The 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud was known for his piety as a boy. Receiving his First Holy Communion at the age of 11, his reverence earned him the nickname “sale petit cagot” (snotty little prig) from his peers. Later, he would have a more complex relationship with the faith he was born to, finding himself involved with the poet Paul Verlaine, ten years his senior. Verlaine shot Rimbaud non-lethally, and they went their separate ways, with Rimbaud working as an arms dealer in Abyssinia. Before he died, it is said that he returned to the Church.
Rimbaud’s story shows us that our lives and connection to the Church can vary over time. While the faith remains the same, we humans find ourselves in a maelstrom of events which affect us. For poets, these experiences are vital as they inform the creative process, and in doing so help poets reflect the deeper meaning of life back to them. In our own times, one such poet is Shane MacGowan, frontman of the Pogues, who is currently launching the first publication of his art. I asked him about his relation to his faith, and what informs his creative process.
“I always loved the stories of the lives of the saints, and I believe in the saints and always have, I pray to them every day and to Jesus and His Holy Mother,” he says. “And I have been very lucky in my life, very lucky. I don’t take it for granted that I was born on Christmas Day, Christ’s birthday, and I don’t like that people miss the point of Christmas. It’s not about Santa Claus and presents, it’s supposed to be about the teachings of Christ, who is love. Jesus forgives everyone and we need to practise forgiveness as much as we can. And Jesus teaches peace and love and tolerance, which is what we all need.”
MacGowan exemplifies how our lives can be bound to faith from an early age. He goes on to explain how he found inspiration for his faith, which in turn informs his creative process, through images in his family home.
“I don’t remember exactly what was the first painting that I saw, but I am pretty sure it was either a Madonna and Child or else Jesus with his Sacred Heart bleeding or maybe Saint Martin de Porres, but more likely it was all of them at once because the house where I grew up had a lot of holy pictures and a picture of the Pope and one of JFK. It was a very religious household, and I was brought up to be a religious maniac from an early age.”
When listening to MacGowan’s music and looking at his drawings, it is clear that his identity is shaped by Irish Catholicism, with its particular culture of wayside grottoes and domestic devotions. He speaks of his immersion in Irish culture through parents who were avid readers of Irish writers and singers of Irish songs. Spending years on farmland, he became attached to the Irish landscape.
“I wanted to write songs in the Irish tradition because I wanted to keep the Irish tradition alive and help to make Irish music hip all over the world,” he says. “I didn’t want people to be ashamed to be Irish, I wanted them to be proud of it because we are a great nation.”
As the lead-singer of the Pogues, MacGowan has shaken off the old associations, making Irish music rock and roll. With this came a lifestyle replete with drugs and alcohol. Despite this, like Rimbaud, whose words MacGowan has set to music, MacGowan’s life and art are clearly spurred on by faith. He speaks to those people who stand on the edge of belief. This doesn’t mean that the truth of faith is at risk. Indeed, conceptions of “belief”, “knowing” and so forth can break down in the face of the immensity of God. God is not someone we can reduce to categories, yet we know God is the source and summit of all things by faith. It is the work of true poets to show us this, speaking beyond the limits of language. MacGowan’s book has a seemingly elusive title, The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold. I ask him what this could mean, and his reply speaks to this linguistic boundary.
“The title is obvious! The crock of gold is the material wealth that everyone wants but when you find it you can never keep it, and you can’t take it with you,” he says. “The eternal buzz is the eternal buzz, it is like the Tao that can’t be named. It is eternal and when you find it, you know you’ve found it.”
The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold is available to order from shanemacgowan.com.
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