Poetry Geek

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in April 2013.

When I was a kid I loved studying poetry in school. For the same reason I love a jigsaw puzzle, for the same reason I loved diagramming sentences (yes! and I’m not ashamed to admit it), for the same reasons I enjoy editing now, I loved the discussions about symbolism and simile and structure.

I loved parsing the words, teasing out the message that just wasn’t clear to a thirteen-year-old of limited frame of reference. “I met a traveler from an antique land,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1817,* “Who said, ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone …’” and these lines never fail to thrill me. I’m right there in that desert. It’s a fairly transparent sonnet, actually, but I was quite impressed with it when I was thirteen and I am still, these many years later.

I also love being exposed to new poetry. So I was delighted to read a post from poet Isabel Rogers, in which she mentioned this gorgeous piece—“The Lammas Hireling” by Ian Duhig. The poem won the (UK) Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2000. I immediately sought it out—and it’s lovely—but knew I needed to do a little research.

Isn’t it always an adventure to read and then think and imagine what’s going on in a poem? You can start with the title. Lammas, as it turns out, is a pre-Christian tradition: a harvest festival on August first. The hireling is simply a man, a stranger, engaged at a rural hiring fair. Duhig himself tells us this is how farm “labour was engaged well into the last century.”

Americans unfamiliar with the folk traditions of the British Isles will be stumped by a couple references. Duhig says,

It’s based on a story I heard when I was in Northern Ireland, out for a very late night walk, a local person pointed out a house he told me was where the local witches used to live, and in their tradition witches would change into hares, and when the father was dying, his family was very embarrassed because the father’s body was turning into a hare’s and this bloke [who] told me the story said he attended the funeral and the last thing you could hear was the hare’s paws beating the lid of the coffin as they lowered it into the ground.

Now there’s a story for ’round the campfire, eh? The poet goes on to say, “‘A cow with leather horns’ is another name for a hare—if you think about it you’ll see why.” That last line, of course, is the best part of reading poetry, as we’ve discussed. If you think about it, you’ll see why.

Read the poem again.

Now, just for fun, watch this short film from filmmaker (and poet!) Paul Casey, founder of the Ó Bhéal reading series in Cork.

What do you think? Now that you’ve watched the film, do you think there could there be a less magical interpretation? Casey gets us started when he says the poem “explores superstition in 20th century rural Ireland.” What do you think of his choice of a woman to play the hireling, when the poem calls the hireling “he”? Is the old widower a reliable narrator? You tell me.

UPDATE: This post became known to the poet within minutes of the time it published, and in short order I was having a Twitter conversation with him. He said, “If obscurities remain—allowing for its unreliable/unhinged narrator—do ask.” Don’t hesitate, friends: @IanDuhig.

* “Ozymandius” was published in the 11 January 1818 issue of the (London) Examiner.
Thank you, Isabel, for exposing me to “The Lammas Hireling.”
There’s some more interesting discussion about the poem here.


Two Timely Poems

I don’t know about you, but I first read these poems in high school. I had a great teacher (and, one should add, a great book—I still have it) and thus was born a lifelong love of the word-thrill only poetry can provide. The rhythm, the rhymes (or not), alliteration, imagery, and much, much more come together in ways that move me, over and over. And yes, I buy books of poetry too.

I’ve been thinking about “The Second Coming” for months. Grim and dark, written in 1919 at the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, William Butler Yeats’s masterpiece speaks directly to events happening now, nearly a century later:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

If the imagery in this poem shakes you up, you’re not alone. The Wall Street Journal says, “A torrent of bad news and political upheaval has given new life to a nearly 100-year-old poem written in the aftermath of World War I.”

Flash backward a century to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” published in 1818.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Perspective, yes?

I wish you peace this season, wherever you may find it. Perhaps in poetry.


Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann (1872–1945), published in 1927

The Parting Glass

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I’ve ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To mem’ry now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

If I had money enough to spend,
And leisure time to sit awhile,
There is a fair maid in this town,
That sorely has my heart beguiled.
Her rosy cheeks and ruby lips,
I own she has my heart in thrall,
Then fill to me the parting glass,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Sung by both Scots and Irish, this traditional song is often performed at the end of a gathering of friends (say, at a pub), but also at wakes. Think of the POV: it can be either from a person who is leaving the gathering … or from that of the corpse. You can hear “The Parting Glass” sung here  (it’s a pity the cameraperson couldn’t sit still sometimes, but it’s a lovely rendition by Glen Hansard).

A nice way to wind down your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, yes?

What the Poet Can Say

I love the Internet. All that information! All kinds of things I didn’t know, questions (idle and otherwise) I can answer without a trip to the library. Searchable text! OMG.

Some weeks ago, I came across the name of a writer—Michael Blumental—and though I can’t remember the context (I think it had something to do with his essays, but that I can’t remember is driving me crazy), I was sufficiently intrigued to “look him up.”

And discovered he’s a poet.

Well. 🙂

I’ll leave you to do your own discovery, but I was delighted when I read this in his bio:

In the poem “Over Ohio,” for example, he writes of the joys of flying: “You can say what you like about the evils / of technology / and the mimicry of birds; I love it, I love the / sheer, / unexpurgated hubris of it, I love the beaten / egg whites / of clouds hovering beneath me.”

Me too. 🙂

That said, one of the nice things about flying is the view from above. This last view of Ireland always makes me a bit melancholy, though.

That said, one of the nice things about flying is the view from above. This last view of Ireland always makes me a bit melancholy, though.

I’ll be flying again in less than a week. So there will be a little hiatus here at the blog until I get back. Stay tuned!

(You can see the whole poem here.)

Artist’s Way / Wild Atlantic Way

About a decade ago I participated in a facilitated Artist’s Way group. (This is not it, but it gives you an idea.) We met at the home of the group facilitator and worked our way, one chapter a week, through the book. And it did get all of us feeling quite creative.

I’d been to Ireland about a year before, and this poem just popped out one day. (Disclaimer: I’m not a real, practiced poet. I just play with words and feelings.)

High on a windy cliff in the northwest,
peering into the afternoon sun lying on the sea below
like golden rose petals
floating on the perfect azure-blue.
And I am moved, without a word,
to tears. Sun and salt and spray and sea
call to ancient blood
that stirs in me. Older than me.
Older than time.
I am standing on the edge of the world,
the very edge of the world.
Ahead, the road curves away from the cliffs,
heading inland, and I turn to go,
leaving behind my heart’s cry
and the wild, wild western sea.


Sun shining on the North Atlantic.

Sun shining on the North Atlantic.

It amuses me now that the Irish tourism industry has developed a route they call the Wild Atlantic Way. And guess what? I’m planning to drive it when I return to western Ireland in a couple weeks.

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.