May 15, 2013

The Bloody Brae: A Dramatic Poem

John Hewitt was a master of the modern verse. A father figure of the current generation of the Ulster poets which includes leading names such as Seamus Heaney, Frank Ormsby and Michael Longley, John Hewitt did much to promote art and literature in Northern Ireland throughout his life.

And even though he passed away over 25 years ago his mind and method lives on. Thanks in part of course to the well known Belfast city centre bar that bears his very name, the John Hewitt Society and the annual John Hewitt International Summer School.

His work was powerful, persuasive and compelling, using words and written verse to explore some of the greatest issues of his and our time: questions of ancestry, history and identity. Eavan Boland encapsulated the beauty of Hewitt’s prose and why it was and continues to be so incisive, speaking across the decades. Below is what Boland had to say on the man and poet:

"Hewitt became the voice and conscience of a fragmented culture… aware of the difficulties of his position as a Northern poet… he explored his awkward inheritance with a good deal of subtlety… he refuses either to disclaim his inheritance, or… be excluded from his Irishness on account of it… his sense of cultural dispossession made him, at his best, profound… he will be seen in the end as one of the most radical witnesses of the pain of history which Irish poetry has yet produced… he is one of the most original elegists of Irish division… nothing distracted him from his shrewed and honest exploration of the distance between nationality and identity… He is a quiet, rigorous conscience in the midst of a great deal of self-deception.”
(Sarah Ferris, [2002] Poet John Hewitt (1907 – 1987) and criticism of Northern Irish Protestant Writing, p. 43)

His use of context and perspective is refreshing and continues to be so. It resonates with the minds and sentiment of a people even a quarter of a century after his death. But it was his measured and all-inclusive manner of exploration that continues to be so powerful. Genuine and sincere, nor provocative, his method and model sets a template that could be used for future thought and investigation on the question of Northern Ireland identity.

And in these days of increasing community turbulence and uncertainty that surrounds identity and our collective future, never has John Hewitt been more relevant.

It is my belief that the way forward is one of quiet reflection and not the angry reflexive action that spills onto the streets. And it’s for that reason that I will be starting a series of blog posts that explores and pulls apart his work with goal of extrapolating some insights and ideas that could shape debate today.

On the event of the first poem I want to present a personal favourite. It’s called, 'Bloody Brae: a Dramatic Poem':
This is my country; my grandfather came here
and raised his walls and fenced the tangled
and gave his years and strength into the earth.
My father also. Now their white bones lime
the tillage and the pasture. Ebb and flow
have made us one with this.
From: ['The Collected Poems of John Hewitt', edited by Frank Ormsby, 1992, p. 407]

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