Why Poetry?

Why do we write poems?

What do they do that prose, painting and music, say, cannot do so well?

Boris Pasternak reckoned that poetry combined the best of the arts, that it it was a mixture of meaning, music and painting – that is to say, reflective and emotional thought; musical combinations of words (often utilising the likes of rhyme, and assonance); and visual imagery (including metaphors, similes and symbols). There is something else, too: we are accustomed to using prose every day unthinkingly – from writing shopping lists to banging off texts; but to reach deeper and more complex feelings or to celebrate profound moods of joy or sadness we tend to favour a more carefully crafted, ritualistic language, echoing the age-old texts of liturgies. Instinctively we know that the soul responds more to a language that has greater weight and resonance as well as memorability and a capacity to be savoured. This is what poetry does more than any other form of writing (and scholars believe that our distant ancestors first composed complex texts in verse rather than in prose because verse was the language of memory).

Poetry, too, is arguably more expressive and versatile than painting and music; a symphony can move you to tears, but poetry can do that, and it can also prompt you to explore, question and debate the great themes of humanity, namely love, time, death and nature. All attempts to encourage to poetry will therefore naturally encourage a greater understanding of ourselves and our neighbours and our relationship to the world and the cosmos – and to nature (including our endangered trees and rivers) and the divine. That is why poetry festivals such as Strokestown delay the Armageddon clock: by enlarging our scope for imaginative, and therefore creative and healing, activity. Festival sponsors have never spent a better cent.

Bearing witness to the soulful nature of poetry and the way that verse can burrow down behind surfaces, the winning poems of this year’s competitions all touch upon the human condition and the stresses of social relationships with their pressures and crises. Majella Kelly’s English-language prize-winning poem ‘Virginia Creeper’ performs the considerable feat of transposing the pain of institutionalised tyranny into the voice of a natural plant, giving us a fresh and troubling insight into a contemporary horror. In a lighter vein, but with plenty of pathos, Roisin Bugler, winner of the Percy French prize, takes the lonely heart ad to a comic pitch and exaggerates qualities in the heroic tradition of the Táin: ‘His skin was the brown paper bag holding a Chinese take out meal / His laugh was one hundred vuvuzelas’. Áine Ní Ghlinn, winner of the Irish language prize, delivers a powerful and disturbing tale of female victimisation in ‘Mise Leis’ in which the short repeated refrain of the title transforms itself into the cry of a wounded animal.

Marian Griffin, winner of the Roscommon Poets’ prize, manages to welcome us into a stranger’s house in ‘Danny and the Saints’ and then takes us beyond it to the world of the patron saints, with levity and poignancy. Nathan Kelly, winner of the primary schools’ category, captures the essence of what makes a bully tick – ‘Lots of people look up to you. / If they don’t you’ll turn sour.’ That word ‘sour’ is just right – the bully needs perpetual adoration to avoid becoming the equivalent of rancid milk. And Jorja Rowe, winnder of the secondary schools’ category, reminds us in crystalline words that ‘There is No Such Thing as Perfect’, a poem that’s like a secular catchecism capturing the essence of a healthy attitude towards life: ‘Be happy. Not perfect.’

These poems are just the tip of an iceberg; many many more were written and submitted to the competitions, and it was especially heartening that the local schools rose to the occasion. Every poem is a means of developing the imagination in its author and readers, and it is imagination that lies behind not only creativity but also compassion. We need both of them to make the world a better place, or, less ambitiously, to make our relationships with family and friends as healthy as possible. Strokestown and its committee and its diligent judges and gifted writers have done themselves proud.

James Harpur

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