Poetry Day Ireland: Dermot Bolger on how poems we learn as children can stay with us through our lives
On Poetry Day Ireland, Dermot Bolger looks at how the poems we learn as children can stay with us throughout our lives and shape who we become
I recall sitting with my classmates in Beneavin College, Finglas, in May 1977 as our English teacher, Colm Hewitt, gave up his Saturday morning to help us study Yeats' poem 'Among School Children', where the poet described walking through a class of children gazing in wonder at a "smiling 60-year-old public man".
I recall the beauty of the words but also the impossibility of imagining what it must feel like to be 60 years old. Yet next February this is the age I'll reach.
Recently I walked through a classroom of children and realised how - although obviously not a public figure like Yeats - I'd suddenly become the man inside his poem: the lines of which stayed with me since 1977, their meaning changing as my life changed. This is true of Frost's 'Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening' and other poems I didn't fully understand at school but became signposts to my adult life: helping me survive moments of personal trauma.
At 12 I decided I wanted to be a poet. My primary teacher, the late Michael Donnelly, read us a poem by Francis Ledwidge. To someone like me with a stammer, subjected to sporadic bullying, the poem was mesmerising, like a light bulb in my head. I walked home from school that day with a friend whose ambition then was to join the army. I shyly confessed my new ambition to be a poet. He was not unsympathetic but said that to be a poet you needed to go to university and as neither of us knew anyone who'd been to university, maybe I'd be wiser becoming a soldier too.
We were wrong on two counts. Firstly, many people from my north Dublin suburb went on to university: the girl five doors down from me became an esteemed doctor and the shop around the corner produced a physician and professor knighted in Britain for his research into the molecular pathogenesis of human obesity. Secondly, you need no degree to become a poet. The great freedom of being a poet is that you need nobody's permission or approval, you just need a pen and paper and the courage to go wherever your imagination leads.
I still treasure the copy of Patrick Kavanagh's Collected Poems, given to me - as the inscription says - by Frances Barron, a teacher in Beneavin College at Christmas in 1976.
While many poems in this volume from my school days remain lodged in my memory, it is Kavanagh's 'Author's Note' that most resonates with me. He wrote "a man… innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life", saying that if he hadn't discovered poetry, "I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland".
I don't know if Kavanagh's Monaghan neighbours considered themselves "happily unhappy" or what they made of this ungainly and, in later years, when failing health and poverty caught up with him, occasionally cantankerous man. I loved the observation of one neighbour - stunned by how many national figures in large cars descended on Inniskeen after his death in 1967 - that "locally his funeral was the making of him".
If Kavanagh hadn't dabbled in words it's no foregone conclusion that he would have remained in Inniskeen as a small farmer, remembered now only as an erratic GAA goalkeeper. Intellectual wanderlust or clumsiness (his father told him, "you broke every tool on the farm except the crowbar. And you bent that") might have seen him disappear into the Irish diaspora in London.
Any such fate might have given him a more financially secure life than the one he led, where - again quoting his 'Author's Note' - "I literally starved in Dublin. I often borrowed 'a shilling for the gas' when in fact I wanted the coin to buy a chop". But no more prosperous a life would have seen his statue erected on Dublin's Grand Canal or a Literary Centre honouring him in Inniskeen.
I return to Kavanagh's 'Author's Note' because I love his phrase about how someone "innocently dabbles in words". It sums up the problematic alchemy of poetry: something I've written for 45 years, spending the past 35 making a precarious living from the thin sliver of my imagination.
No novelist "innocently dabbles in words". They sit for hours slowly coercing characters to be summed up from their imagination. Poetry is a more mysterious kettle of fish. You can no more summon a poem than hurry one. Poems write themselves in your subconscious, then ambush you at unexpected moments, when walking the dog or washing dishes. Yeats said that from the quarrel with others we make rhetoric and from the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
Because human nature is conflicted, there is always a quarrel in our mind with contradictory thoughts. Occasionally one thought sparks into life with a jolt of electricity and we know instinctively this is a poem's opening line. We also know if we don't write it down immediately it will disappear and we cannot summon it back up.
Poetry never made me rich, but thankfully my ability to diversify into novels and plays means that, unlike Kavanagh, I'm unlikely to starve. But just like him, my innocent dabbling in words has brought me on two extraordinary journeys. Firstly, a physical journey where I read poems in a blizzard on a stage in a Beijing park or led 2,000 Irish soccer fans through Stockholm as Grand Marshall of a St Patrick's Parade or performed in venues as diverse as New Delhi, New Brunswick, New York and Newcastle West.
And secondly, on an imaginative journey where, at unlikely moments - sitting on a 16 bus or having to lie sprawled in a Manhattan hotel corridor, to the consternation of guests stepping over me, to scribble words that came from nowhere and would be gone if I didn't catch them - I'm constantly surprised by the words I innocently dabbled in.
It's a career where you never retire. Indeed calling it a career seems extreme when it earns so little money, but calling it a vocation sounds pretentious. So maybe it's best termed 'a calling' because at unlikely times words come calling to you. Those words are linked to emotions and because we experience emotions differently, a poem that touches one reader will leave other readers cold.
Poetry cannot be foisted on everyone. But because poems are often crafted from the rawest grief or the height of love or other deep human emotions, I'm convinced there is nobody alive who, at some tumultuous moment in their life, could not pick up some poem and feel a shock of recognition at how someone else has captured the emotions they are feeling.
As a novelist you send novels into the world hoping they find a large audience, foreign translations and film rights. But you send out poems like you drop the tiniest pebble into the deepest well. The astonishing thing I've found after four decades is that, years later you finally hear the tiny splash when, to your surprise, you meet a reader somewhere who has kept that particular poem by their bed because your words captured something of the essence of their experience. Such rare encounters make the hours and months of reshaping poems worthwhile because you find you've touched someone in a deeply personal way that neither of you can explain.
- Dermot Bolger's latest novel is The Lonely Sea and Sky. His stage adaptation of Ulysses returns to the Abbey Theatre on June 11. There are more than 100 events taking place across the country today to mark Poetry Day Ireland. For more, see poetryday.ie.