As a Coleraine Borough Council bursary holder at this year’s JHISS, I was pleased to see many from the borough in attendance throughout the week, although not too surprised, given that the personal library and literary archive of the poet can be found within the John Hewitt Collection at Coleraine’s University of Ulster. Someone who previously spent a lot of time studying this wealth of material was Dr Kelly Matthews, whose Tuesday talk was entitled ‘John Hewitt and The Bell Magazine‘. From her research, Dr Matthews has also compiled an extensive and interactive online index of all the work featured in The Bell during it’s print run (1940-1954), which can be accessed through the link above.
The Bell was, said Dr Matthews, “the most influential literary magazine of the ’40s and ’50s in Ireland. It gave voice to everyday people and to established writers north and south of the border.” It aimed to ‘represent life’ and was a constant attempt at cultural transition and the building of a ‘more liberal vision of Irish identity’.
John Hewitt’s first published poem in the magazine was ‘The Leaf’ in January 1941 and for it, he was criticized by Frank O’Connor for submitting what was thought at the time to be a much too English piece of work for an Irish writer… Hewitt however, successfully made the transition from literary outsider to respected literary insider throughout his subsequent career and came, said Dr Matthews, “to be one of the most respected writers in the magazine.” Amongst his work were 25 poems published in 14 separate issues of The Bell, along with book reviews, communications and essays.
There were, Dr Matthews told us, four major points to consider when looking at how The Bell influenced Hewitt’s development as a poet:
- Hewitt’s role in The Bell’s continued consideration of urban versus pastoral themes.
- His status as an exemplary of northern writing and as a commentator on it.
- Fitting his contribution to other magazines.
- (Hmm… missed the last point!)
As an avid nature poet, Hewitt’s work in this regard was championed by poetry editor of The Bell, Geoffrey Taylor, in December 1941. He compared Hewitt to the English poet George Crabbe and also to the greats, such as William Wordsworth and John Clare. In the poem ‘Paedar O’Donnell’, it was said there was a much greater sense here than in ‘The Leaf’ of the countryside being Irish – the rhythm was clear and the poem ‘that of the Irish people’.
With Hewitt also publishing short stories in The Bell, most of these, said Dr Matthews, focused on rural life and the poet also used the magazine to look at literary patterns. In July 1941, the first Ulster Number of The Bell was published. Hewitt’s role in establishing other literary journals saw him work as assistant editor of the Lagan, as well as helping edit Rann Magazine – an Ulster quarterly poetry publication (1948-53). Hewitt was also involved with the Belfast Journal and was poetry editor of Threshold, which first published the work of Paul Muldoon and with which Hewitt remained until 1962.
When it came to publishing his work, Hewitt was modest, we were told, and it was probably only through the efforts of those like Geoffrey Taylor, who encouraged him to publish, that saw his work see the light of day and not remain hidden in a drawer. The early criticism was also given to him only because it was thought he could ‘handle it’, and his work was shaped as a result…
“I think Hewitt benefited throughout (his career) from critical conversations with other poets writing at the same time,” said Dr Matthews.
Hewitt’s final poem to appear in The Bell was a marked departure from that which had first appeared and was, said Dr Matthews, “much more Irish, albeit Northern Irish, than The Leaf…”
‘Here in the hill-rimmed house
where the Angelus-bell is heard
where the winds from south or west
as clear as the nearest bird…’
All in all, a very concise and interesting talk from the researcher, which shed light for me at least, on Hewitt’s early work and the progression of his writing career and tied in neatly with the theme of the week – ‘Living Among Strangers: the lost meaning of home.‘
To summarise the remainder of day two concisely will be hard but… we followed next with a double poetry reading from Sandy Palmer and Penelope Shuttle, both of whom were thoroughly enjoyed by the packed audience, although the majority seemed to perhaps connect a little more with Penelope’s poignant poems. These included ‘The Weather House’, Waterfall Tasting’, ‘Redgrove’s Wife’ and Missing You’, whilst Sandy read poems including ‘The Octagonal Tower’, ‘Vivian with Household Gods’ and ‘Against Chaos’.
