FIRST THOUGHTS: Irish poets on the origins of their work

COMING to poetry for the first time can be challenging, especially when the meaning of the writer’s verse is buried in the soul of its creator. 

The words may embody a time of hurt or joy, a new direction in a poet’s work, perhaps even a transformative realisation on the nature of the art form.

Explaining the emotional and psychological landscape in which a poem originates is usually confined to the world of the poetry reading where, in front of the receptive few, poets have the luxury of explanation — those few words of introduction that allow them to put their verse in context: why they wrote it, what it meant to them, and where it fits into their writing life.

This anthology, Deep Heart’s Core, brings that insight to the printed page. Compiled by Eugene O’Connell and Pat Boran, it is, at its most basic, a comprehensive and varied anthology representing the current state of 20th-century Irish poetry, from giants like Thomas Kinsella and Eavan Boland, to the newer voices of Leanne O’Sullivan and Billy Ramsell.

However, by offering each poet the opportunity to explain what O’Connell neatly calls ‘the pathology of the creative impulse’, Deep Heart’s Core excavates the bones of each work, and, as such, it’s a revealing, even confessional, book, that provides an entry point into a sometimes abstract world.

If there is one lesson here, it is that poems have varied origins — no shared muse sings in the ear of our nation’s poets. However, what they do all have in common is that the art is central to their lives, or as O’Connell writes, “contemplation of it is a balm for the soul”.

Often, the triggering impulse for a poem is an idea, a word experiment, an emotion. In some cases, the mind of the poet is invaded by outside events: Nessa O’Mahony’s 10-line awardwinning verse, Lament for A Shy Man, was written after the murder of an elderly recluse at his Galway home in 1996 and comes from an attempt to imagine the world through the eyes of a ‘man who would turn his face to hedgerows rather than risk a greeting on a country road’; while empathy for a dying, depressive friend was the key behind Padraig J Daly’s emotionally-laden Complaint in which he berates god for abandoning ‘a woman of yours’.

The passing of fathers, with their deaths leaving unresolved relationships, is a noticeably common theme: the late Michael Hartnett writes that his own favourite poem was That Actor’s Kiss, when he kissed his dead father in hospital, ‘that was our last kiss, and, alas, our first’; Joan McBreen uses her dying father’s life in the merchant navy to construct powerful word images ‘a frightened man hauled to unknown rocks from an ocean he could not navigate’; while Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s lyrical work, Dad — a tightly-constructed example of metre and rhyme — pays tribute to the man who took on the role of both parents when his wife died, ‘Now when the New Man poses with his kid, I think of all the things my father did’.

One contribution to Deep Heart’s Core, by the late John Moriarty, provides a glimpse into a complex mental landscape where meandering streams of thought lead readers — admittedly, often confused readers — out of the narrow confines of the rational world. In Moriarty’s text written to accompany his work Faust, the prose illuminates a philosophy of Earth, god, and surrender to forms of ancient thought. “There is more understanding in firelight for the kind of man I am,” he writes.

Understanding is key to Deep Heart’s Core, not only an understanding of poetry for newcomers, students, and general readers, but an appreciation of the motivating forces behind a literary art form which is, by many people, often willfully misunderstood.

Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit a Touchstone Poem

Edited by Eugene O’Connell and Pat Boran; Dedalus Press, €14.95


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