Category Archives: Poetry

Poems for St. Patrick’s Day

Mark Holan and I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by reading our favorite Irish poetry aloud. Here’s are selections from what we read:

Easter 1916, by William Butler Yeats

I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Digging, by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Whatever you say, say nothing, by Seamus Heaney

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap

On the First Day of June, by Paul Durcan

I was walking behind Junior Daly’s coffin
Up a narrow winding terraced street
In Cork city in the rain on the first day of June
When my mobile phone went off in my pocket

And of course, a poem from himself:

The Deer’s Cry, by St. Patrick

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun,
brilliance of Moon,
splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind,
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock.

Glendalough

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck

Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.

Will

Wilfred Owen speaks from the grave

When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.

First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.

I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.

The Ireland visit, a reader’s tour, 2012

When the spouse and I went to Ireland in 2007 for the first time, I was in full-on James Joyce obsession, and we saw a lot. We did the Dublin Writers Museum. I had the glass of burgundy and gorgonzola sandwich at Davy Byrnes. We drove out to Sandycove to see Joyce’s Martello tower and the museum there. And in Galway, we went to Nora Barnacle’s home.

For our most recent trip, I was (am?) in full-on William Butler Yeats obsession. Sadly, though, we did not go to Sligo. There were good reasons for that, involving travel time and logistics and such like. So the ultimate Yeats tour of Ireland is still out there waiting to be undertaken.

No regrets, though! We had THREE great literary moments in our latest trip to Ireland, which I will recount here.

1. Dublin Literary Pub Crawl/Seamus Heaney radio interview. The pub crawl put together stops at Dublin’s historic pubs with  dramatic readings from Irish literature — Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” James Plunkett’s “Strumpet City,” Oscar Wilde on his travels in America. The actors who proclaimed the roles did a great job, and the pubs had great ambiance, too. The capper on our night out, though, was the ride back to our cousins’ house north of Dublin in County Meath. As we were leaving the city, a radio interview with Irish poet Seamus Heaney was just beginning. 

It’s very difficult to summarize the career of Seamus Heaney briefly, so I won’t try. I’ll just note here that he won the Nobel Prize in 1995, and I’ll link to the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him and let you take it from there. Or, you could take a moment to read “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” (“Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:/ Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,/ Subtle discrimination by addresses/ With hardly an exception to the rule.”)

As we were pulling into the driveway at home, the radio interview had just ended, we had listened to some of Heaney’s major works, and it was the perfect ending to a memorable evening in the city of Dublin. 

2. Yeats exhibit at the National Library. We went to the National Library of Ireland on one of our first afternoons in the country, so the spouse could do some research. Lo and behold, their very notable exhibit of The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats (see worthwhile NYT write-up here) was still going! This exhibit opened in 2006, and we wanted to go when we visited in 2007, but we got too busy, and like I said, I was obsessed with Joyce back then, not Yeats. 

This time, I got to spend a blissful hour and a half in the exhibit while the spouse did research in the library’s reading room. 

Most, most wonderful about the exhibit was the area that showcased Yeats’ poetry. You couldn’t miss it, it was a screened seating area right when you entered the exhibit, and it included wall-sized renderings of his poems with out-loud readings. The recorded reading were by Yeats himself, Seamus Heaney, Sinead O’Connor and several others. Sinead did a particularly haunting job with “Easter 1916.” (I’ve looked for a CD of these readings to no avail, sad.) The National Library has posted a virtual tour of the Yeats exhibit, and I’ve spent time on it even now. It’s fascinating.

3. Listowel Writers Week/Paul Durcan reading. The reason we went at the time we did this year was so we could go to Listowel Writers Week, the literary festival is in its 41st year, in County Kerry. Listowel is a charming town, and the highlight of the week was getting to see the poet Paul Durcan read on Friday night. Durcan is another one of Ireland’s celebrated poets; the Irish Independent says he “comes second only to Seamus Heaney as our most famous living poet.” 

Durcan’s new book, “Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have my Being” was in every bookstore we stopped at in Ireland (Dublin, Ballybunion, Kinsale, Clonakilty). The night of the reading, the spouse stood in a very, very long line to get me an autographed copy. It’s one of my favorite presents I’ve received in a long time and my best memento of the trip. My favorite poem is “The Recession.” The inscription reads, “For Angie, Warmest wishes, Paul Durcan, Listowel, 1 June 2012.”