Live Encounters Poetry & Writing February 2021.
Terry McDonagh, poet and dramatist, taught creative writing at Hamburg University and was Drama Director at the International School Hamburg. He’s published ten poetry collections as well as letters, drama, prose and poetry for young people. His work has been translated into German and Indonesian. 2016: poetry collection, Lady Cassie Peregrina – Arlen House. 2017: included in Fire and Ice 2, Gill Education for Junior Cycle. 2017: poem, UCG by Degrees, included in Galway Poetry Trail on Galway University Campus. 2017: Director of WestWords, Irish literature festival in Hamburg. 2018: latest poetry collection, Fourth Floor Flat – 44 Cantos, published autumn 2018 by Arlen House.
Here goes. Spring is round the corner. I’m writing to you on a dark January afternoon. Christmas is done and dusted. The Christmas tree is left to its own devices at the back door. It’s raining outside as I try to plan a bike tour between the showers. It should be a good time for scribblers. I have bits of bin-ready poems everywhere. I’m still a dreamer. Hope springs eternal. If one could believe cards and advertising, there’s a new year in the air but this time, it’s tinged with a lingering heaviness – I’ll try not to mention the C 19 word. If I read or hear the words, stay safe, again I’ll take leave of my senses…and if I don’t succeed, I might tackle an epic poem to keep me out of mischief.
Writers are supposed to like darkness and chaos. Some of us are trying to write the definitive novel, play, short story or poem; gardens are being looked at; neighbours – twenty metres apart – are Zooming or talking ‘socially distant’ over garden walls. Perhaps it’s an opportunity – a good time to reflect on what is past and the influence that past has had on our present. And spring is round the corner.
We are approaching February the 1st and I can’t help thinking of Brigid, the Celtic goddess of fertility, later adopted by Christianity to become Saint Brigid (c. 451 – 525) the Abbess of Kildare and one of Ireland’s patron saints. Her feast day, the 1st of February – is also known as the pagan festival of Imbolc. It is the first day of spring in the Celtic tradition – nicely tucked away halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
In my childhood and, to some extent, today, Saint Brigid’s crosses were made from rushes and placed above doorways to protect the family from evil spirits, sickness and to bring luck and blessings in the coming year. Holy wells were visited and straw dolls, wrapped in white fabric, (Brideógs…pronounced bree-jogs) were hung over doors. Fresh beginnings. There were many such practices and traditions to announce to passing from one season to another – darkness to light – winter to spring – pessimism to new shoots.
In her poem, ‘A Light Exists in Spring,’ Emily Dickinson tells us: A Light exists in Spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period –/ When March is scarcely here / A Color stands abroad / On Solitary Fields / That Science cannot overtake / But Human Nature feels…
She seems to tell us we have the capacity to immerse ourselves in spring light and hope – and, even if our positive outlook is, sometimes, tarnished by a sinister set of real, media-propelled fears, we have the capacity to always look at the bright side of life. Fear is an emotion that protects us while, at the same time, keeping us at a distance. Balance is everything.
And when I think of the Romanic poet, Wordsworth, I sense the excitement he experiences in springtime – tinged with an undercurrent of sadness. In Lines Written in Early Spring: To her fair works did nature link / the human soul that through me ran / and much it grieved my heart to think / what man had made of man.
Thankfully, I’m an optimist at heart. Like all of us, I add, discard and ponder. I go up and down but can feel a spring in my step when reading an uplifting text – something I experience when reading William Blake’s innocent celebration of Spring in his childlike welcoming of the new season:
Sound the flute! / Now it’s mute! / Bird’s delight / Day and night / Nightingale in the dale / Lark in sky / Merrily / Merrily, merrily / To welcome in the year…
Writing, and poetry in particularly, attempts to deal with what is at the core of what it means to be human. Topics like life, death, love, despair, success and failure are ever present – they challenge us as writers and, more importantly, as human beings. As I’ve said I’m an optimist – a lover of spring. In the following poem I try to make my case for hope in a world that can be confusing.
first published in my collection, Fourth Floor Flat
But spring will come again.
Grass will be greener
Hills will arch, stretch
and spread blankets of colour.
Trees will stop mourning.
Humans will feel warmer,
doff, peel, shed and season.
Doors close. Doors open.
I’ll breathe plumes into twilight
and be easy. Robins and wrens
will come again to garnish branches.
They’ll chorus and sing to high fields,
low lands, dykes and pastures as
fox cubs and kittens tackle first frolics.
I’ve had my fill of drear,
I think – as my kettle screams
like a lone voice on a fresh planet.
And optimism. I sense there are more poems and poets out there than used to be. Social media has become a busy platform. It provides an opportunity to express the end results of what nature has taught us. Mainstream media and politics are well capable of keeping us tuned into drear. Spring is round the corner.
© Terry McDonagh