Posted on 21st March 2020
Hello and welcome to a very unexpected hiatus in the ISAIreland world- indeed, all our worlds! While we sit out the necessary delay in working with students, we are so grateful that our hinterland and coastline provides us with endless opportunities to explore the most beautiful places around Donegal, Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim and Sligo. Each time I wander around the hills of Donegal, the glens of Leitrim, the Fermanagh lakelands, the karstic landscapes of Cavan, or the magnificent Sligo scenery, I am also reminded of the inspiration these places sparked in many of our poets, and how well these writers articulated the shadows and the beauty of Ireland and Irish culture through the extraordinary landscapes. And so, I have decided to create a small anthology of my favourite poems about Ireland, with what I understand to be the cultural context, and the meaning I extract from the literature. Poetry is obviously a very subjective thing – ‘what’s your favourite poem’ is as controversial a question as ‘what’s your favourite song’ – and my explorations of each poem will be based on nothing more than what I know about the poet, what I think the context might be, and how I respond to it. I am open to correction on the first two, – but nevertheless, what I really hope this will do for those of you that are not so familiar with Irish poets or Ireland itself, is match up beautiful words with beautiful places, and dig down a little bit to see how the poem functions to inform us more about Ireland and Irish ways.
Please scroll through this mini-blog, the posts are consecutive, and while it’s not essential to read them in order, I will refer back to some of the things I’ve raised as I move along – so it will make more sense to begin here at Poem 1, and work your way through the blog. Enjoy!
POEM 1 – Epic by Patrick Kavanagh.
March 20 2020
I’m going to begin with one of my favourite poets, Patrick Kavanagh. Kavanagh was a regular prescribed poet on the Irish high school curriculum, and almost everyone of a certain age learnt all about the ‘Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan’ and the loneliness of Iniskeen Road. He wrote some beautiful poetry and some awful stuff too – but there is one poem for me that stands out, head and shoulders above everything else written in the early twentieth century. It is a poem called ‘Epic’, and it works on so many levels, with lines at the end that make you want to punch the air, and roar out your Irishness.
Some background; After the 17th century, Irish literature took on a new form. All that was in the Irish Language was still there, but frozen for some time as the old Irish poets became redundant. A new form would emerge – what we would call ‘Anglo-Irish poetry’, generally composed by wealthy sons and daughters of the elite. Some of this poetry is very good, and I will look into it further along the way, but these writers existed in a world of intellectual confidence and privilege, and much of it was didactic; poetry written to educate, or provoke, or show off, or influence.
Kavanagh was from County Monaghan, a rural country on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, in the province of Ulster. His background was rural and provincial, and his environment was heavily influenced by poverty- not just material poverty, but the cultural and social poverty of rural Ireland from the 1930s to the 1960s. There were not many options for a farm-boy born in Monaghan at that time- rural folk may have appeared in the poetry of Ireland as imagined by Anglo-poets, but they did, since the 17th century, write it.
Kavanagh always strikes me as someone who wrote poetry because he was compelled to find some way of expressing how utterly Irish he was- inexorably bound to the landscape, moulded and shaped by centuries of tradition, folklore, prayer, discord, conflict and staggering natural beauty. He hated it and he loved it. He was embarrassed by it, and yet he knew he had been gifted with the ability to see a glorious dimension to every crooked tree, muddy puddle and crumbling stone wall. He knew that as itchy and scratchy the rural agricultural hinterland of Ireland was, it had a beauty in it that deserved to be expressed.
The poem ‘Epic’ sees him work through this dilemma. It’s 1938, and there are two things going on. On the world stage, Hitler is sabre-rattling, and perhaps its what a poet should be contemplating. But two families, the Duffys and the McCabes are also warring, and it’s a visceral, local, all-consuming fight, passionate, climactic, personal. Kavanagh’s magnification of the local row, and reduction of Munich to ‘bother’ tell us where his sympathies lie – but is this a legitimate theme? Is it OK to make a scrappy rural falling-out into a poem?
And then he hits us- hard. Homer’s ghost, no less, is brought in, and tells our poet ‘I made the Illiad from such a local row’. And the amazing, definitive last line – wow! We’ve been told, with some swagger!
