Tag Archives: Augustus Young

Augustus Young’s ‘m.emoire:’ Selected and Collected Poetry Editions

Selected and collected editions of a poet’s works should be banned. I don’t mean this seriously, of course, I would never countenance the banning of a book of any kind, but I do think that a conversation needs to take place about what is being lost when we read a poet’s ‘Complete Poems’ rather than the slim, elegant little volumes that they first appear in.

Unfortunately, the representation of these beautiful, organic artefacts, existing at the exact half-way point, length-wise, between a pamphlet and a novella, in my own collection of books is fairly paltry. I have Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish, and that’s about it. I seem to remember having a copy of Philip Larkin’s High Windows floating around but it seems to float around no more, having been made obsolete by the magisterial Collected Poems, edited by Archie Burnet. I might also have left in my last gaff.

I think this gets to the heart of the issue, that of convenience. I have seen these books in poetry sections of shops and they’ve always done well and will probably continue to do well, as birthday or Christmas presents in a pinch, as they look great and nobody owns them. It is all too frequent that these ‘collected’ and ‘complete’ editions use words like ‘restored’ and ‘re-mastered,’ and furthermore flaunt their academic editorial apparatus, taunting the prospective buyer with its fetish-making of completion. It’s hard to idealistically vow to track down all of Elizabeth Bishop’s published poetry collections, when a couple of them are probably out of print and you’ll probably wind up parting with a lot more cash than the straightforwardly named Poems, which is right in front of you. This is not to deal with poets from the early twentieth century and before. Who has any idea even how to go about reading William Blake’s works in their original states, intending it as he did that they would be read in conjunction with the intricate carvings that surround them?

When I was in the early stages of trying to come to terms with how to understand or to read poetry, one of the most helpful things I heard is that every poem is in dialogue with every other poem. When a contemporary poet writes a sonnet, for example, one should recall that they are engaging a tradition that is older than modern English itself, one helped along by everyone from William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and indeed, Augustus Young at a few points in the m.emoire.

Collected editions have the capacity to overwhelm our sense of how a poet developed over time. Most poets that are out of copyright, such as William Butler Yeats and William Wordsworth I own in bulky Wordsworth editions. Yeats is helpfully divvied up according to the names of the collections in which the poems originally appeared, but there is no sense from looking at the page as to how we are supposed to tell these collections apart, and poems are made to share pages (one of my pet peeves), something Larkin’s Collected is also guilty of, probably to reduce its already absurdly too large page count. As I have said already, these original, slim collections delimit the dialogue that exists between the poems they contain in crucial ways; as the reader makes their way through a volume of poetry, the links that exist between the images, the recurrent phrases, themes and motifs deepen and losing that understanding in a deluge of arbitrarily ordered poetic works seems like a great loss.

This is why it’s great to come across a collection of poetry that is so attuned to its nature as a physical entity, as a thing. Augustus Young’s m.emoire is a beautiful object, its paper feels different, the dust cover is gorgeous and poems rarely occupy more than half the space on the page, giving plenty of space for the reader’s contemplation. The design makes it even more of a joy to read than it would be otherwise.

The m.emoire is a collection of 31 poems in three parts, with eighteen prose sketches, written in memory of M, Augustus Young’s wife who died of cancer in 2012. The poetry is generally devoted to M, her enigmatic personality and the life that she led in Port-Vendres towards the end of her life, though there is ample space given also to straightforward description of domestic rituals and how they are unsettled by her death, as the speaker attempts to come to terms with his grief and live his life without her, at a point in his life and in a house where everything seems to refer back to M.

One of the most surreal aspects of dealing with the death of a person one was close to is the world’s capacity to continue, to somehow move on. I think it’s an almost universal experience and anyone who has ever grieved will be struck by how well this feeling is evoked in many of these poems. This is why so much of this collection is concerned with domestic habit and why the conversation that exists between each of the poems feels particularly poignant or apposite, patterns in our life now, after the event of the death echo patterns of behaviour established before the death and we are reminded, even more starkly of their absence, of the one missing piece, or the part that made it all make sense. In ‘Suspended Rituals,’ Young quotes Pliny the Younger, speaking on the death of Cornelius Rufus:

“When I return I don’t need to shout

It’s only me the garcon rigolé

‘Now I have lost the witness of my life

Henceforth I can live more carelessly.’”

Another poem from this collection that serves as a kind of centrepiece in this context is ‘Knowledge,’ a deceptively simple two-verse text with a big title, subject matter almost fit for a metaphysical poet. However, the nature of ideas and of knowledge takes a secondary role to the primacy of lived experience.

“You knew the names of the stars.

I never learned them from you.

At least I know where they are.

But does looking up suffice to

Know where one stands?”

The last line in this stanza succeeds in a number of different modulations of tone and subject matter. In one sense there is a wish to know where one stands, in a physical, geographical, utilitarian sense, one that evokes the cliché, but also in a more universal, almost cosmic sense of the phrase. There is also the barest dash of comedy in the third line, at least the speaker knows that they’re above him.

