Friday, June 29, 2012

Writers' Groups

Tip of needles
Tap of bones
Swish of rushes
Slap of stones

You’d expect me to be delighted when my lines appeared in one of Germany’s biggest selling magazines. I wasn’t.

Years ago, two gentlemen arrived into the Dublin Writers Workshop, introduced themselves as researching the phenomenon of writers groups in Ireland for a popular German publication, and asked everyone present to come out to the front of the premises, Bowes, for a group photograph. Most went, I declined owing to (what is usually) an unhelpful streak of contrariness. They stayed for the evening and told us they were visiting a few other groups as well.

Eventually the magazine arrived with article, photograph and my lines as a lead in. It was scathing. The members felt insulted and resented their hospitality being abused. They had good reason. DWW was a breeding ground for a number of good writers including Ted McNulty, Shiela O’Hagan and Jean O'Brien to name a few.

The main contention of the article was that writers’ groups foster a low standard of writing. This can happen for a number of reasons e.g. participants may not want to criticise in case they cause offence, the level of knowledge maybe poor, some writers are writing for themselves not publication, they are not looking for rigorous standards. No one slates the provision of snooker tables just because the players aren’t of professional standard.

Poetry is a lonely pastime. Writers’ groups are frequently used for social reasons; if they fulfil this purpose, they are successful for some. If the group is being used for focussing  the mind or providing a writing regime or as a forum where information on events and competitions can be got, then again it may well fulfil its purpose. Some consider a poem worked through a group to be like a committee horse but that does not take into regard different strokes for different folks.

However, the issue of standards should be addressed. A teacher of English might be a good addition to a group, or invited guests who have a proven track record in literary criticism. Participants with different aspirations should be facilitated, a group should discuss its procedures and policies when setting up, and be open to change. An open door approach to new members or even once-off visitors can only be positive in general, (though there will be some less than helpful arrivals),  and contact with other groups can be a source of useful ideas as well. 

Monday, June 25, 2012


I would have dreamt
or wished too much, 

cashed all my cheques
in the clouds; 

but I,
wearing boots, 

stamped all my transactions
into the earth.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Country Childhood

There is no doubt that my Roscommon childhood has been idealised in this poem, but yet, I honestly believe that I had a very privileged upbringing. It was a good time in a safe place among great people. Behind our house countryside stretched off into the unknown; we had complete freedom to disappear for hours on end into that vastness.For any child with a lively imagination, that was  freedom of the universe.

From the front we saw Roscommon town across three fields. From front to back contained all the world I needed, and I was happy in it.

       The Country Child.

The country child

runs in and out of rain showers

like rooms;

sees the snake-patterns in trains,

the sun's sword-play in the hedges

and the confetti in falling elder blossoms;

knows the humming in the telegraph poles

as the hedgerow's voice

when tar bubbles are ripe for bursting;

watches bees emerge from the caverns

at the centres of buttercups,

feels no end to a daisy chain,

feels no end to an afternoon;

walks on ice though it creaks;

sees fish among ripples and names them;

is conversant with berries

and hides behind thorns;

slips down leaves, behind stones;

fills his hands with the stream

and his hair with the smell of hay;

recognizes the chalkiness

of the weathered bones of sheep,

the humour in a rusted fence,

the feel of the white beards that hang there.

The country child

sees a mountain range where blue clouds

are heaped above the horizon,

sees a garden of diamonds

through a hole scraped

in the frost patterns of his bedroom window

and sees yet another world

when tints of cerise and ochre

streak the evening sky.

He knows no end, at night
he sneaks glimpses of Heaven

through the moth-eaten carpet of the sky.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

When Less is More

I had forgotten this poem from Felos aínda serra; it was drawn to my attention recently. It came without too much effort, maybe that’s why I had forgotten it. The idea came from the icons on the bicorns worn by the felos in Galician carnival festivities.
Looking at it now, I am very pleased with its accuracy.
“There’s an owl in my head”
Said Joseph.
“I am wise,
Wisest of all creatures.”

“There’s a tiger in mine”
Said Paul.
“I am the fiercest;
All creatures respect me.”

“A stag in mine”
Said Thomas.
"I am majestic,
Admired by all." 

“My head is empty”
Said Jim.
“So there is space
For all creatures to come and go.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


A number of years ago, I had occasion to call into a bank of which I am not a customer. While there, an official suggested that I open an account. I asked why, that I had an account elsewhere; he came out with the beautiful “because we would like to get to know you better.”

I could hardly believe it: do they learn their advertising jingles off by heart; are they hooked up to electrodes; worse, did he think I was chuffed to be a target for the bank’s friendship; worse still, does this line actually work?

Fast forward a number of years; the banks lose money through poor management, poor regulation, corporate greed, and all those close friends are coughing up: losing jobs, savings, pensions; emigrating.

Is it too simplistic to see the banking system as facilitating us, not a hoover for clearing our pockets.So when the system goes belly up, why are the people facilitating it, a system.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Caught, Tangled in Old Years.

Caught, tangled in old years;
young man,
the brambles have made you
delicately eccentric;

your ears are closed
but to the berries,

 eyes fixed to where the winds
have bent them;

like a hawthorn above the sea,
you seem to have frozen

at the very moment
you were jumping clear.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Memory of My Father on Lough Ree

It was so safe and reassuring to walk as a child holding your father’s hand. How great and powerful fathers appeared to their seven year old sons. How perfect those times were. One day. One day you would be like that: strong and kind, if you could ever know enough.

Did you ever marvel at your father’s ability to drive from one part of the country to another and get you there, right to the door? That knowledge; it didn’t seem possible.

No surprise  then at the difficulties that commonly manifest themselves in teenage years when the role model is tarnished and communication have begun to fray. And when one looks for affirmation, it does not come easily, or not at all, from the hero branded into those souls years before.

Revisiting Lough Ree.
Morning comes colourless;
trees stoop to the lake like pilgrims
witnessing images that are riddles in the water.

A sudden shriek.  “Over here, no here, over here."
I see nothing; the lake keeps its children chilled
in ice buckets among the reeds.

Once I trailed a ripple from a boat
that  bevelled this water. I remember the oars’
loud soft thud, slap till I die

It was June. Insects teemed on the surface.
The sun, that tanned our backs, lulled the countryside
into sleep before the fields were even cranked.

My father was there.

Now December.The lake drags its cutlery
through this cress-green landscape
with an indifference that leaves memories shivering.