EPIC by Patrick Kavanagh
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
To conclude- I love this so much, I love its colloquial language, and the pitchforks and the angry old man exchanging curses with his neighbours, and Ballyrush and Gortin, and then the huge big leap into the classics, with the perfect landing. This, in my mind, is the poem that gives permission to anybody from any background to be a writer. It is a howl from the poet of the young republic, dying to forge forward with imagination, but being obstructed at every turn. It’s a kick at the barricades, and knocks down at least some of the things in the way of future writers.
Here are some photos of the townlands around Iniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Kavanagh’s birthplace, and the landscape of this poem. Enjoy!
Poem 2 When all the others were away at Mass by Seamus Heaney
March 23 2020
This poem is very well known, and came to mind as yesterday was Mother’s Day in Ireland. I was tempted to go looking for something different, but this ‘fits’ too well with our introduction to this poetry blog via Patrick Kavanagh, and also again helps us understand the landscapes of Ireland and the cultural landscape of Ireland.
Before we look at the poem, let’s look at Heaney. He was born in 1939, a year after Kavanagh wrote ‘Epic’. Heaney as poet is a more articulate, educated writer than Kavanagh, but they do have a lot in common. Both are Ulster poets, most familiar with the rituals and routines of provincial rural life, and both have an extraordinary talent to use words to transform these rituals to something very spiritual, or ethereal, or magical. Kavanagh found this voice, and burst through the farmyard gates with it- Heaney trains it, polishes it, focuses it, but to my mind, it is a similar voice.
Secondly, both Kavanagh and Heaney are impinged upon by history. Kavanagh writes a poem in 1942 titled ‘The Great Hunger’. This familiar expression usually refers to the starvation of the masses due to the potato crop failure of 1845-49. Kavanagh takes this event and ties it to a twentieth-century poverty – a poverty of companionship, culture, a social life, sex, love, – many things that seemed elusive to ordinary Irish people. Emigration had ripped the youth from home to far flung countries, and the Catholic Church cast a domineering and authoritative shadow over those that remained. In turn, Heaney must cope with this legacy, and another hunger that emerges- a hunger for peace. Both these poets feel an absence of something essential to fulfilling the potential of living in rural Ireland. Both of them see this potential in flashes, in sparks, in glimpses, through the fence post, through the barbed wire, through the rain.
A third factor to think about here are the women. I am keenly aware I have begun my blog with two male poets, and not for a second do I want either you to think that there are not enough female writers to write about, or that they are not among my favourites – there are, and they are. However, the landscape of Irish writing in the last three centuries is masculine, segregated, unrepresentative, discriminatory, and it reflects a geography and a society that gave little space to women in any area besides the kitchen, the bedroom, and the male imagination. Much of the work of Irish women writers would be to (is to) dismantle the misogynistic structures given to them, grieve for the losses between the many gaping cracks of this structure, and reimagine a literature in which they can fit. All of this has happened, and we will get to it.
Now to the poem. Heaney wrote a sequence of sonnets, dedicated to his mother, Kathleen, and this, the third in that sequence, reconstructs a childhood memory of peeling potatoes. Even this first image contains so much information about Ireland around the 1940s. Everyone- absolutely everyone went to Mass on Sunday. There was usually an early Mass, and a later mass, and of course, mothers were up first every morning, so they would often get themselves out first, and the rest of the family later. I couldn’t help thinking it might have been the one time of the week that the woman might have some time to herself- it was probably the only hour in the week that one could be sure where everyone was, or was supposed to be.
So young Heaney is, for some reason, home with his Mam, and for that precious time, he is ‘all hers’. Again- we are in an era of large families- Heaney was the eldest of nine children – so ‘quality time’ between parents and children was a rare and precious gift. There is silence as mother and son peel potatoes together-broken only by ‘little pleasant splashes’ as the skins fall. The silence seems intimate and peaceful, even dream-like, for them both.
We are propelled into a much noisier scene – a deathbed, where a priest’s prayers are furiously fast and loud – ‘hammer and tongs’ – and the cacophony is added to by mechanical responses, and crying. There is no comfort in this for our poet. He returns to the scene so beautifully described at the beginning of the poem, and adds more intimacy – heads bent together, ‘her breath in mine’. And the last line does what it should do, which is make you well up, and blink away a tear!
