What Poetry Is

It is World Poetry Day. Its purpose: to promote the reading, writing, publishing and teaching of poetry throughout the world. Designated by UNESCO in order to, “give fresh recognition and impetus to national, regional and international poetry movements”. A ‘poetry movement’. Now there’s a strange idea. One I rail against, probably from a blinkered, naive, romantic position where I think that everyone loves and appreciates poetry; no need for a movement, it moves us already. And it gathers pace, as you pick up a book here and there, finding ghosts reaching out from the page, hauling you in.

Máirtín Ó Direáin found me yesterday. A native of the Aran Islands, he is widely held as one of the foremost Irish language poets of the twentieth century. He died 30 years ago, almost to the day, and I had never heard of him until I stumbled across a poem with his name in the title. By Anne Kennedy, it is called, “On Seeing Máirtín Ó Direáin Strolling in Salthill.” It is a poem in two parts. In the first, she elaborates on the title. She describes the landscape around Salthill, Galway, and his arresting presence as he strolls there. The very sight of him, the elder statesman of poetry from the West of Ireland, wrings poetry from her. In the second part of the poem she describes how Ó Direáin’s poetry may have been wrung from him in much the same way, as a result of being inspired by those who had gone before him. This is what she wrote:

“One wet Sunday I unearth

on brittle newsprint, an interview

Ó Direáin gave before he died.

Slow and steady yet again.


He wonders if they still speak poetry

on Aran; admires Synge

because he cared; hears Yeats

early and late, even in his dreams.


His one wish was to be like Pearse

but his mother all but cossetted

the manhood out of him.

He was meant to be a priest


or guard, not some loner

watching under lowering skies

loaded currachs bumping

stone quays on Aran.


Growing up to exile with stones

and mountainous seas for companions,

where else would he dwell

except in Death’s lonely kingdom.”

For here’s the thing: poets inspire poets who inspire poets, and so on. Just as Anne Kennedy was inspired by Ó Direáin, he too had his fire lit by those before him. Building on Yeats’s, ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ his own search for peace to come dropping slow took this form:

‘I Will Find Peace’ (‘Faoiseamh a Gheobhadsa’), by Máirtín Ó Direáin

“I will find peace (Faoiseamh a gheobhadsa)

For a short while (Seal beag gairid)

Among my people (I measc mo dhaoine)

On an island in the sea, (Ar oileán mara)

Walking by the shore (Ag siúl cois cladaigh)

Morning and evening (Maidin is tráthnóna)

Monday to Saturday (Ó Luan go Sartharn)

At home in the West. (Thaire ag baile.)

Poetry is a torchlight procession where the beacon is never extinguished, but passed down through the years. I’m not one of the torchbearers – would that I were – but there are thousands of them in the small island I come from, steadfastly burnishing words in the back room. Heaney was born the year Yeats died. I wondered, upon hearing of Heaney’s death, what great poet was to be born to Ireland in 2013? (I told you, I am both naive and romantic.) Nonetheless, whether or not Yeats handed Heaney the baton, this much is true: poetry jumps across language, it vaults across seas, it leaps beyond time and it speaks to us fresh and new in this moment. Good poetry says: ‘I know how you feel. Here, take this word capsule, for I have written your emotion, I’ve put expression to that weight you carry in your belly, let me lighten your load.’ Poetry catches and snares the big ideas and distils them into an essence, a purification, a potent potion. Poetry puts words to the huge emotions that otherwise only come out as a lacerating scream, a guttural cry, or hysterical laugh. Poetry describes feelings that move in one’s body like smoke. Poetry navigates us through the uncharted: grief, agitation, love, fury, longing. Poetry encapsulates wonderment and awe and beauty and memory. Poetry begets prayer, meditation, stillness, detachment. Poetry shakes us from our complacency and scarifies our self-righteousness. Poetry is dangerous and subversive, a challenge to authority, a means of protest, a speaking out of truth to power. Poetry is spare, pruned, necessary. Poetry is fluid and free and alive. Poetry makes us roar with laughter. Poetry is a party with rhythm, beats, cadence and lilt. Poetry is the ultimate fusion of sound, significance and passion. Poetry is for us all. Enjoy it.

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