beckett on writing poetry

Beckett held the idea of the ‘professional’ poet in abhorrence. To him it was virtually a contradiction in terms. Craft, structure, rhythm, linguistic energy were assumed prerequisites, but poetry was a calling, not a profession, not something you could decide to do at a certain moment. He meant what Keats meant, whose work he knew so well, when he wrote that ‘if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all’. He certainly did not mean that poets should not earn money – he himself had taught for a while (was miserable during that time), had translated prolifically, written essays and reviews — but that the poem itself should not be academic or intentional, that the library shelves must not crush the furze. Beckett was a poet down to his teguments, ligaments, cells; standing or sitting, poetry’s presence in his presence was as pervasive as oxygen.

—from Anne Atik, How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber, 2001.

beckett and the old questions

(from a 2009 production of Endgame at The American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA)

Hamm:                    Do you remember when you came here?


Clov:                      No, Too small, you told me.


Hamm:                    Do you remember your father.


Clov (wearily):         Same answer.


                             You’ve asked me these questions millions of times.


Hamm:                    I love the old questions


(With fervour.)         All the old questions, the old answers, 
                             there’s nothing like them!


(Pause.)                  It was I was a father to you.


Clov:                      Yes.


(He looks at Hamm fixedly):


         This was that for me.


— Samuel Beckett, Endgame. Grove Press, 1958, p. 38

samuel beckett’s molloy on his (true?) love

She had a somewhat hairy face, or am I imagining it, in theinterests of the narrative? The poor woman, I saw her so little, so little looked at her. And was not her voice suspiciously deep? So she appears to me today. Don’t be tormenting yourself, Molloy, man or woman, what does it matter? But I cannot help asking myself the following question. Could a woman have stopped me as I swept towards mother? Probably. Better still, was such an encounter possible, I mean between me and a woman? Now men, I have rubbed up against a few men in my time, but women? Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against one. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this. But another who might have been my mother, and even I think my grandmother, if chance had not willed otherwise. Listen to him now talking about chance. It was she made me acquainted with love. She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith. She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all?


—from Molloy, pp. 75-76

autumnal thoughts

I find it impossible to keep this first stanza from repeating itself in my head when I leave work on a darkening fall evening…


Easter, 1916

William Butler Yeats  


I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words,

And thought before I had done

Of a mocking tale or a gibe

To please a companion

Around the fire at the club,

Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


That woman’s days were spent

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers

When, young and beautiful,

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school

And rode our winged horse;

This other his helper and friend

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,

So sensitive his nature seemed,

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road.

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change;

A shadow of cloud on the stream

Changes minute by minute;

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,

And a horse plashes within it;

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all.


Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.


“may we not speak of the old days?” [silence]—samuel beckett’s come and go

samuel beckett’s very short dramatic piece come and go is best understood through its title, its structure, and the overt allusion to macbeth at its outset.  most tellingly, at the play’s conclusion, the three figures link hands “in the old way”, turning the whole piece—for me, at least—into a carefully wound möbius strip of drama about life and the ever-present effects of temporality.

Come and Go opens with three similar figures of indeterminable age—Flo, Vi, and Ru— childhood friends who once attended “Miss Wade’s” together. They are sitting side-by-side on a narrow bench-like seat, something they used to do in the playground as children, and are wearing colourful full-length coats, somewhat dulled by time, In effect, they three faded flowers. “Drab nondescript hats … shade [their] faces.”

The play’s structure is circular or ring-like, and is divided into three equal segments of seven lines during which a character exits and enters after completing her circuit, and takes a seat different from the one she previously occupied. In this sense the characters also move around their seats in a ring shape. Hence the typical interpretation of the play as being about time, terminality and infinity. The play’s first line, with its deliberate echoes of Macbeth, seem to confirm that interpretation that Shakespeare’s meditation on time is an informing principle:


Wherefore was that cry?

