today like so much confetti; though the late James Simmons, himself a poet in the old musical style, in describing Hewitt as ‘the daddy of us all’ is not misleading. Like all fathers Hewitt was ultimately rejected by his children, who thought him interesting enough, one supposes, but definitely passé. Ignorant, too, perhaps, of some of the new ways of their Ulster.

This invaluable, not-so-little book should be sent free of charge and as a service to Ulster poetry to every young poet in the province. And with it a copy of Rhyming Weavers & other country poets of Antrim and Down. We need Hewitt now more than ever to remind us that we have a tradition and a definable, colourful, multi-layered Ulsterness. That Ulster has a cultural and cultured mind that has nothing to do with universities. Now that we have, at least for political reasons, ceased to kill each other, Hewitt can teach us how to write poetry again in the peace of who we really are.

JOHN HEWITT - Selected Poems. Edited by Michael Longley & Frank Ormsby. The Blackstaff Press. ISBN 978-0-85640-802-1. Pbck. £7.99. 176pp.