What you’ll need: a pen, a Guinness

Songlist: Dropkick Murphy’s Finnegan’s Wake, Danny Boy (duh)

Further reading: The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story ed. Anne Enright

Ok, you want to be a writer, you’re saying to yourself, but why Irish?

Because Irish writers are the best. And because it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day and my way of honoring the day when everyone wants to be Irish is to talk about something I care more about than beer dyed green. And that’s writing.

Early Irish writing: Book of Kells

Let’s talk about Irish writers. The greats, to name a few: Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats, C. S. Lewis, Brendan Behan, Samuel Beckett. And contemporary Irish writers: Seamus Heaney, John Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Frank McCourt. And former teachers of mine: Tommy O’Malley, Colum McCann.

The first sentence on Wikipedia’s Irish Literature page reads, “For a comparatively small island, Ireland has made a disproportionately large contribution to world literature.” Fact. My home state of Minnesota is almost three times the size of the island of Ireland, my Twin Cities more than three times the population of Dublin. And yet Dublin has been home to most of those writers listed above, four of which are Nobel laureates (Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, Heaney).

As John Banville remarked in a 2009 interview with the Paris Review, “This is a problem for Irish writers—our literary forebears are enormous. They stand behind us like Easter Island statues, and we keep trying to measure up to them, leaping towards heights we can’t possibly reach.”

But Banville also acknowledges that, even though he hates his own novels, “they’re better than everybody else’s, of course.” So what makes Irish writers so good?

For one thing, Irish writers, as Banville put so nicely, are always trying to keep up with the incredible achievements of their forebears. Set the bar high, and you have to make more spectaculars jumps to leave any impression. Furthermore, they are blessed with a nice blend of Catholic guilt and British oppression, exactly the kind of emotional trauma that fuels a lifetime career in the arts. And lastly they’ve got that beautiful rhythm.

Though at times it barely sounds like English, listen for a minute to James Joyce as he reads from his classic–and incomprehensible–Finnegan’s Wake:

I remember being struck the first time I heard Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin” give a reading. His enjambment of simple sentences made them sound extraordinary. Whereas I might have read, “By God [pause] the old man could handle a spade [pause] just like his old man,” Colum might have read, “By God the [pause] old man could handle a spade just [pause] like his old man.” Read those aloud. The latter will feel unnatural, but if you drop the unnecessary words just right you enhance the value of the more important words, enrich the repetition of “old man” (These lines are from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging”).

Here’s John Banville one more time* on the necessity of rhythm in his work:

It all starts with rhythm for me. I love Nabokov’s work, and I love his style. But I always thought there was something odd about it that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then I read an interview in which he admitted he was tone deaf. And I thought, that’s it—there’s no music in Nabokov, it’s all pictorial, it’s all image-based. It’s not any worse for that, but the prose doesn’t sing. For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. That’s what keeps me going on those dark December days when I think about how I could be living instead of writing.”

So this week, be Irish. Wear green and drink beer and, when you’re giving your poetry readings, enjamb in a different place than you normally would. If you’ve got rhythm and you’ve got a pint, who could ask for anything more?

*If you’re wondering why I keep quoting Banville instead of the vast range of incredible Irish writers, it’s because I read his Paris Review interview last night and loved it.

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