Thursday, January 23, 2014

How Belfast Became A World Poetry Capital

Sinead Morrissey's recent win of the TS Eliot Poetry Prize confirms Belfast as one of the world capitals of contemporary poetry. More premiere league poets have come out of Belfast in the last half century than just about any other city or region on the planet. It probably all started in the 1950's with Philip Larkin (the greatest poet of the twentieth century) and John Hewitt setting up shop, but things really got hot in the late 60's and early 70's with The Belfast Group that was established by Philip Hobsbaum. Over the next couple of decades Heaney's circle - Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Edna Longley, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, Seamus Deane et. al - won just about every major poetry prize in the world between them from the Nobel to the Pulitzer. Whether the darkness of the violence in that period was a spur to creativity or not it's a fact that some of the best writing about the Troubles was done by the Belfast Group poets. 
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Poetry of course has long antecedents in Ireland and it is recognised in all four provinces as the queen of the arts. Traditionally every minor kingdom in Ireland had a court poet and the wandering bard was a figure of respect and renown. Warriors were required to memorize large chunks of poetry and a man was not considered to be well rounded until he could fight and compose verse at the same time. Poetry has always been important to me. I grew up in Victoria Estate, Carrickfergus about a five minute walk from Louis MacNeice's house and a five minute bike ride from the house where Jonathan Swift lived. The name McKinty is from the Irish Mhac an tSaoi which, of course, means son of the poet and while I've never been tempted to write poetry myself I do take trouble over the words I put into my books, especially the opening sentence and the opening paragraph of my novels. The words matter. Joseph Conrad famously said that a "work of art should justify itself in every line" and while I certainly don't take it that far as a genre fiction writer I do sometimes despair of the crime novels that drop through my letter box that don't have a well crafted phrase (or a decent joke) in the entire book. 
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My generation was brought up to memorize poetry by rote. Pages of text that I've never forgotten. And good stuff too: Shakespeare, Swift, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Yeats, Wilfred Owen, Dickinson, Kipling, Auden, MacNeice and all the way up to Heaney (we skipped Larkin but now everyone does him). I think this still goes on in schools in Northern Ireland where old habits die hard and trendy teaching hasn't quite destroyed memorisation and rote learning. When I watched Sinead Morrissey read last year I noticed that she too had memorised not just her own poems but a John Hewitt poem that she recited. 
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How did Belfast become a world poetry capital? Well the Seamus Heaney Centre certainly helps, the Arts Council for NI do a great job, but I bet you every child in the greater Belfast area over the age of 12 can recite at least one poem and that's down to ancient cultural habits and old school teaching methods. I don't live in Belfast anymore but Irish fathers still have certain responsibilities and by the time my two daughters turned seven they could swim, ride a bike, sing at least part of one Woody Guthrie song and recite all of WB Yeats's The Song of the Wandering Aengus. Yes you can Google anything you want at any time but there's something to be said for knowing a poem in your bones and being able to recall it at will.

33 comments:

Mark English said...

'The Song of Wandering Aengus': your daughters may have memorized it but you got the title wrong!

I too love that poem. But the cohort which shares a knowledge and love of all that stuff from Shakespeare to Yeats and Larkin is slowly shrinking.

An old aunt of mine had a head full of poems and songs. We can't match that generation, and subsequent generations are even further from replicating it and will struggle to understand (if they can be bothered) what it was all about.

Alan said...

Adrian ,I think you hit the key.Irish cultural dictates aside unless the home pushes memory ,recitation and approval for ones cultural patrimony we shall witness the triumph of the videocentric good enough generation.Best Alan

Conor said...

Great post. From memory:

'I went out to the hazel wood / Because a fire was in my head'

I love that line. Funnily enough I'm reading 'Stepping Stones' at the moment - Dennis O'Driscoll's book-length series of questions with Heaney - and it's really great. Came across a line today which made me think of your previous post:

'There are times when you realize that the guild now consists as much of networkers as dreamworkers.'

(Heaney's pop at the writing workshops the very same as your own)

lil Gluckstern said...

I was not educated in the old fashioned way. We spent hours discussing meaning which I loved, but no one required that we memorize any poems. I really regret this because I once worked with a person who would understand what I was trying to say, or would convey her feelings and experience by quoting a poem. This makes me want to go back and read all the poetry books I have, and maybe memorize a few.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

It may depend on the collection mine has two "the"s.

My dad had hundreds of songs in his head that he could play on the piano, many of which were old Irish folk songs that I've never heard anywhere else. Now alas gone with him...

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

I know we'll never stop the video literate age but a balance might be nice - a little bit of the old ways too...

adrian mckinty said...

