My first encounter with Louis MacNeice was reading ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’ and ‘Meeting Point’ in anthologies of Irish poetry – beautiful, prismatic lyrics which I came to think were not entirely characteristic of the poet. Later, MacNeice became the Godfather of a Northern Irish poetry I’d only been dimly aware existed. Through Derek Mahon and Michael Longley’s close identification with the poet, I read back to ‘Valediction’ and ‘Autumn Journal XVI’, astonished by MacNeice’s passionate, angry and unpoetic encounters with place. More recently, however, I have come to think of Louis MacNeice as a poet of trains. So pervasive is the image of the train journey in his work, and so appropriate a context for reading MacNeice is the train ride, that I think his collected poems should be issued in railway stations.
The obsession seems to have begun early (‘Trains came threading quietly through my dozing childhood’, he writes in ‘Trains in ‘Reminiscences of Infancy’), and to have endured to the end. This is because, as MacNeice ironically observes, much of our existence is spent in transit: ‘the trains carry us about. But not consistently so,/ For during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains …’. (‘Train to Dublin’). I think I understand how conducive these journeys are to poetry. Both an interregnum in the day and an event in themselves, they have the right quality of active passivity (or passive activity) for inspiration. In these poetic interludes MacNeice is the observer at the window. ‘I give you the incidental things which pass/ Outward through space exactly as each was’ he writes, in ‘Train to Dublin’ – and so much of MacNeice’s poetry satisfies because of the accumulation of detail, true and specific, whether of urban landscapes like Belfast and Birmingham, or of, sooner or later, the sea. Much of his poetry also has the quality of a mind allowed to wander in rhythm – a mind as complex, various and divided as the things he observes:
Our half-thought thoughts divide in sifted wisps
Against the basic facts repatterned without pause,
I can no more gather my mind up in my fist
Than the shadow of the smoke of this train upon the grass –
This is the way animals lives pass.
This has been noted before of course. Edna Longley has written than ‘On its metaphysical level, his poetry faces the whole issue of the self in the world’, citing, MacNeice’s poem ‘Corner Seat’ (it is the corner seat in a railway carriage) as an example:
Windows between you and the world
Keep out the cold, keep out the fright;
Then why does your reflection seem
So lonely in the moving night
The journey, then, is the metaphor for MacNeice’s poetic – attentive to what’s inside ands outside the window, passing through, but also part of history.
When it isn’t trains, it might equally be buses, boats or cars. There is a vehicle for every stage of MacNeice’s career, from his masterpiece ‘Autumn Journal’ (which I eventually got round to reading), where the speaker boards a train in the first section, to later poems such as ‘Hold-up’, ‘Charon’ and ‘The Taxis’, which explicitly figure life as a weird ride in the back of a cab or bus. Thrillingly dark and odd as these last poems are, I also love MacNeice’s broader, sillier stuff, specifically ‘Bagpipe Music, in which, of course, the vehicular image recurs again: ‘It’s no go the Yogi-man, it’s no go Blavatsky,/All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi’. If MacNeice’s restlessness and refusal to find much consolation in roots (as well as his often palpable neurosis) make him feel oddly contemporary, so too does his curiosity about everything. Travel, politics, high and low culture are all allowed to fuel his poetry, which is unafraid to be funny as well as very, very clever. The work is also, finally, an object lesson in discursiveness. Whatever the times, it seems to say, there is a way of writing about them; it’s all part of the journey.