As part of my TCD MPhil in Creative Writing course, we had a class called “The Practice of Writing”, a one hour class where established writers would come into the class and talk about what the practice of writing involved for them. Sometimes, this involved talking about the practical process of writing; other times the writers talked more generally about what writing meant to them. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the thoughts from some of the great writers who visited us in the past year. First up is Paula Meehan.
Paula Meehan is a highly acclaimed and respected Irish poet and playwright. In September 2013, Meehan was awarded the Chair of Irish Poetry, Professor of Poetry, by President Michael D. Higgins.
Paula began her talk by mentioning the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was killed for writing a poem that compared Stalin’s moustache to a pair of cockroaches. “It’s always interesting that power is threatened by poetry,” she said. She went on to describe how poets in the Russian work camps wrote on the cast-off bark of Siberian birch trees, made into books. “Even in the most extreme of circumstances, people felt the need to make poems.” She also noted that even prisoners who weren’t poets seemed compelled to write down the poems they knew.
She then read her poem “Snowdrops” and joked, “I’m never certain of botanical information.” Moments later, a leaf fell out of her book. “This is an oak leaf!” she said to much laughter.
When asked why – as a city poet – she finds herself writing about nature, she replied: “The things I love in the city are the things that remind us of nature, of our human nature. Isn’t that the downfall of civilization, that we forget that we’re part of it … that we think it’s wild and has to be tamed and repressed, and we forget we’re part of it?”
The conversation moved on to spoken word poetry and one of the students asked Paula about her thoughts on spoken word poetry. “Well, of course spoken word IS the traditional poetry.” The book is “actually the anomalous part of the tradition. The first holy books are still causing murder. And now we’re in the machine age. We’re shifting responsibility for memory.” Poetry, she pointed out, kept so many things in memory: when to plant, genealogy, creation myths, information. “Once information starts to be written down, people go to books for authority. Now the first five things that Google throws up are the authority, the memory.”
She said that it is an exciting time for spoken word. But it needs to be seen in person, not on YouTube. There’s a crucial connection between speech and hearing. “On YouTube, you’re getting the soundwaves flattened and digitised. In other words, it’s artificial to divide page poetry from mouth poetry, written from spoken, formal from street. I find to look at spoken vs. page poetry to be a waste of time. If I look at Auden, the poems demand reading. Cycles of polarization are funny, but also dangerous. Think about Blake, that he fell out of the canon for 150 years. You have to keep your eyes open and know what the agenda is. We need quiet voices as well as those who stand up. Those voices on the page, we need that, too. I would never privilege one.”
Along similar lines, she was asked whether song lyrics can be considered poetry. “Oh, yes!”she replied. “I love the songs. Certainly the lyric thing is where I find my inspiration.”
She finished up by talking about the structure of a poem: “I see formal structure as another arrow in the quiver. There are people [for whom] traditional form offers them nothing.” But it can be useful – a sonnet when there’s a complicated inner argument in the material itself; a ballad when it’s falling into rhythm, four lines. Talking about villanelles, she pointed out they come from Roman slave farms, more akin to the blues than academic exercises. “The villanelle is great for obsessive stuff. I’ve used it for grief.” And a final thought: “I also wouldn’t underestimate just simplicity.”