Conor

When I told my youngest daughter about the Fianna and how they used to recite verse while having spears thrown at them she insisted that that was how she was going to learn WB Yeats. And thats what we did.

adrian mckinty said...

Lil

Again a balance might be good. Yes discuss the meaning, the biography of the poet etc, but also learn the thing.

Its never too late to memorise poems BTW and a good defence against Alzheimers etc. I reckon.

seana graham said...

Reciting poetry in the U.S. had already died out by the time I was in grade school and that was well before you were.

I think my own disinclination to read poetry comes from another source, though. It has more to do with our education or lack of same on the art of reading poetry. Seeing poems in the New Yorker that I couldn't make any sense of when I was young made me feel that it wasn't really my thing.

Put another way, when I read fiction, or even nonfiction to some extent, I feel pretty confident in my ability to assess whether it is any good. But with modern poetry, I feel as though I might have to wade through mountains of dreck before I would happen on one that spoke to me. And although of course I can blame my own laziness, it is also, I think, another sign that the tradition has been broken here and that we're wandering in a land without guideposts. The poetry scene becomes an inbred thing, where poets know each other's work but no one else does.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The New Yorker has a lot to answer for. Recently they published my old flatmate Alicia Stallings but 9/10 the poems in there are utter keek.

The contemporary poetry scene can be very intimidating what with "poetry slams" etc. And you're its like a group of engineers or something who know each others work but which hardly ever makes sense to outsiders.

seana graham said...

Wait a minute--you threw spears at your daughter?

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

A plastic spear. Actually if I remember correctly it was a trident.

seana graham said...

Still sounds pointy. It would not be the right kind of test for me. I was traumatized by my eighth grade Spanish teacher who would throw chalkboard erasers at random students who not only had to say the right thing in Spanish, but catch the blasted eraser.

Nevertheless, she was popular.

Mark English said...

I seem to recall heavy wood-backed blackboard erasers flying at misbehaving or inattentive boys. Getting educated can be a dangerous business. (I almost said 'should be'. That spear story appeals to me.)

Peter Rozovsky said...

Bring a guitar to Bouchercon!

Matt said...

You know, there's a reason why European students who transfer to North America often find it less than difficult.

seana graham said...

Mark, in hindsight, I think the teacher was pretty brilliant, because the athletic aspects of the class appealed to a lot of people--okay, boys--who wouldn't have been as engaged otherwise. We also ran races to write answers on the board--again, torture. But I think if there had been an opt out option for people who would have liked to just go off and study in a corner--I mean, I very good at Spanish despite my lack of coordination--I would have been perfectly happy for everyone else to have fun.

But I'm really glad she never thought of spears.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I am confident that I'd have learned the right thing to say in Spanish to anyone who threw an eraser at me and that, provided my enunciation were good enough that my meaning was clear, I would have been ejected from the classroom for saying it.

adrian mckinty said...

Mark

Well my kids enjoyed it although usually I aimed to miss.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

I think that would work with Spanish, I can't seeing it working for German though, somehow.

adrian mckinty said...

Matt

Well when I taught English in Denver I made the kids memorize and no one, not the kids, not the parents, ever complained about it.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I might do that or borrow one, bringing anything made of wood back into Australia causes you all sorts of grief at customs.

seana graham said...

Adrian, as to German I think you're probably right about that.

Peter, every once in awhile in life, you run into someone who is doing things for all the right reasons, and yet somehow their actions cause you pain. It's not a bad lesson to learn in eighth grade, all things considered.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

That used to happen to me all the time when I played rugby.

seana graham said...

I assume in your case, running into someone wasn't a metaphor.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The pain certainly wasn't metaphorical. I remember once this guy from the Fijian army literally running right over the top of me as I attempted to tackle him. From the sidelines it must have looked pretty funny.

Anne said...

Just to prove the art of recitation isn't entirely forgotten amongst the younger generation, listen to this recording from a schools performance competition and weep with admiration!
https://soundcloud.com/tycarreg/sir-gawain-and-the-green

(Hope the link works)

Anne said...

P.S. If the link doesn't work, put the name 'Kaiti Soultana' and 'Poetry By Heart' into Google.

Alberto d' Abbruzze said...

I memorized poems once, was young. Now I write obituaries, am old.
Sweet Jane Rastin, gone.
At peace in the arms of our Lord.
We must carry on without her.
Only fading love remains.

seana graham said...

Thanks, Anne. The link does work.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Loved that. Maybe those sort of things could become as popular as spelling bees.

adrian mckinty said...

Alberto

I like that.

adrian mckinty said...

Alberto

I like that.