“Our pioneers keep striking, inwards and downwards:” Poetry in Northern Ireland

The first thing that drew me to Belfast was poetry. After spending a year poring through the verse of Northern Ireland’s poets, I wanted too to live “in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries/To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams,” as Louis MacNeice put it. That this statelet of just over 1.5 million people could produce so many writers of such intensity and such talent amazed me. There must be something in the water, I reckoned. Or something about the disruption and chaos of the political divide stymied the possibility of public dialogue and sent the more rhythmically minded to verse instead; perhaps Derek Mahon explained the need for poetry better: “Somewhere beyond the scorched gable end and the burnt-out buses/ there is a poet indulging/his wretched rage for order.”

After living in Belfast for nearly eight months, I can tell you that the proliferation of good writing in Northern Ireland can’t be traced back to the water supply. (If that were the case, my stumbling attempts at blank verse would be traipsing along in much better form.) Instead, what surprised me has been the tremendous amount of popular support that poetry, and the literary arts more broadly, enjoy here. In the United States, I considered a poet fortunate to fill twenty seats at a reading. In Belfast, I have been to several readings where the tickets sold out entirely. When listening in an excitement-induced haze to Michael Longley read from his new volume, I had to perch on a folding table at the back of the Queen’s University Great Hall between two bespectacled locals with notebooks and beautiful ink pens. The hall was brimming with people of all ages; even children sat still through an hour of Longley’s soft vowels and low thrum of a voice. Poetry, I discovered, was truly a public art in Belfast, in a way that I could only dream of.

Of course, this is not to say that every person I’ve met over here reads sonnets in his spare time or rhapsodizes about the guttural consonants in Heaney’s “Digging” once you get him to the pub. In fact, many of my friends would likely not be caught dead with me in a poetry reading, but would prefer to meet me for a pint after. Yet there is still something about how poet and audience interact here, both on the page and in person. And it wasn’t until I went to a reading last weekend with Paul Muldoon during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival that I could put my finger on it: Poet and reader are in conversation about a place, a community, a sense of belonging that is shared.

All the excitement.

Muldoon, who grew up in South Armagh and studied at Queen’s under Seamus Heaney during the height of the Troubles, has spent the bulk of his professional career outside of Northern Ireland. (At the moment, he lives in New York and serves as The New Yorker’s poetry editor.) And yet, for all his inclination to “grab-bag” poetry, as he joked to us, Belfast presences in his work still. As a non-native, I would have missed many of the references – the communal stories, the cultural symbols, even the place names and the subtle ripple of meanings that follow their mention. It’s all there for the Northern Irish audience though, and they reciprocate in turn, showing up for readings, murmuring, applauding. “…you’re a scion/of the house in which Buck Alec kept a lion,/albeit a toothless lion, which he was given to parade along the Old Shore Road,” Muldoon reads out to chuckles. A friend from Belfast explains it to me afterwards. Buck Alec was a crazy old man who kept old toothless lions up on the Shankhill Road. He rescued them from zoos and would walk the neighborhood with the lions on leashes. This was before there were laws in Northern Ireland preventing that sort of thing.

After he finished reading, the audience filled the church sanctuary with tidal swings of applause. Finally, Muldoon returned to the front for a final poem. He told us, “This is the first time I’ve ever been asked for encore.”

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