Writing in a vacuum?

Mon, Jan 12, 2009, 00:00

THREE IRISH-LANGUAGE poets - Áine Uí Fhoghlú, Simon Ó Faoláin and Maria Ní Mhurchú - won awards for their poetry collections in Irish this year. Their voices are fresh, contemporary and immediate, but many readers will never discover them.

Some might say they are writing in a vacuum. Those few readers who want to discover these new works are a rare breed indeed. What motivates poets to labour in this particularly exclusive field of dreams where readership numbers are so minuscule because accessibility to their work can be daunting and not for the faint-hearted?

Poet Thomas McCarthy, who discusses the special vocation of being a poet in the current issue of Poetry Ireland Review, believes "people have dreams and fantasies about the literary life, but in the end of the day it is, actually, an incredibly personal and private triumph".

Although he doesn't write in Irish himself, he says that being a Cappoquin-born poet, he understands the pull of the language and that his "lyrical masters" are headed up by his hero, Irish-language poet Máire Mhac an tSaoi. "You couldn't be from the Déise and not be interested ," he explains.

Poets, he says, "have to realise [their work] is going to have a restricted response, but you can't stop. You must keep doing it". He and his fellow wordsmiths have become, he adds, "almost fatalistic" about expecting responses. "You can't fabricate responses to your work, all you can do is do your work and hope for a response. You can't be your own public relations agency as well as a writer. You have to let the work find its own reader and it will eventually find a few constant readers."

He recalls John McGahern's words of advice to him: "I always remember him saying you just have to farm in the weather you are given, you can't be waiting for the sun to shine - that's what poetry is."

AND SO IT has been for fellow Déise poet, Áine Uí Fhoghlú, who was picked as the winner of this year's Michael Hartnett Poetry Award by the three judges, Alan Titley, Paddy Bushe and Roisín Ní Chairbhí, for her second collection, An Liú sa Chuan.

"She shows a deep respect for tradition, while developing and using that tradition in a thoroughly modern way," says her citation. "Older forms of poetry are remoulded and reworked to express a contemporary sensibility, and the poet's command of language and of style is always masterful."

According to the judges, "the imagery of the poems is often strikingly beautiful and the subject matter is wonderfully varied, with the poet's human sympathy and understanding always evident". The feelings expressed by the poet, they add, "strike us deeply and we carry the best of them with us in our hearts. Áine Uí Fhoghlú's is a voice that adds to the poetry of Ireland".

This poet, who is a neighbour but not a relation of this writer, doesn't feel she's writing in a vacuum; but, she says, "sometimes you wonder if there's anybody out there. But like any art form [writing poetry] is not something you particularly set out to do. It kind of comes over you. For me personally, it's as if a poem comes in spite of me and it's my job to shape that into something that I consider art. So it's something that happens. It's like a well that bubbles up and you can't stop it and if you plug it up it comes out somewhere else."

Irish-language poets, she says, "do with sincerity what is natural for us to do. And that is that we express ourselves through our own art form in our own native language". Philosophically, she says the limited number of readers "probably mirrors the status of the Irish language in general".

Archaeologist Simon Ó Faoláin, who won the 2008 Glen Dimplex Award in the Irish- language category for his first collection, Anam Mhadra, also published by Coiscéim, "didn't consciously make a choice between Irish and English. That wasn't the way it happened. In a sense, I didn't really consciously make a decision to write poetry at all. It was just something that happened at a certain stage of my life where it was something I was using to deal with various difficulties. That was just the way it happened. There wasn't really a choice involved, at least not a choice that I was aware of making."

He, too, is drawn to "the fact that we have this unbroken tradition of poetry in Irish going back at least 1,500 years". That is "a source of inspiration and a source of support and a kind of validity" for him. It "is a venerable tradition. It has validity. I would never doubt the validity of writing in Irish even though it's for a small readership."

He believes the small readership of Irish-language poetry is made up largely of those who are writing themselves and "would, on average, compared to most people, have a very deep understanding of the tradition and of the background. So that does make a big difference. There isn't a large readership, but I think in general it's quite a high-quality readership."

As to why writers choose Irish as opposed to English, he says: "It may just be because English has been ransacked to such an extent . . . but I don't think it's as simple as that. I think it's to do with the inherent qualities in the different languages as well. English may be better for discussing more subtle, less emotional things . . . Some of these things that you can say in Irish can sometimes sound a bit cliched in English. It doesn't just boil down to the fact that Irish is less used . . . Some would say that it is possibly easier to deal in a more straightforward fashion with strong emotions in Irish."

STILL, IRISH-LANGUAGE poets are happy to acknowledge their need to be heard.

"I'd like to have a wider audience read my poetry," admits Maria Ní Mhurchú, whose first collection, Duilleoga Draíochta, published by An Sagart, won the Oireachtas Literary Award for poetry this year. "Some of my poems are in English. There are 80 in Irish and 20 in English. I'd like more people to be able to speak Irish because I'd like them to read my poems in Irish. I come across better in Irish than I do in English. I think that."

Áine Uí Fhoghlú agrees that readership or the lack of it matters, but that "there isn't a lot you can do about it unfortunately". She understands that poetry itself is a narrow area of interest in English or in any language. "When you narrow down the numbers to the people who speak Irish as their first language, and then the percentage of those people who are interested in poetry, it is smaller still. But you owe it to the people who live their lives through the medium of Irish, and you owe it as well to yourself . . . It's what comes from the heart, you can't suffocate that, and you can't pretend that it's coming from you in any other language."

But the need to be heard does not go away. Tellingly, Maria Ní Mhurchú, although she finds it difficult to read in public in Irish, says that "when I force myself to read it and when I do read it, I feel great, I get a great buzz".