It also strikes me that the relationship -poignant as it is, has been one of silence. Did Kathleen or her son actually verbalise their closeness at any stage? The poet here is able to turn the memory into an expressed understanding of love – but that’s his art. But could she? Irish writing is filled the pain of words unspoken (see ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ by Brian Friel), parents and children who could not say what they felt. We have the Catholic priest intrude, (again, see ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’), with his prayers and platitudes, words that have lost their power. The poet and the priest have access to words, however they work. What of Kathleen? She breathes for the boy, she feeds the boy, she inspires and inhabits his work, but we do not know what she thinks. And this, my friends, is all too frequently where the women are in Irish poetry- but we shall return to this theme elsewhere.
Anyway, enjoy the poem, a few pics of Bellaghy, County Derry to accompany it, and happy Mother’s Day, whenever you celebrate it.
‘FROM CLEARANCES, SONNET 3’ by Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
Poem 3 –The Ladies Petition by Mary Ann Allingham (1803-1855)
March 25 2020
In the last blog post, I referred to the absence of women’s poetry in collections of nineteenth century Irish literature, and this is today’s topic. I wrote in my Kavanagh post that Irish writing was dominated by the elites – they had the education and the money – and this is where you will find the majority of published women. However, although women’s poetry exists, it is practically invisible, and has been, until very recently, ignored. And if you’ll bear with me, I want to use this poem of Mary Ann Allingham’s to illustrate why we should put our women writers into our literary history, and dismiss the reasoning that has kept them out.
When I studied English literature in high school, and later taught it, the standard poetry textbook remained unchanged. This book was called ‘Soundings’ and for twenty-six years, all Irish students studied, to some degree, the poetry contained within. Four of the featured poets were Irish – W.B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella and Austin Clarke. Nineteen were British or American. All of them were white. There was one female poet, Emily Dickinson. A woman famous for self-isolating from the world, and feeling funerals in her brain. Brilliant as she is, and she is, there was not much in the textbook for the thousands of young Irish women with which to identify. So rather than find a gender rung to cling onto, I went for nationality – the Irish poets were familiar, mostly in their rendering of Ireland as either hostile or divided or mystically rural.
We did study Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, the romantics, – I could quote you lines from Wordsworth and Shelly until Kavanagh’s cows came home, but we did not read one line of a poem by an Irish woman over a period of twenty-six years. Shocking, right? What is more shocking is that subliminally, we must have concluded that the women were not there because their poetry wasn’t good enough.
Finally, the curriculum was revised, and more female poets added, although it’s still not 50/50, and there is zero representation of any poet of colour on the current syllabus. Still shocking. I hear people complain that adding women’s texts to the canon is a victory for political correctness over literary value. I have heard this argument over and over, by people I respect and admire, and it is not only misguided, but actually detrimental to an appreciation of the true literary culture we enjoy. I regret that many of the poems I know (and love) for so long are not by women, but a favourite poem is not only about content, but it’s where we read it, who we thought about, how we responded, where we would use it again. I will always have a place in my heart for Yeats, Hopkins, Shakespeare- because I would never want to undo the delightful literary explorations that brought their poems to me- but I really wish that my teachers had spent an equal amount of time bringing me into women’s’ worlds, Irish women’s worlds. I have been spending as much time as I can doing this for myself ever since.
So how do we overcome the notion that nineteenth century /twentieth century women’s poetry ‘isn’t as good’? Snort, and say ‘yes it is’ works for me most of the time J but here’s the crucial point- women’s writing is different. It’s apples and oranges, because, for the most part, women occupied a different place in the world to men, literally and culturally, their viewpoint was different. The majority of poets I studied were peripatetic creatures, wandering o’er vales and hills with their notebooks in hand, contemplating nature, God, beautiful women and great Art. Many (and I’m talking about British and American white men here), had the benefit of a classical education, of libraries, of travel, and all of them, even the rural Kavanagh, had an agency and freedom that few women would or could have.
