THERE ISN'T an occasion when I get up to speak anywhere that I don’t hear John Hewitt’s voice whispering: ‘What would you know about it?’
In a way this patch of territory is Hewitt’s home ground, not only because he was born and reared up the road in Clifton Street, but because he viewed these few streets around here as the cradle of radicalism in Ireland. Within hailing distance of Samuel Neilson’s firm and the offices of the Northern Star; in the backyard of Mary Ann McCracken and her somewhat less radical brother, Henry Joy; he opened in fact the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre (BURC) Offices on Mayday 1985; under the gaze from Clifton Street graveyard not only of Rev Steel Dickson of Ballycraigy, but of William Drennan.
Earlier this year, Michael Longley, a friend of the society, was honoured with the Freedom of Belfast; and I recalled the last poet to be so honoured. In 1983 they were very different days and Hewitt’s name was put forward by, among others, Paddy Devlin. It was touch and go as to whether a writer of his character – correctly dissenting – would be so recognised. In the end, it was a triumph for the arts in the city and one rightly remembered.
At the end of his acceptance speech, Hewitt quoted these few lines of his hero, William Drennan, co-founder both of the United Irishmen and of Royal Belfast Academical Institution, penned in 1806:
Man of taste, more than talent;
Not learned, though of letters;
His creed without claws
And his faith without fetters.
It is, of course, characteristically and wrongly modest; but fits with those lines of his which are most often quoted, in ‘A Local Poet’:
And so with luck, for a decade
Down the widowed years ahead,
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.
Aye, indeed. Well I can say that I never met a man as erudite, learned, well-read or as courageous, in terms we understand, as Dr Hewitt. Or one who moved about with less self-aggrandisement or more sympathy for those engaged in the madness of poetry; who considered his honorary doctorate as ‘unearned’ and a bit of a slight on those who had burnt the oil for theirs. And so on. And one who, frequently, quoted those lines of AE Housman, partly in fear, partly with a kind of satisfaction at maybe, in the end, being at one with the anonymous ordinary working people to whose memory no stones are raised:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Of course, we know, that in his case the name has not died before the man. 2017 will see the 30th anniversary of Hewitt’s death and his legacy remains very much in play. For that simple fact, we have much to thank the John Hewitt Society – voluntary effort and commitment over many years, year in, year out, a thankless task as good work usually is, and a society which has successfully, I think, translated Hewitt’s several instincts and allegiances to a rich variety of expressions, sufficient to sustain and renew the organisation itself over time. I think that deserves applause and I will lead it now.
Now, I’m not going to dwell on literary criticism, that vacuous enterprise. I am going to say that Hewitt, above all, put in focus the actual purpose of writing in the first place – in a sense, the deployment of imaginative and artistic resources at the disposal of ‘the people’. And I mean by that, the people – there is no mystery as to who or what that word refers.
The democratic narrative of the lives of people was Hewitt’s preoccupation throughout his long creative life and it is that mission, if you like, which connects him with those figures of historical note I referred to earlier. The collected poems, viewed in this light, are a formidable document, Ossianic indeed; informative, allusive, sometimes pedestrian, often startling, always, I think, measured, careful, respectful of other tales and versions.
I would make a virtue of Hewitt’s discussions of the life and times of his people. A conventional definition of poetry will not come to terms with one of the most striking things about his work—his notebooks contain three-and-a-half thousand poems in addition to the huge selection of verse which appears in the official Collected Poems. Taken with attempts at autobiography, short stories, lectures to the high and low, and countless articles, reviews and other journalism, it constitutes an awesome output for anyone, especially one committed to a full-time job. The result can be read as the single largest documentary source relating to the condition of people in this part of Ireland, to compare with which one would indeed have to go back nearly 200 years to the 1,407 letters in the correspondence of William Drennan.