Looking at the stars, ostensibly to find out where one is, where one stands, returns in a number of poems, such as in ‘Night Without a Moon,’ and ‘Knowledge’ the self-contained poem built on contrast and parallelism that it is becomes a sort of synecdoche, encompassing the themes of habit, domesticity and mutual friendship that suddenly finds itself one-sided that makes this such a unique and affecting collection.


Augustus Young’s ‘Light Years’ and the anti-bildungsroman

I’ve already written about the sub-genre of bildungsroman, but just as there are antiromana, capricious responses to the bristling and audacious baggy monsters, there will be anti­bildungsromana. Categories, as they always are in order for the endless conversation about literature to continue, are difficult and the lines that separate one from the other are fraught.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is fraught with indeterminacy, we can be fairly sure we’re not meant to take this Dedalus all that seriously, but are we right to dismiss him totally when his life seems to mirror that of Joyce’s? Could we rightly envision him growing up into becoming the kind of writer who was capable of writing Ulysses?

As such, we already have a complicating factor in one of the foundational examples of the genre, Portrait is both for and against the emergence of self through the muddy waters of abstract thought and the wholemeal bread of life experience; the mechanisms are deployed in conjunction and opposition with one another.

I have already mentioned that J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood’s tendency is more oppositional than not, Coetzee’s flight from the experience of life, choosing hermetic seclusion, repudiating the bildung aspect is firstly, the kind of choice that befits his chilly aesthetic and secondly, probably more realistic, bearing in mind the amount of solitude that is required to commit a novel to paper. Augustus Young’s work Light Years could also be viewed as existing in this contrarian tradition.

Young emigrates from his native Cork to London, to begin pursuing his career as a poet, an avant-garde, modernist one no less. This, predictably enough, is more difficult than he thought. Young’s nationality, coupled with the sometimes obscure nature of his poetry, makes him prone to being pigeon-holed; his readers seem prone to detecting a Celtic note, much to Young’s chagrin, anticipating some of the vitriol in Storytime, a memoir detailing Young’s touring with Light Years.

Growing tired of this and the disappointments that arise from carousing with literary narcissists, motivates Young’s exile from exile and to declare his utilitarian manifesto for his life: “I see myself as a socially useful human being but with a harmless secret. When I die some poems will be discovered. If any are good enough, they will survive. If not, so be it.” This is not only a long way off Dedalus’ plan to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” it is its exact opposite.

Contributing further to this sense of Young’s writing against the bildungsroman tradition, is in its structure, which begins with a number of childhood and adolescent memories, continues with the adolescent flight from home and then, in its third section, enacts a regression back into childhood and early adolescence, almost as if the embracing of ‘life’ in London repels the book on a structural level, forcing it to move backwards into its earlier stages.

This third part is a short memoir of Young’s childhood. Siblings, parents, childhood friends and ancestral memory, handed down in the form of anecdotes and oral history loom large, much in keeping with Young’s attitude to memory and the genre in which he writes in general (“Memories aren’t true. But you can be true to them”). It equally expresses Young’s wish to be ‘useful,’ immersed in the idiosyncrasies of lived lives, rather than a shallow and solipsistic urban bohemia.

Augustus Young’s ‘The Nicotine Cat’ and How To Live

There is a school of thought that argues that we read literature in order to better understand the world, ourselves and how to live. On the one hand I am sympathetic to this point of view. Literature can bolster our emotional intelligence, imaginative faculties and our empathy, as anyone who has cried after having one of their favourite characters meet their demise in some way can attest to.

However, there’s a problem here. Not only is it probably simplistic to say that our empathetic faculties are enhanced by having them used, as if they were a bicep, but it is also a bit beside the point to treat literary history as a massive instruction manual, when in fact, what most novels can tell us about life and how to live it is fairly minimal. It is also indicative of attitudes to literature that develop in a neoliberal era as if reading a novel is only worthwhile if one is up-skilling one’s life management techniques.

This is probably why we see the rise of literary critics interpreting novels as just that, such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. According to de Botton, Marcel Proust’s six volume work In Search of Lost Time which details the life of a precocious and rich young man as he makes his way as a literary dilettante in late-nineteenth century Parisian salons has enough to tell us about ourselves that Proust can be read as a moustachioed Stephen R. Covey. Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, is another case, intent on reclaiming a self-consciously difficult and defiantly non-inclusive elite novelist for today’s working man.

Oh, according to de Botton, Proust also anticipated the breakthroughs of neuroscience and we all know how marketable science is, right? Great branding, that science.

At the same time, one wouldn’t want to throw one’s lot in entirely with Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and the other assorted aesthetes that proclaimed art’s uselessness. According to this group, all art has to do is to look pretty, like a bouquet of flowers or a tastefully folded handkerchief in one’s shirt pocket. I find this perspective to be ahistorical, paradoxical for the sake of being so and fundamentally, boring.

Both schools are guilty of believing that living, reading and thinking are somehow easily separable activities, rather than existing as a palimpsest, with overlaps and conflict and dialogue between each layer. This is the perspective that we get on life, literature and the consequent relationship between the two in Augustus Young’s The Nicotine Cat.