A lunchtime reading with award-winning author Gavin Corbett followed, who was enjoyed so much that a second reading was called for! He told us that the process behind his writing involved getting completely into character and that “that’s the secret of writing anything.”
“Just a strong voice all the way through. Get that right first. Get a voice that feels really comfortable to write in.”
The afternoon saw a discussion on the challenges facing the Somali community in NI’s education sector, delivered by Suleiman Abdulahi, co-founder of Horn of Africa People’s Aid NI (HAPANI), followed by two plays in the evening – ‘The Duck Variations’ from The Lurig Drama Group, Cushendall and ‘The Play of the Book’, by Ian Sansom. In a bid to keep this post as short as possible… I will just mention that my personal favourite of the evening was The Play of the Book from the Wireless Mystery Theatre, (picture taken above before it began!) which was a hilarious account of how a book is put together and equally rated by a fellow JHISS bursary holder here.
So… onto day three and you see my predicament in trying to be concise! There was so much happening and so many great speakers and Wednesday also saw the day begin with another Coleraine connection – Professor Jan Jedrzejewski from Coleraine’s University of Ulster. This talk was entitled ‘Ulster through Polish Eyes: Reconsidering the Stereotypes’ and showed the similarities and parallels between Ireland and Poland throughout history and how the literary work from both countries were linked and inspired one by the other.
“Irish history closely resembles that of Poland,” we were told and indeed, shown, with the poem ‘Siberia’ by the Dublin Romantic poet, James Clarence Mangan (1846), which was not about the Irish Famine as once thought, but about what it literally said it was about – Eastern Europe and specifically, Poland. Mangan wrote the poem about the Polish exiles who were deported around that time, said the Professor.
“It’s very clearly about the experience of exiles in the world of the Russian Empire,” he said. “The tyrannical government of the Romanov family… But it’s interesting because it’s from an Irish poet…”
Similarly, the Polish poet, Maria Konopnicka followed later with her poem ‘The Kiss of Robert Emmet’ (1908), which showed parallels with Mangan’s earlier work. “The Polish poet is writing about an Irish revolutionary, while the Irish poet is writing about Poland,” said the Professor.
Other poems used to illustrate the talk included ‘The Rose Tree’ by WB Yeats (1920), about the Easter Rising and similarly, ‘The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino’ (1944) by Feliks Konarski, which may not have been directly influenced by Yeats but was nevertheless showed a historical connection – ‘the association between the two poems immediate.’
More examples were used by the Professor, who said that really, when considering the parallels between Ireland and Britain, we should think about the relationships between Poland and Russia/Lithuania/Ukraine.
“Ireland had to struggle against the more dominant culture of the English language but the Lithuanians had it easier because Polish just wasn’t that dominant,” he said. “But nonetheless, there are parallels and similarities here.”
Again, we followed the morning’s talk with a double poetry reading – this time, with James Byrne and Orfhlaith Foyle – both of whom I think sold out of their books afterwards! They both brought very different styles to the readings, but I think I might just be right in saying that this time, Orfhlaith won the crowd, with her beautiful poems and quiet but increasingly confidant reading manner. I know that the first poem she read to us, ‘Damn Them’, was a favourite with many!
Our lunchtime reading came courtesy of Pat McCabe, who regaled us all with a wonderfully dramatic reading from a short story about a chimney fire…
And then came the portrait painting demo from artist Neil Shawcross, who treated us to a live viewing of him painting one of the John Hewitt Society’s patrons and answered questions throughout.
Some words of wisdom from the man himself…“You won’t get anywhere if you don’t do it. And don’t expect success too early – just keep doing it!”
Day three ended with a showcase of the work of nine young American students, who had spent the past month in Armagh as part of the ieiMedia Armagh project. They subsequently performed the plays, poems and other pieces of work they had compiled during that time, which was again, very well received by all.
The night then officially ended with some tunes from The Voice Squad – a new discovery for me, but good fun nonetheless!
Those were the second and third days of my JHISS experience… just a glimpse!