Seamus Heaney Wins Irish Poetry Contest

By DOUGLAS DALBYMARCH 11, 2015

Irish literary and theatrical giants — from left, Oscar Wilde, John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey — grace posters in the Temple Bar area of Dublin. Credit Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

DUBLIN — Since the days of the bards, when poets served as aides-de-camp to medieval chieftains here, Ireland has built a reputation as a birthing ground for legend and verse.

“Bards were the Mad Men of their day — they were the Madison Avenue spin doctors and makers of political fables for their leaders,” said Declan Kiberd, a professor of Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Like the church and the farm, though, poetry holds a lesser place in Irish society today, despite the legacy of Yeats and a love for Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate whose 2013 funeral was broadcast live on Irish television. So, to rekindle interest, RTE, the national broadcaster here, has been running an unashamedly populist contest, A Poem for Ireland, to find Ireland’s best-loved poem written over the past 100 years.

After weeks of voting online and by mail, the winner was announced on Wednesday by the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, himself a poet: “When all the others were away at Mass” (a poem from “Clearances — in Memoriam M. K. H., 1911-1984”) by Heaney, the third sonnet of eight that he wrote about his mother, this one relating a quiet moment when he and she peeled potatoes:

Peter Fallon, founder of the Gallery Press in Ireland. Credit Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives —

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

To the organizers of the contest, declaring a winner was not as important as creating a national conversation about poetry. Starting in January, RTE received 445 nominations from the public and then enlisted a jury to cull a shortlist of 10 for the final vote. The list was noteworthy as much for its omissions as its inclusions — no “Lake Isle of Innisfree” or “On Raglan Road,” although other works by Yeats (“Easter 1916”) and Patrick Kavanagh (“A Christmas Childhood”) got the nod.

“The jury’s brief was to choose those poems that told a story of Ireland over the past century,” said Sarah Ryder, executive producer of arts at the network. “It was never going to be definitive.”

The format followed a template RTE used in 2012 to determine Ireland’s best-loved painting, a contest that Ms. Ryder said led to a huge increase in visits to the National Gallery of Ireland during the next 12 months. This time around, success will be more difficult to measure, but, Ms. Ryder said, if it raises awareness she will consider it a job well done.

“Arts programs are for far more than an urban, middle-class, educated audience,” Ms. Ryder said. “The problem is that people see the words ‘poetry’ or ‘arts’ and they won’t tune in — that’s what we have to overcome.”

Of course, poetry has far from vanished from Irish life. Typically no Irish funeral or wedding will pass without some recitation of a favorite verse. Only last month President Higgins published a new work, “The Prophets Are Weeping,” though one critic dismissed his 2012 book of poems as “crimes against literature.” And in Bellaghy, near Heaney’s birthplace, a visitors center is being built to honor the poet.

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“We suffered a chasmic blow” when Heaney died, said Peter Fallon, the founder of Gallery Press, the foremost Irish poetry publishing house, “but people are writing extraordinary poems, and I have faith in the art form.”

Like all arts organizations that depend on government grants, Gallery Press rarely knows what funding it can expect from year to year and has suffered since economic austerity took hold in 2008. Support for the arts, culture and film fell to 75.9 million euros in 2014, from 92.3 million euros (about $97.6 million) in 2011, a disproportionate drop compared with other areas of public funding.

A statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin. Credit Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

“I think in many ways we have rolled over too easily and accepted the cuts — I believe we should be more strident in putting our case to government,” said Maureen Kennelly, director of Poetry Ireland, the all-Ireland body for promoting that art form.

Given their typical hand-to-mouth existence, professional poets remain a rare breed here. Paula Meehan, the current Ireland Professor of Poetry (a title established in 1998 to celebrate Irish poets), whose “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks” was on the shortlist, admits she still spends much of her time “constructing a net of survival.”

Ms. Meehan, 60, teaches and gives readings in universities, schools and prisons, but considers herself fortunate to have been elected to Aosdana, a group of elite artists who each receive a stipend of just over €17,000 a year (about $17,900) to help them concentrate on their purely artistic work.

Her poem’s subject matter — the death of a 15-year-old girl in 1984 who had hidden her pregnancy and died, along with her baby, from the complications of childbirth at a shrine dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus — is seared in the psyche of an entire generation.

“There was a devotion to iconography” during the era that her poem addresses, “but nobody seemed to see the suffering or exercise compassion,” she said. “It is a very strange experience to find it in the competition — it was written out of respect — her family suffered, and I sat for a very long time before publishing it, because I knew that behind the public outrage there was very private grief, but it’s my job to make these calls.”

If a competition like A Poem for Ireland had been possible 200 years ago, most works on the shortlist would probably have been written in Irish Gaelic. Although Irish remains the official first language of Ireland, English now predominates, and only two entries in Irish made the final 10 (“Fill Aris” by Sean O Riordain and “Filleadh ar an gCathair” by Ailbhe Ni Ghearbhuigh).

The final 10 also included “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” by Derek Mahon; “Dublin,” by Louis MacNeice; “Making Love Outside Aras an Uachtarain,” by Paul Durcan; and “Quarantine,” by Eavan Boland.

Commenting on the shortlist, Professor Kiberd said that he had reservations about some of the poems but was not surprised by the inclusion of many works that have been, at some time, part of early education in Ireland. “Popular poems are often those we remember from our school days for what went on around us at the time — like certain music, they remind us of the intensity of youth,” he said.

He said he generally supports the competition as a way to give new life to aspiring poets and to revive the interest of those who abandon poetry once they pass through school gates.

Ms. Kennelly supported the competition as an awareness-raising exercise even if, she said, “most poets probably wouldn’t agree with the idea of poetry as competition.”

Mr. Fallon, of Gallery Press, was mildly critical. “I wouldn’t favor these kinds of things, but I am trying to play ball,” he said. “It will probably gain us more publicity in the short term even if my engagement is with the long term.”

“Immediate responses to current affairs may be articulated by journalists, but these are fireworks as against the slow burn of poetry,” he said, “and I would rather take my heat from the slow burn.”

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