Ireland’s new president is a powerful embodiment of the importance of poetry to the culture and history of the nation. A poet, Michael D. Higgins was elected back in November. In his inaugural address, the new Irish president said that Ireland’s tradition of poetry and song helped the nation deal with difficult times.
That’s the backdrop for the visit of this year’s winner of the Laurence O’Shaughnessy prize for Irish poetry, Gerard Smyth. The prize is given by the Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. Smyth paraphrased the remarks made by President Higgins in his inaugural address, “it’s what we’re known by; we’re known for our writers and our songs.”
Smyth told Minnesota Public Radio’s Tom Crann that there’s a sense in Ireland today that major institutions — the church, the government, banking — have all failed. He believes “if there’s one thing still standing proudly it is our culture.”
Smyth is a Dublin native who’s had parallel careers in journalism and poetry. He just retired as a managing editor of arts and features for the Irish Times, the nation’s leading daily, where he worked for 41 years. He said the discipline of years as an editor in the newsroom taught him “need for clarity.” That journalistic clarity, and a “self-editing process” transfers into his poetry.
Smyth told Crann there was a time when he compartmentalized the two disciplines, “journalism here, poetry there.” But now he says “the craft and the art can commingle. And feed off each other. ”
Smyth has been in Minnesota all week, giving lectures and workshops associated with the prize. He gave a reading last night at the St. Thomas Campus in St. Paul.
You can listen to him read some of his poems by clicking on the links below:
“The Unsease of Clouds” (with a nod to Robert Bly)
“Fellini’s Dreams” (inspired by the Italian film director)
And you can read more of Gerard Smyth’s poetry in “The Fullness of Time: New and Selected Poems” published by Dedalus Press.