Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Poetry In Belfast

a post from last year...
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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 English language poet of the second half 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 and some of the best poetry written in the British Isles 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 for review 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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Is poetry in Belfast still thriving? Well the Seamus Heaney Centre certainly helps, the Arts Council for NI do a good job, but more importantly I bet you every child in the greater Belfast area over the age of 12 can still 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 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.