Feature Articles


(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2004)

Poetry is as old as the human race. As soon as the first hunters had begun to inscribe charcoal drawings on the walls of their caves, you can be sure that somewhere, Mary O'Donnellsomeone was trying to do something different with the sounds that came out of people's mouths every time they spoke. I don't have hard evidence for this of course, but I think it's fair to speculate that if people were driven to express themselves in wall art, they were probably, even in pre-literate societies, also getting busy playing around with sound. Poetry is all about sound. So is music, of course. But poetry is doing something a little different in that the sound effects are created by words and not instruments. When a musician composes, the work composed may be subject to a variety of different performance interpretations, depending on the instrument chosen for the playing, the skill of the performing musician, as well as a number of things which may depend to some extent on improvisation. So, for example, Kiri te Kanawa singing Madame Butterfly is a very different sound to Kiri te Kanawa singing from Porgy and Bess, because in order to sing the latter she has to use her voice and breathing in a different manner. Equally, the Sting who started out with The Police evolved a very different style of performance when he compiled a retro album of romantic oldies.

But a poem by Seamus Heaney will always 'belong' to Seamus Heaney, just as a poem by Wordsworth will always 'belong' to Wordsworth. Strictly speaking, there is no way a Heaney or a Wordsworth, a Bishop or Sexton, a Baudelaire or a Ted Hughes can be re-interpreted by different poet 'players', because the sound in a poem is circumscribed by language itself and not melody. There may be melody within a poem, but it is not the central force of the poem, so much as the particular conglomeration of sounds and the force of these on the human intellect and 'soul'. The locus of achievement in a poem lies in language and what language 'means', and how variously that language may by expressed and experimented with.

We know from what we have inherited in world literature that the ancient writers were lyricists and balladeers, and that they admired the epic poem, the 'big' one which would pull together all the detail and resonance of great wars (real and mythic), great passionate romances and heroic deeds. Poetry seems to be the place where the heroic has always found a comfortable base. Today, the heroic has shifted, insofar as it can be found within the shorter lyric as much as in the longer narrative poem, but that is a consequence of our sense of ourselves within the space of the world as much as anything else. By this I mean that no community is distant from us nowadays. Every city, every town, every small business throughout the planet is accessible, either by actual travel or through information technology. We do not have the same perspective of giganticism which loomed over the ancients. We know that no matter what shocking event occurs within a distant community, something similar may be happening elsewhere, or right on our own doorstep. The concept of what exactly 'home' means has consequently altered. Ulysses, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, seemed a very glorious character to most people up to thirty years ago. He still does. What occurred there seemed singular and spectacular, just the kind of thing that a hero would and should undertake.

Yet our knowledge of the world and how it works, our strong sense of the patterns of local and international politics, must surely influence how we now perceive the myths and legends of the ancient writers. Where is home nowadays, for example? What is a journey? If you travel to India and go climbing in the Himalayas, does that constitute a journey? Do people who take two weeks holiday in a Mediterranean country each year make a journey? Surely the person who takes a two-week package is capable of experiencing exactly the same vastness of encounter as the person climbing the Himalayas. For all the snobberies about travel, it is entirely possible that the Himalayan climber is a mean-minded, petty individual incapable of any kind of generosity, who uses the sherpas mercilessly, pays nobody properly, ignores the needs of his climbing companions and comes home none the wiser for his experience - apart from noting that the Himalayas are 'high' and 'cold', and that he had the best-insulated clothing of the group. Meanwhile, our two-week packager risks her own life by swimming far out to assist a first-time wind-surfer who has got into trouble, not only does she do that but she falls in love with someone else who joins her and her husband for dinner one night, there ensues a rapid wrangle of emotions as she faces down the dilemmas of what she perceives to be a stale marriage. Decisions have to be taken and she comes home very changed by her experience. Equally, the man who travels from Donegal to Dublin every month for a check-up with a medical consultant also makes a journey, but how we approach the journey is what counts, not its length or distance or duration. Think about the journeys we all make privately, into the self, that go unnoticed and unrecorded and which we face incessantly. How should we record these journeys? Mostly, we don't. We consign them to the bunker of memory, where they are resurrected every so often, the outer contours perhaps slightly changed by the course of time, but the main events largely unchanged. Writers make the journey in a different way. They want to make more sense of the event, the journey, the experience, the sensation, the feeling, than day-to-day thinking and memorising will allow them to do. That is why they need to write it down in some form and why every poem written testifies to the notion of the journey...

Mary O'Donnell latest collection is September Elegies (Lapwing). The above is an extract from a work-in-progress entitled The Art of Writing.

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