Memory and imagination feeding on one another, the return of the past in the present opening up the possibility of the present’s transformation, and thereby the advent of the future. Yawn. Seamus Heaney takes a different tack when he writes, in the poem ‘Mint’, that ‘my last things will be first things slipping from me’ (Heaney 1998: 396). Death is figured as the loss of the earliest childhood memory, but last things thereby become first things, temporality is reversed, and the slipping from, or slippage from, assumes the sense of involuntary utterance—‘it just slipped out’—a pure speech. There’s an interlacing of past and present, presence and absence. But that appeal to last things, and the notion of slipping away—‘he just slipped away’—lends the line a combination of the apocalyptic and the gloopily sentimental, kitschy even, that I want to call lyric.
Like many of my generation, born in the late 1960s, television programs play a significant role in my repertoire of first things. Some of my most important memories are archived online in ghosted, fragmentary recordings ported into YouTube from the 1970s: what the philosopher Yuk Hui (2016) calls digital objects. I discovered this, as I suspect many new fathers have done, when I tried to interest my infant daughter in some of my own childhood totems: Noggin the Nog, Hector and Parsley, Kiki and Zsa Zsa. Just as my mother had tried to wean me off Bagpuss and The Clangers when I was six, by leaving me alone to play with her fragile, cherished childhood pop-up book. That did not end well. Similarly, my attempts to interest Alannah in the world of stop-start animation and hand-tinted cells, of eerie electronic soundtracks and folk-pulp Victoriana, would end with her demanding Peppa Pig, or some such pabulum, leaving me to sulk on my laptop, spiralling down the analogue time-tunnel into the depths of my childhood.
Thinking about the lyric, and children’s television online, leads me to Walter Benjamin, who has a great essay on Baudelaire, but more importantly also wrote wonderfully about childhood, popular culture and technology:
every childhood achieves something great and irreplaceable for humanity. By the interest it takes in technological phenomena, by the curiosity it displays before any sort of invention and machinery, every childhood binds the accomplishments of technology to the old worlds of symbol. (Benjamin 2002: 461)
The idea of ‘childhood’ (the time, not the child itself) as a zone that ‘binds’ technology with myth—‘binding’ understood here in the Freudian way, as a muscular configuration of powerful psychic energies—strikes me as absolutely right.
Yuk Hui doesn’t mention Benjamin. He does draw on Heidegger and Husserl a bit, as well as lots of Bernard Stiegler, his PhD supervisor and former bank robber.1 It’s tough going. I write criticism as well as poetry, and if I am trying to bring a philosophical claim to bear on a piece of literature, I’ll try to make sure what I am saying is cogent and sufficiently hedged to pass muster. This will entail study, annotation, and working through secondary sources. At other times, however, I find myself reading just for the hell of it and, when I do, all of that goes out of the window. Sometimes the only way I can get through something like Yuk Hui’s book is by pretending it’s a long, perplexing poem. That way I don’t have to worry about systematic understanding—although, strangely, that does sometimes happen. I’m looking instead for a mood, a phrase, and image, a world. A feeling. Descartes sitting in from of the fire in his ‘winter cloak’, with the warming ball of wax in his hand. Hume playing billiards in a dodgy Scottish snooker club. Socrates going pale. Mandeville scarpering from a swarm of bees. Derrida stepping naked and dripping out of the shower to find his cat sitting there watching him. Or Heidegger’s list of aural images from near the beginning of Being and Time: ‘the creaking wagon, the motorcycle … the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the crackling fire’ (1996: 153). Some of these images make it into the poems I write.
A strong memory. My first and by far most profound encounter with philosophy was on the telly: Bryan Magee’s Men of Ideas, later mercifully changed to The Great Philosophers. A quick internet search tells me that this was first broadcast in 1978, which seems about right. I was 11 and obsessed with BBC2, programmes like It’s Patently Obvious, a panel show where a group of men with beards—academics, probably—were presented with a tool or machine and had to identify its function (I am never met anyone else who enjoyed or even remembers this programme. But now, having looked it up on the internet, I find there is a page on the British Film Institute devoted to it, although it is mysteriously blank. There is also a 13-minute clip on YouTube, where William Woollard demonstrates how to use a thatching needle, the kind of implement you might find in the Museum of English Rural Life, where the Symposium for which this essay was written took place, and which also houses the archive of Samuel Beckett).
