Monday 23 October 2017

Bookworm with John Boland: Poetry in Ireland thriving

John Boland

Patrick Kavanagh famously referred to a standing army of 10,000 Irish poets, and by early April it seemed as if half of them had entered for the inaugural Pigott Poetry Prize, the winner of which will be announced at the Listowel Writers' Festival next Wednesday.

In the event, there were a mere 68 volumes of verse to be considered by myself and Britain's Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, but that's an astonishing number of Irish poetry collections to be published in the space of one year.

The Pigott Prize, worth €5,000 to the winner, was made possible through the generosity of Irish-American industrialist and philanthropist Mark Pigott, whose family originated in Listowel and emigrated to the US in the 1890s.

He has deemed it "a blessing to be able to support this wonderful literary award and recognise the leading poets of Ireland".

Certainly, it's a blessing to those who feel that, despite all the famous poets Ireland has produced, the practice of verse is not sufficiently honoured here and contemporary poets remain the poor relations of headline-grabbing novelist cousins.

Perhaps that's because for many people poetry seems so personal as to be hard to assess. I certainly found this while seeking to draw up a shortlist. When assessing a novel, you have story, plot and characters to guide you in your judgment, but in verse there are no such convenient touchstones.

Among the 68 poets we considered there were as many women as men, and there were as many poets either unknown or only vaguely familiar to me as there were well-known, indeed famous, names.

All I can say is that reading these poets was a great pleasure, though the invidious task of narrowing the volumes – many of them very fine and some exceptional – down to a shortlist proved to be a lot more difficult.

In the end we opted for recent collections by Martin Dyar, Vona Groarke, Sinead Morrissey, Maurice Riordan and Matthew Sweeney, though choosing a winner from those five proved just as difficult.

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