Poetry: Politics, Religion, and Peace. An Interview with Pádraig Ó Tuama, Part One

Pádraig Ó Tuama in conversation

In the ancient world, rigid divisions between healers, poets, and spiritual leaders did not exist as they do today. Indeed, in contemporary indigenous societies, the people who take care of words are still often the people who take care of spirits and take care of the body. Yet part of what characterizes the contemporary West is that these roles have all become sundered. Healers are one thing, poets are another thing, religious leaders a third thing, and rarely do these things have anything to do with each other.

Yet there remain fragments of the old unity, like sparks of the stars scattered throughout the world, that still shine with luminous joy, for they remember in body, bone, and blood that healing, and beauty, and spirituality point towards some shared home from which they all have journeyed. If their separation was necessary for progress, so now is the hope of their reunion.

At Marginalia, we publish voices and perspective from many traditions, but what unify all our concerns is to bring together ideas, wisdom, and traditions that are rarely in conversation, yet have so much to offer each other. From the splintered shards of academic insight to aesthetic provocation and religious rapture, from the penetrating power of science to the unifying magic of poetry, we find traces of a culture of harmony and reconciliation, like the echo of music from a far country. There is no easy path to this place. Science must be respected, as art must be, as the traditions of the world’s wisdom must be, if we are to make sense of the many different, often seemingly competitive and contradictory, voices that cry out in our time.

It is our conviction that beauty blossoms from the extraordinarily difficult effort of resisting the pull towards separation, and working hard towards integration. Towards that end, Marginalia will soon be launching an interview series, focusing on The Meanings of Science in the Modern World. Alongside science, we also treasure the voice of poets and artists. As part of our mission to bring the digital and material worlds together, we had the privilege of hosting our first live interview with the distinguished poet, theologian, and conflict resolution expert, Pádraig Ó Tuama, last November. The conversation was held at Niebuhr Hall, and kindly co-sponsored by Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute for Sacred Music.

Pádraig is a remarkable person, because he embodies an ancient tradition of poetry as an art of living, of healing and grieving, of speaking and silence. The author of three books of poetry and the beautiful book, In The Shelter, he is also the host of Poetry Unbound, a podcast by On Being, which features Pádraig reading a poem then reflecting on it to offer insight and inspiration, every Monday and Friday.

Our conversation ranged from poetry in Ireland through activism, the death of god, and the work of conflict resolution. Because of the length of our conversation (lightly edited for written clarity), we will publish it in two parts.

Hello to Part One

Samuel Loncar: Pádraig, I wanted to begin with the local and invite you to tell us what it means to be a poet in Ireland.

Pádraig Ó Tuama: Partly, I can’t think about poetry in Ireland without recognizing that I grew up in an educational system, which wasn’t perfect, but which had the memorization of poems in two languages off by heart from the age of 5 to 17. And so, poetry is in the blood. Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody becomes a poet, starts to write poetry, or that people even like poetry, but it is there. You can’t ignore poetry. It’s not just that thing that you do for a small section of the year. You’re suffused by it.

Poetry has a long history in Ireland as being a very particular political force. Poetry and politics in Ireland are intrinsically linked. So much of the poetry that we were learning off by heart as children was very political. The understanding was that poetry has a lot to say to the everyday and that it can be a radical act, that some of the poetries were making nationalist statements or anti-imperial statements through idiom and through metaphor. And we were taught all those idioms and metaphors as children. There was this understanding that poetry can be very electric and alive and can get you executed. Not that any of those things are interesting to me, but I suppose I am very interested in violence. And I see that poetry can speak about violence in a way, perhaps, that undoes some of it by making more empty space on the page.

Samuel: You grew up in a context of The Troubles. I think of Yeats’ famous line, “a terrible beauty is born.” What was it like and how did you become a poet in the midst of the terrible beauty that’s been born and been being born in Ireland for so long?

Pádraig : So, I’m from Cork. And Cork – way down on the south coast – is untouched by The Troubles, including the most recent version of The Troubles. Troubles is a word that’s been used to describe various eras of British-Irish history. And so, the most recent Troubles were confined to the North. From 1968-1998, three-and-a-half-thousand people were killed and eighty-thousand people injured, and five-hundred thousand people are affected through bereavement and close association. Cork’s two-hundred and fifty miles away from that. So at times The Troubles felt very far. But I think growing up Irish [chuckles] meant that you were constantly evaluating yourself through a British lens.