I’ve recently finished a sequence of 27 lyric poems that I’ve had on the go, more or less, on and off, since my daughter was two. The initial impulse was the ridiculous thought that I would write a sequence of poems based on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but set in Wimbledon. The sofa in our front room would be the boat negotiating the Mekong. Colonel Kurtz would be a mysterious figure humming around the place on a mobility scooter. So far so good. The lure of YouTube and Vimeo, however, not to mention a bunch of websites maintained by obsessives of the same vintage as myself, meant that soon animated stuffed toys began to make regular appearances: the mice on the mouse organ; Gabriel the Toad, and eventually, inevitably: Tomsk, Orinoco, Uncle Bulgaria.
It’s Patently Obvious was broadcast the same year as Bryan Magee’s Men of Ideas. Perhaps I saw Magee’s programme after watching the former. Or maybe it was Horizon, a documentary series I was also addicted to. Or perhaps I tuned in early for The Sky at Night, whose presenter, the monocled plummy Patrick Moore, had been director of the Armagh Planetarium from 1965 to 1968. In any event I was hooked and, with my father off on night shift at the psychiatric hospital, and my brothers in bed, my mother was content to let me watch it while she finally had a chance to sit and chat with her own mother, who lived with us. And so the cultured English and American voices murmured on, disrupted only by the interference from the signalman of a passing foot patrol, for this was Northern Ireland, and there was an intermittent war, or at least an emergency, going on outside.
It is very hard to explain the atmosphere of Armagh in the 1970s and 1980s. Seamus Deane (1997) has an essay on Yeats called Boredom and Apocalypse, and that combination somehow speaks to my recollections of the time. Overheated rooms. Padlocked playgrounds. Wagon wheels and gravy rings. A kick-about hastily aborted. Crude, occult dolls left at night on Republican graves by the Paras. There is something in the texture of the media of the time, as archived now online, that for me is soaked in this atmosphere. I don’t mean footage of riots and bombsites, foot patrols and helicopters above massive rural funerals. I mean Bagpuss, The Clangers, Bryan Magee’s Great Philosophers. Beckett’s Ghost Trio. I mean wobbling sets and visible booms, I mean bad teeth, lurid bleeding colour and low-definition. Visibly sweating middle-aged white men with comb-overs.
My poem went through many, many drafts. Most of them are stuffed haphazardly into a folder, somewhere in a stack of other folders on the floor of the smooth, tall, monolithic, light-absorbing, black wardrobe in our box room. Which makes me think of Heaney again, and the astonishing cache of his papers at the National Library in Dublin. From the outside it looks like a couple of metres of shelving, but inside it’s a universe, from the tiny asteroids of punctuation charges to the enormous spiralling star systems of drafts for some of his greatest poems.
Heidegger’s seminars of 1919 are now known as ‘The War Emergency Seminar’, a somehow very satisfying title. This is the period when, according to Hannah Arendt, he was known by the cognoscenti throughout Germany as ‘the secret king’, such was the intensity of his teaching. The following year, his classes billed as being on the philosophy of religion turned out to be incomprehensible excursions on methodology. The students revolted, complaining to the Dean that religion wasn’t even mentioned. In the very next session Heidegger launched into a close, extemporary reading of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Here, in the early years of Christianity, he found his great subject, a form of life haunted by both an event in the past and an apocalyptic promise. This becomes the notion of facticity: the everyday, pre-cognitive experience of time as being, being as time. It seems to me that this is also the realm that poetic composition inhabits: a suspended, extended, dilated time, the zone of the lyric.
Certain holograph sheets in Heaney’s archive stick in my mind above all; the ones where words and phrases are scattered right across the page, some of them later very famous. The order of, or connection between, these elements is not at all clear. It’s a network of variables, created ad hoc. You can imagine him thinking, get it down, get something down, and make it enough for another pass through the same zone, this time as Tarkofsky’s stalker, following your own footprints over the slippery terrain. The temporal flow of life notated spatially in scraps and patches of lines, riffs, images, crossings-out on the hoof, notes to the absent self, blanks and clichéd placeholders, embarrassing lapses.
It’s possible that either my mother or my grandmother noticed, as the titles came up, the unusual way Bryan Magee, the host of Bryan Magee’s Great Philosophers, spelled his name, and so connected him to another Magee, the actor who had been born not a two-minute walk from our house, and whose family they knew well. Magee had been living in London since the mid-1950s, but often came back to visit. Two years previously he had made his last major film, playing an exiled Irish aristocrat in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Now, when I google Bryan, Pat comes up, and when I search for Bryan, Pat appears. Watching the YouTube recording of Krapp’s Last Tape, when Magee reprised his famous performance in the first performance of Beckett’s masterpiece, I am aware of various episodes of The Great Philosophers laddered up the sidebar to the left of the screen: Dreyfus on Heidegger and Sartre; Martha Nussbaum on Aristotle; Peter Singer on Marx.
