Experience and precocity on the Poetry Now shortlist

Contemporary Irish poetry is doing well, as the breadth of work up for the Irish Times Poetry Now award demonstrates

There is a poem of sorts on the flyleaf of Nick Laird's new poetry collection, Go Giants. "Poetry," he writes, "they're pretty sure you're not worth knowing, fit for nothing, broken; that any mystery in language perfected by your music's just a mockery, a joke."

For the non-believer, the uninitiated, poetry is “a pimped-out, souped-up pussy-magnet”, “as outmoded as the nose flute”. For Laird, however, it is “a juncture of the two kinds of real . . . an ambiguous exactitude . . . the flawed compensation for our just having the one go”.

This untitled almost-verse is Laird’s manifesto and it is an apt introduction to a collection that is contemporary in form and mythic in reach; a collection that sees grandeur in everyday gestures; one that worships the world as it is.

Laird is one of the five poets shortlisted for this year's Irish Times Poetry Now prize, organised in association with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. However, in the diverse collections being celebrated this year, each poet makes his or her own case for contemporary poetry; that "having the one go" is more than worthwhile. From the intimate domesticity of Tara Bergin's This Is Yarrow to the more publicly engaged dialogue of Conor O'Callaghan's The Sun King, there is a richness of beauty and experiment that speaks well of the state of contemporary Irish poetry.


Open competition

There were 28 collections by Irish poets up for consideration for this year's prize, an open competition that invites publishers to submit new publications. This makes for a thoroughly democratic and inclusive long list. This year, for example, poets as prolific as Paul Muldoon were being considered alongside newcomers.

The shortlist includes a debut collection (Bergin's) and one by a previous award-winner, Sinéad Morrissey. Her Parallax won the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry in 2013. From the sage position of poetic fluency to the raw freshness of a new voice, this breadth of experience and precocity was something the judges found to be worth celebrating. The winner will be announced during the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival on September 13th.

The three-piece judging panel for 2013 comprised two poets, Katie Donovan and Nessa O'Mahony, and Chris Morash, the Seamus Heaney professor of Irish writing at Trinity College Dublin. Donovan is a veteran judge of poetry competitions as well as a poet. She says judging a collection, rather than individual poems, can be a challenge. "A poem is itself a universe," she says, but a collection of poems is not just "a series of well-achieved poems". It must read "as a single entity, so that one wants to keep reading, for more surprises, more connections, more high jumps".

Diversity of form and subject

The five shortlisted collections represent a diversity of form and subject matter, demonstrating “a breadth of reference, an arresting sense of the visual, and a linguistic versatility and playfulness”, as O’Mahony expresses it.

Each of the poets also invokes the traditions and influences that have shaped their viewpoint. For Bergin, it is Ted Hughes and the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky, although she sings the song of Lucy, Tracey, Catherine, Jack, who become the reader's intimates through her poems.

For Morrissey, it is Dorothy Wordsworth, Soviet-era photographs, the painter LS Lowry, her young son "stretched out along his bunk beneath the ceiling, wired and watchful". The writers are not afraid to use the particular to create a universal register of emotion in addressing the reader.

Donovan also notices a distinct “shift in focus from the traditional rural zone of Irish poetry towards the urban, towards technology and its strengths and dangers”.

O'Callaghan's collection, for example, celebrates the easy intimacy of social networking in several poems. Laird notes the way private moments are easily punctured by a "pink nail tapping a screen" in his poem Cabochon.

In the title poem of Billy Ramsell's collection An Architect's Dream of Winter, the influence of technology is pervasive and invasive, parasitic even. "The machines have entered the language, my love, have entered us," he writes.

The most extraordinary reflection of how technology is reshaping the world, however, is captured in The Pearl Works, the final poem in O'Callaghan's collection, which interrogates our capacity to perceive and to represent these changes. The poem is a vibrant response to the way the changing nature of communication demands new ways of interpretation and new means of broadcast.

The poem comprises a series of tweets, which were delivered once a week via the poet’s social-media account, the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter determining its epithetical form. “Say one of these a week,” O’Callaghan declares in the opening stanza, challenging himself, “a couplet. Maxed-out tweet. Sound twee? Resolve. The year has gone ahead, the bytes are disappearing. Follow me.”

The poem builds over a year, in 52 sections that mark the seasons passing, ordinary domestic life, the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger. “Who knew the post-boom world would be so (excuse me) sublime? Ghost estates, cranes paused, office block shells, pubs dead like war-time.”

In this most postmodern of poems, “all pastoral is virtual”; a craving for intimacy is a craving for text.

Donovan also notes a widening perspective “from the local to the global” in the collections that the judges considered. The poets are well-travelled, and this more cosmopolitan point of view enters the work.

Laird takes us to Cookstown, London and New York via ancient Greece. Morrissey is firmly rooted in her native Belfast, but gives us brief glimpses of Baltimore and Amsterdam. Bergin’s addressees are Chinese, Russian and Swiss, while Ramsell’s poems are “lit up with needs and satisfactions, with currencies,/ in an unrelenting, sleepless glitter/ from Tokyo HX to the Vladislav Interchange,/ from St John’s to NODE FOUR in Brazilia”.

Irish poets are as likely to trace their roots in foreign soil these days, O’Mahony concludes, and as the five collections show, contemporary Irish poetry is richer for it.

The winner for this year's Irish Times Poetry Now prize, organised in association with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, with be announced at the Mountains to Sea DLR Book Festival on September 13th. mountainstosea.ie



This Is Yarrow (Carcanet Press)

Bergin was born and grew up in Dublin. She moved to England in 2002. In 2012 she completed her PhD research at Newcastle University on Ted Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky. This is her debut collection.


Go Giants (Faber)

Laird was born in Co Tyrone in 1975. He studied English at the University of Cambridge, where he won the Quiller-Couch Award for creative writing. His debut collection, To a Fault (2005), won the Aldeburgh Poetry Prize; his second, On Purpose (2007), the Somerset Maugham Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.


Parallax (Carcanet Press)

Morrissey was born in 1972 and grew up in Belfast. She read English and German at Trinity College Dublin, from which she took her PhD in 2003. She has published five collections, including There Was Fire in Vancouver (1996), Through the Square Window (2009) and Parallax (2013). She is Belfast's inaugural poet laureate.


The Sun King (Gallery Press)

O'Callaghan was born in Newry, Co Down, in 1968 and grew up in Dundalk. His collections include The History of Rain (1993), Seatown (1999) and Fiction (2005). He has been writer-in-residence at UCD and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and co-holder of the Heimbold chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University, Pennsylvania. He was director of the Poetry Now Festival from 2000 to 2003.


The Architect’s Dream of Winter (Dedalus Press)

Ramsell was born in Cork in 1977. Complicated Pleasures, his first collection, was published by the Dedalus Press in 2007. He has read at poetry festivals in San Francisco and Shanghai. He held the Ireland chair of Poetry bursary for 2013 and has been shortlisted for several other prizes. He edits the Irish section of the Poetry International website.