Monday, October 11, 2010

Have Ye No Pomes to Go To? The Return of Soundings

The republishing of Soundings, the Leaving Cert poetry anthology that was discontinued at the end of the last century, tells us many things about our current culture. Not all of them are good, but there is a definite light of hope.

The general welcome that the re-publication has received has been fuelled more than somewhat by nostalgia. The already-doodled cover is redolent of schoolroom ennui, and the new introduction by Joe O’Connor assures us that it’s socially acceptable to be seen with the book. The O’Connor imprimatur means there is no need to sandwich your copy shamefully between volumes of Pynchion and Vargos Llosa when approaching the till in Hodges Figgis.

However. The fact remains that Soundings is a schoolbook, and bears all the fell taint of that. Every poem is accompanied by questions to increase understanding of the work, but reading those questions again is too redolent of wet winter evenings, copybooks, pencil cases, Barry Lang’s Hotline on 2FM and general misery.

“Would you agree that the poem has some striking combinations of sound, vision and sense?” Yes, yes, yes, I’ll sign anything you want – just get me away from this damned desk and somewhere within a hundred mile radius of Belinda Carlisle.

The fact that Gill and Macmillan saw fit to mail freebie copies of the book to many media outlets and left out everybody’s favourite Irish blogger does little to endear it also. Bastards.

Those cavils aside, the republishing of Soundings, the initial demand that made its republishing worthwhile in the first place, and the general warmth with which a secondary school textbook has been welcomed tells us something that’s been lost in recent years. That there is such a thing as a poetry, and there is such a thing as the Western Canon. And if there wasn’t, there ought to be.

People like pomes. They don’t always know what they are, because the goalposts shift from day to day. People are told Séamus Heaney is a great poet, but are at a loss to recite any of his poems. You could recite a line, certainly, but you could recite a line from the Simpsons too and that doesn’t make Homer ... er, never mind.

Soundings means certainty. Soundings was written before the Marxist critiques of the Western Canon and the general scorn of a Dead While Male establishment had taken hold. The Canon is based on the idea that, as Gus Martin puts it in his original introduction, there are such things as great poems written by great poets.

That a baton has been passed down the ages from Chaucer to Shakespeare and Johnson, Donne and Marvell, Pope and Dryden, Shelley and Keats, Tennyson and Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. That there is a shared culture that allows one generation to connect to the generation that preceded it and to pass something on to the generation that follows.

Because it’s so very difficult to define what poetry is, perhaps An Spailpín can suggest taking a leaf out of the American academic and critic and say that poetry is that which is fun to recite out loud? When he wrote How to Read and Why, Bloom remarked in passing that he had to declaim verse in private, on deserted beaches or in empty fields, lest the PC police that roamed US university campuses at that time caught him and send him to the gulag.

But those days are old now and poetry declaimers may safely return to the light, holding their pints close to their hearts as they tell of country pleasures, travellers from antique lands, the ten years’ war in Troy, the Sunday in every week, and all those other dead loves that were born for me.

Soundings is not a complete collection, of course, but no collection can ever be. A thousand year tradition is lot to cram into one book. But as a statement of value and worth and a jumping off point for lifetime's delight, Soundings is sheer solid gold. Hurrah for its return.