Some time before Hank Williams, one of the high priests of modern country music, died in 1952, drunk and drugged in the back of a car at the age of 29, another great communicator tried to describe poetry in equally sharp terms.
TS Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”. That seems a reliable, engaging first insight. It also points to why an artist as baffling and popular, though not universally so, as Bob Dylan might be awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Soul trumps spreadsheet.
Like Tennyson’s line — “the murmuring of innumerable bees” — we know a line of poetry means something but maybe not exactly what or if it means the same thing to each of us. We almost instinctively recognise the core of the thing — its “inscape” as Gerard Manley Hopkins called it. That truth stands even if we have to work at unpicking a poem’s full meaning — or reaching a personal interpretation of the poet’s intentions.
Yesterday the Arts Council and Poetry Ireland marked 40 years of the Writers In Schools Programme, one of our longest-running national arts-in-education programmes. Since 1977, the programme has brought the excitement and empowering force of creativity into thousands of classrooms. Writers in Schools facilitates visits by writers or storytellers to primary, secondary and special schools in every county in Ireland. Almost a million young people have benefited from over 8,000 visits by hundreds of artists to over 4,000 schools. The programme may not be the keeper of the flame but it certainly is a keeper of a flame.
In a country so deeply shaped, and still regularly moved, by oral traditions in poetry, folklore, or music, such a programme needs no vindication. In the world of Twitter grunt and fake news, it seems as close to revolution as we will get before Christmas. By any criteria, this must be one of those good things that make up and bolsters a civilisation. In a world where the world’s most powerful person, or at least one of them, splutters a daily but often dishonest commentary through Twitter its value appreciates faster than a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting.
On a smaller stage, Fine Gael’s executive council member Barry Walsh might not be the focus of such criticism, and his political career might not be in reverse, had he the kind of understanding, the kind of perception around language and behaviour, that schemes like this encourage.
It is also difficult to over-value schemes like this in a country where the heavily-subsidised national broadcaster — RTÉ — pays a reporter the same as the garda commission is paid — €180,000 — but, with a straight face, suggests it may be time to eviscerate Ireland’s national orchestras. Sadly, spreadsheet trumps soul.
Any enriching scheme like this, one that offers a valuable counterbalance to the passing, innumerable murmurings of our world is to be cherished and protected. Happy 40th!