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June 2019
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2013-10 Power of Poetry

James column for the Sligo Weekender


Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings : it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility (William Wordsworth).

According to Stephen Fry in his brilliantly compiled and constructed The Ode less travelled, in which he encourages us all to discover our inner-poets, we all have poetry within us, we all have language within us. There are techniques to learn the piano, or even to sing (for most), but is there a way to write poetry? Do we have to trudge our way through endless volumes of verse carefully crafted by intimidatingly expert dead poets?

When Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was recently laid to rest we all paid our tributes to one of Irelands most gifted wordsmiths, the ultimate Bard, a great Cultural Ambassador for our country. In the words of Enda Kenny, Seamus Heaney was a keeper of language, our codes and our essence as a people. Seamus Heaney said that people are born with a specific temperament. To become a poet, you must, above all, be yourself.

Yet we constantly hear people proclaim that poetry is obsolete and has lost its relevance, and is a dying art-form. I am not one of those people. Poetry has been around for a long time, perhaps even pre-literacy. Whether we consider the ancient Homeric Epics, Shakespeares Sonnets, Wildes Ballad of Reading Gaol, or lyrics by Gershwin, Sondheim, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Eminem or Kylie, or even tacky Hallmark Greetings Cards, poetry is all around us, and always has been. Many view poetry as songs without notes.

In school we were made endure at times tedious English classes, where we somehow felt bound to over-analyse poetic layers and imagery, and yet all these years later we clearly recount Wordsworths wandering lonely as a cloud, Keats seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Shakespeares Summers lease having all too short a date, Frosts miles to go before I sleep, Yeats hearing it in the deep hearts core, or the absolute power of Heaneys final line in his Mid-term break  a four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Are these poems ingrained in our psyche because as Shelley put it, poetry uses the best words in the best order? For a poet, language is the medium, the palette of colours. The life of a poem comes from its metre, its heartbeat, and of course its subject. The employment of such devices as alliteration (who can forget Gerard Manley Hopkins?), assonance, metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia etc add to the rich fabric of poetry. Poetry can be ambiguous, ironic, symbolic, angry, comic, tragic, lyrical or uplifting. At times of war, poets such as Owen and Sassoon warned us of wars futility.

The French poet Paul Valery declared that poetry is the unique intersection of language and state of mind. We must never be daunted by poetry, its not an intelligence test. And yet poetry must not be read like prose  it must be savoured, tasted, and then repeatedly re-read. Poetry is song-writing, diary-writing, story-telling, spirituality and therapy. Poetry comes from the soul, as it describes, paints, or merely suggests.

After my Mum died, I wrote down all her positive qualities and attributes, and poured them onto paper in my own humble poetic format, even setting one to music. These poems/songs have never seen the light of day, perhaps never will, but I certainly benefitted hugely from the therapeutic effects of voicing my feelings on paper for my beautiful departed Mum.

Who can ever forget the power of W.H.Audens Funeral Blues in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which clearly demonstrated how poetry evokes emotive responses? My Inner-Humanist has pretty much convinced me of the overwhelming power of poetry at times of bereavement. Yeats captivatingly perfect Cloths of Heaven at my Mums funeral will remain with me for ever - Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. 

Our own Weekender Editor Robert is himself a fine, if somewhat shy and retiring poet, and we also share the same favourite poem  Christina Rosettis Remember with its emotionally-charged closing line  Better by far you should forget and smile, than you should remember and be sad.
Along with Rosettis Remember, for my final curtain-call, I would also like the simple, but powerful little Late Fragment by Raymond Carver 
And did you get what you wanted from this life even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.