It’s been nine months since A Poem for Ireland catapulted poetry to the attention of the masses. That period pregnant with potential has passed, with the place of poetry in society just as it had been before – somewhat askew from the mainstream. Some people ask if poetry is important. The only way to answer that, it seems to me, is to suggest that it has some personal importance for many people, but, at a broader level, it doesn’t tend to bring about lasting social change. It also has some value on a cultural and economic level. Our collective poetry, as a nation, somehow has its own identity, its own character. And that does draw people to this island, in a very real, non-politicalspeak sense.
A friend told me she wishes she read more poetry. Was she simply struggling to find the time? She did find the time to read all of Kevin Barry’s (very lucrative) fiction and plenty of other non-verse dabblers. So, was poetry itself the problem, despite her clear admiration for it? It turned out that how poetry is made available “just isn’t appealing”. She had bought a few skinny collections of poetry and a few slightly better-fed anthologies. There was “the Seamus Heaney collection, the one that had about thirty years of his poems”. Of the slender collections, she often found the asking price well above the value of such a small publication. In the anthologies, she found some merit, though the quality was “patchier than Worzel Gummidge” (she grew up in the 80s).
Five minutes, she said, is how long she likes on poetry at one sitting. This spurred me on to set up a new website, called Poems in Profile. Every two weeks, one poem is presented. There’s a brief introduction and a short interview with the author (5-6 questions). The more technologically adventurous poets send a video of themselves reading the work. All-in-all, a visitor typically enters and then leaves the site in just under five minutes. I’m really not sure how relevant this form of poetry consumption will be. It’s still early days, with less than a dozen pieces posted so far. In fact, my scepticism is enough to prevent me from forking out a measly forty euro per year (or whatever the cost is) to buy a domain name just yet. Hence, you’ll find it at poemsinprofile.weebly.com.
There are surely other methods of poetry delivery yet to be explored. The sales of poetry books are pretty poor, so what have we got to lose? I wonder if we’ll ever see regular 5-10-minute slots open up on TV for poems and poets to fit snugly into mainstream media. YouTube is an ideal channel for this kind of thing, of course, but the problem with YouTube is that there’s so much to choose from. If you pit poetry against music or, for instance, ginger cats frightened by inanimate objects, it’ll never win. Radio gives poetry a chance, but it still doesn’t gain enough momentum on the airwaves to break through into the mainstream.
There are poetry readings, of course, attended by relatively small audiences, and perceived by many non-poetry people as possibly the most boring way to spend an evening. Slam poetry, by contrast, has much more of an air of excitement about it, but it hardly draws in people in their droves unless it is packaged and marketed strongly like the brilliant Lingo Festival. You might also pass by a lighted room in your local arts centre where you’ll see a small group gathered round a table discussing their work as part of a class. Again, this is poetry ushered to the margins, though it should be noted that those attending a class or workshop are unlikely to be ready to deliver their work to an audience, anyway.
Those who are passionate and proactive about poetry might suggest that poetry is in good health at the moment. Based in Galway, where lots of events are happening, I’d find it hard to disagree. Over the last 30 years or so, some very dedicated poetry publishers have emerged, bringing new poets to the attention of poetry-lovers, publishers such as Salmon Poetry, Dedalus and Gallery Press – and Salmon is releasing its 35-year anthology of writing, Even the Daybreak, 35 Years of Salmon Poetry, in March. But we could be even more ambitious. Poetry deserves a wider spectrum. If people can become familiar with a new song every week, why not a new poem, say, once a month? You’ll find thousands of poetry sites on the internet (like this one and see The Ranting Beast for examples), but it’s still not poetry-in-your-face.
It’s worth looking at how we first encounter poetry. For most people, it’s through school. Twenty years ago, I faced the Leaving Cert English syllabus. Thus began my long-standing tryst with verse. (Apologies – it’s difficult not to get poetic sometimes). Partly, I think, my passion was due to English poetry being taught well. I recently received an email from my secondary school English teacher, whom I mentioned on the acknowledgements page of my first collection of poetry. He said he was glad to see the book, as it’s difficult to know if a teacher makes a connection with students. A connection – that, precisely, is the crux of the matter.
I suppose the same applies to poetry. We get poems published here and there. We might end up putting a collection together and getting it published. There might be the odd review. It’s still difficult to know how poetry itself is perceived in the general population. Is it just a way of framing words that we clutch at during times of grief, like a cherished photo translated into words? Maybe it flourishes in the privacy of our minds. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it, celebrate it or, for some, lament it. Either way, poetry has seen both better times and worse times. Among those who really seek it out, the poetry scene is relatively healthy. It’s still there, lurking in various spaces. You just need to put some effort into finding it. Or perhaps we need to put more effort and imagination into delivering it.
(c) Trevor Conway
Trevor Conway is a writer of poetry and fiction based in Galway. His first collection of poems, Evidence of Freewheeling, was published in November 2015 by Salmon Poetry. He’s currently working on his second collection and a novel. (See trevorconway.weebly.com)
About Evidence of Freewheeling
Trevor Conway’s debut poetry collection weaves startling imagery while exploring the creative impulse. With a blend of rhyme and free verse, human nature is analysed, satirised and sometimes glorified. Evidence of Freewheeling embraces key elements of modern life: technology, sport, human nature and the poet’s physical surroundings, particularly his native Sligo and his current home Galway.
Evidence of Freewheeling by Trevor Conway reviewed by Kevin Higgins for The Galway Advertiser, Thurs 7th January, 2016
The fantastically titled Evidence of Freewheeling (Salmon Publishing) is Trevor Conway ’s much anticipated debut poetry collection. Reading it, the first thing that struck me was many of Conway’s poems have a surface impersonality of which TS Eliot would approve. He is certainly not a this-is-what-happened-to-me-last-week type of poet. Several poems are observations of a somewhat philosophical variety. In ‘Inspired’ he tells us “I have no great theory,/Just words,/Like an old friend/Returning in new clothes.” ‘Trimester’ is a rigorous time bomb of a poem which makes the reader face some of the most difficult questions going. An embryo speaks from the womb: “All I know is darkness,/Starved of any sight/ take the blood of another”. Conway’s un-sentimentality makes this not-yet-born being sound almost like a vampire. But the rougher questions emerge later in the poem: “I could lead a country,/Or save a stranger’s life./I could be your lover./I could even rape your wife.” Some poets are content to feed the chattering classes nice sounding morsels, the intellectual equivalent of comfort food; in contrast Conway is a big poet. Long may he continue to quietly disturb the peace.