On the extraordinary BBC Genome website you can bring up the TV and radio schedules for any date from the 1920s on. In some cases you can then reconstruct a couple of hours viewing by panning for online footage, torrents, AVI files. On BBC2, Sunday 17 March 1979: David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, Beckett’s Shades, Michael Caine in Alfie. The next day, a 21-year-old soldier was killed in an IRA mortar bomb attack on Newtownhamilton Army base. It was around this time that my father bought a second powerful television aerial so that he could pick up RTE, the Irish television station, broadcasting from across the border into the North. This meant he could watch GAA games, Gaelic football, and not have to put up with soccer (‘English game’). The aerial waved in the wind so the reception was very poor. When my mother worried out loud that it might be conspicuous to military surveillance we all laughed.
Certainly in the very first phase of the emergence of a poem, the relationship to the materials to hand is factical, non-theoretical. My basic orientation seems to be not towards language but towards image-complexes, constellations, temporary worlds that in the first rushing moments hang together through some sort of somatic mastic. I write directly on my laptop, usually with several tabs open on websites, and there’s a sense of absorption not only in the page but in the web. Benjamin’s notion that children’s time and technology bind in a symbolic meaning-making assemblage is close in these moments. As is the story of how Rilke—the greatest lyric poet of all—once wondered what kind of sound, what voice, would be heard if you ran a gramophone needle along the coronal suture of a human skull.
I am harvesting and harvested. As I write I am watching Michael Bentine’s Potty Time; the image buffers, then freezes, nothing moves, but a lake of algorithms moves beneath me, and moves me. A small black square has appeared on Bentine’s temple; as the image jumps forward in time and begins to move again it disappears, but only to come back. Some kind of glitch, winked-out pixels, dead neurons on the digital cortex. Or I am watching a highly compressed badly-haloed video of a 1974 Picture Box. As the weird hurdy-gurdy music and rotating crystal casket of the titles sequence ends, the presenter Alan Rothwell appears. Large blocks of poorly quantized data pulse around his head. Sometimes his face is eaten into at the edges, becoming a fractal coastline.
In a very well-known description, Heidegger talks about his writing table. His children have over the years scratched and marked it: ‘Here and there it shows lines—the boys like to busy themselves at the table. Those lines are not just interruptions in the paint, but rather it was the boys and still is’ (1999: 69). It was the boys and still is. Walter Benjamin: ‘No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon … The side which things turn towards the dream is kitsch … it catches hold of objects at their most threadbare and timeworn point’ (1999: 3). What is the relationship between the marks on Heidegger’s desk, left by his children, marks that make them present and situate the table in a meaningful world, and the timeworn point that childhood and technology reveal in their dream objects? Where does kitsch fit in?
This is the image I arrive at. It is late at night. I am watching something called Patrick Magee’s Great Philosophers. The actor sits on a bare stage, perspiring, toxins oozing from every pore, his stubbled jowls quivering as he looks straight ahead into the darkness of our living room. Now and then he starts and busies himself with the tape recorder in front of him, spooling rapidly and randomly back and forward then stopping with a loud clank and cupping his ear as a refined male voice strikes up in the middle of a monologue about Bishop Berkeley. At which the actor’s face darkens and, muttering inaudibly, he roughly stops and rewinds or fast forwards again and then sits up. His head has turned into the black parallelogram or box that appears on the stage at the end of Yeats’ play The Death of Cuchulain. Another voice begins; it’s Bryan Magee: ‘is it possible for the goings-on inside my skull to have a meaningful relationship to distant galaxies?’ But now the screen wavers and scintillates into static as the familiar whine of a Saracen’s high-pressure tires shoots past outside, and a helicopter begins to chuckle in the distance. ‘A lot of activity out there tonight’, says my mother, without looking up from her newspaper.
1. On which, see Bernard Stiegler 2003 Passer à l'acte, Paris: Editions Galilée [2009, Acting Out (trans David Barison, Daniel Ross, and Patrick Crogan), Redwood City CA: Stanford University Press].
Benjamin, Walter 2002 The Arcades Project (trans Howard Eiland and K McLaughlin), Cambridge MA: Belknap Press
Benjamin, Walter 1999  ‘Dream kitsch: Gloss on surrealism’, in Selected Writings, Volume 2, 1927-1934 (ed Michael W Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith), Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 3–5
Deane, Seamus 1997 Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 145–97
Heaney, Seamus 1998 ‘Mint’, in Opened Ground: Poems 1966–1996, London: Faber & Faber
Heidegger, Martin 1996 Being and Time (trans Joan Stambaugh), New York: State University of New York Press
Heidegger, Martin 1999 Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity (trans John van Buren), Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Yuk Hui 2016 On the Existence of Digital Objects, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press