And so, for me, the question about Troubles is a much older one than just the most recent outbreak of Troubles. It is to know that we’re not speaking our own language in our own country. And why is that? Why are we speaking English when many of us speak Irish well?  That bothered me enormously and confused me. The British-Irish relationship goes back several hundred years, and it’s continuing today through the Brexit project, and I’m trying to figure out: What does it mean to be Irish in Ireland given that what we need to do is find cordial and reciprocal and fruitful relationships with our British neighbors? How do we do that? And how do we do it in a way that isn’t limiting itself to an imagination only of violence? And so, I’ve always been fascinated by Britain. Not because I want to live there but because it’s hard not to be interested when you’re trying to think about what it means to be Irish.

Samuel: So language was born into a context, for you, that was already colonized. Language was one of the most intimate experiences of empire.

Pádraig: Yes. Absolutely.

Samuel: What was that like? And how did that shape your own development, to live in a world in which the thing that we associate most with being at home – to be at home in our own minds and our own thoughts – where you’re already divided, already split, and already asking questions.

Pádraig: Totally. We have a phrase in Irish: tir gan teanga, tir gan anam, “a land without a language is a land without a soul.” And it is one of the primary things that you see in colonial projects globally. If you look at the history of colonialisms, it’s to go in and to create a situation where people are not fluent in the language that they’re going to need to use to negotiate their own safety or survival. It’s a diabolical imagination that came up with that on the first go.

I was lucky. From the age of two to the age of four, I was sent along to be looked after by a woman who ran a kind of a play group. I was there for a few hours a day. And she spoke no English. She only spoke Irish. Dad said he heard her once try to say a few words in English, but Irish sentence structure is totally different from English. She had vocabulary, but she had absolutely no idea about where to start a sentence. So for two years, for four hours a day, I heard her speaking in Irish. And so I got to primary school, apparently, speaking like I’m from West Kerry because I picked it up from her. And, apparently, I said to my parents, when I was five, “Why do we speak English? Why don’t we speak Irish all the time?” And they said, “There’s this place called England. [laugh] They like to go places.” And so that’s the entrance into politics. And that’s the entrance into, for me, a post-colonial critique.

But Ireland isn’t unique in this way. Jamaica is the same – loads of places have had language introduced to them by the colonial project and have rejoiced at becoming better at English than the English! So we take great delight that we have so many Nobel Literature Prize-winners in Ireland, winning for writing in English, a language that was imposed on us. Defiance can happen in all kinds of ways.

Samuel:  This reminds me of your discussion of play in your book, In the Shelter. You talk about the role of play. Play, you note, can be this tremendously serious thing. We see children and adults get very upset about games. I recently watched an interview with Bobby Fischer, shorty before his famous match with Boris Spassky. He was incredibly lighthearted, but the unbelievable intensity that he would bring to a game, evident everywhere in the interview, is powerful.

But you also talk about play as a way of just being play. And it’s a kind of wonderful juxtaposition that, in the one sense, language can be a site of colonial power, can be a site of oppression, and yet even within that oppression there are resources to think through joy, to think through play. How have you thought about that in your own writing and your work with communities, using language as both something that can hurt people, but also something that even in the oppression can be a site for play and joy?

Pádraig: Well, I think that language used well becomes its own scripture. And we’re in need of all kinds of new scriptures. In poetry, there is an attempt to create a scripture that’s sufficient for the moment. But for the poet, and for anybody that’s reading that poet’s work, there is a recognition to say, “These words haven’t been put in the right way for me yet, so therefore I’m going to do it myself, or I’m going to read around to see who has done it.” And that that can bless the human experience and also create the human experience. By feeling created and validated, to be made—to be truthed into being (valid comes from the French for truth)—to have the deepest part of ourselves recognized, there is something sacramental in that whether or not you’re a person of religion. There’s something saving in it whether or not you’re a person of religion. It brings you into the possibility of thinking: “There’s agency here.”

And, especially where agency has been reduced, agency in terms of the creativity of language is a powerful thing because—in as much as we can say, “A land without a language is a land without a soul”— we can say, “People with language have a soul.” Because that’s the other side of that proverb. To have the possibility of language, to speak about even the most terrible things—that can do something overwhelmingly creative. It can create something safe inside you as well as introduce the possibility of the kind of agency you might need to change.

