Bardic tradition for poetry is still alive and kicking in Cork

Poetry may not be for everyone, says John Arnold, but one Cork poet is really making an impression with his work
Bardic tradition for poetry is still alive and kicking in Cork

A TIME FOR CONTEMPLATION: A sculpture of the late poet Patrick Kavanagh on the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin

POETRY readings are events I love, but oft times they attract small gatherings. For some reason unknown to me, poetry is regarded by many as a kind of ‘minority sport’.

Novels, biographies, memoirs and sports books and ‘whodunnits’ are all very popular amongst the general readership in this country. Maybe poets are regarded as dreamers and ‘thinkers’ who exist and write in an atmosphere of ether, incense and lofty thoughts. And so they should!

I dabbled in poetry myself, but never quite got to the standards of Yeats, Keats, Kavanagh, Heaney or Cork’s own Gaelic bard Sean O Riordain. Ye all know that phrase ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, well poetry can be like that.

There are stiff upper lip types who think every second line of every poem should rhyme, whilst others prefer line one and line three and line two and line four to end with matching tones. God knows, maybe years back, when in school I felt that way also, because the poetry we learned in both English and Irish was very much of a certain pattern and the idea of ‘blank verse’ had not yet become the norm.

It is a relatively modern phenomenon whereby collections of random thoughts or feelings, when submitted to writing, are deemed to be poetry. And sure enough poetry is a broad church, like a vast menu. Like any menu, what one person deems exquisite is scorned by others. That’s what makes poetry and poems so interesting.

Using that analogy, poetry books are very like cookery books. You take the book down from the shelf, dip into it, find something that appeals and read away, put it back and leave it for another day.

One time I came across a kind of a definition of what poetry is: ‘expressing thoughts using devices such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre as well as or instead of prosaic, ostensible meaning’ - wow!

Yerra, that makes it sound fierce complicated altogether, like constipated verbiage, whereas in reality poetry is something that should just maybe make the reader ponder a little.

Once ever I think did I buy a poetry book and literally read it from cover to cover. That was Patrick Kavanagh’s Collected Poems - a volume still close to my heart and my hand. I suppose it was because of his farming background and his love/hate relationship with the stony grey soil of Monaghan that I was drawn to the one-time woeful goalie on the Inniskeen Grattan’s Gaelic football team. I know he was drawn to Dublin, and spent much time there, but his roots, his foundations and his seed, breed and generation were dug deep in that unrelenting clay of his native place.

My home place was full of bogs, rocks and marsh

Surrounded by sea but nonetheless harsh

Working hard together we barely eked out a living

But the land here is far too unforgiving.

When I was young I thought I’d drown

I never dreamed lack of water would get me down

Of digging rotten spuds I often cursed the rain

Now I might die of thirst on this scorching plain

That could be a Kavanagh verse, but hardly, given the references to the ‘sea’ and the ‘scorching plain’.

No, it’s the closing verse from a poem, Cattle Drive by Maurice O’Connor, from Ballydaniel near Youghal.

If you asked Maurice five years ago about writing poetry, he’d probably give a wry smile and say ‘Not for me’, but never say never and that’s how it’s been for my friend.

I call him my friend though we met initially just a few years back when Maurice called to me with bundles and bundles of poems he had written. It just ‘came’ to him literally, in the same manner a mountain stream gushes down the slopes or like lave pouring forth.

He launched his first poetry collection, Unlocking Secrets, and my assistance was minimal - a suggested change here and there and a bit of proof-reading.

His initial publication was met with widespread acclaim in Cork, Waterford and all over Munster. As a poet (and he never would describe himself as such), Maurice dealt with every single emotion, dream, sorrow, hope and fantasy of the human spirit.

In the Foreword to his latest book, Maurice writes: “I was always in a hurry rushing through life, going from one experience to another. Then I would get frustrated by what I was doing as reality seldom matched expectations. The world was trying to teach me patience but I didn’t want to listen” - but he did listen, and listen well.

He has listened and learned from nature, from history, from his surroundings, from the spirits and voices of those gone before him.

No theme or concept is out of bounds for him, and though a naturally self-deprecating person, his humanity and unique spirituality comes out of every line.

He followed Unlocking Secrets with his second collection, Finding Treasure, and now fresh off the printing presses comes Going Deeper.

I’ve been at book launches attended by a few dozen and at poetry book readings and launches that were very formal - even a little bit ‘high-brow’, if you know what I mean! But Maurice O’Connor has a grand and special knack in his writings to make the reader cry and laugh, scream sometimes, even shake the head in disbelief.

All those human emotions were bewitched and bothered, tear-stained from sadness and laughter and served up in a delightful manner last Friday night in the little hamlet of Inch deep down in the heartland of rural East Cork.

Covid had meant that beautiful building stood idle and sad with over two years. Friday night was like a renaissance as ‘we made the rafters roar’ once more.

Do you know poetry, song, dance, music storytelling and more poetry is a heady mixture that guarantees more enjoyment than any screen or social media platform? I read a few of the poems, like Old Friends... “picking up where we left off in the past. They seem to know when to leave you alone. Then at the right moment pick up the phone And return to your life after a long pause To love you as you are, even your flaws.

We sang and danced, then read a few poems long into the night... and early morning too! The ‘Noble Call’ was never refused as innate talent poured forth as the lines came from Maurice’s pen.

Maurice never set out to be a best- selling author, but lads, isn’t it mighty, in this day and age, and after all we’ve been through, that the bardic tradition and that of the ‘fíle’ still flourishes.

As I came back through Inch, Dangan, Mount Unicke, Dungourney and onto Britway, I couldn’t help but think of Liam Rua Mac Coitir and Eamonn de Bhál, poets of the 1700s. They chronicled the lives, loves, joys and heartbreaks of East Cork fado, fado and the chain remains unbroken now.

That well-spring of awe-inspiring thoughts and inspiration still flows forth and long may it do so.

I’ll finish with the last few lines from A Room Filled With Treasure.

Then I realised friendship, the most beautiful thing in any room

May not always be framed and on display

But I have friendships that I treasure to this day.

I’m in Lourdes this week, saying a prayer for all

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