Ghosts of Poetry Readings Past

D. Joyce-Ahearne’s hatchet job of a reactionary cultural critic: his past self.

COMMENTI usually recognise the voices in my head. It’s usually my own to be fair, in which case I just call it thinking. If it’s someone else’s it’s probably a memory, something I read or heard. It’s not unusual for a particular phrase to catch my fancy and stay a while. Recently Yeats’ “After us the Savage God” has been knocking about.

Now if there was an unknown voice in my head reminding me that after us (whoever this us would be) comes the Savage God I might be unnerved. But I knew it was just Yeats and I knew what he was talking about, though it’s of no relevance to this article.

But last week there was a voice I couldn’t place. It didn’t seem malign, in fact I was sure it was an aural memory because I could hear it distinctly. It came with a definite melody and a particular unchanging cadence. I thought, though I could have been imagining it, that there was even musical accompaniment. The voice was saying: “And beats his chest.” On a loop. Not a constant loop, I’m not insane, but when it would come to me it was on a loop. “And beats his chest. And beats his chest.”

I had no idea where this voice had come from but the phrase was stuck in my mind. “And beats his chest.” It was undeniably a beautiful phrase. It didn’t seem like a fragment. The “and” wasn’t a grammatical conjunction. It was a standalone statement of fact, a unified poetic proclamation. “And beats his chest.” It spoke with aphoristic clarity, brevity and wholeness.

I was curious. I hoped that maybe it was my own creation. Something I had forgotten that, aware of its quality, had refused to be consigned to the oblivion of unrealised poetry and had forced its way back into my consciousness as a misremembered gem. But it wasn’t mine because it always sounded in the same voice and it definitely wasn’t my own. I struggled to place it.

Then, undramatically, I remembered what it was from. In February 2013 I went to a poetry and music night called Ink and Ivories in The Back Loft on Augustine Street. One of the artists performed an original piece on piano and one lyric, a line that was repeated throughout the song, was “And beats his chest.”

This was the first spoken word/open mic/reading night of any sort that I had ever attended and I covered it for The University Times Magazine in a piece called Now That’s What I Call Spoken Word. Prompted by the rediscovery of the pearl that is “And beats his chest”, I dug out the article to see who the performer was and what a just turned 20 year old me thought of the night.

Two and a half years later, it didn’t make for great reading. In parts offensive, in total mortifying, it’s a pretty toxic blend of cultural orthodoxy and more general social ignorance. The upside is that by virtue of being able to recognise this I can say I’ve become more self-aware. In fact, I believe it was partly by going to events like Ink and Ivories that I think I overcame certain prejudices.

I think the progress I’ve made in both how I interpret the arts and partake in society are linked. I owe a lot to sheer cultural exposure. Different art and different people means different windows of experience and, for me anyway, it means I’m measurably less of an ignorant tool. Let’s take a look.

I start the article as I’m sure I did the night, showily announcing my received prejudices about poetry readings. I had no idea what to expect and so expected the worst. This is the basis of much idiocy and most narrow-mindedness. I had fixed ideas, based on no previous experience, and was going to judge reality by those ideas.

Essentially, I believed that contemporary expression was bullshit because it didn’t have the weight of history behind it. These types of events were to be disdained from afar as I read Byron, which was real poetry because it was old and he was dead. My aesthetic beliefs were small-minded and backward-looking, which dovetailed nicely with my world view in general (that comes later.)

But over the course of the night and the ensuing article I realised I actually liked these events and was “pleasantly surprised”. I’m sure I wrote articles in the same vein about classical music (in fact, I’m nearly sure I did) and experimental theatre and everything else I experienced for the first time around then but already had an uninformed, recycled opinion on.

So was there any need to include in the piece the unfounded scorn I had before attending the event or writing the article? Why did I need to outline (I can’t even call it a change of opinion because it would be remiss to call the initial prejudice an opinion) the surrendering of a prejudice for a valid opinion based on lived experience?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I realised that my initial ideas were unfounded and lazy. The article portrays it as a handing in of one set of ideas for another, a change of mind rather than making it up for the first time. I fail to recognise that my expectations were baseless. By recording them I legitimise them to an extent. But it’s a start.

What I can’t forgive is the gratuitous semi-colon one paragraph in.


Au contraire.


If it’s renovated then there probably is an element of cosiness but I see what you were going for kid.


There really isn’t.5

As opposed to the other type of improvisation.


Banging. I can’t even. I can only assume that was said in jest. I’m just happy I didn’t write Beatle’s.8

I’ve already expressed my rediscovery and newfound admiration of Nolan’s work (though it would seem it was bubbling away in my subconscious the entire time). My ability to appreciate it now for what it is is a direct result of exposure to more experimental and challenging art in the last two years.

