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Con Houlihan: Searching for the right words

WHAT is poetry? There are many answers. Samuel Coleridge said it was the best words in the best order. It is hardly a satisfactory answer. You could say the same about prose. What Coleridge is really saying is that in poetry you can arrange the lines and thus give the impression that the best words are really in the best order.

Some people will say that the only difference between poetry and prose is that poetry is arranged in lines. Thus the moment you look at a poem your mind takes on a receptive mood. This isn't the case with prose. You think of poetry as being a kind of music; prose can also be a kind of music but it isn't so arranged.

There is a famous story about Edward Thomas, who is one of my favourite poets, and who is now almost forgotten. He lived in the late 19th and early 20th century. He lost his life in the first World War. For years he tried to make a living by contributing essays to literary magazines that were common in the early 20th century. Then one night he met Robert Frost, the most famous American poet of the day, who told him that he was really a poet writing in prose and that if he arranged his lines as poetry, he would see that for himself. The story goes on that Thomas took his advice and became recognised as a great poet. The story is only partly true: Thomas was writing poetry long before he met Frost and he didn't stop writing essays and prose, but it is true in that Thomas became more confident.

There is a wicked question coming. If some poetry happened to be rearranged as prose, would it stand up to the test? We will let that go by. For the time being we will dwell on the amazing variety of opinions we meet about poetry. I have written before about famous critics who argue that Patrick Kavanagh's work has no lasting value. Recently the Irish Times conducted a survey among its writers about their attitude to Seamus Heaney. One bold girl, a well-known critic, said he had no effect on her at all and went on to explain why. When last heard of, she was still at large but for sheer bravery she deserved some kind of reward.


Seamus Heaney has won the Nobel Prize and many other awards but he is hardly a popular poet in the sense that the ordinary people know little about him. This isn't his fault: poetry has moved away from the people or perhaps the people have moved away from poetry. Paul Durcan is about the only Irish poet now who seems to be aware of what's happening all around him. Many others are writing good poetry but we rarely hear it quoted in the pub or the cafe.

This process has been going on for a long time and isn't confined to Ireland. England has a marvellous body of poetry but it is the poetry of the upper classes: what you might call the poetry of the people has largely been lost. Much of this was originally in the form of song and through song some has survived. Barbara Allen is one of the oldest surviving song in English. This poetry didn't survive because most was not written down.

In a strange way the poetry of the people now is mainly in song. Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan would agree. Some of Christy Moore's songs are poetry. You can say the same of Brendan Graham. Kris Kristofferson has written his share. I could go on. The separation of English poetry from the people went on all through the 14th and 15th centuries and became more accentuated as time went on. And yet it was not so simple: it was said that there was a copy of Milton's Paradise Lost in every shepherd's hut.

William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge made a mighty effort to bring back poetry to the people. The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner appears to be a difficult poem in its unreality and its melodrama but there is hardly a word in it that a child of 10 couldn't understand. You can say the same thing about Wordsworth's most popular poem -- Composed Upon Westminster Bridge. Indeed all his poetry is democratic in language. Nevertheless, the great poetry in England in the 19th century was written for the educated classes: you can see this in the work of Keats and Shelley and Arnold and Tennyson. By now the ordinary people were becoming literate. Newspapers and magazines were spreading and, above all, the novel was growing. No poet could hope to have the influence of Charles Dickens. He was a giant of the 19th century.


You could argue that poetry is surviving now in the form of folk music. What is folk music? It is hard to define but easy to recognise. Its main quality is that it is sincere and about ordinary life. It is not sentimental. You can say the same about love. Again, hard to define but easy to recognise. Be certain that when someone writes to an Agony Aunt or an Agony Uncle asking if he is in love and describing the symptoms, he is not.

Louis Armstrong, when asked about music, said there are two kinds -- there is good and there is bad. You can't say the same about poetry -- there is only the good. Without it the world would be a very poor place.

It is one of the heartbreaks of a teacher's life that he cannot inculcate a love of poetry in some pupils. He may give a long hour's lesson talking about it, and then somebody will ask "What is poetry for?" How can you answer? During the time that I was teaching there was never a difficulty with mathematics but teaching English could be a struggle that often made you close to despair.

Without being pretentious, you can say poetry is about the essence of life.