Monday 23 October 2017

Book worm: RTE's silly poetry game

Poet Eavan Boland
Poet Eavan Boland

John Boland

So what will turn out to be the nation's favourite poem? Perhaps it will be be 'Filleadh ar an gCathair' by Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, of whom I'd never heard until RTÉ announced her poem as one of the 10 that have been shortlisted for its A Poem for Ireland promotion, which is currently being publicised both on John Murray's morning radio show and on RTÉ1's Friday night arts show, The Works.

Or maybe it will be Paula Meehan's 'The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks' or Eavan Boland's 'Quarantine', the former based on the tragic Longford death of teenager Ann Lovett, while the latter concerns a terrible 1847 famine story. These were also unfamiliar to me, though I've read them over the past couple of days and thought them honourable efforts, as no doubt is Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuig's offering if I could only understand Irish (it certainly doesn't leap off the page in its English translation).

But are they really poems "for Ireland" as distinct from poems about Ireland? And do they merit being included in the same shortlist that includes Yeats' 'Easter 1916' and Derek Mahon's 'A Disused Shed in Co Wexford'? Are they really in that league? Or do such considerations matter?

Probably they don't because competitions such as this have really nothing to do with quality. If they had, how come that there's nothing in this shortlist by Pádraic Colum or Francis Ledwidge or Michael Longley or Thomas Kinsella or John Montague or Michael Hartnett or Paul Muldoon or Brendan Kennelly or Richard Murphy or Dennis O'Driscoll?

I could go on but I won't because what we have here is essentially a parlour game dreamed up by our national broadcaster for the benefit of a small minority and of minimal interest to the vast majority.

The BBC performed a similar exercise almost 20 years ago, though at least the hundred poems it subsequently published in book form as The Nation's Favourite Poems were almost all poems with which most readers would have been familiar. Indeed, the book is a pleasing anthology of much-loved verse from Shakespeare to Larkin.

Perhaps if RTÉ get round to compiling a similar anthology, it will be just as pleasing, though from the odd shortlist for A Poem for Ireland I wouldn't bet on it and you might be safer seeking out Sean McMahon's lovely anthology, Rich and Rare.

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