Samuel: That’s beautiful. And it points to a vision of poetry that seems to inform a lot of your work in conflict resolution and everything that you do. As you put it: if a poet is someone who’s finding words, finding language, for some reality that hasn’t yet been named and hasn’t yet been spoken, then poets are people in search of the soul of the land, people in search of a lost soul. How does that vision of poetry inform your experience of getting to religion and politics? Perhaps you could talk about your Catholic upbringing and the complexities of that?

Pádraig: There’s so much in that question. I’m trying to chew over it. Say it again. Just so I can chew it again.

Samuel: Well, I think—I love this vision of poetry, that poetry is a place where we can find our soul. You talk about souls, and you talk about language. And people who are traditionally religious, they think that religion often has a monopoly on that. Religion is sort of the soul-speaking domain of society. But part of what you bring to your work, and what the Irish tradition and many other poetic traditions show, is that poetry seems to be this place that you can do everything. Politics happens in poetry. Religion happens in poetry. But it’s not captured by them.

So, there’s a way to find some aspect of ourselves, whether it’s the land, whether it’s our religious experience. And it seems like in your own life poetry was – as I think it has been for many people who had complex or difficult upbringings with their religious tradition – poetry can be a kind of spiritual escape from religion, a way of holding yourself safely while you try to negotiate what it means to live with a religious tradition that, maybe, was oppressive.

Pádraig: Yeah. There’s a poem . . . I’ll tell you a story by way of illustrating the answer. There was a poem that I read, at the age of eleven. “Bí i do Chrann” by Máirtín O Díreáin, an Irish-language poet from the Aran Islands. And Bí i do Chrann means “be like a tree.” And it’s a strange poem. He has these weird understandings about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman throughout lots of his work. But in the middle of this poem there’s this elegant verse—Uaigneach crane/ I lár na coile,/ Uaigneach file/ Thar gach duine: lonely as a tree in the middle of the wood is the poet among the people—and I remember, like, I had never to learn that line off. I read it once at the age of eleven, and I was so moved. I mean, I’m not entirely sure it’s true. There is a little bit of self-adulation in that poem. [laughter] You know, “I’m the loneliest person in the world.” That’s a bit ridiculous, but that’s the sentiment of it. It’s the deep hunger in it that moves me enormously.

I mean, I don’t look to quantify the accuracy of poetry. I love to think, “What hunger is a poem gathering around?” And that’s the kind of poetry that moves me enormously. Poetry that’s just clever? I enjoy it, but I don’t remember it much. Unless it’s just for a laugh when you’re having a drink. But the poetry that knows its own hunger and is circling around it and is informed by it and might even think this is an unsafe hunger—that kind of poetry can make life happen, even just by naming the gap between what you want and the space from which you want it. So I think religion would like to do that well, but I have seen less and less evidence of religion doing that well lately.

The more brash religion gets, the more addicted to certitude religion gets the more religion seems to fail in the fact that religion isn’t seeking to offer an answer to something. It is offering a community of hungry people to gather around their shared hunger. And we have a symbol, perhaps, if it’s Christianity, of bread and wine, to recognize that there’s the hope that our hunger will be satisfied. But that’s only a hope. And we must recognize, sometimes, the fact that the shared hunger will always be with us. And I think poetry, because it isn’t trying to preach or trying to be an evangelist for its own self—poetry is really saying, “You too? Thank God!” Whereas religion sometimes seems to think, “You too? Join us and it will all be fine.” I think that is where religion actually ceases being religious, and religion should not be frightened of itself.  Otherwise it’s breaking one of its primary hopes, which is to not fear.

Samuel: You don’t have to answer this. I’m just curious because it’s such an interesting point. Do you have any idea, having worked so long as a leader facilitating difficult discussions, about why religion has become like this? Do you think this is some kind of historical condition that says something to us about our time?

It seems religion is something people want more than ever. People who were famous for their secularity in their work—philosophers like Habermas or Rawls, so famous for a kind of secular version of liberalism— are now studied by people interested in the religious dimension of these people’s lives and works. Habermas himself took another look at religion in his later work. And yet it seems so odd that at the moment when the world is hungry for religion, as you say, religion is seeming to be failing so miserably. Do you have any thoughts about what is going on?

Pádraig: Yes, I don’t have any accurate analysis, but I have some thoughts. Religion is recognizing its decline. Hopefully, some parts of it are recognizing the really systemic reasons for its decline. Its incapacity to turn its analysis on the secular world on itself, you know? To preach to people things that you aren’t practicing yourself on the grounds of “I’m Catholic.” So, we all know the fact—the public truths that the Catholic Church is needing to face—but in many corners it doesn’t seem to be facing up to its truths because of its broad complicity with the very things it would have condemned.

