Five Irish people share their favourite poems of all time

Today is World Poetry Day, so Jonathan deBurca Butler asked a number of people to select their favourite work

Five Irish people share their favourite poems of all time

Maia Dunphy, Writer, film-maker and broadcaster

Poetry is a bit like art or music in that no one should follow the herd; it’s OK to like what you like, despite what poetry snobs might tell you.

Many people see poetry as inaccessible or esoteric — often this is true — which is why I’ve always liked poems that are more straightforward and relatable.

I would recommend anyone to have a read of Yeats and Robert Frost for beautifully evocative words, and Maya Angelou would make any woman feel just a little bit taller. But for an engaging, emotive, wistful piece of poetry, I defy anyone not to want to keep ‘Dreams’ by Langston Hughes in their back pocket:

“Hold fast to dreams...”

Myles Dungan, Writer and broadcaster

Despite the fact that I am married to a poet (Nerys Williams) and that there is a poem that may or may not be about me in her first volume, Sound Archive, I will not be Trumpist about my selection. The poem that has probably meant more to me over the years than any other is ‘To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God’, by Thomas Kettle.

It was written in France in September 1916, a few days before Kettle went into action with the Dublin Fusiliers at the Battle of Ginchy, where he lost his life. When he wrote the poem, Kettle, a former Irish Parliamentary Party MP and supporter of John Redmond, knew that he had been consigned to the status of historical footnote by the 1916 Rising. The poem is his apologia to a daughter who was far too young to read it, let alone understand it.

The closing quatrain of this sonnet sums up his disillusionment with the cause for which he finds himself actually fighting (British imperialism) and expresses the hope that he will be given credit for the original motivation that saw him enlist in 1914.

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,/

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—/

But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,/

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

Susan Cahill, Presenter and producer of Talking Books on Newstalk

I’ve always liked the idea of a poem as a hymn or prayer, that a poem can somehow claim you, that when you read the poem out loud you get comfortable with it, memorise it, embrace it, play with it, and then you carry it with you through your day, your life, your work, relationships, challenges — your stops.

I think there is no right or wrong way to read a poem. A poem will speak a different truth to each and every reader. For me, a good poem will open up a question, make me think about the world and my place within it. What more do you want from a poem! When people ask me is poetry important or what use is it, I say it’s an offering. It’s company. It’s a relationship. Receive.

I love Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’ and how she talks about our place in the natural world, the simplicity of it, the intimacy.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/

the world offers itself to your imagination/”

Sinéad Gleeson, Presenter of The Book Show, RTÉ Radio 1

Like most teenage girls, when I discovered Sylvia Plath, pictured, I felt that I’d found a poet who spoke directly to me.

After years of being subjected to lauded work by old, white, male poets, Plath was a revelation. She was a firework, a bomb, a punch in the gut, and unlike anyone else. Her work is unflinching and unsentimental on any topic — love, sex, jealousy, and miscarriage.

In ‘Daddy’, Plath is full of rage and uses the language of the Holocaust and Nazism to express her feelings towards the male figures in her life.

It’s a poem that manages to be both heartfelt and terrifying in its imagery. It takes risks on every possible level and Plath demonstrates to the reader what patriarchy and control does to women’s lives. Ultimately, all attempts at subjugation are acknowledged, but resisted.

“Every woman adores a Fascist,/

The boot in the face, the brute/

Brute heart of a brute like you.”

It’s sinister, eye-opening, and many of the lines still make me shudder. It’s an unforgettable piece of work.

Michael O’Loughlin, Poet

There are poems that you return to again and again in the course of your life, poems that inspire you to continue as a poet, to continue as a human being.

To me, poems are tools for survival. A poem can help you stay alive, emotionally, mentally, imaginatively, sometimes even physically.

Poetry doesn’t necessarily make sense of the world, but it puts some form on the chaos around us, which somehow, makes it easier to endure. In these dark times, tectonic plates of culture and politics seem to be shifting beneath us, and the world sometimes seems a very foreign place. This is where poetry has a role. I find myself reciting poems like Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’, where he talks of how “the clever hopes expire/of a low, dishonest decade”, or Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’.

But the poem that I repeat like a mantra when, each day, I ask myself what the point of writing poetry is, is a short poem by Bertolt Brecht, written as everything of value in the world seemed under threat from the seemingly unstoppable evil of Nazism.

“In the dark times... ”

Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent publication Poems 1980-2015 is available from New Island

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