Art in the form of artefact

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

POETRY: PÓL Ó MUIRÍreviews Seán Ó Ríordáin: Na DántaEdited with introduction by Seán Ó Coileáin Cló Iar-Chonnacht, €18

‘WE ARE ALL Ríordáinised,” writes Seán Ó Coileáin, in Irish, in his introduction to Seán Ó Ríordáin’s poetry, collected for the first time under one book cover. He is right. It is impossible to imagine contemporary Irish poetry without Ó Ríordáin, and it is startling to realise just how uncertain it was that he would succeed in his poetic endeavour.

That much is highlighted in Ó Coileáin’s very informative introduction, in which he gives a taste of past poetic rows and how they affected Ó Ríordáin’s view of his art. Some of his peers did not rate the man’s work, yet here we are, almost 60 years after the publication of his first volume and more than 30 years after his death, and he is still, rightly, a major part of the canon.

There is a wonderful simplicity in the title of this book: Seán Ó Ríordáin: Na Dánta(Seán Ó Ríordáin: The Poems). Yes, what else could it be? He was a poet. Certainly, he wrote a well-read column in Irish for this newspaper – all the best people do, don’t you know? – but “Ó Ríordáin” and “poet” are the words that sit most naturally in one sentence.

It is apt, then, that his four volumes – Eireaball Spideoige(1952), Brosna(1964), Línte Liombó(1971) and Tar Éis mo Bháis, (1978) – are available for a new generation. The titles will be familiar to readers of Irish, and few will fail to recognise some of his more iconic poems: Cnoc Mellerí, Adhlacadh Mo Mháthar; Oileán agus Oileán Eile; and Saoirsewhose lines “Raghaidh mé síos i measc na ndaoine / De shiúl mo chos / Is raghaidh mé síos anocht” must be some of the most memorable of modern times.

Yet there are other, quieter poems that reward a reading. In Paidir(Prayer) he shows humour in the face of illness. Having asked for a prayer, he imagines his intercessor’s mind: “Like a pony in the church / And my name like a tail / Floating in the air.” There is a giddiness to the sentiment that still raises a smile, while the poem Údar(Author), with its wry meditation on time and language, should be pinned on the wall of every writer. Perhaps that is what new volumes of long-established authors do best: they send readers back to the texts and make them detour from an anthology into the poet’s more intimate moments.

For that reason, too, it is entirely appropriate to mention the quality of this publication as an artefact. Generations of readers have been brought up on Ó Ríordáin’s work in those slim, precious little volumes that Sáirséal agus Dill and, subsequently, Sáirséal–Ó Marcaigh originally published. They were attractive books, but the paper in this new book is snow white, and the poems stand out against its brightness, renewed and refreshed, while Seán Ó Flaithearta’s artwork, scattered on the same pages, adds another element to the act of reading – take that, ereaders.

You leave the book realising why, after all this time, Ó Ríordáin’s work is still valued. His poetry meets the two most basic demands of writing: have something of interest to say and say it well.

Pól Ó Muirí is Irish-language editor of The Irish Times