And in the middle of that decline, I think, certain public religious voices have turned to two things. One is scapegoating, and the other is the market. So I see all kinds of, what I would consider, idolatrous ways of speaking about church membership, as if it’s a market. Like, that’s a ridiculous imagination! I read some statistics recently that if there’s a church with more men coming in than women that they value men more than they value women, in terms of thinking, “Our message is really reaching the people now because more men are coming to join our church.” I mean, that’s diabolical. That’s not church growth.

And so, I wish for that to fail because we’re here for an event that’s supposed to shock us into not being frightened to death, and yet so much of church growth seems to be about frightening people to death. Maybe God’s going to sleep. Maybe that’s the whole point. And maybe we need to sing laments and lullabies to a religion that has fucked things up seriously— [laugh]

We need to allow an end before something can grow anew. Maybe that’s the crisis: that God is going to hide, sleeping for a while, until we wake Him up, or She wakes us up. I’m not sure. But there’s something to me that seems to indicate there’s so many church voices that are, in a maniacal way, calling people to join and calling people back. They don’t seem to have faced the reality of their own death. The church has the resources to not be afraid of death, but I wish to God they’d use them.

Samuel: That’s so rich. Let me take a little Nietzschean digression.

We could read what you said as a beautiful gloss on what the death of God means. I mean, Nietzsche, you know, famously declared the death of God in his madman who comes out with a lantern in the morning and says, “God is dead. God is dead.” But the madman also said – and this was in the 1870s, so a long time ago, now, about 150 years – that, “I came too early. That even the stars. That even thunder and lightning take time. And this death, even though it’s been committed by their own hands has not yet reached their ears.”

And I remember when I lived in Germany I lived next to a famous old church in Heidelberg called the Holy Ghost Church, [repeats in German], and it was a museum, literally. They would have a service on Sundays for a few old women. I think there was maybe ten people, but its daily Monday to Saturday routine was as literally a museum. It was a mausoleum. And churches have become, in so many ways, mausoleums. And what you’re suggesting is that people haven’t been able to face up to the idea that maybe the death of God is a real thing. And maybe the death of God just means, in some way, a sleeping.

But sometimes—I think part of what you’re getting at—touches something I’ve thought a great deal about, which is maybe part of the reason God remains dead is because we haven’t had a funeral. That there is no wake. That maybe we should be dressing and adorning the corpse of all of our old dead gods. I don’t know about in Ireland, but I know in the ancient Greek world one of the traditions of ghosts is that ghosts happen and that you get hauntings because a person couldn’t let go of their life.

Pádraig: Yeah, yeah. It’s the same with us.

Samuel: Right. So, after death they cling. And that clinging is terrifying. So, do you think—that’s maybe part of it. That there’s old dead gods haunting us, but there’s nothing left of their richness and their life.

Pádraig: I’d like to push you a bit. Because partly—there’s this idea that churches turning into mausoleums and museums is a bad thing. Like, I go to museums in every city I go to because museums, in as much as they’re describing the past, are telling us something essential about the human condition. And to say, “This happened here,” or “This happened there,” “This is the way things went about,” and you find yourself in conversation with the present and the past through the artifacts of the past. And so if God is to be turned into a museum, a church is to be turned into a mausoleum, that might actually mean people would feel safe enough from the threats of the church in order to be able to examine the kind of offerings that churches and the idea of God can give.

And so—and definitely from a Celtic tradition as well as lots of other traditions, the dead are very much with us. The dead are absolutely here. And sometimes we have more to say to and from the dead, but the dead aren’t gone. They’re absolutely around. I’ve had various friends die, and they keep on showing up in my dreams. Sometimes I wish they’d stop. [laugh] But they become a blank canvas on which your conscious can speak and back. But I think sometimes a little bit more of a distance from a really anthropomorphic understanding of God where we can create some bit of space, that that might really help us speak about God in a way that might help us save ourselves.

Part  II 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and theologian working to  bring art and theology into public and civic life.  He is currently Theologian in Residence for On Being.  To learn more, visit his website and check out his On Being podcast, Poetry Unbound.

Samuel Loncar, the interviewer, is a philosopher and scholar of religion, and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is also the host of the podcast, launching in March, called Becoming Human.