I’m no expert, but when you read a good one there’s nothing more perfect, more succinct than a poem – and that’s what keeps me dipping back in I suppose.
I recently happened upon a book of poetry. It was sitting on my parents-in-law kitchen worktop, just like that.
‘This looks lovely – where did you pick it up?’
‘Someone just put it through the letter box.’
‘Really? No note or envelope or anything?’
‘Not a word. Very mysterious.’ My father-in-law wasn’t too ruffled.
‘Very mysterious,’ I was beside myself, the glamour of it all. ‘Mind if I borrow it?’
We’re a poetic nation you know, we have a talent for words – even if we don’t realise it, it’s in all of us. We’re a people that likes the chat, the banter – we’re quick witted, our county-to-county slang word count is a marvel. Even our use of curse words is admirable. We have phrases to build you up and comments to cut you right back down. We are singers, story tellers and straight-talkers. And for most of us, look back a generation or two and schooling didn’t figure. There was too little money and too much work to be done. So it’s not a learned thing – it’s an inbuilt thing.
When a true wordsmith is at work, the results are literally poetry in motion.
Writers like Seamus Heaney. ‘When all the others were away at mass‘ a poem discovered in school, was one I just really liked – the scene he conjured up, the Irishness of it, the emotion. His writing was beautiful, rhythmic, inclusive. I loved that the writing sought to draw you in – not exclude you with cryptic words and hidden meaning. I’ve read his translation of ‘Beowulf‘ numerous times (that old, heroic story, re-worded to make reading it a joy) and other bits of his poetry. My sister and I saw him speak in London once – his genuine warmth was so appealing, so unpretentious. And he could have been pretentious and we would still have really liked him; he just wasn’t. I used to keep his photo on my fridge. My sister had cut it out, along with a magazine interview, and sent it to me in the post – I felt he was part of my family. Some people would look at the photo, squint and say; ‘And who’s this? Don’t I know him?’ ‘Oh sure that’s Seamus. You know – Seamus Heaney’. When we got married, our reflection was his very popular ‘Scaffolding‘. As he said himself, one of those poems that is popular for matrimony, brimming with the kind of confidence only those embarking on that journey can have. I loved hearing that poem on our big day in 2013. Less than a week later, Seamus Heaney died in Dublin. It was sad, because there would be no more lovely strings of words from him. No more ‘what’s Seamus going to say next?’.
Seamus Heaney loved and wrote about the Flaggy Shore in the Burren
Poetry isn’t for everyone – I just flicked back through ‘Soundings’, the English poetry bible when I did my Leaving Cert. I loved it then (but I would, I hear you say) – I’m sure it drove others bonkers. Reading through it now it’s a bit stuffy, old fashioned – the poets are from a different era, and some of it reeks of good education and deep self-regard. What is also more than a tad depressing about ‘Soundings’ is now realising that it’s really pretty much made up of a bunch of men. Emily Dickinson is in there, but my class never covered her work. I would hope this would hit any current, self-respecting 5th year class like a punch in the eye. (‘Hey Miss! Half my book is missing – I only got the bit with the old dudes’.) It now seems like a collection from antiquity. But it is still great poetry from great writers and conjures memories of those teenage years, because words you learn in school magic you right back there; ‘The bicycles go by in twos and threes – There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn to-night’ (Patrick Kavanagh), ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, it’s with O’Leary in the grave’ (W.B. Yeats). I always liked Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock; ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’
Different poems do different things – some conjure memories; good, bad, indifferent. Some you just don’t get, some you just don’t like, some you love and love forever. Poetry does something with words – it packs them in tight, lending them a power and a strength.
Anyway I slipped the mysterious book of poetry – ‘Lilac and Gooseberries’ by Aoife Reilly – into my bag. What a joy! Earthy, evocative, emotional. Just the right side of ‘difficult’ for me – it took a couple of readings, but I felt I could get real meaning out of many of the poems – i.e., it didn’t all fly over my head. Everyday themes, captured using the best words (funny ones, posh ones, familiar ones) in the best ways. I really enjoyed it. What’s more, it was also just plain great to read a book of poetry filled with women’s names, experiences and perspectives. The book can only be a platform for Aoife Reilly’s voice, but surely it lends a small step to mine too.
Aoife, if you’re reading this and fancy posting me a picture of yourself for my fridge, I would be absolutely honoured. I’m not an avid reader of poetry, but I’m interested again to see new words emerge.
Epilogue! Having read the borrowed poetry book, I promptly (and mysteriously) lost it – I suspect in Charleville. If you’re my mother-in-law and you’re reading this, I am so sorry I lost your book (turns out a friend had dropped it in the door for her to read). I have a replacement for you though, and one for myself, picked up today in Kate’s in Gort. Good word travels fast…
‘Lilac and Gooseberries’ by Aoife Reilly is published by Lapwing Publications