The queen, my lord, is dead.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Come and Go

A dramaticule

For John Calder


Written in English early in 1965. First published in French by Editions de Minuit, Paris, in 1966. First published in English by Calder and Boyars, London, in 1967. First produced as Kommen und Gehen, translated by Elmar Tophoven, at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, on 14 January 1966. First performed in English at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 28 February 1968 and subsequently at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 9 December 1968.





(Age undeterminable)


Sitting centre side by side stage right to left FLO, VI and RU. Very erect, facing front, hands clasped in laps.


VI : When did we three last meet?

RU : Let us not speak.
     Exit VI right.

FLO : Ru.

RU : Yes.

FLO : What do you think of Vi?

RU : I see little change. [FLO moves to centre seat, whispers in
RU’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each other. FLO
       puts her finger to her lips,] Does she not realize?

FLO : God grant not.
        [Enter VI. FLO and RU turn back front, resume pose. VI
        sits right.
        Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss 

RU : On the log.
      Exit  FLO left.

VI : Yes.

RU: How do you find FLO?

VI : She seems much the same. [RU moves to centre seat,
      whispers in
VI’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at each 
. RU puts her finger to her lips.] Has she not been 

RU : God forbid.
       [Enter FLO. RU and VI turn back front, resume pose. FLO
       sits left.]
       Holding hands . . . that way.

FLO : Dreaming of . . . love.
        Exit RU right.

VI : Flo.

FLO : Yes.

VI : How do you think Ru is looking?

FLO : One sees little in this light. [VI moves centre seat, 
        whispers in
FLO’s ear. Appalled.] Oh! [They look at 
        each other
. VI puts her finger to her lips.] Does she not 

VI : Please God not.
      [Enter RU. VI and FLO turn back front, resume pose. RU
      sits right.

      May we not speak of the old days? [Silence.] Of what
      came after? [Silence.] Shall we hold hands in the old

      [After a moment they join hands as follows : VI’s right
      hand with
RU’s right hand. VI’s left hand with FLO’s left
, FLO’s right hand with RU’s left hand, VI’s arms
      being above
RU’s left arm and FLO’s right arm. The three
      pairs of clasped hands rest on the three laps.

FLO: I can feel the rings.








Successive positions





















































RU         VI        FLO




Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area.
Rest of stage as dark as possible.


Full-length coats, buttoned high, dull violet (RU), dull red (Vi),
dull yellow (Flo). Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to
shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up
to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.


Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to
accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as
possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.


The figures are not seen to go off stage. They should disappear a
few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this,
recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible
as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.


Three very different sounds.


As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for
three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.

Watch an adaptation of Come and Go on

cormac mccarthy & w. b. yeats on artifice, nature and transcending our fallen world


“Sailing to Byzantium


THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
— Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


—William Butler Yeats


Wells stood on the bridge with the wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair.  He turned and leaned against the fence and raised the small cheap camera he carried and took a picture of nothing in particular and lowered the camera again. He was standing where Moss had stood four nights ago. He studied the blood on the walk. Where it trailed off to nothing he stopped and stood with his arms folded and his chin in his hand. He didnt bother to take a picture. There was no one watching. He looked downriver at the slow green water. He walked a dozen steps and came back. He stepped into the roadway and crossed to the other side. A truck passed.  

