Olivia O'Leary looks to her own future as she kicks off a new life chapter

Olivia O’Leary is about to begin the latest installment in her broadcasting career as the new presenter of The Poetry Show, writes Marjorie Brennan

WHEN it comes to journalism and broadcasting, Olivia O’Leary has nothing left to prove. Renowned for her work in news and current affairs, in recent years, her eloquent radio columns for RTÉ’s Drivetime have also struck a chord with many listeners.

So when she was approached about taking up the role of presenter on The Poetry Programme on RTÉ Radio 1, there was just a brief moment of hesitation before she took the leap.

“I was absolutely delighted when they asked me. It’s a bit of a departure for me in that it’s arts broadcasting but I’m getting to the age where chances don’t come around twice. My initial worry was, ‘Oh my God, do I know enough about poetry to be doing this?’. Then I thought that kind of person, the one who doesn’t know too much about poetry but loves it, is quite a good bridge in terms of the audience.”


While O’Leary, 68, may be at pains to point out that she is no expert on poetry, her passion for, and knowledge of, the medium, is obvious. She will also be taking inspiration from one of her favourite poets, Seamus Heaney.

“I don’t put myself forward as any great intellectual — I struggle through long poems like Dante’s Inferno. I remember saying to Seamus Heaney once: ‘Seamus, I’m more familiar with your shorter poems, which I love.’ He replied dolefully: ‘I know, yeah, Heaney’s Golden Hits’. He was very funny about it. He never talked down to anyone but there was a little bit of him that thought ‘I’ve done ‘Sweeney Astray’ and ‘Beowulf’ and she is probably going to talk to me about ‘Mid-Term Break’.’

“Having said that, he would often read that, he never excluded it from readings. The more people who read poetry, as far as he was concerned, the better.”

This inclusive approach is one O’Leary is hoping to follow in The Poetry Programme; she says she wants the programme to be a joy rather than some sort of didactic lesson.

“When I went to university, I remember having to read all of this goddamn awful criticism, it was like suet pudding, it was terrible. But when I read Heaney’s Oxford lectures, it was an absolute joy because here was somebody who loved poetry and lived in it and was able to explain stuff without having to give some awful tautological explanation of it. He revelled in the music and the beauty of poetry and that is what he wanted you to do too. If we could catch even a little bit of that enthusiasm, it would be great.”

The broadcaster has spoken on many occasions on how she has found poetry a comfort in tough times, and believes that its role now is more important than ever.

“No matter what, all of us as human beings, we look for the transcendental, something which is above and beyond us. Now that organised religion has less of a hold on us, we are turning to all sorts of other things. Poetry is one of the places we go. The thing that poetry does very often, it makes time stand still. Poets catch a moment in time and capture it.

“A really good poem, when you are reading it, will make time stand still. It might only be a moment when they stood on the doorstep and watched the evening fall as they called their children in from play, as Eavan Boland has written about. Life is made up of moments so every one is precious.”


O’Leary is also relishing the opportunity to explore different forms of poetry and talk to new talent.

“We will have lots of younger poets on who are fascinating because they are really ambitious about how they approach form; they are not overwhelmed by tradition in the way that some of us can be. The great thing about poetry, unlike a novel, is that it can be so public. It is meant to be read out loud, sung like a song. That helps poets at a time when so much happens on the internet and social media.

“The performance poet Sarah Clancy, from Galway, is on our first programme and she would make the point that it is a good time for poetry because of how portable it is in terms of social media. We are realising that poetry should be read out loud — now we have poetry slams and various public opportunities for people to get up and deliver their poetry. There are two people involved in a poem, the person who writes it, and the reader or audience.”

O’Leary’s mission statement for the programme is clear, that it should serve as a platform for the work of poets rather than a forum for discussion.

“Poetry, to me, is music. My attitude to this programme is a bit like the DJs who say ‘More music, less talk’. We hope to pack as many poems as we can into the programme.

“Sure, we will talk about the poems but the poems have to talk for themselves first. The poem is what matters in the end, not what I think about it or what a critic thinks about it.”

The new season of The Poetry Programme begins tomorrow at 7.30pm on RTÉ Radio 1

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