Women’s writing has been subject to boundaries. Domestic spaces are frequently places of labour and confinement; not too many opportunities for oft reclining on one’s couch. Work, marriage, children, illness, obligation, duty, loyalty, and most of all, an absence of choice are frequently so present in women’s writing, and this creates a different poetry. It can only be considered ‘lesser’ if women’s lives and their preoccupations, imaginations, ambitions and desires are considered ‘lesser’-and we surely are past that?
I have chosen this poem by Mary Ann Allingham as an easy illustration of this difference. Allingham was born and raised in Ballyshannon, County Donegal; – she was a published poet and travel writer. Her handwritten manuscripts were discovered in Trondheim, Norway, by scholar Eva Hov, who recognized their importance, and deserves much credit for recovering these texts. Allingham corresponded with her Norwegian nephew for years, sending him poems, stories and texts that reveal her as a well-read, complex, frustrated, playful, witty, lonely individual with a deep connection with nature and the outdoors, particularly the landscapes of Donegal. She also sent her poems to publishers, and was published and plagiarized in several magazines and books. Despite her publication, she is virtually unknown, and even her own nephew, William, who would become much more famous as an Irish poet, declined to credit her as a serious poet.
Ballyshannon is a plantation town built on a steep hill, with the Erne River at the bottom, a popular scenic spot for the more privileged families of the area. Allingham’s family were Protestant elites, but she was not wealthy, and her poems often refer to money troubles and her reliance on the generosity of others.
In this poem, Allingham appeals to the gentlemen of Ballyshannon to do something about the dirty pavements of the town. Men, practically attired, can comfortably ignore the mucky pathways and devote themselves to full enjoyment of the local scenery. The women, in their long skirts, are distracted from this pleasure; – the froth of the waterfall only reminds them of the washing they will have to do when they get home. Allingham asks that the men use their ‘carts and horses, your money and goodwill’ to rectify the situation, and promises them the everlasting gratitude of the ladies of the town.
While on the surface, it is a playful complaint, it is a brilliant illustration of two different approaches to nature. She creates dazzling images of nature- a crimson sunset, sparking waterfalls – but they are not accessible to her – she repeats the phrase ‘in vain’ to emphasize how empty these experiences are rendered if she can only think about the practical outcomes, the inevitable attrition, labour, expense, effort. There is also a clear dependence- men have the means, the tools, the money to fix these things, – the women do not. Allingham is asking (nicely) for a pathway to the world that men enjoy; she sees it, and she wants it, but she cannot have it unless they help her. Lurking under the niceness is a controlled wit- her ‘tail of woe’ is a frisky pun, and her reference to ‘evil ways’ appears to be an exaggerated appeal to the men’s moral guardianship.
This poem is not well known, and if not for Eva Hov, it would never have seen the light of day, but I enjoy it for many reasons. It’s about a local town that I know, the scenery is familiar to me, and to any of you who have been to Ballyshannon. But more importantly, it can be easily unpacked to illustrate how gender inequality manifests itself in writing – there will be an alternative gaze, because of different priorities, and poetry like this must be included so that readers can find themselves in the texts. I hope you enjoy this- practically no-one has read Allingham, myself and Eva think you should!
THE LADIES PETITION
–Requesting the Gentlemen to Mend their Ways
by Mary Ann Allingham
Who walk about in Boots;
You little think how ill the wet
And dirt, a Lady suits
Mark well our Tails of Woe! And sure
They will your hearts appal
As we sweep- ankle deep
Thro’ the Mud upon our Mall
A day may smile most brightly;
To tempt us forth to walk
In vain we look for pleasant paths
Thro’ mire alone we stalk;
In Vain our Beaus may talk to us
We can’t to give them ear
As we try with a sigh
Thro’ the wet and dirt to steer
In Vain, in light and splendour
The glorious Sun goes down,
We cannot be beholding him
And be holding to our gown
In vain do gold and crimson clouds
Adorn the western sky
For the spots and black dots
On our dress is all we spy
In vain the roaring waters
Rush sparkling down the fall
We cannot look upon the stream
Sad thoughts it would recall;
We would think upon the wash Tub
When the frothy foam we’d see
Like Soap suds, where our duds
After Promenade must be.
