Thursday 26 April 2018

Celebrating our lives in poetry and emotion

As a day-long, countrywide national celebration of poetry looms, Alison Walsh talks to three Irish contemporary poets about their lives in verse

Poetic: Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr, partners in life and verse. Photo: David Conachy
Poetic: Enda Wyley and Peter Sirr, partners in life and verse. Photo: David Conachy
Doireann Ni Ghriofa

For those of us whose engagement with poetry has gone no further than the Soundings anthology, the concept of a whole 24 hours devoted to verse might seem a little daunting, reminding us of swotting for exams and memorising great tracts of iambic pentameter.

However, the organisers of Poetry Day 2017 have something altogether different in mind: a big, 24-hour, 32-county celebration of poetry in all its forms.

You won't be able to buy a coffee, a paper or a breakfast roll on Thursday, April 27, without tripping over a poet, and according to Maureen Kennelly, Director of Poetry Ireland, ''this festival will give a fresh perspective and celebrate poetry, as well as making it more accessible''.

With a programme that includes a special Facebook Live event, in which luminaries including former US Vice President Joe Biden and Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody will read their favourite poems, Poetry Day promises to bring a fresh impetus to an art form that Kennelly admits is ''a bit hidden'' and to introduce the Irish public to people who, in the words of Stephen King, ''speak God's language''.

But what is it really like to be a master of this art form? Three contemporary Irish poets give their views on their craft and address some of the preconceptions about their chosen vocation.

Enda Wyley

With her enthusiasm and zest for life, Enda Wyley doesn't give the impression that she's a tortured soul, as poets are often assumed to be. Recently accepted into Aosdana in recognition of her long career in poetry, Wyley is the author of five collections, including her most recent New and Selected Poems.

She attributes the joy she finds in poetry to her happy introduction to the form: ''Poetry originated for me in the life of my childhood, which was fun and about my parents loving reading. My dad would declare that Thomas Hardy was the best-loved poet in the world and I'd look up to him aged nine and think, 'I want to have a look at that poem'. You fall in love with language, as Auden said, and I carried that with me through life.'' Another cliche is that poets live ''on the top floor of the ivory tower'', as American poet Gary Soto put it, but Wyley attributes some of her best work to her two decades as a teacher in Dublin's north inner city: ''It was a life of art and music and rhythms and beats - even though it was exhausting. Socrates in the Garden - the title of my second book - came about because of my daily walk down Sean McDermott street, you'd see shoes hanging over the wires, people yelling across the balconies - there was an energy which found its way into a poem.''

Peter Sirr

And as fellow poet - and partner to Enda Wyley - Peter Sirr points out, for many poets: ''Real life can be the work. Wallace Stevens, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, used to write most of his poems on his walk through Hartford, Connecticut to his job as Vice-President of the Insurance Company where he worked. Everything he wrote was in his walk to his job.'' Nevertheless, ''You have to cultivate the life from which poetry can come.'' For Sirr, this life also started in teaching, before his talent as a linguist pushed him towards translation, although it is only in recent years that he has been able to devote himself to his work more fully.

This doesn't mean that he is suddenly cranking out a poem a day: ''Holding back and not writing and the silence between poems is as important as the writing. You have to be a daily communicant in some way with the art of poetry and other poems and that quality of attention that you give to the world.''

Doireann Ni Ghriofa

SN DoireannNiG.jpg
Doireann Ni Ghriofa

For Cork poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa, life as the mother of four young children has given her a surprisingly positive framework for her own writing. Ni Ghriofa, who is a relative newcomer to poetry, has nonetheless published three collections in Irish and one in English, and been awarded the Rooney Prize among other plaudits.

''It has given me an extraordinary work ethic, because I don't have the luxury of procrastinating for even five minutes. I'm very much parched for writing time, so every time I see a slot of time that I can take for writing, I run to my work and I'm excited and energetic and I'm using the time as best I can.'' So much for Cyril Connolly's adage that, ''there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall''.

All three are clearly very much of the real world, but they cheerfully admit that writing poetry is not a way to earn a living.

Sirr explains: ''Very few people go into a bookshop and ask for a book of poems - they might buy one at a festival or reading, where you're there physically and they like what they hear. It almost requires a physical encounter with a poem to buy the book.''

Doireann Ni Ghriofa finds new audiences for her Irish-language work by making sub-titled YouTube videos - ''undercover poetry'' as she calls them, for people to absorb and enjoy what they might have been afraid of almost by accident.

Which brings us neatly to the idea that poetry is 'difficult.' For Enda Wyley: ''We live in an age when everything is easy and fast and in fiction we're reading page-turners. Poetry is about complex ideas and language... it's a form of creative and imaginative meditation.'' Poems are ''slow food'', as Peter Sirr says, but there is no right way to interpret a poem.

Ni Ghriofa explains: ''We bring our attitudes from the Leaving Cert to poetry. We almost feel that there's a right answer and a wrong answer and it almost feels like homework, but when you come to exciting modern poetry or listen to poets live, they will shed a lot of those preconceptions.''

Nonetheless, calling yourself a poet can be risky. ''It was great for chatting up boys,'' Enda Wyley laughs, but according to Sirr, 'it's like saying, "I'm a saint". If you say I'm a playwright or a novelist, that's fine, but to say "I'm a poet"- that's for other people to decide.'

For Doireann Ni Ghriofa it's an earthier calling. ''In the same way that I worked every day teaching junior infants, I called myself a teacher and when I work every day as a poet, I call myself a poet.

''I'm proud to write poetry and to call myself a poet.''

The Poetry Day event takes place on Thursday, April 27. For more information, see Doireann Ni Ghriofa will be reading at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival on April 30

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