Monday 23 April 2018

A passion for poetry and its purpose

Poetry: Imaginary Bonnets with Real Bees In Them, Paula Meehan, UCD Press, €21.50

A bee in her bonnet: Ireland Chair of Poetry for the last three years Paula Meehan's new book explores what role poetry can play in our lives
A bee in her bonnet: Ireland Chair of Poetry for the last three years Paula Meehan's new book explores what role poetry can play in our lives

JP O' Malley

In his poem In Memory of WB Yeats, WH Auden declared that "poetry makes nothing happen." Yeats himself once said that "what can be explained is not poetry." Seamus Heaney, meanwhile, defined poems as "stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself".

Most poets, I suspect, would unanimously agree that poetry itself is a kind of spiritual quest; an art form that allows one to explore something deeper than what we glean from linear thought processes or everyday conversations: something beyond our physical and rational selves.

Paula Meehan - who has held the Ireland Chair of Poetry for the last three years - attempts in these highly engaging and energetic lectures to come to some definition of what role poetry can play in our lives, and how it might help expand human consciousness.

In the task she has set herself here, Meehan succeeds. Remarkably so, in fact. Lectures on poetry have the potential to be heavily academic, full of useless quotations that do nothing to encourage the human spirit, and can be tediously boring too.

What makes these three lectures so compelling to read is Meehan's ability to converge the public and private world together into a narrative that is refreshingly honest, and, in many respects, unsure of itself.

Art, life, nature, history, heroic writers, scientific theory, mythology, the local and the international, all exchange places here. And Meehan eschews haughty pretentiousnesses, or a penchant for too much poetic theory. Thematically, the lectures themselves cover many topics.

Planet Water begins with a meditation on resource, water, and the unconscious mind; The Solace of Artemis -the title of a poem Meehan wrote herself- concerns itself with memory, nature, and the power of great teachers, who can guide us towards a path of enlightenment, analysis and self-discipline; Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees in Them, tries to get to grips with the craft of poetry itself and its obsessive nature.

Meehan takes a loose essay-form approach here. And the lectures meander, rather than try to prove any kind of grand thesis as such. Much of her ideas are accompanied by lines of her favourite poems too: adding a musicality to the narrative, as it ebbs and flows, in dreamlike sequences.

Meehan places herself at the very heart of these lectures too; as she tries to figure out what good, if any, a poet can communicate to their reader. So, we follow her from her childhood days in Finglas, to her grandparents' house in Marino, to school days in Gardiner Street, and then later to London.

With each recollection of place, which Meehan temporarily, and sometimes permanently calls home - including Nova Scotia, the Shetland Islands, Leitrim, Baldoyle, Howth, Dublin city centre, and Washington - she explores the importance of landscape, mythology, sense, touch, memory, family, heartache, failure, and, most importantly, people: and how they shape our perception of what it means to be alive.

There are encounters here - both in person, on the page, and in dreams - with her writing heroes: such as Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, WB Yeats, and WH Auden.

Poetry, Meehan tells us, "stops something happening, stops time, and takes our breath away". And the art form itself, she writes, "allows the unlocking of the door between the subconscious and the quotidian".

In our present age, where finding meaning through the tumultuous international political order is getting increasingly more difficult and irrational, we ought to read, listen, and encourage, more often, the wise words of poets, like Meehan and her ilk: for they speak a great deal of sense.

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