In his study of Rimbaud, Henry Miller wrote that ‘when the poet lives his hell, it is no longer possible for the common man to escape it’.1 Miller’s paradoxical implication is that, with modern culture’s marginalization of poetry, the predicament of the individual poet, however singular, becomes the predicament of us all. This insight can inform our reading of the work of Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc, whose literary career spans almost sixty years and who has been an enduring, if often overlooked, presence in twentieth century Irish letters. His most productive period came in the 1970s during which he gained some notoriety as a ‘poet of the Troubles’, his work becoming at that time increasingly concerned with the Northern Ireland conflict. Fiacc’s poetry is intimately bound up with the details of his personal life, and the social fragmentation he depicts is very often inseparable from his own personal isolation. What we find in reading him, however, is that violence is far more than a backdrop or a socio-political context for an essentially individual drama. The nature of violence seems to go right to the heart of his work, rupturing the divisions between personal and social experience, aesthetic and non-aesthetic language.
In what follows, I wish to suggest that for Fiacc – as, indeed, for others – there is something disturbingly yet irreducibly violent about the work of poetry itself.
In an autobiographical sketch of his childhood in New York’s