The Nicotine Cat is part of a largely continental genre that goes by the name of autofiction, that attempts to coalesce memoir, art criticism and the essay into one form, all while calling into question the extent to which any objective account of reality, such as one might find in a memoir, could ever be achieved. Autofiction is a fluid category but a niche one, surprisingly, considering how embroiled an author’s work often is in their lives. One could say that more what we read is autofiction than not.

Young is an erudite narrator and his text begins with a sequence of thoughts written on Patrick S. Dinneen, an Irish historian and lexicographer responsible for the 1904 Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla. It is fertile territory for Young, who allows his many encounters with the often idiosyncratic Foclóir to set the tone for a sequence of meditations on exile, language and identity, all important for the remainder of the novel-essay-memoir.

We see Young dispense brief anecdote-inflected histories of figures such as the 19th century Dutch philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and novelist Henry James. These mini-disquisitions are often prompted by events in Young’s ‘real’ life in the town of Bras-de-Vendres and inflect even the most apparently minor social encounters with a greater depth; the everyday and the erudite mutually enhance each other. As in Storytime, Young’s concealed vulnerability is an important facet of the text; as we see his world from his point of view we see the ideality that can be afforded one within the world of thought is more often than not discommoded by contingency. Ideas that are renounced earlier in the text are dusted off and deployed in earnest in conversation with whetstone-in-residence Welsh, self-consciously from a defensive position.

It is in The Nicotine Cat that we see how literature and learning reach beyond ‘How To Live’ to something more complex and interesting. To demand instruction from it is counter to the nature of autofiction itself and, I would add, contrary to what literature should aspire to be. I want to read books, not WikiHow articles.

Augustus Young’s ‘Storytime’ and New Ireland

The first part of Augustus Young’s work of autofiction is set at a very specific time in Ireland’s contemporary history, in 1998, when the Tour de France had come to the South. It can be a cliché in academic (or pseudo-academic) discourse to identify a particular time as a turning point, a time of transition, internal contradiction etc, but nevertheless 1998 can be productively viewed as such and this comes through in Storytime.

In 1998, Ireland’s growth rate reached 11% and its traffic had just reached two-thirds of the European average. Much of Young’s observations turn on some sense of Ireland becoming an international state, taking its place on the world stage, a moment that is emphasised by the presence of an internationally recognised competition taking place within its borders. Even a policeman that Young briefly engages in conversation seems to be aware of the significance of this cultural moment and remarks to Young, with one eye to the sacred and the other to the secular, that: “the tour is the best thing that has happened since John F. Kennedy’s visit. The eyes of the world are on Ireland and the people have risen to the occasion…Men, women and children. I have not seen the like since the Marian year.”

Of course, this onward thrust of modernisation is tempered by reminders of the past, with the tragedy of the Omagh bombing taking place later in the year. One hesitates in framing these events as time-warps, defective occurrences running in opposition to the over-optimistic view of ‘New Ireland’ when it is still part of our political discourse today. At the same time however, we have B*Witched reaching number 9 in the US and The Corrs going quadruple platinum in Australia.

Young is sceptical that this marks some kind of sea change for the Irish and that the nation can now be said to have a grown-up view of itself. Sitting in a pub Young notes the following: “The bar is crammed with young and old, male and female, sonorously pissed. Backs to the screen. Palls of tobacco smoke obscure the picture, sound deafened by outbursts of laughter and singing.” He dismisses the preparation for the Tour as a ‘tidy towns competition.’

Fortunately, Young does not record mourn for a pastoral ideal of Ireland’s past; he records no nostalgia for a primarily rural society that no longer exists and his criticism of this tendency in Irish letters is present throughout Storytime, most notably in the image of abandoned villages with well-kept cemeteries.

In this paradoxical society, simultaneously mercantilist and globalised while retaining a penchant for fetishising the dead, Young casts himself as a misfit’s misfit, reminiscent of Patrick Kavanagh’s own diagnosis of the country’s woes in the fifties in ‘A Wreath for Thomas Moore’s statue: “The cowardice of Ireland is in his statue/No poet’s honoured when they wreathe this stone/An old shopkeeper who has dealt in the marrowbone of his neighbours looks at you/Dim-eyed, degenerate, he is admiring his god.” Young also shares Kavanagh’s wish to repudiate his role as a poet, preferring the image of the writer as a word mechanic, like Kavanagh’s ploughman: “’I’d rather not be stereotyped as a ‘writer.’ I’m a maker of verbal things, a handyman with words who fashions books.’”

Irish literary history is peppered with such iconoclasts, Kavanagh and Young are certainly not the only ones who hold the reading public in contempt for their ignorance and by condemning the Irish for being too materialistic they probably make themselves the norm rather than exception. (Thinking here of Yeats’ ‘greasy till’ and Joyce’s ‘their land a pawnshop’). The redeeming features for both consists in the subtle links made between their publicly expressed venom and their vulnerability, which makes itself apparent in Young’s more reflective, private moments, but not when among others, nor when admonishing attendees at a literary festival for not having more cosmopolitan tastes.