Poetry of Place

I’m thinking a lot about Ireland because … well, I was just there this summer and I’m leaving again in two weeks. So when my husband sent me a link to a recitation of Louis MacNeice’s poem “Dublin,” I decided we were about due to talk more about poetry.

I love this ivy-covered row of buildings.

I love this ivy-covered row of buildings across from Stephen’s Green.

It’s lovely. Watch.

Grey brick upon brick,
Declamatory bronze
On sombre pedestals —
O’Connell, Grattan, Moore —
And the brewery tugs and the swans
On the balustraded stream
And the bare bones of a fanlight
Over a hungry door
And the air soft on the cheek
And porter running from the taps
With a head of yellow cream
And Nelson on his pillar
Watching his world collapse.

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades —
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

The lights jig in the river
With a concertina movement
And the sun comes up in the morning
Like barley-sugar on the water
And the mist on the Wicklow hills
Is close, as close
As the peasantry were to the landlord,
As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish,
As the killer is close one moment
To the man he kills,
Or as the moment itself
Is close to the next moment.

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English,
Historic with guns and vermin
And the cold renown
Of a fragment of Church latin,
Of an oratorical phrase.
But oh the days are soft,
Soft enough to forget
The lesson better learnt,
The bullet on the wet
Streets, the crooked deal,
The steel behind the laugh,
The Four Courts burnt.

Fort of the Dane,
Garrison of the Saxon,
Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought,
You give me time for thought
And by a juggler’s trick
You poise the toppling hour —
O greyness run to flower,
Grey stone, grey water,
And brick upon grey brick. (1939)

“To know who you are,” Carson McCullers wrote in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “you have to have a place to come from.” Our identity is tied to place, whether we loved it or hated it, whether we can appreciate it or not. Place—our place—evokes a strong emotional response. “Dublin made me,” the poet Donagh MacDonagh said, “and no little town …” William Butler Yeats wrote, “I am of Ireland / And the Holy Land of Ireland …” and you can almost sing it, can’t you?

Louis MacNeice, poet, playwright, wasn’t even born in Dublin (Belfast, 1907) but it’s clear he knew the city well by the time he wrote this poem in 1939. (Though when MacNeice wrote of “Nelson on his pillar / watching his world collapse” he couldn’t have known former IRA volunteers would blow up the hated monument in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising.)

Poems about place are easy to love, easy to understand, to feel—and while some poets are known for a particular place poem, like William Carlos Williams (“Paterson”) or William Blake (“London”), others are known for a body of work closely identified with a city or region:

Wendell Berry: Kentucky
James Dickey: the American South
Robert Frost: New England
Seamus Heaney: Ireland
Robert Lowell: Boston
Walt Whitman: America

There’s not a Dubliner* today who wouldn’t recognize the “seedy elegance” MacNeice notes, or the grey stone and brick, especially in this in-between season, not quite winter, not quite spring. It could have been written yesterday. Dubliners love this poem.**

And so do I. Can’t wait to see you again, Dublin! Éirinn go Brách.

* The reader in the film, Dubliner Stephen James Smith, is himself a poet.
** Don’t believe me? Watch this.

 

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