Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Voice Of Poetry In The Conversation Of Mankind

Alicia Stallings
I've been thinking a lot about poetry over the last week or so. Attending that Sinead Morrissey poetry reading in Belfast probably started the ball rolling, although I've always been fascinated by poetry and the lives of the poets. As is standard Irish practice (or at least it was in my day) we began memorizing huge quantities of verse from the age of about 11 onwards, and tucked away in my head, are half a dozen Yeats poems as well Shakespeare's sonnets, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Robert Frost, Auden etc. Like any sensible person I stopped memorizing poetry once I left high school but I started again a couple of weeks ago as a sort of new year's resolution. A poem a week for the year is my plan and so far I've given myself some relatively simple stuff that rhymes and is straightforward to remember:

Week 1: And The Days Are Not Full Enough - Ezra Pound (which I've reproduced below in full just to show you how easy this game is)

And the days are not full enough,
And the nights are not full enough,
And life slips by like a field mouse,
      Not even shaking the grass. 

Week 2. I Died For Beauty - Emily Dickinson
Week 3. Cut Grass - Philip Larkin
Why memorise poems? Well it's fun for one thing. And poetry is an important way of looking at the world. I didn't study English literature in college but I did study philosophy and was impressed by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott who wrote a famous essay entitled, The Voice Of Poetry In The Conversation Of Mankind, which was a sort of plea for the liberty of poets to pursue their vision and their method in a busy age of science and 'progress'. The essay isn't online anywhere that I can find but it's worth reading if you can find the book "Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays" where it appears.
A few weeks ago an old friend of mine Alicia Stallings sent me her latest collection of poems called Olives. Alicia is the only professional poet that I know. She's won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Guggenheim "Genius" Fellowship. Olives is a beautiful collection of verse, sui generis, but perhaps influenced by the likes of Anne Carson and other neo classicists. Alicia was born in Athens, Georgia and lives in Athens, Greece which I imagine is as fine a place as any for a working poet. 
I hope this little blogpost has got you thinking about poetry too. Why don't you try and memorize a short poem today? Trust me it's not difficult and you'll do yourself a world of good. You could even write some poems. (Don't worry if you can't think of anything, never forget what Roger Ebert said "the muse visits during the writing process not before.") If you want to read some good poetry nothing could be easier as most of the famous dead poets are online in various different places, here, for example. Of course you can get the Oakeshott, Stallings and Sinead Morrissey books at, but maybe even better you could order them for your local library and let the librarians know that there is a section of the public still out there who recognize the importance of poetry in the great conversation of mankind.