Working its way into POP CULTURE and politics … SARAH HARTE reminds us how fresh and powerful POETRY can be …
Spurred on by an observation made by my mother, that it’s easier when strapped for time to dip in and out of a poem than to wade into a novel, I’ve recently woken up to the joys and practicality of carrying a volume of poetry in my handbag. On a bus, in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery, waiting to pick up offspring, in any of those fallow,
in-between moments that populate a day, it’s a pleasure to be briefly transported, to let your heart sing at the words on the page, to have emotions stoked, to find your lips curving in a smile.
I’m not alone in being turned on to poetry as a way to be entertained, or to process life. Director Terence Davies has made A Quiet Passion about one of America’s most original poets Emily Dickinson, with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame, reciting her poems as a voice-over to great effect. To mark this year’s Irish Poetry day, there were multiple events including coffee mornings, spoken word sung verse events, even seminars on the practical side of being a poet. It feels like poetry is hot. This statement will undoubtedly cause poets and poetry lovers to roll their eyes. Poetry has been written on rocks, on trees, on walls of caves and scrawled as limericks on the back of loo doors: there’s a theory that poetry pre-dates literacy. It’s clear this art form has been around a while but it’s also the case that many of us have largely eschewed the delights of poetry in favour of fiction. Poetry has been for weddings, funerals, for those seminal moments in life when we grapple with love, death and redemption. Otherwise it has been associated with school, with decoding lines and regurgitating them pink-cheeked in stuffy exam halls, under the arid headings theme, tone and imagery, or perhaps viewed as the preserve of dreamy head-in-the-cloud types who smell the flowers and float about thinking abstract thoughts.
There are concrete reasons why poetry is having a moment. In an age of collapsing empires and of seemingly apocalyptic change, many of us are migrating towards the wisdom and wit of poetry for solace. It’s no coincidence that the morning after Donald Trump’s election, a poem by British poet Wendy Cope, Differences, went viral. American poet Aja Monet recited My mother was a freedom fighter, an ode to mothers and daughters everywhere, at the Women’s March on Washington in January, pointing out the importance of language, and how Trump used “the power of words” to get elected. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, “A good poem is a contribution to reality. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” Thomas, a noted contrarian, is also on record as having said, “Poetry is not the most important thing in life … I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Christie and sucking sweets”, but it feels like there’s a movement to reclaim the higher linguistic ground. When public language is brutalised and debased, when language seems post-literate, this is no bad thing. As Richard Blanco, ambassador for the Academy of American Poets said, “Language, and all art, offers a kind of consolation because it speaks truth, and it speaks hope and it speaks all sorts of things you won’t get from a tweet or a newspaper or post.”
For avid fans or poetry virgins alike, try Plum British Ted Hughes poetry winner and former UK slam champion Hollie Mc Nish’s first full-length poetry collection, out this month. Prepare for disarmingly funny, humane, often ribald and sometimes angry musings on motherhood, loneliness, and messed-up societal attitudes to breastfeeding. Also out this month is Angel Hill by critically acclaimed serial prize winner Michael Longley. His latest collection includes meditations on war, death and the Troubles, along with vivid descriptions of lakes and mountains, flora and fauna. This year, spoken word poet Stephen James Smith was commissioned to write a celebratory narrative. My Ireland is Smith’s irreverent, fast-moving, modern-day Aisling, bundling up romance and gritty realism, both sharp and joyful. Described as a “hydrogen ball of gas”, Smith will strut and storm at the Body & Soul Festival in Westmeath at the end of June.
Cork poet Leanne O’Sullivan, acclaimed for the “extraordinary power of her language”, leads a poetry workshop in the West Cork Anam Cara’s writers and artists retreat in August, where you can unleash your inner bard in a supportive and picturesque environment (www.anamcararetreat.com). Listen to leading poet and former Ireland Professor of poetry, Paula Meehan, read The Solace of Artemis for Poetry File on Lyric FM on Irish poetry day and listen to poetry readings every Thursday at 11am. For those ready to unveil their own poesy, The Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition 2018, run by Southword Editions, is open to new and emerging poets as well as more established writers; the closing date is June 30 (www.munsterlit.ie). Last word goes to the counter culture beat poet Allen Ginsberg: “Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.”
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