Then grudge not your assistance
But kindly take in hand
To strew out path with Gravel
Brought from the pebbly strand
Oh! Let your carts and horses
Your money and good will
Be at hand, at command
For to serve the Ladies still
Then ye Ballyshannon Gentlemen
Unto our walks attend;
And, Oh! In pity aid us
Our evil ways to mend
So for your well fare ever
We in duty bound shall pray
That your feet, still may meet
All thro life a smooth path way.
Poem 4 – The Lost Heifer by Austin Clarke
March 25 2020
Hello everyone. Today’s choice of poem was inspired by a walk across the hills, and some meditation on the wet and lovely landscapes that surround us, especially here in Donegal. There is almost always rain, or mist, or water in the grasses and the bogs, and almost always a ray of sunshine coming from somewhere. While many might complain about the weather in Ireland, I rarely find it ‘bad’ – it is never really cold (as in Wisconsin cold) and it is never hot hot (as in North Carolina hot). There is nothing to fear in the outdoors- we don’t have bugs or bears or snakes or anything that you have to avoid. There are some days when hailstones can slap you sideways, or dark clouds can sink so low over the mountains that they are rendered invisible -but generally I find that as long as you have an old pair of boots to pull on, a warm hat and a pair of gloves, it is always worth exploring outdoors.
As I was walking along, the sun briefly peeped out from behind an ominous looking cloud, and for a moment, the wet rushes (grasses) around me looked like they were tinted with silver, and a beam of light saturated the far fields. The line of poetry that came to mind was ‘brightness was drenching through the branches’. It described exactly what I was seeing.
It is also impossible to walk through the Irish fields and bogs without a sense of history – there is almost always some character from mythology associated with wherever we go- Queen Maeve of Connacht, Diarmuid and Grainne, Finn McCool, the Children of Lir – all of these powerful old stories are rooted in this dramatic landscape, and every Irish child hears of them when they are young. But there are also lots of scars on the landscape from other events in the Irish past- deserted famine villages, walls and piers build during the public works schemes, old stone crosses, passage tombs, castle ruins- history is never far away, and gives the landscape even more meaning, as you walk through it. It is not simply a walk through nature, it is a walk through time.
As I mentioned before, it was quite a challenge for modern poets to create, or recreate this sense of Ireland, in the English language. However, one poet that really rises to that challenge is Austin Clarke, the author of that line of poetry that stuck in my head. It comes from the poem below, titled ‘The Lost Heifer’, and it is a strange little poem – almost impressionist in style. You can read various interpretations of what or who the heifer was supposed to be, but that’s really not the point. There are two lovely things happening here- a combination of very irish images – herds of rain, pure cold wind, silver out of dark grasses – but there is also a unique approach to the sounds within this poem. The internal rhyming form that was used by Irish language poets is adopted here, to give a very ‘Irish’ sound to the poem- it is musical, (if you get technical and look under the bonnet you’ll see that he has loaded the lines with assonance and sibilance) – but we don’t need to deconstruct it like this – just read it out loud, and let it sing to you, it will bring you into the landscape and the history in a way the best poetry can do. Enjoy the poem, and some photos below.
THE LOST HEIFER by Austin Clarke
When the black herds of the rain were grazing,
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery hazes of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.
Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning sliver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain.
Poem 5 – The Little Waves of Breffny by Eva Gore-Booth
April 1 2020
Hi everyone. Last week, I had the pleasure of rambling to a little harbour in County Sligo, called Raghly, which has, at its entrance, the old home of the Gore-Booth Family. The Gore-Booths relocated a little further up the coast to Lissadell House in the 1830s, and in 1870, Eva Gore-Booth was born there. Eva Gore-Booth is one of the most interesting women writers and activists of her time, but her story has often been overshadowed by her famous sister, Constance Markievicz. However, Eva is a fascinating woman in her own right, and it was her poetry that came to mind as I walked along the Sligo coastline.
