A poem for Ireland, poetry for everyone
The countdown is on to find Ireland’s favourite Irish poem, so we’ve asked a selection of writers and readers to tell us their favourite few lines of verse, and to nominate which poem they think is best from RTÉ’s A Poem for Ireland shortlist
Seamus Heaney. Photographer: Jack McManus
Anglo-American poet and playwright, TS Eliot 1888 - 1965) at Love Beach, New Providence Island while on his honeymoon in the Bahamas, 1957. Photograph: Slim Aarons/Getty Images
John Keats painted by Joseph Severn. Photograph: Getty Images
Rudyard Kipling. Photograph: Bain News Service (Library of Congress)
“I would choose ‘Quarantine’ by Eavan Boland (pictured) for its bitter stark tragedy suffused with the notion that love might transcend even death.” – Liz Nugent, writer. Photograph: Eric Luke
Paula Meehan, pictured at her home in Dublin. Photograph:Dave Meehan
Derek Mahon. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Patrick Kavanagh. Photograph: The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland
Anahorish, soft gradient,
of consonant, vowel-meadow.
I was really stuck for ages last year and took to reading Seamus Heaney’s poetry to stop my brain from going round and round in ever tightening circles. I started singing Anahorish as I was reading it, and I performed it with Zoe Conway and John McIntyre at the Seamus Heaney tribute concert in the National Concert Hall last year. I’ve set the poem to music for my new record and I love the above opening lines.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
This image of souls flowing over the bridge in the dawn fog evokes mankind’s spectral existence and is haunting enough, but then the line from Dante’s Inferno devastates. The Waste Land by TS Eliot with its fragments and echoes of memory, its disparate images and disembodied figures, gives us a picture of humanity’s damaged psyche and a glimpse into the poet’s own confrontation with the unconscious. So many of Eliot’s lines have entered the collective consciousness (April is the cruelest month; humankind cannot bear too much reality) that his poetry has become a kind of secular scripture.
Of the RTÉ shortlist, I’d pick A Disused Shed in Co Wexford. Derek Mahon is, for me, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. This poem, with its poignant epigraph, its image of mushrooms crowding at a keyhole, their silent pleading quietly shatters. Who else can imbue the inanimate with such sentience, the mute phenomena with such tenderness?
Chairwoman of Poetry Ireland
My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens.
I adore Seamus Heaney’s Keeping Going. Each time I read it, these two lines startle me with an immense emotional force. The poem is dedicated to Heaney’s brother Hugh and it describes the Heaney homestead in loving detail: the sense of wonder around the whitewashing; the intimacy of ordinary domestic things (I can smell “the housed beasts”, I hear “the listening bedroom”); Hugh’s playful japes around the kitchen, followed by the ominous descent as we learn of the savage killing of the part-time reservist. As Heaney takes us homeward, these two lines are a heart-stopping expression of brotherly love.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea
John Keats’ On the Sea is a poem that means a lot to me but, for me, to truly understand the significance of it you have to physically do as Keats suggests.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
I remember being quite taken by Langston Hughes’ work at college. He was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, celebrating the new black cultural identity, and you could dedicate endless hours to discussing the racial and historical significance of his work, but Dreams for me was always just a beautiful, accessible, standalone poem.
For A Poem for Ireland, I have to go with Kavanagh. I was given a book of collected poems when I was 14, and he (along with Robert Frost) was my introduction to poetry. My dad took me into town to see his statue on the canal, just after it was unveiled in 1991 so it’s A Christmas Childhood for me. I love the almost random recollection of memories, as if his entire childhood was one, long Christmas. For those of us fortunate enough to have had lovely upbringings, this is often the way of memories. They get mixed up, into one, big, happy memory where the ordinary becomes extraordinary. For a poet who often dealt with darker themes, I love the lightness and magic of his poems on childhood.
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If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
These two lines are in fact an entire poem. It’s called Common Form, and it’s part of a sequence, Epitaphs of the War by Rudyard Kipling. Reminding us again how little we learn as the wars rage on, this couplet is all the more heartbreaking when we remember that Kipling used his considerable fame to secure a commission for his son who’d failed an army medical test due to his short-sightedness. At the age of 18, that boy, John, died at the Battle of Loos on the Western Front in 1915. Two lines, twelve words, and a hundred years after they were composed they continue to resonate.
The A Poem for Ireland list is as uneven as it’s diverse, with the look of something forced about aspects of it. But it includes great poems – and to have people reading and thinking about them must be a good thing. Some of them are from our time. How lucky we have been to be alive to welcome them.
You did this. You showed us we were right to think it our own, the
language we found gleaming in ditches, the leavings of queens
I discovered Paraic O’Donnell, a wonderful poet and writer, on Twitter. His website is full of elegantly written (and sometimes hilarious) work. He wrote a series of tweet-sized verses after the death of Seamus Heaney, including these lines. They were such a beautiful and appropriate response to Heaney’s death. There was so much written about him in that time but nothing captured our gratitude to Heaney quite like this. “You did this” is a short, stark sentence that could almost be an accusation, because the burden of Heaney’s legacy might overwhelm us. It certainly didn’t overwhelm O’Donnell. From the list of A Poem for Ireland, I would choose Quarantine by Eavan Boland for its bitter stark tragedy suffused with the notion that love might transcend even death.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales often flit through my mind, especially in spring. I love the phrase “shoures soote” (sweet showers). When, after a spring shower, I turn the corner of my road and smell the scent of a blackcurrant blossom in somebody’s front garden, I always think of Geoffrey Chaucer’s lines. The rain intensifies the scent. Never is the smell of blossoms so strong as after an April shower.
Why would I remember these lines in Middle English? They remind me of happy times of my life, when I was a graduate student writing about Chaucer and having a great time, intellectually, emotionally. The springtime of my life. They remind me of my husband, whom I met thanks to Chaucer, more or less, and who, like me, loved medieval literature.
I am very fond of several of the A Poem for Ireland poems and WB Yeats’s Easter 1916 is a strong competitor, but even more significant is Paula Meehan’s The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks. Easter 1916 was the poem for Ireland’s time just before independence. It spoke for the new Ireland then. The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks is the poem for our time. It speaks for feminism, humanism, liberalism, freedom of conscience. It speaks for the Ireland that is still emerging from the chains of hypocrisy, stupidity and patriarchy, in all its clever guises. It speaks for me.
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
Of the expropriated mycologist.
Now there’s two lines, from Derek Mahon’s A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, that have stayed with me since the moment I first read them. There’s something about the slap and pop of these polysyllables, some acoustic texture that just lodges them irrevocably in the mind. We can almost hear this dispossessed landowner walking slowly and for the last time down the gravel path, away from his demesne, his home, his life. For me there’s a real sense of diminishment, of the volume being turned down, as the lines register his sad and crackling footsteps growing ever further away.
It’s a deftly, definitively established POV, one that fits with this poem’s refined and epic sense of cinema, with its Terrence Malick-like sweep across centuries and continents, its grand establishing shots, its heartbreaking time-lapse close-ups.