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POETRY ALOUD NATIONAL POETRY SPEAKING COMPETITION 2008 by Hugh O'Donnell

(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2009)

‘…but neither had they heardHugh O'Donnell
Anything like the notes that did so
haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have
them still.’
– ‘The Unknown Bird’, Edward Thomas

I could have been twelve, when Aunt Mary, my music teacher, entered me for the Feis. I sat with her and my mother in the Father Matthew Hall as boys and girls, book in hand, crossed the stage and sat down, squaring up to the piano a moment before touching the keys. A small alarm bell sounded for me when I didn’t seem to recognise what they were playing. My turn came round. I played, found my way to the conclusion, didn’t hear the applause. A few quiet tears fell. It wasn’t good. I had let them down.While I had been playing notes, I reasoned harshly, the others had been playing music. So much for then!

Now it’s my turn to adjudicate. My third year in Heywood Community School for the regional heats of Poetry Aloud has all the expectation and anxiety of an adventure. Will they remember their lines? Will the whole experience exhilarate? I tell them before they begin how wonderful they are; what an honour it is for us to be here to listen to
them. And on we go together, celebrants of the word, its textures, meanings and taste.

Maybe remembering poems is old hat, something grandparents used to do. Still the delight is palpable in the hearing and the telling. In the heats, perhaps, there is a complicit holding of breath as someone is prompted back on track or pauses a little too long. No matter. A poem or two has entered the bloodstream and there is an exchange. For Seamus Heaney: ‘poems learned early on, poems with a truly imaginative quality, end up being sounding lines out to the world and into yourself’
(Stepping Stones, p35).

But first they must enter in. In his ‘Afterword: Memorising Poems’, Ted Hughes’s interesting approach opts for visualisation and for what is ‘sensed through hearing’ over learning by rote.‘What is essential then in memorising verse, is to keep
the audial faculty wide open and not so much look at the words as listen for them – listening as widely, deeply and keenly as possible, testing every whisper on the air in the echo-chamber of your whole body, as you bend more narrowly over the job of making that film of brightly-coloured images,’ (The School Bag, eds. Heaney, Hughes p568).

We suspect that such deep listening has been going on for some time in the participants as we find ourselves enchanted by the poem’s ‘overflow’ in being spoken aloud, hearing anew its cadences, its movement on the ear, its thought-track, its homing.

When I walked into the National Library the November day of the final and semi-finals, I was aware of some special happening. Around the participants hovered teachers, some family members, Jane and Moira, Joe and others from Poetry Ireland and the
welcoming faces of people from the National Library. It was a grace to be part of it all. To adjudicate, in the end, is to facilitate a process of discovery, to work with criteria that allow the poem and how it has come to live through the speaker to remain central. Poetry Aloud will never be just about winning. It is far too important for that. What is nurtured is poetry, camaraderie, life.

In this competition everyone wins. Particularly prominent among the ‘winners’ have to be those from the Education Desk at Poetry Ireland and the equivalent office in the National Library – the Director Aongus Ó hAonghusa and his Board are such enthusiastic and generous sponsors – who will point out to you that education wins! Of course the real winners are the young people who have been to ‘singing school’ and leave at least with a ‘song’ or two in their hearts.

When almost four years ago, Niall McMonagle and Jane O’Hanlon ran with the idea of extending such a competition nationwide – an event now in its sixteenth year in Wesley College – a wonderful energy was released. It will not be held back.

Hugh O’Donnell’s poetry collection Planting a Mouth was published by Doghouse Books in 2007.

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