Eva was very sensitive and appreciative of her privilege, and also aware of the very beautiful part of Ireland in which she lived. She was also very aware of injustice and inequality, and having been inspired by Esther Roper, who would become her life partner, she set up a branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association in Sligo, with herself as secretary, sister Constance as president, and her other sister, Mabel Gore-Booth , as treasurer. She then moved to Manchester to work with Roper to campaign for female suffrage, and for improved wages and conditions for women in the textile industry. In 1913, illness forced Eva to move to London, where she continued to be involved in campaigns on animal welfare, capital punishment, and anti-war sentiment. She fought on until ill-health finally forced her to retire from much of her political work, but continued to write, until her untimely death in 1926. If you would like to read more about Eva Gore-Booth, I highly recommend Eva Gore-Booth: An Image of Such Politics by Sonja Tiernan
A constant theme in Gore-Booth’s poetry is the beauty and serenity of the natural world, especially the area around Lissadell House. What I love about this poem in particular is the physical connection she makes between the locality and who she is. She acknowledges that the little roads and breezes and waves that she witnessed as a young girl are a part of her, – the powerhouses of her identity – heart, mind and soul – are indelibly forged and interwoven with the gentler, constant aspects of the seascapes.
Like Mary Ann Allingham’s poetry before, there is no great loquaciousness or ostentatiousness about the language. It is a simple poem, focused on the small and the still – and the power of the small and the still to prevail, even of the face of worldly turbulence. Her strength is drawn from steadfastness, endurance, constancy and respect for the things that shaped her in her youth.
This is a poem to take with you around the coast of Sligo, as I did, two Sundays ago. You can wander the backroads of Cloonagh, and every cove of the coast will offer you a sheltered spot to watch the waves lap against the beach, timeless and beautiful. Here’s the poem, see below for some photos of this area, and pencil in a visit to Lissadell for your next trip to Ireland.
THE LITTLE WAVES OF BREFFNY by Eva Gore-Booth
The grand road from the mountain goes shining to the sea,
And there is traffic in it and many a horse and cart,
But the little roads of Cloonagh are dearer far to me,
And the little roads of Cloonagh go rambling through my heart.
A great storm from the ocean goes shouting o’er the hill,
And there is glory in it and terror on the wind,
But the haunted air of twilight is very strange and still,
And the little winds of twilight are dearer to my mind.
The great waves of the Atlantic sweep storming on their way,
Shining green and silver with the hidden herring shoal,
But the Little Waves of Breffny have drenched my heart in spray,
And the Little Waves of Breffny go stumbling through my soul.
Poem 6 Everything is going to be alright by Derek Mahon
April 3 2020
There is no doubt that right now, we are living in strange and troubling times. Our news reports are full of death counts and isolation commands, and many of us have anxieties moving in on various fronts- health, work, family, neighbours, friends… it’s sometimes hard to find happy moments to sustain us. As you’ll know from this blog, and from the photography series splendid isolation, my way of keeping cheerful is to wander outside, by the beach, or over a mountain, or down a country lane, or wherever I can find nature. I also find the same consolation wandering through poetry, and very often, the two collide beautifully. As I have already mentioned, Irish experience is rooted in the landscape, and therefore Irish poetry often finds its imagery there, digging into our weather, our bogs, our stonescapes and seascapes for the metaphors that will make the verses uniquely Irish.
I found this poem many years ago, and it is so lovely and simple, and appropriate for these days. It is also a poem you can use no matter where you are- the poem itself assures you that even if you do not have the direct sensations of being outside, the evidence of these facts of nature exist- the poet himself is behind a window, and the sea is merely reflected for him, but that is enough for him to get out of his physical boundaries and into a more hopeful space.
He acknowledges briefly that ‘there will be dying, there will be dying’ – and this repetitive, slow-paced line hints to the inevitability of death for everyone, for generations to come. This melancholy fact is dismissed quickly, and replaced by the energy of the flow of poetry from the watchful heart to the hand- he is alive now, everything is working, the earth is turning, and the sun is shining. And there is such consolation in the simplicity of the final line – it’s what we say when we are sad, it’s how we reassure our friends and family when they are sad – it’s what we want to hear ourselves. I have gone to this poem many times, and it remains one of the most comforting I know. I hope it works for you. Enjoy!
EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT by Derek Mahon
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
Poem 7 A Single Rose by Leland Bardwell
April 6 2020
Hello everyone. If you are following this blog, you will know that I am keen to expose the Irish landscape through my favourite poetry written in the last two centuries or so – and that a major epiphany I have had while gathering my favourite poems was realising how few of the women poets of Ireland came automatically to mind. Partly, this is because when I was at school, I was taught few poems written by women. Secondly, when my job was teaching poetry, there were few poems by women on the curriculum. The poems I know, I have found by browsing, and reading anthologies, and I hold on to them like gold nuggets, and wonder why I had to do a lot of sifting through much mediocre muck to find these! Still, I love when a poem jumps off a page and whacks you on the side of the head, and says ‘you need to know this’. And here is one where exactly that happened.
We have to also acknowledge the variety of ways in which we define ‘Irish landscape’. We do ourselves a disservice if we limit this to a horizontal platform of geography and scenery. There is a social landscape, a political landscape, an economic landscape, a historic landscape, a mythical landscape and imaginary landscapes to be considered. I do think that these landscapes are, by twists and turns of history, more visible in the topography than they might be in other places, and it’s one of many reasons that Ireland is a wonderful place to visit, but today’s poem is restricted to a morgue and a reference to brown cauliflower. And it still speaks volumes.
For many women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, their immediate landscape was one of prohibition. So much of the world was forbidden. Irish women were shackled to the domestic environment by the law, by the church, by their bodies, until very recently. It is a dramatic and essential difference in the poetry of Irish men and Irish women. Where you do find nature in the poetry of Irish women, it is usually symbolic of escape. There is a vast vast body of sadness, missed opportunity, pain and endurance in Irish women’s poetry, and I do believe we are only beginning to unpack that pain now.
So you may ask- did Irish male poets articulate pain? Yes, absolutely. Gerard Manly Hopkins’ terrible sonnets deliver mental anguish in 3D , we’ve mentioned Kavanagh’s isolation as artist and as man, Yeats’ lugubrious heart-ache is ever-present, and I’ll introduce you to Thomas Kinsella’s mid-life crisis in an upcoming blog (scarily, it was at the age of thirty-three!) – but I think each of these poets also found the flip-side of their tribulations too. Access to joy was available to them, and so was self-pity, which I’ll suggest, is a privileged emotion. They had a gamut of intensity to play with, and they did.
I think that Irish women poets had to use different tactics to counterbalance the pain – frequently they use comedy, or sarcasm, or shock tactics. We’ll explore this theory as we go along. Let’s acknowledge that it was very difficult to be a female Irish poet, and then to be taken seriously as a writer. A poet who rose to that challenge was Leland Bardwell, 1922-2016. I’ll bet you’ve never heard of her, and yet, her life story is that of a genuine rebel, a woman who overcame almost untenable circumstances and remained faithful to writing. You’ve probably heard salacious stories of Shelley and Byron and love triangles and all sorts of shenanigans, I read these too, and this seemed to add to the allure and romanticism of these writers- love, sex, opium, poetry!
Well, Bardwell had a very colourful life, – she did, of course, end up with the children after the partnerships and affairs, and the responsibility for taking care of them, she outraged Catholic Ireland, and was never fully accepted by her peers, despite her obvious commitment to her art. I can’t help thinking that if she were a he, we’d have read much more of her, and about her, and seen the movie. If you like the sound of her, her memoir is called A Restless Life (2008), published by Liberties Press.
This poem is short and simple, as she imagines her own post-mortem, and the comments of the students as they observe her internal organs. She imagines their derision, as they witness the evidence of a dissolute life. Her lungs and liver are shot – and she is judged. But she knows what they will find, and implies that she is at peace with every decision she has made.
I’m not going to say much more, I’ll let the poem do its work, and hope that it slaps you on the side of your head and says ‘remember me’. Stay safe!
A SINGLE ROSE by Leland Bardwell
I have willed my body to the furthering of science
Although I’ll not be there
to chronicle my findings
I can imagine all the students
poring over me:
“My God, is that a liver?
And those brown caulifowers are lungs?”
“Yes, sir, a fine example of how not to live.”
“And what about the brain?”
“Alas the brain. I doubt if this poor sample
ever had one.” As with his forceps
he extracts a single rose.
The photograph used is of a ceramic rose person, by artist Eva Marie Restel. Do visit her site to read the very moving back story of these beautiful pieces. I am the lucky owner of a rose person, thanks to my dear friends Carol & Liz, and it seemed to be the perfect illustration of this poem.