Mebdh McGuckian

Garden poems in a garden setting delight Jill Black, but the poet's thoughts on Jane Eyre are the highlight

As part of this year's Aspects Literature Festival, award-winning local poet Medbh McGuckian is reading in the sumptuous Walled Garden at Castle Park. 

First opened to the public in 2009, the garden is much bigger than you would think and it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It’s a milieu tailor-made for immersing oneself in the poet's engrossingly eloquent world.

McGuckian was born in Belfast in 1950, and has published numerous volumes of poetry, winning multiple awards along the way, including the National Poetry Competition and the Bass Ireland Award for Literature. She has also been Writer-in-Residence at a number of eminent universities.

After what seems like an interminably and unnecessarily long-winded introduction, McGuckian takes to the ‘stage’. She is jovial and unassuming, relaxing the audience immediately (making a joke about the intro sounding like her eulogy).

McGuckian starts by dedicating the reading to her friend Dr Michael Allen, a senior lecturer at Queens University, who passed away last month. Allen, part of a cohort of respected local writers, was a hugely important author of critical essays and McGuckian describes him as 'the first person [I knew] who could really explain what a poem was'.

To match the beautiful walled garden setting, McGuckian chooses to read poems that have a garden theme. She starts with ‘The Rose Pirate’, based on the famous Sam McCready Rose Garden.

The perfumed language and unusual choice of words in McGuckian's poems are striking. It’s a true pleasure to hear this laureate deliver the lines with seasoned ease.

Her next poem, a light-hearted Beatrix Potter-inspired garden poem called ‘Studies’ for which she won one of her very first awards, includes some laugh-out-loud moments. Genteel, well-behaved laughter though, to match the surroundings.

In ‘Tulips’ McGuckian’s command of language is awe-inspiring. The lines are achingly beautiful: 'their faces lifted many times to the artistry of life.'

McGuckian continues with a couple of poems based on Chinese gardens, before moving on to ‘The Frame’. It is a quite brilliant poem about her old house. 'A wreck,' she calls it.

After this McGuckian strays from the garden leitmotif, reading a few more personal poems. These poems deal with subjects such as having to find someone to look after her children, the pain of losing childhood, her father’s death, freedom within a marriage and a terribly sad poem about one of her students who drowned.

The next poem, ‘The Sin Eater’, is McGuckian's attempt at religious writing. She admits she found it hard not to be preachy and apologises in advance for offending anyone. The 'voice' in the poem is that of Jesus agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Once finished, she slams the books shut and proclaims ‘Terrible!’. Her judgement aside, this is the one poem that engenders spontaneous applause. It is certainly an intriguing take on the topic.

After her final poem, an amusing and beautifully evocative piece about Gregory Peck’s garden called ‘The Lily Grower’, McGuckian obliges the audience with a Q and A session.

This is as fascinating as the reading. McGuckian openly talks about her time studying under Seamus Heaney. She knew it was special, even though Heaney was still years away from being fully recognised as the literary behemoth he is today.

When asked if she thinks poetry should be difficult, McGuckian cites the new Jane Eyre adaptation starring Michael Fassbender. She points out that the way in which Jane speaks to Rochester is a form of poetry.

‘Normally people talk clumsily but it’s through this [poetic] language that Rochester falls in love with Jane,' McGuckian explains. She says that this ‘difficulty gives more meaning to what we call reality’.

It is a wonderful afternoon of thought-provoking poetry in one of North Down’s most beautiful settings.