‘Poetry’s advocates don’t need to go on the defensive: it speaks for itself’

As he publishes his eighth collection of poetry, 46 years after his first work appeared in print, the Irish Times Poetry Editor recalls how verse insinuated its way into his life via Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas and the Beats

'A man . . . innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life . . ." That well-known remark of Patrick Kavanagh's now strikes a particular note as I arrive at the publication of my eighth collection of poetry, 46 years after my first apprentice poems appeared in the New Irish Writing page of the Irish Press at an age when I had little sense of what I was half-blindly stumbling towards or where poetry would lead.

That poetry has occupied such a central place in my life in those intervening years – reading it, writing it and writing about it – warrants a self-reminder of what exactly set in motion this way of seeing the world, and why, after a lifetime, poetry still holds its attractions for me, is still "the realm where miracles happen", as the American poet William Stafford said.

The answer as to what set it in motion is a simple one: it was the spell cast by a teacher, in my case in a Dublin classroom of the 1960s. The teacher’s name was Jack Hoey, and his English classes were a crucial and seminal influence, the opening to an inner life that has been a blessed alternative to what might have been a less enhanced life.

In a poem written some years ago in his memory, I return to the scene:

Shakespeare, Yeats,

Father Hopkins, Soldier Ledwidge.

On afternoons when the glinting sun

came in or rain fell hard

on the window-ledge

he made their riddles and orisons

rise from the page.

The awakening of imagination I experienced in those encounters with the English romantic poets, with Yeats and Hopkins, and especially (though I barely appreciated it at the time) the supreme sonnets of Shakespeare, was the triggering moment. The tedium of the day's other subjects disappeared with my sensory relocation to Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, Yeats's Lake Isle, Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey or the "whirlwind-swivelled snow" of Hopkins's Wreck of the Deutschland.

But beyond the limits of poetry as a subject of school learning and examinations – which marks its beginning and end in many people's lives – I began to experience the voltages that poetry can discharge in other ways. Away from the authorised classroom poets, I think it was the intoxicating brew concocted from language by Dylan Thomas, and perhaps also the audacity of innovation among the American Beat poets, that first made an addictive impact on me. Later, I came to regard poets with a much more reticent style as probably better and more enabling role models.

Poetry's multiple purposes and range of functions – as a form of succinct storytelling, as melody and soundscape, as a medium to capture the spirit of place, memorialise and elegise, lament, pay homage, bear witness and, with avoidance of the rhetoric of propaganda, as an expression of protest – had a seductive appeal that I could not have adequately articulated at the time. In a recent interview, the American writer Jane Hirshfield nailed it when she said that poetry is "as grand a technology as I know for the netting and distillation of vastness, condensing huge swaths of existence into something portable, memorable".

According to Thomas Kinsella, memorialising places and their people is "one of the things that art is for". Kinsella's living poetry, conferring significance on Dublin landmarks that were familiar and local to me, was a lesson in a poet's responsibilities to his or her own inheritances.

Nor can I ignore or forget that other influencing factor in the life of an adolescent of those 1960s heydays: the songs that were back then coming in on the ether, so many of them from minstrels who, in their different ways, were attempting to aspire to the condition of poetry in their lyrics. Although it happened unintentionally, a kind of soundtrack emerged when I assembled the poems of the past several years to build this new collection: an act of homage perhaps to the "sorceries of the blues guitarist" and the "beat of Born on the Bayou".

The former American poet laureate Billy Collins referred to poetry as "the great conversation", and that idea of ongoing dialogue between the ages, poems of today responding to voices from the past, is a reminder that the republic of poetry is inclusive in ways that other republics fail to achieve (Plato even banished poets from his republic). Above all else, poetry is the grassroots of all literature.

From time to time, poetry – or its advocates – appears to have to go on the defensive, reasserting its value in our culture. This is unnecessary; poetry speaks for itself and has always insinuated its way into our lives, and even public discourse. It has always been and always will be "the packsack of invisible keepsakes", as Carl Sandburg described it. Some of the public's online responses to RTÉ's A Poem for Ireland campaign are evidence of that. The diversity of poems nominated illustrates the power of a poem to reveal to its readers areas of their own experience.

Even now, after years of practice, the arrival of a poem is a mystery. In Vagabond Muse, from the new collection, I imagine the "muse" as one who keeps me guessing

“ . . . where to look, when to listen

for the riffs that come from earth and air,

the ghost poet who is and isn’t there”.

Another poem, written on a different day, describes my grandmother as someone who

“. . . told me once not to look for poetry

in the stars but out in the mucky yard

in the murmuring of the sally branches,

among the nettles and in the henhouse

and on the dungheap her chickens

scratched." (Poetry)

Dispatching into the world a new book of poems is one more stage in the fulfilment of what Kavanagh had to say about the dabbler in verse one day discovering that “rhymes and words” had accumulated into the life he has known. I was always fond of that remark as a response to inquisitors who ask: why poetry?

Perhaps only now I have a true sense of its meaning.

Gerard Smyth’s new collection, A Song of Elsewhere, is published by Dedalus Press


Those who saw it say they never saw it coming –

poets in uniform on a battlefield of mud,

the evening star above them.

The workhorse giving way to new machinery,

colonies abandoned, the first moon-landing

by astronauts whose shadows fell on cosmic dust,

whose walk, much like a child’s on a trampoline,

is now ghost-footage.

Those who saw it say they never saw it coming –

the newsflash interrupting

normal transmission when the princess in the tunnel

had no prince to save her.

Then the send-off she received

from the bells of the city, all the showbiz tears,

the pigeons of Piccadilly summoned into the air.

Those who saw it say they never saw it coming –

in the age of fibre optics,

the Dark Ages returning and messages delivered

in the instant it takes to travel the world.

Gerard Smyth


When the lights were out in Europe

in neutral Ireland we had

the light of kitchen fires, cottage lamps

and the light when lightning strikes

a holy place. In neutral Ireland

we had nothing to lose,

folk-cures were in demand,

stone walls of Connemara

leaned a little to one side,

men in the family joined

the armies of church and state.

In the towns where the same man

buried the dead and sold their land

there were nights of dancing,

afternoons of cheers and chant

and county teams trampling

the playing field grass

and on the shore there was always

someone to wave farewell,

someone whose voice never failed

to shout Godspeed the emigrant.

Gerard Smyth

- This article was edited at 10:45am to correct an error.

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