Embracing the city’s generational pull

Of the many writers represented in ‘If Ever You Go’, most were born in Dublin; some gravitated towards the big smoke and stayed; others contribute from much farther afield

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 01:00

Place, whatever else it might be, is where we live our lives. We are born, reared, educated, fall in love, marry, have children, die and are laid to rest somewhere. And just as these interactions shape the places around us, so places leave their mark on us.

The richness or monotony of our environment has an incalculable effect on everything from our present happiness to our future creativity, our general wellbeing to our ability to adapt to new experiences. A description of a place, therefore, is also a portrait of the people who live there.

We might also think of places as something like doorways to our memories. We have only to revisit the old haunts – the first school we attended, the corner where the old cinema used to stand, the road where we rented that grim first flat – to be transported back there again, back then again, to experience the physical, even dizzying, gravity of place.

Some places hold memories that are not even our own, or not ours alone: when I first moved to Dublin, from Portlaoise, in the early 1980s I found it impossible not to hear on the cobbled backstreets off Thomas Street the sound of factory workers heading off on the early shift, though those streets had long been without such scenes.

Cities (and perhaps small cities most of all) seem to exert a particularly potent influence, for here such associations are overlayered or set against each other, shoulder to shoulder. This may be one of the reasons why Dublin, a city of just over a million inhabitants, has such a formidable literary reputation, as if the proximity of voices, instead of cancelling each other out, only emphasises the importance, even necessity, of the verbal and literary arts.

Of course it is not only the residents of a city who can be said to know it and to whom we should turn for an accurate description. Visitors too can often make a profound connection with a place, even those who pay only a short or passing visit. Where the long-term resident may fail to see the city as it actually is, as it has developed before him, the visitor may have startlingly unencumbered, clear and precise first impressions. The local and the new arrival may walk together side by side, but often they do so down very different streets.

For Patrick Kavanagh, the Co Monaghan-born poet whose move to Dublin resulted in some of his (and the city’s) most celebrated poems, poets worthy of the name had to inhabit an actual rather than a merely imagined place. Where WB Yeats had exhorted Irish poets to “learn your trade, / sing whatever is well made”, for Kavanagh, in Irish Poets Open Your Eyes , it was true connection that was paramount:

Irish poets open your eyes.

Even Cabra can surprise;

Try the dog-tracks now and then –

Shelbourne Park and crooked men.

This commitment to the reality of place arguably has more to do with the influence of writing in Irish, to the tradition of dinnseanchas, or “place lore”, and to popular song, than to anything inherent in the English-language poetry tradition. Indeed, until the mid 20th century, when specific details of place begin to appear more than occasionally in the poems gathered here, the majority of compelling geographical references are to be found in the song and ballad traditions. That is one of the explanations of the apparent bias towards contemporary over “historical” writing in our anthology.

At the same time, many of the poets most strongly associated with the city (Kavanagh and Brendan Kennelly among them) are among the many whose arrival here has brought something new and revitalising to the city’s poetic conversation.

Of the many writers represented in If Ever You Go , most were born in Dublin; some gravitated towards the big smoke and stayed; others contribute from considerably farther afield.

For even a casual reader there can be something thrilling about encountering a known place in verse, a sense that it is somehow preserved and, at the same time, held under a revealing spotlight.

Beyond these intimate depictions of the writers’ place of birth or residence come the maps that reach ever farther across the city, including those places where the significant events of their – and our – lives take place, the seismic encounters of the heart and, indeed, the moves and countermoves on the national and international stage. And all of them happening not in some idealised city but in a recognisable city of streets and parks, buildings and landmarks, made memorable by the intensity of the writing itself.

If Ever You Go: A Map of Dublin in Poetry and Song is published by Dedalus Press, priced €11.99. It will be next month’s Dublin: One City, One Book

Pat Boran presents The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1. His collections include The Next Life (2012).

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