To interpret a writer’s texts is a valid enough task, but there is something in the very fecundity of Hewitt’s work which unpicks his stereotyping as a poet of reason and good measure—his poetry and writing can be reasonably characterised as the work of an obsessive. What he is obsessed by is, certainly, the writing of poetry but it is also and equally the marking down of detail which cumulates into an historical narrative the scope and impetus of which has no parallel in these islands. There is a natural horror when one is confronted with such a colossal output—particularly if one is taught that less is more. But to those whose aesthetic judgement runs, maybe, along a vertical axis—looking for strata of meaning, poems which have particular types of allegorical and mythical possibilities underlying and overarching a lyric, ‘charged’, moment— Hewitt presents a horizontal reading. This would be one that watches for the spreading, topographical relevances and significances with an eye not only on the third dimension of depth but on the fourth dimension of time.
We need to be alert to the human geography of Hewitt’s poetry than to the geological conventions of the modern lyric, whose archetype here, perhaps, is the Seamus Heaney of ‘Digging’. To develop that method of understanding which can subvert the expected values brought to a body of work, particularly a body as resolutely politically-involved as Hewitt’s, would be to discover a poet who may be unfamiliar to us and a rather unsettling one at that.
Which is a good thing because of the vast complacency which has overcome us all, well-educated as we are, literate, picky and choosy, pretending we are in a humane political dispensation because it is easier to think that; and to think that, however politics occurs, we ourselves and our friends are, somehow, on the right side of things.
Though, as time goes on, when I read those lines of Hewitt which run:
You coasted along
To larger houses, gadgets, more machines
To golf and weekend bungalows,
Caravans when the children were small,
the Mediterranean, later, with the wife.
You did not go to Church often,
Weddings were special;
But you kept your name on the books
And the parson called, or the curate.
You showed a sense of responsibility,
With subscriptions to worthwhile causes
And service in voluntary organisations;
And, anyhow, this did the business no harm,
No harm at all.
Relations were improving. A good
useful life. You coasted along.
You even had a friend of two of the other sort,
Coasting too: your ways ran parallel.
Their children and yours seldom met, though,
Being at different schools.
You visited each other, decent folk with a sense
Of humour. Introduced, even, to
One of their clergy. And then you smiled
In the looking-glass, admiring, a
Little moved by, your broadmindedness.
Your father would never have known
One of them. Come to think of it,
When you were young, your own home was never
Visited by one of the other sort …
When I read those lines, I can’t help but feel the prod, as it were, of Hewitt’s bony finger in my back.
You all have the programme for the 2015 festival in Armagh and the merest glance testifies to the quality, altitude and relevance of the offering, day by day. The global and the international shake hands with the regional and the local; sometimes, with Muldoon, Colum Sands and Pat McCabe, Colette Bryce and Dermot Bolger, Alibhai Brown and Ian Sansom, these are all things at once, in a heady brew of ideas and challenge, upset and, hopefully, recovery if not by the end of the week, certainly after a few days in a darkened room.
As time goes on, I don’t know what anyone makes of poetry, least of all of a life entirely devoted to it and the value it can bring, what it can document of the individual human spirit; whatever that means when lives can be snuffed out by accident or design and the only recognisable pattern of justice around us is in fiction. I know what we are meant to think about it, as liberal people, as people in the arts; I know maybe what we do consider ourselves as thinking, in our best moments; I also know what despair arrives for most of us though, and what desperate action many of us take.
But whatever the views on Hewitt’s values or verse, or indeed as regards his own ideas of the region, varieties of allegiance and the social purpose of an artistic life – and these are contested matters – I return to his life and work with this single thing in mind. Above all else, in all our wars against mean-spiritedness, harm, narrow aims, browbeating, condescension, sidelining and every other means of making anyone feel small and pointless and easily overlooked, against pigeon-holing, caricature and stereotype, against bitterness and recrimination, Hewitt was an explicit ally. And he remains so, certainly for me.
There are few enough of those in life and even fewer in art. Something to celebrate indeed, in Armagh, in Belfast, everywhere.
I should have made it plain that I stake my future
On birds flying in and out of the schoolroom window,
On the council of sunburnt comrades in the sun,
And the picture carried with singing into the temple.
This is a version of a speech at the launch of the 28th John Hewitt International Summer School in the John Hewitt Pub, Donegall Street, Belfast, in spring 2015.