Feature Articles

STARS IN THEIR EYES by David Butler

(PI News May/June 2003)

The astrological cycle turns through one more revolution. Deadlines loom and recede. One by one, the constellations rise over the eastern horizon: Maria Edgeworth, Strokestown, Listowel, Davoren Hanna, Brendan Kennelly, Seacat, Patrick Kavanagh, Féile Filíochta, Tallaght Community, Hennessy, all of which hold out a tangible promise in excess off €500. A select few tender ten times the sum. Interspersed are stars of lesser magnitude, constellations of more specialist lustre. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but it is the free market principle which is more likely in the end to fill one. Modern poetry has famously become disengaged from its audience, and, with the exception of those who attempt to write poetry, the several dusty shelves that bookshops still concede to the art form are largely passed over in silence. The corollary of this public indifference is the dependence of publishers of poetry volumes and literary magazines on the whims of governmental divinities. In matters pecuniary, these are jealous gods indeed.
 
If the public appetite to read poetry has waned anorexic over the course of the last century, the private appetite to write has not. Borrowing from the phenomenon of cultural tourism, the more canny literary societies and local councils began some years ago to cater for this taste, and so the literary festival, with short-list, readings, workshop and award was born. It wasn’t long before its zodiac waxed ascendant. Hardly surprisingly, the spurious image of the hermetic poet scribbling away compulsively in a lonely garret has begun to give way to the reality of the contemporary lit-fest magi. The twenty-first century poet is web-wise, postally aware, and never allows pen or processor to stray onto the forty-first line.
 
The result has undoubtedly been a new lease of life for the sub-genres of the nostalgic grope, the authentic parent and the parturient cow. Onomatopoeia and whimsy have flourished, and the lyric-I has never seemed so secure. With postbags of upwards of four thousand to judge between, immediacy of appeal is at a premium, and it is little wonder that entries to the Heaney/Longley end of the spectrum tend to outscore those to the Durcan/McGuckian extreme.
 
But what is perhaps of equal interest is that it is precisely those practitioners of the art who deride the competition poem, who seem most addicted to the astrological sequence of awards. (The current author is no exception!) Say what you will, the carnival of festivals is generating both output and interest, and the oxygen of winning can be heady stuff. Indeed, one wonders if certain poets of the 40s and 50s would have been quite so embittered if they could have counted on entering their Pegasus every few months to the Equipage trials.

David Butler’s translations of Fernando Pessoa will be published next year by Dedalus.

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