The point of this article is to neither champion nor defend this kind of expression but what I would say, and using me then and now as a case study (the rest of the article I think will attest to it), is that a more open mind to art will often translate to one’s social views, and vice-versa.

For example, rather than accepting his work as fluid and many-faceted, I felt the need to define it according to a binary structure of piss-take or not piss-take. An insistence on dichotomising is key to most forms of discrimination (which I get to later).

I’m not saying an ability to appreciate the artistic avante-garde precludes you from being a bigot, but in my experience staunch aesthetic traditionalism and social conservationism are more often partners in crime.9

Two things. It’s very clear that I thought samurai shoulder pads had no place in poetry, like everything else that entered the western consciousness after 1824. Unless it was a poem read by a very old Japanese man speaking English. Then I’m sure I’d have loved it. Again, telling of how archaic my ideas were as to what art was and should be.

Secondly, that shtick still pisses me off but I’m starting to recognise that more often than not, it’s due to a lack of confidence (“Eccentricity is a strenuous form of anonymity”), rather than lack of talent. I can’t imagine this did Greg any good.10

So I know this person now and her name is Alvy with a y. Not checking how to spell someone’s name is pretty basic especially considering the Wexford People have called me Dillon Ahurn for the last ten years. There’s also an “and” missing.11

I don’t know why I say after Greg and not after Alvy. Though based on what follows it could well be sexism.12

I now know that this joke is made, without fail, at every poetry reading.

“He got flow like Biggie.” Right. So this is pretty bad. I’m going to say that my thought process was something along the lines of: “Because I’m using the critical language of hip-hop I will mimic the syntax used by a lot of people, mostly black Americans, who are involved in the genre. This will be funny, to me, because that’s not how I talk and, to the reader, because that’s probably not how they talk either.” I don’t remember exactly but it was probably something like that.

So why do I now think that that’s problematic? Well, the appropriation of how people speak for a cheap “funny cos it’s different” laugh is basic. More insidious is that I felt the need to mimic the syntax of black Americans when using the terminology of a predominantly black art form. This, I now think, suggests that I didn’t respect it as a legitimate critical framework or one that could be genuinely applied to other disciplines. I didn’t use the word “flow” sincerely, in the way I would have used the words enjambment or alexandrine. Critical theory racism.13

So that’s pretty dark. Mostly sexism. Also a condescension for people from the country and surprise at a young person being talented. But mostly sexism.

“Young wan.” If I try to think of what the logic was as to why I thought that was an acceptable thing to write it would probably be this: “It’ll be gas to call that musician in her late teens/early twenties a young wan.” I would say that was the extent of the thought process, if we can even call it that.

I know that I definitely didn’t get to a point in the article and decide it needed more misogyny. It was latent discrimination. By the same justification of “it’s gas” I could have called Greg “the Yank” and André “some class of a gas Dublin-soundin’ foreigner”. But I didn’t, I just called Branwen a young wan. Sexism.

Like the egregious appropriation of African American Vernacular English above, writing “young wan” was not done to be deliberately dismissive. In both instances I was making positive points about the individuals.

It wasn’t written unknowingly, but deliberately, in the belief that it was grand. Not even something to be gotten away with, just grand. Ultimately that comes from not understanding how my privilege translates to the page,  reinforces problematic social narratology and contributes to larger systems of oppression.

The other issues, the surprise at seeing a talented young person and an implicit patronising tone for someone from Clare are also fucked up. Reluctance to recognise young emerging talent and Dublin-centric media are particular banes of mine so, if nothing else, it’s a good but unsettling example of how we can perpetuate discriminatory models of which we ourselves are victims of.14

I’ve no proof to the contrary but highly unlikely those names are spelled correctly.15

I use the word thin twice here and it kills me.

I think based on the difference between the opinions I hold now and the ones I held in 2013 I can say I’ve improved. That is to say I’ve improved if I consider it better, and I do, to be more conscientious and careful about the words I put into the discourse, both socially and artistically.

There have been changes in both my aesthetic beliefs and social understanding that I would call progress and I believe the two are linked. I think, on the back of that change, I’m a good case study for the evolution that can occur through cultural engagement, a poster boy for the positive social function of art.

Since Ink and Ivories I’ve gone to many such nights and, through events like these, I’ve seen some of the most talented and interesting writers and performers to come out of Ireland in the last couple of years. I’ve met some of the most interesting people I know. These days I go to at least one reading or spoken word event a  week. The irony is, given the opening paragraph of foreboding, hate and Dettol, I actually run one now. Aaand plug.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.