I won’t be one of the many imbibing on St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday. But as a fan of Irish poetry – at least that written in English – I wanted to share a few of my favorite moments.
Contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland beautifully extracts a place from its political past in “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” Here’s an excerpt (full text is here):
A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this
silence to its edge and you will hear
the history of air: the crispness of a fern
or the upward cut and turn around of
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.
The other history is silent: The estuary
is over there. The issue was decided here:
Two kings prepared to give no quarter.
Then one king and one dead tradition.
I try the word distance and it fills with
sycamores, a summer’s worth of pollen
And as I write valley straw, metal
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.
…what we see
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—
and whin bushes and a change of weather
about to change them all: what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another.
In “The Cave Painters,” contemporary poet Eamon Grennan describes the light we find in an art composed in darkness. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:
They’ve left the world of weather and panic
behind them and gone on in, drawing the dark
in their wake, pushing as one pulse
to the core of stone. The pigments mixed in big shells
are crushed ore, petals and pollens, berries
and the binding juices oozed
out of chosen barks.
We’ll never know if they worked in silence
like people praying—the way our monks
illuminated their own dark ages
in cross-hatched rocky cloisters,
where they contrived a binding
labyrinth of lit affinities
to spell out in nature’s lace and fable
their mindful, blinding sixth sense
of a god of shadows—or whether (like birds
tracing their great bloodlines over the globe)
they kept a constant gossip up
of praise, encouragement, complaint.
It doesn’t matter: we know
they went with guttering rushlight
into the dark; came to terms
with the given world; must have had
—as their hands moved steadily
by spiderlight—one desire
we’d recognise: they would—before going on
beyond this border zone, this nowhere
that is now here—leave something
upright and bright behind them in the dark.
The last two stanzas of Yeats’ “Among School Children” remind us that our labors – how we “blossom” and “dance” – are gifts we bring to the world, imbued with their own mystery. (The full text is here.)
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
And finally, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney finds his path in “Digging:”
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Update, 3/15/2013: After I posted the above, many of my well-read Facebook friends chimed in with additional recommendations of Irish poets. Just click on these links for beautiful work by Paul Durcan, Dennis O’Driscoll, Ciaran Carson, and Richard Murphy. Plus, a great selection from the Poetry Foundation. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!