What is poetry?

The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit A Touchstone Poem, edited by Eugene O’Connell and Pat Boran (Dedalus Press)

BACK IN the day, when the only poetry textbooks in our secondary schools were Intermediate Cert Poetry and Leaving Cert Poetry, should an intrepid pupil have the temerity to ask “What is poetry?” the answer generally given was “a lyric”.

When the same intrepid pupil further inquired “What is a lyric”, the answer was “A poem”. In truth, there has never been an adequate definition of what a poem is. Despite this, in recent years there has been a huge growth in the publishing of poetry books and also in sales of poetry books. This is also evident in bigger attendances at poetry readings and the proliferation of poetry festivals throughout Ireland.

Yet definitions or even accurate descriptions of what a poem is and does remain elusive. However, the recent publication by Dedalus Press of The Deep Heart’s Core: Irish Poets Revisit A Touchstone Poem, edited by Eugene O’Connell and Pat Boran, with an introduction by Bernard O’Donoghue, makes a brave effort at achieving just this.

The idea behind the anthology was that by bringing to the page the spirit and immediacy of the spoken word, the reader would better understand the movement, the music, and the spirit of the poem. This was done by printing the poem as spoken by the poet at a poetry reading, along with the poet’s introduction as s/he would give it at such an event.

The reader first reads the poem and then the poet’s introduction. It is suggested the reader read the poem a second time but now with a greater understanding of where the poet is coming from, what s/he is trying to say and possibly enjoying - as Moya Cannon says in ‘Chauvet’ - “some informed, deft gesture-/a tilt in a melody,/a lit line in a poem or a song-/draws us out into our humanity,/warm-blooded,/bewildered”.

In his introduction, Eugene O’Connell writes: “This anthology might double as an introduction to Irish poetry for the general reader and as a handbook for the aspiring student and practitioner.” For example, John F Deane gives us an example of how a poem can “start” in ‘The Poem of the Goldfinch’: “Write, came the persistent whispering, a poem/on the mendacities of war, So I found shade/under the humming eucalyptus, and sat,/patienting".

While In the Deep Heart’s Core may not define what a poem is, it does give us an understanding of how a poem is formed and it explores the full panorama of what a poem can achieve - how it can be inspiring or bring solace and, above all, how it can give us a deeper understanding of our individual humanity and the world we live in. This is no mean achievement.

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