Showers of Rhyming Couplets
Two generations of NI poets have used words instead of weapons
Commentators have quipped that you can’t turn around in Belfast for fear of stepping on a poet.
If you make your way to Belfast's Writers’ Square, you’d be hard pressed not to step on their poetry.
From CS Lewis to Louis MacNeice, Sam Thompson to John Hewitt, Belfast’s poets are inscribed into the fabric of the city.
Belfast’s industrial heritage comes to the fore in many poems,
"I was born in Belfast between the mountains and the gantries
To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams."
- Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)
NI has spawned several generations of powerful poets, who are recognised on a world-stage.
It is tempting to namecheck all the way, with Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, David Cohen Prize winner Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian all earning literary heavyweight status.
From the launch of Queen’s University’s collection The Blackbird’s Nest to A Shower of Rhyming Couplets: Rediscover NI's high profile poetry celebration at The National Geographic Society in DC, it's clear that 2007 has been a great year for NI poetry.
Readings from the older generation of poetic talents, along with established and rising stars of the new generation; Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Nick Laird, show why NI's small scene has such a big reputation.
Contemporaries Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt, both born in 1907, are celebrated with centenary events and publications.
This includes a new collection of Hewitt’s poems, edited by Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby, and readings and academic debate with the Louis MacNeice: Centenary Conference and Celebration in September 2007, to coincide with the anniversary of MacNeice’s birth.
Yeats admonished all Irish poets to learn their trade and ‘sing whatever is well made’, while Heaney challenges the poet to ‘Sing yourself to where the singing comes from’.
The publication, 40 years ago, of Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist sounded the first notes of a new generation of Irish poets.
Grown in the rarified air around Queen’s University and watered by the talents of Philip Hobsbaum, ‘The Group’, as they were known, set the tone for a new era of Irish writing.
Shortly thereafter, these notes were challenged in the public sphere by the harsher sounds of sectarianism as NI began to splinter with the impact of the Troubles.
For a period, NI's poetry was only poetry if it dealt in some manner with the Troubles, if it attempted to provide a ‘befitting emblem of adversity’.
Poets became shackled by this expectation of making poetry relevant, and keeping it relevant.
Poets like Heaney were expected to write for their side and criticised if they didn’t. In ‘The Flight Path’ Heaney captures it as follows:
‘When for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us? ‘If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
And that was that. Or words to that effect."
How NI poetry managed to preserve its domain and dignity in the midst of such turmoil is the topic of the 2007 Lannan Literary Symposium Befitting Emblems of Adversity: Lyric and Crisis in Northern Irish poetry 1966-2006.
The cultural authority and social relevance of poetry as a source of testimony and medium of record is central to the role of poetry in NI.
With younger writers turning to personal, familial, class and cultural issues in the post-Troubles era, NI poetry continues to thrive, expand and develop.
Whether on the page, in the pub or on the concert stage, poetry and poets in NI prove that words can be as powerful as weapons.
In the words of Heaney,
"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it."