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This article is taken from PN Review 227, Volume 42 Number 3, January - February 2016.

on Samuel Beckett and an Anti-Genealogy of Contemporary Irish Poetry
(I) Aspermatic Days and Nights
David Wheatley
Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1934 collection Stony Limits and Other Poems contains one of the great curiosities of the modernist canon, ‘Harry Semen’. MacDiarmid sketches a vision of spermatozoa, each locked in its separate world like a Leibniz monad:

I ken these islands each inhabited
Forever by a single man
Livin’ in his separate world as only
In dreams yet maist folk can.

At the time, MacDiarmid was living in some poverty on the Shetland island of Whalsay, and recovering from a nervous collapse with a psychosexual aspect. In an extraordinary feat of memory Mr Tyler in Beckett’s All That Fall and Neary before him in Murphy both recall and curse their conception, and the speaker of MacDiarmid’s poem too lays claim to an impossible vantage-point to describe his pre-natal progress, comparing the sperm on the move to a dogfish evading the attentions of a fisherman. Though one sperm will eventually succeed in fertilizing the egg from which the poet is born, he dwells with guilty insistence on the also-ran spermatozoa. Monty Python fans will need no reminding that, in the words of the song from The Meaning of Life, ‘every sperm is sacred’ (‘Let the heathen spill theirs / on the dusty ground. / God shall make them pay for / Each sperm that can’t be found’), but while the Catholic church sets its face against onanism the sperm found surplus to requirements in marital intercourse are traditionally exempt from this charge. Not so for MacDiarmid:

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