I BEGAN AS ECONOMIST, journalist, boy of letters-all in one teenage swoop. The first national journal in which I appeared was Young Citizen, produced for schools by the Institute of Public Administration ( where I would later study Economics as part of my Certificate in Public Administration course). I had written a letter to the editor, denouncing inflationary wage demands in Ireland and warning workers that they would soon need a wheelbarrow to lug home their worthless gains. My solemn ‘Epistle to the Workers’ was prominently reprinted in the diary column of the Irish Press newspaper under the heading ‘Little Brother is Watching You.’
It was the late Sixties; annual inflation stood at about 5% and double-figure hyperflation was still some years away. I could, I suppose, claim that the letter was my peacetime equivalent to Wilfred Owen’s wartime testimony that ‘All a poet can do today is warn’-except that there was nothing in the least poetical about my effort, nothing red about my wheelbarrow. Everywhere in the world, however, seemed to be reddening into radicalism. Even on Liberty Square – its very name redolent of Moscow or Beijing – the more rebellious schoolboys of my home town of Thurles had converted Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ into their catechism and Bible. I was out of step with the times, a belt-tightener in a let-it-all-hangout age, a tweed-jacketed fogey in a generation of tie-dyed tee-shirts and flared denims, a non-revolutionary for whom the word ‘revisionism’ conjured up homework rather than Maoist re-education camps.
Long before my bossy letter appeared in Young Citizen, I had been writing and reading poetry fairly obsessively. But I knew that a poem was an out-of-the-ordinary visitation, something one did not lightly presume to publish. I never submitted poems to editors and was already well-established as poetry reviewer and poetry editor of the weekly journal, Hibernia, before my inner critic tentatively and grudgingly granted me permission to publish verse. My first-ever poems in print arose from an out-of-the-ordinary visitation to Ireland by an Australian poet whom Seamus Heaney invited me to meet in 1977 (inflation rate: 13.6%). Ever-generous, Seamus drew the attention of this poet – a 38-year old called Les Murray – to some paltry things I had written and, ever-encouraging, Les published a couple of them in Poetry Australia, where he was editor.
Far from inflating my ego, publication only exacerbated my doubts – still intact in 2004 (inflation rate, as I write: 1.4%): the usual writerly doubts about presuming to interest citizens – young or old – in one’s literary wares, when life is short and the great works of posterity remain to be read. Concerning poetry itself, I have never had any doubts. In a world where the inflationary pressures on language from advertisers, politicians and headline writers are relentless, it is an art on which – like William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow – ‘so much depends.’