Poetry and poets are a divisive issue. I know people who think it is all a load of pretentious nonsense and others who affect an appreciation because they believe it says something about them. But in my experience people who genuinely appreciate poetry tend to be quite sheepish about it and not really want to talk about it. Unlike other literary genres reading poetry tends to be a deeply personal experience and the same few lines can be exhilaratingly inspiring for one person and yet leave someone else totally cold.
When I met the late Kerry philosopher and poet John Moriarty in 2001 we got to talking about poetry and he happened to mention that he had known Ted Hughes in the 1960s. He pointed out his window towards Mangerton and gesturing dramatically said: “He was like that mountain.”
We also discussed Seamus Heaney, who Moriarty was less than gushing about saying that he had ‘named’ many issues that were important in Ireland, particularly about the Troubles in the North, and that he was a superb technician but that “he wouldn’t help me make it through the night”.
Reading through Moritarty’s books it is clear that he had deep appreciation and understanding of poetry and that he believes that some poems could help him through the most traumatic psychological crises but that Heaney, despite his superb craftsmanship, was not a poet that did that for him.
Ofcourse, like a piece of music, different poems speak to different people in different ways and there will be many others who would turn to Heaney in a time of crisis.
I often lack confidence in my own poems not because I believe that they are necessarily badly written (which of course they might well be) but because I feel they are too contrived and that I was trying to hard when I wrote them. There are about 20 poems in my chapbook collection, Coill, and I think about seven or eight of them are genuinely good poems and that the others are all right. I mean good in the sense that Moriarty meant that they might “help me make it through the night” by naming some emotion or concept that can never really be said out loud because the act of expressing it would diminish it but can be hinted at or suggested in a poem.
Derek Mahon is my favourite poet at the minute but Michael Hartnett, Kevin Kiely Trevor Joyce, Robert Lowell and Lorca have all held the title at some time or other and no doubt others will do the same.
Anyway those were the thoughts were going through my head last night while I was driving to Trim in Co Meath for the launch of Boyne Berries 5, which included my poem Wake. It took just over two hours to get there and involved an overnight stay with my brother in Dublin before coming back this morning. The poem I read has 18 lines in it and took just over a minute to read.
On another occasion I drove to Galway for the launch of an edition of Crannóg – five hours from Downpatrick to the outskirts of the city, another hour and half caught up in rush-hour traffic, plus the expenses of meals and a hotel bill and then the return journey for the sake of reading seven lines.
But the time and expense are worth it - it is not often obscure, minor poets like myself get an audience. In fact unless your name is Seamus, most of the better-known poets probably struggle to get an audience.
It was also a pleasure to sit and hear other people reading their poems and prose pieces. You can only learn and grow as a writer from reading and listening to others and quite often something which seems banal on the page can come to life when you hear it being read by the person who wrote it. Not all were to my taste, but then my poem was probably not to everyone’s taste. But I got the sense that each reader had total belief in their work and like me the fact that someone else has taken the time to read it, publish it and listen to it being read would inspire them to go on.
Last night was also enjoyable because there was an opportunity to simply chat with others about the joys and frustrations of what can often be a lonely and frustrating process.
Boyne Berries is published by The Boyne Writers group. You can visit their website and buy copies here.