A poet of solidarity

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:00

Paula Meehan, Ireland’s new Professor of Poetry, is a poet of solidarity – solidarity with the dispossessed, with mother earth, with her sisters and brothers in the craft. “Empathy” is another word associated with her poetry, work which upholds the dignity of the human spirit and has won her wide acclaim. She is a most worthy and cheering choice to follow her predecessors who occupied the all-island Ireland Chair of Poetry.

If Yeats and Heaney are the standard bearers, raising poetry into public consciousness, Meehan is among the pivotal poets whose grace notes enhance an art that is our jewel in the crown. In a time of so much loss, to the soul of the nation and to Irish poetry, she is a powerful public advocate to speak on behalf of both. In true bardic tradition, she listens to others to speak on their behalf. In that decade of bewildering headlines when Ireland needed the serenity of poetry, she delivered it in “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks”.

Meehan’s ways of seeing, radical and independent, are a mark of her distinctiveness as a poet. One of her major achievements is a recalibration of the Irish poem, drawing it into a different state of mind; her poems are often a skilful blending of a shared and personal history. Once described as “an archivist of great value”, her poems also enter the communal terrain of her people and are as much at home in the north inner city of Dublin, or the city’s northside suburbs, as in the dream-world of the imagination. Like Heaney, she is a poet of place, Dublin being the locus of many of her poems; she looks to the city of her childhood and what has replaced it, but sees through its cracks.

But this city scribe also keeps an eye on nature: her solidarity with mother earth is best exemplified in one of her finest poems, “Death of a Field”, a lament for how we are stripping the land of its gifts to us. In one poem she has written: “Though my lines are all wonky/ they spell me a map that makes sense.” We live in a time that needs the maps made by poets such as Paula Meehan.