A year of living, breathing poetry
The judges of this year’s Poetry Now competition reflect on this year’s entries, and find that although Ireland ‘is coming down with moans’, our literary culture is thriving. The competition’s winner will be announced tomorrow, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
Was it a good year?
Gerald Dawe:I loved reading the books. It gives you a chance to see what’s going on, to sample the different kinds of writing throughout the country. To sit down and read 30-plus books of poetry – a huge number of poems – and to see that it’s not a burden, is quite an achievement in itself. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Mary Shine Thompson:I certainly had a great deal of difficulty in winnowing down the 31 books to the final five – so a number of books were omitted from the shortlist that could easily have made it.
There was also quite a spread of publishers from Ireland and England, which suggests a considerable amount of interest in poetry – so yes, it certainly was.
James Harpur:I haven’t been keeping track of the other years, so it’s hard to compare them. But each of the poets on the shortlist was very strong – and it was just the tip of a varied and fascinating iceberg, really.
What themes, if any, emerged from the collections?
Gerald Dawe:There was a very strong sense of time passing, in the shortlisted selection at any rate. People were looking back at friends who were gone, or family members who had died.
Mary Shine Thompson:In the five shortlisted collections there was a sense of elegy, of celebrating lost lives, but there were undertones and overtones that distinguished the five books from each other. So a sense of redemption – of hard-won optimism and belief in life – came through as well.
James Harpur:In poetry competitions with single poems, you can see dominant themes. With books of poetry I find that poets tend to have their own obsessions, which are followed throughout their career.
Obviously they write in a time and place, so there are echoes of what’s happening in the outside world – but overall I felt there weren’t over-riding themes that were common to the 31 poets. Apart from the human condition; the veil of soul-making, as Keats put it.
Did you get a sense of where Irish poetry sits in a wider international context?
Gerald Dawe:I think it’s true to say that contemporary Irish poetry has a great confidence about it, and a great sense of its own importance.
Another thing struck me this year, too: the ability to move outside and be relaxed in other cultures and countries. A sense of mobility, not just geographical but historical. So you’ll have a poet writing a version of an old English poem, or a translation of a classical poem, or a contemporary French or Italian poem. They don’t have to justify it.
There’s a great living in the language in the poems.
Mary Shine Thompson:What we were asked to look at was a collection of poetry published by a poet in a particular year. As you can imagine, poets often work for several years, or up to a decade, to produce a book of poetry in the first place. So it’s a kind of snapshot in moving time.
If you were to ask whether there was an international dimension to the poetry, I would say there were quite a lot of poets who looked to the international context for their writing.
James Harpur:I think the voices are too different and individual to make a collective statement on where Irish poetry is. If the question is whether the poetry is parochial, or whether the poems are concerned with specifically Irish problems, then some poets probably are more attuned to extra-Irish themes and some aren’t. But I wouldn’t want to generalise.
Was there anything you didn’t find among all those poems?
Gerald Dawe:Not really, no. To me the society that produces these poets is healthy and the poems themselves are full of life. We don’t have to be anxious about the quality of the work. The place is coming down with moans – that seems to be our default position – but in fact our literary culture is absolutely thriving.
Mary Shine Thompson:Competition is a very necessary and wonderful thing, but in a way it sets up criteria that may well exclude certain kinds of poetry. Inevitably, if you’re going to look at a book of poetry, the chances are that you’ll be looking at well-made poems that relate to each other in a coherent and meaningful way.
Some of the more radical kinds of poetry don’t find their way into the kind of books that we were looking at. I don’t mean that what we saw was without experiment, but there is probably a poetry living on the edge that doesn’t find its way into this kind of collection.
James Harpur:Casting my mind through the 31 books, I have to say you got a bit of everything within the 31, so I wasn’t aching for, say, a language poem. There was formal verse, free verse, all the great themes – love, death, mortality, loneliness, suffering, joy – were all covered, and there are some wonderful poems touching on all those great truths of existence.
Gerald Dawe:I’d like to see more attention paid to detail; a little bit more editorial intervention here or there. But that’s a small point in comparison with the positives. I like the fact that the poets were writing about a whole range of different human, sexual and moral experience. There’s a wonderful poem of Michael Longley’s where he talks about Stanley Kunitz, the American Jewish poet. It’s a wonderful poem about the life of the imagination; how it will always live and find form and words.
Mary Shine Thompson:In these straitened times, it needs to be acknowledged that poetry continues to matter and that it does an important public duty. This decade has seen a lot of discussion about the roles that various bodies can play in public life: and poetry, perhaps even more than other art forms, can play a very important role in that concept of society.
James Harpur:In times of temporary crisis, such as the one we’re in at the moment, all you have is public debate ringing loud with rhetoric.
Poetry remains the whispering voice of the soul; it keeps reminding us, through its language, thought and feeling, of the great truths of existence. Competitions highlight that quieter voice and bring it to a larger audience.
It seems entirely appropriate that the prize should be announced on September 8th: it was September 8th when Yeats published his great poem September 1913 in The Irish Times. So it’s exactly 99 years since the publication of that poem, which was so influential. And it’s wonderful that 99 years later the paper is still doing the same thing.
A Hundred Doors by Michael Longley (Cape Poetry)
Speech Lessons by John Montague (Gallery Press)
Farmers Cross by Bernard O’Donoghue
(Faber and Faber)
The Cotard Dimension by Macdara Woods
Poetry Now shortlist
Hands by Moya Cannon (Carcanet Press)
On Saturday, the Irish Times Poetry Now Award will be announced in The Irish Times and presented at the Mountains to Sea festival. Today’s shortlisted poet is Macdara Woods.
By Macdara Woods
for Áinín Ní Bhroin
where we found the skin a snake had shed
and that the destination of all journeys
to get there in the end
red blood and spit
black feathers in the sun
It is the snake itself that’s green
and not the skin
Tavernelle di Panicale
From The Cotard Dimension. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Dedalus Press