Favourite poems provide food for thought for Darina

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe with a verse from WB Yeats's Under Ben Bulben.

The lucrative Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize attracts thousands of entries from around the world, writes Colette Sheridan

NOW in its fifth year, the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, one of the most lucrative poetry awards in the world, is something that Darina Allen is very proud of.

The celebratory chef, based at Ballymaloe in East Cork, says the prize, worth €10,000 for a single unpublished poem, causes great excitement around the world because poetry prizes in general don’t tend to be very generous.

“Poets, no matter where in the world, face a challenge, and yet they so enrich our lives. The award raises the awareness of the importance of poetry in our lives,” says Allen.

The award, which includes three runner-up prizes of €1,000 each, is run by the international poetry magazine, The Moth. Cavan-based couple Rebecca O’Connor and Will Govan established The Moth in 2010 and they approached Allen to sponsor a poetry prize. In its first year it was won by Paul McMahon, who recently won the Keats-Shelley Prize. Last year’s winner, Ann Gray, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.

This year’s judge is former US poet laureate, Billy Collins, “the most popular poet in America”, according to the New York Times. He will present the Ballymaloe prize at a ceremony in Dublin next spring.

Allen’s love of poetry was ignited at Cullagh National School in Co Laois.

“The teachers from the Rhattigan and Lawlor families were highly committed. Then when I went to the Dominican College in Wicklow, there were very good English teachers. English wasn’t necessarily my favourite subject, though. Predictably, it was cooking and also botany.”

During her school days, Allen learned off poetry. She believes that style of learning was a good thing as many of the lines have stayed with her. “One of the first poems I learned off was To Daffodils by Robert Herrick. Nowadays, people learn in a different way. Or do they learn at all? Instead of knowing something, they go straight to Google. That has its limitations. There’s for and against.”

These days, Allen is a huge fan of the work of Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats. Just outside the kitchen of the Ballymaloe cookery school, some of Allen’s favourite verses are on the wall, including lines from Down by the Salley Gardens by Yeats, as well as The Lake Isle of Innisfree. There’s also Blackberry-Picking by Heaney and his poem, The Shipping Forecast.

Allen also likes the poetry of Meath-born Francis Ledwidge who died in the First World War. When she wants something humorous, the chef favours the poetry of Wendy Cope.

Does Allen write poetry herself? “No. I don’t. I simply don’t have the confidence to do it. Sometimes, when I read a poem, I think at the time that I could do that. But I don’t know if I could. In many ways, I have a huge inferiority complex about my writing.

“But I love writing, whether it’s my books, my column in the Irish Examiner or my travel writing. I love writing in the sense that when I go on holidays or away, I observe things in a different way. I’m a great note-taker. I write when something is still very vivid to me. I’m amazed at people who can go back to a book of notes months after the event and still keep it lively and colourful.”

A hard worker, Allen appreciates the balm-like power of poetry when she takes time out from her busy schedule. “You can pick up poetry and it brings you to a different place.”

The closing date for entries for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize is December 31. The shortlist will be announced in March 2016. www.themothmagazine.com


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