For National Poetry Month, we sat down with Bernard O’Donoghue, author of Poetry: A Very Short Introduction. O’Donoghue discusses the importance of poetry, the influence social media has, and his own process when it comes to writing.
Eleanor Chilvers: Why is poetry important?
Bernard O’Donoghue: Poetry seems to have been thought important in all known societies, often without argument. Poetry is often thought to represent values other than the dominant materialist assumptions of society. It is the principle that Seamus Heaney, one of the foremost modern poets, calls “redress:” restoration of balance with values that are under-represented in a society or culture. This takes it, like other arts, towards recreation rather than practical or material advancement.
EC: What is the importance of poetry in society?
BO: I think it is important that poetry, while representing alternative values in this way, also takes seriously the interests of the society it operates in. Seamus Heaney, quoting the Greek poet-diplomat Giorgos Seferis, said poetry should be “strong enough to help” with the problems faced by society. It will lose its worth and its point if it is confined to pleasing itself. Again, like all the arts, it has a public function. Percy Bysshe Shelley said the “poets were the unacknowledged legislators” for the world. But they must prove their entitlement to such grand claims.
EC: Why is it important to study poetry from an academic perspective?
BO: Again, like the other arts, poetry has formal elements to it. There is no one particular formality it must satisfy, and the forms vary from language to language and society to society. The study of poetry is to observe what the formalities are: the importance of sound for poetry in English, for example. It is often said nowadays that, if you want to write, you must read to find out what the practice of writing is. This applies in a marked way to poetry.
EC: How does the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?
BO: The internet is enormously valuable as a repository of existing poetry, and as an explanation of what particular poetic forms are: to define, say, what figures of speech are and how they work rhetorically – what metaphor is, and why it is crucial for poetry as for all language. Social media is useful as a sharing of this kind of knowledge, and for sharing the attempts to write poetry or debate its rules.
EC: What kind of work are you most drawn to reading yourself? Do you read work similar to your own?
BO: I remember the stage of life – in my early teens – when I first started to love poetry: narrative poems like “Flannan Isle” and “The Ancient Mariner.” From them, it was a natural development in the course of studying literature and language in school curricula. I loved Latin poetry as a kind of riddling challenge: how the word-order gave a kind of taste to what was being said. “De Rerum Natura” – concerning of things the nature, and so on. This has led to a special enthusiasm for lyric poems where the weight is on the verbal structure. My preferred reading now is of work very far past my own: of Dante, for example, who seems to incorporate the lyric felicity of short poems with a huge visionary scope. I also like the fact that Dante is a great moral and ideological whole: a vision of the universe with all its component elements. I like poetry which is lyrically expressive and morally conclusive at the same time: like the Anglo-Saxon elegies where narrative eloquence is the basis for a concluding view of the world.
EC: Where do you get your ideas?
BO: I just hope they will come, and mostly they don’t. Most of my poems come from the material of childhood: a tendency which is perhaps accentuated in my case by the fact that my adult life has mostly been lived in the south of England, centred on London, in marked contrast with the rural Irish world of farming childhood.
EC: What’s your process for writing?
BO: I am very unsystematic, I am sorry to say. I never sit down at the desk and work at an extensive task. I have great admiration for writers who embark on a novel or some other extensive form, and keep going at it – maybe for years. How did Joyce keep going through Ulysses? I don’t think I am a dedicated, professional writer at all. I wait for snatches of thought or story and see what I can do with them. “Waiting for the spark from Heaven to fall,” Matthew Arnold said in “The Scholar Gipsy.” And it rarely does. You have to catch it while it’s flying, children used to say when asked to repeat something.
EC: What are you reading right now?
BO: I am reading a remarkable novel by an ex-student of mine, Omar Robert Hamilton, called The City Always Wins about the Egyptian revolution of 2011-12 and its brutal suppression. It is classically art that attempts to help. Poetry too can express the public as well as the personal. I always have more than one book on the go of course. I am translating “Piers Plowman” at the moment – slowly – and I fall back on that very happily. Social and individual again.