Poetic triumphs and poetic injustices:As this is the season for looking back, taking stock and making lists, this column now joins in and casts an eye over some of the literary highlights of the past 12 months.
Even by the poet’s own remarkable standards of achievement in earlier collections, Seamus Heaney’s Human Chainis something of a tour de force and one of the few true works of art to emerge from the Irish imagination this year. The book’s overriding tone and cadence may be elegiac and sombre, but Heaney, as ever, is on the side of life and never more clear-pitched in channelling his own lived experience through, to quote Thomas Gray, “thoughts that breathe and words that burn”. It is poetry of witness and consolation and, above all, great compassion, one of the poet’s most notable virtues among many others.
Another Nobel laureate, WB Yeats, was celebrated on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in a show that reimagined and reanimated some of his great poems. There have been far more failures than successes in marriages between music and poetry, but Mike Scott of The Waterboys is such an ardent and insightful reader of Yeats’s that this turned into a glorious showcase of the work. Among many triumphs, Scott’s virtuoso rendition of September 1913was a highlight, infusing new energy into the moral authority of a poem that could well be adopted as an anthem for our times.
The Yeatsian theme was taken up by another musical legend later in the year when Leonard Cohen sang his song-poems of love and despair, and humour too, “under bare Ben Bulben’s head”. Cohen had, of course, already reminded us of his poetic sensibilities in several shows in Dublin since his comeback in 2008. However, the Sligo setting and the ghosts that “that old Georgian mansion” in Lissadell evoked added to a spectacular occasion, one that allowed the Canadian poet to pay homage to the Irish poet he called the master.
One of the most extraordinary achievements on the capital’s literary scene over the past year has been the ability of the Irish Writers’ Centre to continue functioning despite the withdrawal of its main funding by the Arts Council two years ago. The centre is a necessary venue in Dublin’s literary nexus; that the centre’s doors are still open and its fine building on Parnell Square remains a living space for writers and audiences is very much down to the commitment, passion and work of the writer Jack Harte, who, like the young enthusiasts who work with him, is there voluntarily. Whatever wizardry he has mustered to keep the centre going, Harte deserves an award for saving this important resource. The Arts Council has to be commended for restoring limited funding this year, which allowed the centre to breathe a little easier and go on the road with a series of literary conversations that started north of the Liffey and then travelled beyond the Pale. With luck the council’s renewed faith will result in further funding recognition of the centre’s role. It would have been a great embarrassment to the city had the shutters come down on the writers’ centre in the same year that Dublin was announced as Unesco City of Literature. This was a great accolade for the city’s rich literary heritage, and those who made the case for Dublin and its writers, past and present, have rendered a considerable service.
It is disappointing to end on a negative note, but, shamefully, our City of Literature is probably going to lose one of its most special literary festivals. The word is that next year’s Poetry Now festival, in Dún Laoghaire, is the final one. This is not good news for the poetry lovers who have continually supported a festival that will leave a legacy of memorable readings by international poets who otherwise are unlikely ever to have been heard in this country. The City of Literature needs its poetry festival – even in revised form and a different location.