The City of Ideas

Last Tuesday I chaired the launch of the programme for this year’s Feile an Phobail, which opens two days earlier than usual to cope with the welcome pressure of additional events.

Although in the past Feile has featured readings and discussions with such writers as Tim O’Grady, Roddy Doyle and Ronan Bennett, the literary dimension to the festival has been inconsistent for a variety of reasons and Feile has suffered, and been criticised, as a result. There are so many well-established literary festivals and summer schools that it is difficult to secure or sometimes even afford the type of celebrity authors that attract widespread interest.

At the time of writing we in Feile are still trying to get Frank McCourt (‘Angela’s Ashes’) to come over from New York for a public interview in front of an audience. (We had tried to get Maeve Binchy but she had just retired.)

However, it struck me that locally there are many creative writing groups supporting budding writers and poets who have little outlet for interacting with the public. Other than through their own limited publications it must seem like an almost unbridgeable gap from putting pen to paper to having one’s work broadcast on radio or published in a mainstream newspaper or magazine.

Because of the length of the average short story (2-3,000 words) it would be very difficult for a paper like the ‘Andersonstown News’ (whose longest items are around 800 words) to promote the work of local writers. However, our local weekly papers, in my opinion, could easily publish poems on a fairly regular basis and help give recognition and exposure to struggling writers. For a start, I’m sure that if I were to be more brief (and less obscure!) a shortish poem could be squeezed in beside my piece at least once every few weeks. So, there is an invitation. Just send your poems to me c/o this paper.

Yeats said, “We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” I don’t know if that is true, but many claims have been made of poetry, including Shelley’s, that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of this world.” He must have been smoking his opium pipe when he came up with that one! But you get his drift, about the civilising effect of art and culture, but poetry in particular, on society.

Not everyone agrees with what makes a good poem: is it the subject matter, the imagery, the rhythm or those many other acoustic effects which brings experiencing the poem so alive? Just to name-drop for a moment: I had the poet John Montague to my home for dinner about eighteen months ago and he recited ‘Ithaca’ by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy whose greatest poems he penned after his fortieth year.

‘Ithaca’ is about the journey through life, the quest that drives us towards the goal of ‘home’, yet one which we should not rush, nor should we let arrival disappoint us. Montague’s delivery was mesmerising and proof that poetry is meant to be declaimed rather than silently, privately consumed in the manner of the pact between the novelist and the reader.

Finally, I would like to quote another of Cavafy’s poems, ‘The First Step’, as encouragement to bashful writers. A young poet is complaining to his mentor, Theocritos, that despite writing for two years he has only produced one poem and he says, “I see, sadly, that the ladder/ of Poetry is tall; and from this first step I’m standing on now/ I’ll never climb any higher.” Theocritos’ reply is reassuring and should be taken on board by all you who feel the mystery, magic and beauty of words but who lack the springboard of self-confidence:

“Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
What you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its council are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.”