It’s fall again, dear Werds, and that means one very exciting thing–the O.B. Hardison poetry series at the Folger Shakespeare Library has started up again! The series began on September 19th with a dual reading by Irish poets Paula Meehan, from Dublin, and Theo Dorgan, from Cork.
I did not attempt to take notes during this reading, deciding instead to let the evening wash over me and then frantically scribble away in my notebook on the metro. And wash over me it did; the reading was a delightful example of the power of poetry when read aloud.
Paula Meehan read first. A tiny woman with short grey hair, she charmed the audience immediately with jokes and smiles. She seemed confident and comfortable, and spoke clearly and articulated well. And then she launched into her reading, with the rhythm, energy, and skillful pitch variation of a bodhrán player. It was mesmerizing. She seemed awed to be reading in a place so infused with history, the vaults stories below us full of some of the English-speaking world’s most precious manuscripts. It’s like standing, she said “on the rump of the English canon.” Accordingly, she read several sonnets.
Theo Dorgan was much more subdued, but also very comfortable on the stage. It felt as if we were all meeting in a pub to have a nice chat about poetry. He had a deep and raspy voice, and tended to go off on somewhat crotchety tangents about the destruction of the environment and, like a true Corkian, about the fight for independence from Britain. Also like a true Corkian, he tended to mumble.
Both poets are very much Irish poets, even Dorgan, who uses a lot of ancient Greek literature and mythology in his work. Both poets emphasized their belonging to the history and land of Ireland, and their sense of commitment to it and to the environment in general. Meehan’s “Death of a Field,” the first poem in her book Painting Rain, is a perfect example of her themes of the environment, land, history, and culture of Ireland. Dorgan’s first poem in his book What this Earth Cost Us, “Night Over the Mountain and the City,” merges a place and a person–descriptions of a landscape with remembrances of someone lost: “Here where she laughed in the face of the wind/ not a rabbit darts, not a cloud rolls along the ridge” (lines 5-6).
After reading, the two took part in a short round-table discussion with Joseph M. Hassett, Folger Poetry Board member and author of W.B. Yeats and the Muses. The two poets were again lively and intelligent and articulate; I could have listened to them talk all night about history, memory, the environment, and poetry.
One of the audience members, who grew up in Cork, asked the two poets what they thought about the practice in Irish education of making students memorize and recite poetry in class. This practice, he said, made him and many of his classmates hate poetry for years. While the two poets agreed that this is a common result, they both also agreed that if you look at memorizing poetry as “learning by heart,” rather than “learning by rote,” it can be a very powerful tool. Once you have internalized the meters and rhymes and images, Meehan said, you can call them up and use them in your own writing. There are poems, words, and phrases, she said, that become loadstones in our lives. The best poetry, when we take it in, becomes part of us.
As one must at the Folger, Mr. Hassett asked the two poets what they thought of the “State of Poetry Today” and whether or not they were concerned about poetry going out of print, and about “Young Peoples'” supposed lack of interest in poetry. If I hadn’t already been in love with the two, their answers would have done it. Dorgan, the rebellious type, scoffed at the question. “When we were younger, we were the ‘kids these days’ the adults were worrying about,” he said in his lovely Cork mumble. “Kids these days” (I’m paraphrasing) “are going to be just fine. They care. You can tell that they care–about the environment, about politics…they’re all very wrapped up in it. They’re going to be fine.” Paula nodded and said (again, paraphrasing) “I think young people are very much engaged in poetry. Maybe they’re moving away from print, but if you look at YouTube even, they’re uploading videos of their spoken [slam] poetry. They’re actually moving back towards the origin of poetry as a spoken form shared communally, back when poets were the keepers of history, memory, and culture. Besides,” she said, “poetry is an integral part of human society and has been for thousands of years. We [poets] are ineradicable!”
I bought two of Meehan’s books and one of Dorgan’s and managed to make it towards the head of the line for signing. Dorgan was delighted when I told him I studied abroad in Cork, and signed my book “For a Brog survivor…It’s up to you now,” in reference both to my membership of that generation of “Young People” who care and also to the amount of time I spent in a terrible student bar in Cork–an act of which he, of course, approved.
In reading through a little of the two poets’ work on the page, my suspicions were confirmed. I don’t find their poetry particularly compelling in print, although Meehan’s is a bit more so. I do find them personal, dear, and full of heart, especially Dorgan’s. But both poets’ work comes alive when read out loud and shared with others. Meehan especially brings out and emphasizes rhythms, music, and humor in her poetry that is otherwise quite subtle. These are poets of place and community and sharing, and I was honored to be invited into that community for an evening.