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Showing posts from August, 2009

Writing the bare bones

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Collected Poems, by Michael Smith, Shearsman Books, 242pp, £12.95

MICHAEL SMITH has a well-deserved reputation as a prolific and engaging translator of poetry, with versions of Vallejo, Hernandez, Claudio Rodriguez, Lorca and many others to his name.

He is also well known for his work as a publisher with the influential New Writers’ Press and as an advocate of the Irish modernist tradition.

Prolific translators can often find their own work overshadowed by the work they negotiate across the linguistic borders, so it’s good to be reminded of what Smith has achieved in his own right. The poems gathered here cover all the work Smith wants to preserve from seven previous collections, but what’s striking is how much of a piece they are. The essential elements of both style and subject matter were set in place at an early stage and he has stuck pretty consistently to them.

The poetry is spare, avoiding any kind of formal or rhetorical flourish; it’s a bare-bones aesthetic and it suits the c…

Walking into Poetry

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I’ve always liked the idea of walking into a poem. Certain kinds of poets walk their way into their poems. They take walks and compose poems out of what they see, as in the case of Charles Reznikoff in his walks around New York, or they use walks to work out a poem, finding in the physical rhythm of the walk an inner rhythm that releases the imagination. I think of Jacques Réda out for his daily fix of asphalt in the vingtième, whose whole aesthetic is constructed out of his explorations of the spaces around him, or of a poet like Thomas A Clark who also walks very deliberately into poetry, whose daily practice of walking is the reason and impetus for the work. And this is where the notion becomes interesting. It's not simply that a poet engages in an activity, goes hill-climbing or flyfishing or haunting second hand bookshops, but that there's a synthesis between the activity and the deepest intentions of the poetry. What follows is in part an exploration of what it means to…

Putting a price on culture

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ON ST PATRICK’S DAY this year the Taoiseach presented US president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden with limited editions of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and The Cure at Troy with inscriptions by the poet. In his dedication to Obama, Seamus Heaney quotes from the poem’s introduction of the character of Beowulf as “a man who comes in an hour of need . . . there was no one else like him alive”. The first lady Michelle Obama was presented with a collection of Eavan Boland’s poems, and her daughters Sasha and Malia were each given a copy of Bairbre McCarthy’s The Keeper of the Crock of Gold. The reception that evening included a reading by poet Paul Muldoon and music by the Shannon Rovers pipe band.

What does this tell us? It indicates, surely, that songs, music and poetry are a valuable currency. Out of the many possible gifts he could have given, the Taoiseach chose to present the president and his family with works of creative imagination, the kind of imagination that is in fact rea…