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Happy Birthday MU LitnDeb Society. Is there cake?

May 1, 2015


So, MU’s Literary and Debating Society is 50 years old today.  I didn’t even know it had a birthday until yesterday.  I don’t know exactly what happened on May 1st 1968 by way of formal ratification, but I’m happy for the Society to have a birthday and more than content that today be that birthday.

I’ve been involved with this society for…  shall we say an observable slice of those 48 years.  If the society were a cake, a birthday cake, and I were to sneak a slice of that cake that was proportionately representative of the years I’ve known the Maynooth LitnDeb society then the remaining cake would look – unhappy.

Not that I mostly do anything decisive or imaginative for MU LitnDeb Society.  In my honorific capacity I show up from time to time and smile and nod and eat little sandwiches.  Sometimes I help to judge things.  I help to award points at Poetry slams.  I help to adjudicate debating competitions.  On occasion I have given wholly frivolous speeches at charity debates.

But Happy Happy Birthday to it, because it’s one of the best things about the institution where I work.  It prods students find their most creative selves and above all it empowers students to seize control of language.  Some years the “Lit” is stronger than the “Deb” and sometimes the “Deb” is stronger than the “Lit” and sometimes (rarely) they’re about equal.   I’m happy either way, just so long as the pendulum swings back and forth a bit.

Why should poets be under the same aegis as orators?  It’s a very good thing I believe.  The poets and the orators are both nurtured by the LitnDeb society’s fascination with the persuasive power of words and the gaps between words.  The students who have worked so hard over the past 50 years and who will continue to work so hard in decades to come (not the same students obviously), do so because they want to command language rather than have language command them.

We live in a world that is suspicious of oratory, and that’s healthy in a sense.  But you should always be suspicious of people who disavow oratory.  If ever you hear someone mount a rostrum looking awkward and unwilling saying “I’m not much of a one for fancy speeches…” expect a  very crafty speech itself.  Oratory is central to democracy.  The orator is a forger of workable majorities, someone who creates the sense of common purpose to make people feel that politics is something that they are part of rather than something imposed upon us.

Can oratory be abused?  Hell yes!  But the keep to not being the dupe of unscrupulous orators is to understand how oratory works.  Also how to intervene and disrupt duplicitous oratory.  These skills MU LitnDeb teaches and encourages.

As for the poets, the playwrights and those invested in prose fiction?  They get showcased and anthologized.  And above all celebrated.  They have been for 50 years and will be for many decades to come.  These are people who, like the orators (and sometimes they are the orators), want words to do unexpected things and want others to know that words are doing unexpected things.  The Lit crowd in LitnDeb have (in my longish experience) a commitment to making the familiar strange. Our poets (and one thing that my honorific status confers upon me is a sense of warm, fuzzy, proprietorial satisfaction when they succeed) not only command language and play endlessly with words, but they play with the spaces between the words. They are as gifted with silences as they are with sounds and like everyone interested in the fantasies that expressive language generates – they are time travelers.

If today really is Maynooth University Literary and Debating Society’s birthday, and it has a notional cake (or maybe there’s a real cake – is there a cake?) then it’s not just a birthday cake but a wedding cake.  This cake celebrates not just a birth but a marriage – between poetry and politics.   The politics keeps the poetry urgent.  The poetry keeps the politics honest.

Many happy returns of the day.


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