Cormac McCarthy, No Country
for Old Men




Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and McCarthy’s

No Country for Old Men: Art and Artifice in the Novel


Steven Frye


McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men will certainly elicit much discussion, especially regarding the notable stylistic departure from his previous works. The new novel is lean, sparse, at times terse, arguably vivid and evocative in terms of language and scenes. Some readers may find merit and even innovation in this approach to narrative. Others may note a lack of the complexity, lyricism, and beauty we often associate with McCarthy’s prose. However, there is likely to be little disagreement that McCarthy’s latest novel is quite dissimilar to those that precede it. The reason for this departure may be simple. Perhaps McCarthy has run his artistic course, and No Country for Old Men (2005), sadly, represents the diminution of his artistic powers. Or it could be that the author’s motives are simply mercenary and careerist, insofar as we know that the novel was previously scheduled to be adapted into film. The first explanation seems implausible, since the shift in style is so studied, precise, and seemingly intentional, displaying still a strong sense of artistic control. The second motive partially explains, but only partially, since McCarthy’s storied willingness to remain reclusive and to leave promotion to others makes a complete sell-out seem unlikely. Historically, he has simply valued the integrity of his art too highly. I want to at least explore the possibility that his selection of the title is not incidental, that his use of the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1983) bears in significant ways upon the meaning of the book. This poem contrasts the prosaic and sensual world of the here and now with the transcendent and timeless world of beauty in art, and the first line, “That is no country for old men,” refers to an artless world of impermanence and sensual pleasure. I want to posit, somewhat tentatively, that the title is at least one key to the stylistic departure that characterizes the novel and that perhaps, if the novel is read in the context of the title,we might  discover a motive behind its distinctiveness. The main narrative displays it seems (in contrast to the interior monologues of Sheriff Bell) a deliberate lack of artifice, or at least the appearance of such, and an intentional eschewing of the overtly lyrical and poetic qualities of the prose we associate with McCarthy. We might assume, then, given the themes and contrasts posited in “Sailing to Byzantium,” that McCarthy is toying with the idea that an overly aestheticized prose is a problematic way to characterize a commonplace, transient, death-strewn world. On the surface this might seem to be an argument against the aesthetic that defines his previous novels, but McCarthy is ever the experimentalist, testing new ideas and approaches to see how they work. His experiment with a less lyrical style may in fact be a deliberate attempt to bring this style into line with his world. Given the Yeats poem’s ultimate celebration of the fruits of artistic creation, we might also tease out some of the same contrasts in No Country for Old Men, which appear in the intimation of a realm outside the harsh country, and in a tonality of hope that is less present in his other works, especially in those preceding the Border Trilogy.

To explore these possibilities, we must first begin with the Yeats poem, in an attempt to clarify McCarthy’s motivation for borrowing the title from the first line. The poem begins,


Continue reading

“sliogo made me and sligo undid me…”

from sebastian barry’s costa-winning the secret scripture:


“My father was calling, calling, in enormous excitement in the towwer, “what do you see, what do you see?’

 What did I see, what did I know? It is sometimes I think the strain of ridiculousness in a person, a ridiculousness born maybe of desperation, such as also Eneas McNulty – you do not know who that is yet – exhibited so many years later, that pierces you through with love for that person. It is all love, that not knowing, that not seeing. I am standing there, eternally, straining to see, a crick in the back of my neck, peering and straining, if for no other reason than for love of him. The feathers are drifting away, drifting, swirling away. My father is calling and calling. My heart is beating back to him. The hammers are falling still.”


Roseanne McNulty, a one-hundred year old woman residing in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital begins to write her autobiography, entitling it “Roseanne’s testimony of herself.” It details her life and that of her parents, in turn-of-the-century Sligo. She keeps her story hidden under the loose floorboard in her room, unsure as yet if she wants it to be found. The second narrative is the “commonplace book” of the current chief Psychiatrist of the hospital, Dr Grene. The hospital now faces imminent demolition. He must decide who of his patients are to be transferred, and who must be released into the community. He is particularly concerned about Rose, and begins tentatively to attempt to discover her history. It soon becomes apparent that both Roseanne and Dr Grene have differing stories as to her incarceration and her early life, but what it consistent in both narratives is that Roseanne fell victim to the religious and political upheavals in Ireland in the 1920s – 1930s (cribbed from wikipedia).


 Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself

chapter one


(Patient, Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, 1957–)

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and manyswans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.

That is Sligo town I mean.

Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.

Continue reading