National Poetry Day seems a good time to introduce a great poem by a remarkable Irish poet, Leslie H. Daiken. Born in Dublin in 1912, Daiken (originally Yodaiken) was an Irish author, poet, and radical political activist. He graduated with an M.Litt from Trinity College Dublin in 1933 and immersed himself in communist politics, first in Dublin and then later in London. In 1943, he published ‘Shamrocks for Mayakovsky’, an anniversary tribute to the ‘Poet of the Revolution’ Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in the same year Daikan left TCD. Mayakovsky is remembered for his strident poetical verse which gave voice to the rapid transformation of Revolutionary Russia. The ambiguity of his suicide (was it perhaps the result of Mayakovsky’s disillusionment with the revolution he had propagandized in poetic form?) made him into an eternally enigmatic figure.
Daiken’s Shamrocks for Mayakovsky evokes this enigma from the unique perspective of an Irish émigré poet who was often seen as an outsider in his own country: not only an Irish communist, but an Irish Jewish communist! There’s a specific moment in which Daiken centers the emotional punch of the poem: the death of Cora Hughes, another Irish socialist and fianceé of George Gilmore who died of Tuberculosis in 1939, in spite of her famous godfather’s Eamon De Valera’s resources. Daiken is unequivocal in his distaste for the man, bringing to mind the political motive at the heart of interwar popular front culture. But the real pleasure of the composition are the lines which you can imagine being sung by Luke Kelly, such as when Daiken wittily depicts the frustrations of being a young Irish radical attempting to stir up an apathetic proletariat by the Liffey Quay and his description of first reading Mayakovsky’s lines in the stuffy surroundings of Trinity College.
Here’s the poem in full:
Leslie H. Daiken, Shamrocks for Mayakovsky: Anniversary Lines, 1933-1943, first published in 1943.
You came with a locomotive thunder
on steel, out from under
Tara Street station, and over Butt Bridge,
ignoring Anna that was
And Livia That Is
And even Plurabelle To Be
With her shoddy tinsel knickers
Wiking at the herring-silver sea.
You crashed into 1933
Thanks to Maurice Reavey
(yes, we must shake the hand of translators, too).
Your voice came up the Port of Dublin
Like a ship that has access to any harbour
And I heard the horncry
In the toproom of our University
Where it howled down the pansy-velvet voices
Of the poetical hierarchy
Who had been selected for dissection
For the Honors Arts Degree
Your voice in, 1933
Silenced them, the seers and sophists
As it had the nice men in the Hotel Bristol
The suppers of tea, and more tea.
On the Liffey Quay, beside the greasy water
I was selling Worker’s Voices
To dockers who preferred their pints of porter.
Blowing up the Basin, like teeth of a curry comb,
The East wind cut through threadbare flannels…
Then your voice insinunated its gong-song
Into my cranium, like good brandy,
And the fists of the proletariat
Were banging on all the doors;
The doors of the D.U.T.C under Nelson’s stony glare
Where the tram-men were mobilising.
And action, action, action, was in the air;
The panelled doors of Alfie’s Mansion House
Where the slum-poor knocked each day
For their Christian hand-outs;
The doors of Earlsfort Terrace that had been slammed
In the face of the boy-poet, Charlie Donnelly,
While our National Bard, W.B., myopic and mure.
Played on his lute.
The doors of the sick-room
Where the coughing girl lay wasting, the bloom
Of her fine cheek, greying, greying,
As the consumption shrunk her; and the praying
And her god-father, the Teaseach Himself
Devoutly told his beads, rejecting medical help.
On all doors.
Dublin Castle, where the plastercast statue
Of Justice still sits, blindfolded.
Wid the scales weighted,
And the rag over ye’r eyes,
An ye’r back to th’ people!”
And now, in 1943, they have started on you again,
Vladimir – the literary lads.
The taxidermists have left their lilac and tea-leaves
In the Bristol lounges, to powder your lions-mane with
Adter all the post-mortems,
After the tse-tse-tse’s of all those whom you shocked,
They meet again, for still another exhumation,
Will they never leave you to be yourself, Vladimir?
Can they not accept you plus your poetry plus
The contradictions you inherited from Whitman.
O victim of coterie germs, poison and pus.
They hear, at the new inquest, only your drumming,
And the thunder of your Russian strumming
But I can pick out the melodies
And the mountainy dreams
From the peak of your movements
Like Beethoven themes.
I never heard your human voice,
Or saw your gigantic shoulders, Poet of the Future,
But your poems somehow got to Dublin, too,
Like contraband, into the foggy dew;
Your cloud in trousers shook the marrow in us,
And lit all the bulbs in our brain,
As it came up the North Wall dockside, with the driving
And now, in the name of militant millions, here and
In the name of Pearse and Connolly,
And Cornford, Lorca, and Charlie Donnelly,
Dead singers of red poems, everywhere,
We do not despair,
But we have learnt from you, Voice of the Loco,
Breeze of the stratosphere-air,
Vladimir Mayakovsky of the U.S.S.R.
Five-pointed proletarian-poet’s star!
For more on the life of Leslie Daiken, I recommend Katrina Goldstone’s biography of the poet in Emmet O’Connor and John Cunningham, eds, Studies in Irish Radical Leadership: Lives on the Left (Manchester, 2016).
Note: I am not the copyright holder of this poem, I present it here with the intention of bringing wider attention to a figure worth remembering.