Word for Word: Poetry’s inspirational ubiquity

Whether in a book or on ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘The Simpsons’, poems change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world

Mad Men: the TV series has featured work by the wonderful American poet Frank O’Hara

Mad Men: the TV series has featured work by the wonderful American poet Frank O’Hara


Is this the consequence of an overly optimistic disposition or is poetry everywhere in recent times? Devotees of Breaking Bad will be aware of the pivotal part Walt Whitman plays in the series. In the show, Gale Boetticher, an avid Whitman fan, recites When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer , one of the poems in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass .

Work by the wonderful American poet Frank O’Hara features prominently throughout Mad Men , and The Simpsons has featured guest appearances by the Paris Review editor George Plimpton and the former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky.

Surely it’s only a matter of time before Stuart Carolan, the writer of Love / Hate , references Paula Meehan or Austin Clarke. (Fans of Nidge can catch his real-life interpreter Tom Vaughan-Lawlor read poems that inspire him during One City One Book, in April.)

In equal measure, it seems, the advertising industry is alive to poetry’s allure. Witness the late RS Thomas on a recent crisp packet, or Whitman (again) plugging iPad airs.

After Seamus Heaney died, everyone from Rob Kearney to Lisa Hannigan tweeted their sadness. Croke Park was movingly stilled in his memory on the day of his removal service, and an inspired graffiti artist painted the English version of Heaney’s characteristically generous last words to his wife, Marie – “Don’t be afraid” – on a Portobello gable end. Gestures and actions like these surely support Heaney’s view that “good poetry thickens your sense of being alive”.

Poetry appears to be sliding itself easily into all sorts of life situations. The Nobel economist Paul Krugman reaches for Robert Frost in an effort to explain the global fiscal crisis. Stuck for words to describe the glory that was the Cork and Clare hurling final last year, Donal Óg Cusack finally declared: “It’s just pure poetry!”

The Tipperary hurling manager, Eamon O’Shea, has used Paul Durcan poems to encourage freedom of expression in his team and suggests that “so much of performance in sport is driven by beauty, expression, attachment, hope, regret that maybe only a poet can truly understand and interpret it”.

Heaney said, “I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

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