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Review: Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin


The great educator Augustine Martin edited 'Soundings'. 'It was his genius to know loving poetry is a marriage,' says Joseph O'Connor. Portrait by James Hanley RHA

The great educator Augustine Martin edited 'Soundings'. 'It was his genius to know loving poetry is a marriage,' says Joseph O'Connor. Portrait by James Hanley RHA

The great educator Augustine Martin edited 'Soundings'. 'It was his genius to know loving poetry is a marriage,' says Joseph O'Connor. Portrait by James Hanley RHA

In my memory, I have a scrapbook of images of my teenage school days in Ireland:

The strange word Zoso -- it had appeared on the sleeve of an album by Led Zeppelin -- stencilled on to the flap of a hessian satchel; a yellowing copy of the 1916 Proclamation, framed on the classroom wall; the phrase "Phil Lynott Rules OK" carved into an ancient, time-blackened desk that had a hole once intended for an inkwell; a statue of the Virgin Mary in an alcove of the corridor, the blue of her sash chipped by some long forgotten mishap; the papery taste of the communion wafer; the aroma of chalk dust; the celestial loveliness of a girl called Julie Elder -- a neighbour I adored but never had the courage to talk to.

Sebastian Barry describes old age as a burning headland you don't know how you got to. The same is true of youth.

Among that tarot deck of images, there is one that still evokes so much shimmering pleasure that I can reach across the years and touch it. Its frontispiece; its awful cover, like a hippy's batik T-shirt; its glories and grandiosities; its appalling typography; the smell of its pages when rain soaked your school bag; the confusions and consolations it pointed to. It was a book that changed my life, a passport, a pillow, a collection of signposts, a treasury. It was, perhaps, the only textbook you'd ever read for pleasure. It was a collection of poetry called Soundings.

It was edited and compiled by a great educator, the late Gus Martin of UCD. Its contents opened worlds you hadn't known were there: the fiery cathedral of John Donne's mind; the October orchards of Thomas Kinsella. You tramped the roads with Chaucer's pilgrims, heard nightingales with Keats, lost yourself in the imperial march of John Milton's rhythms as utterly as Lucifer lost Paradise. Led Zeppelin sang of the Stairway to Heaven, but poetry was a walk on the wild side.

I was young in the era of The Boomtown Rats and punk rock, but no lyric that was ever spat into a microphone by the glorious Johnny Rotten could ever compete with the strangeness of Emily Dickinson. "I felt a funeral, in my brain," she said. Every teenager on the cusp of adulthood knew what she meant.

"When night stirred at sea/ And the fire brought a crowd in,/ They say that her beauty/ Was music in mouth." Austin Clarke's longing for the planter's daughter voiced the inarticulate speech of the heart. Dylan Thomas gave us the drunkenness of words; their intoxicating power. Yeats revealed that they could do anything you wanted. And the anthology did more than anyone has ever done to establish Patrick Kavanagh as a poet of immense significance. His Canal Bank sonnets had some reverberating quality that made every teenager I knew truly love them. This hurt, old man seemed one of us, somehow. His everyday redemptions might be ours.

But there was a seriousness about Soundings; a sense of not talking down to its readers. There was none of that excruciating attempt to get hip with the kids that can sometimes spoil anthologies of poetry for young people. Soundings was old school. It knew what was what. It offered what the introduction terms "great poems by great poets" and no apology for its assumptions or certainties. You took it as you found it, or you didn't take it at all. It didn't want to be grandad at the disco.

Looking back, we might quibble. And I do so now. Were the Fab Four of Yeats, Kavanagh, Kinsella and Clarke truly the only Irish poets who merited inclusion? And to have had only one woman poet in a 260-page book was a serious error of missed opportunities. But despite its manifest failings of omission or commission, it offered a notion that had value and dignity: that this little windswept country on the western shores of Europe, where the rain fell horizontally and we didn't do a lot of things excellently, had been home to Easter Island giants of the language; that we were citizens of a republic, not condemned to mediocrity, and that between these cheaply printed covers was part of an astonishing inheritance.

Inspiring, annoying, generous, loving, Soundings was the book that brought poetry into hundreds of thousands of lives. It was virtual reality, decades before the internet. It took you to places unimagined by Twitter. Amid the ink-stains of our adolescence, the shocking sweetness of first kisses, the pimples and growth-spurts and uncertainties and aches, it saw to it that poetry would find a way of seeding itself. We owe it that, and I truly honour it for that. Love does not rejoice in the wrong.

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Poetry has a slow detonation. Its fuse burns long. Poems I struggled with as a teenager have become friends I couldn't live without. It was Martin's genius to know that loving poetry is a marriage. There are good days and tough ones, rows and reunions, frustrations when you don't understand. Yes, you have to work at it, but how immense are the rewards. All of it is worth it for the joy of those moments when the world bursts into life like a fruit.

If Soundings in several senses belongs to its era, it still has much to say. These days, young people in school are likely to be invited to write poems themselves, to experience poetry as a living adventure, rather than a sternly beautiful inheritance. And through the excellent work of the Arts Council and Poetry Ireland, Irish school children can have the experience of meeting and hearing a poet, of talking back to poetry's makers with the openness and wonderment people of my own age reserved for talking to poems. I envy them that -- and yet, and yet ... every reader meets Yeats in Among School Children; John Donne in Batter My Heart. You just have to believe they are there, as Martin believed it. A poetry reading is often a wonderfully enriching experience, but sometimes you lose so much by hearing a poem read aloud. You don't even know how long it will be. It would be sad to see the solitary reading of poetry disappear.

Seamus Heaney's haunting poem The Given Note talks of a traditional Irish tune coasting out of the night "on loud weather". Teenage years are loud, full of bombardments and indignations, the gorgeous fireworks of our certainties. We found ourselves so strange that we sought out simplicities. We thought we knew everything. And in one sense, we did. For in Soundings, we had been given a gift that would last a whole lifetime: the idea that between reader and writer, in the unique intimacy of that space, miracles of pleasure can happen. How poorer we would have been, in our frightened island of the past, without the secrets whose freedoms it rumoured.

Ghost Light' by Joseph O'Connor is the One City One Book choice for 2011.

Dublin: One City One Book is an annual promotion, taking place in April each year, to encourage everyone in Dublin to read the same book. For 'Ghost Light', the celebrations will include:

  • A month of public events, readings and music, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
  • Performances and readings of plays by John Synge and his circle.
  • Exhibitions, extravaganzas, happenings, walks, talks, train rides, art shows, films, and so on. For more information, email jane.alger@dublincity.ie

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