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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing May 2023
Reflection, guest editorial by Terry McDonagh
Narcissus in Greek mythology pined away in love with his own reflection and turned into a narcissus flower. The message is clear: don’t spend too long reflecting on your own brilliance. Imagine the outcome. But seriously, all of life has to do with reflection, doesn’t it! We look at our reflection in mirrors – reflect on the past, on success and failure – we think to the future. We mediate. Thomas Hardy in his poem, I look into my Glass. What he sees in the mirror is not a reflection of how he feels he is still the romantic, an energetic young man, but the mirror doesn’t lie:
I look into my glass,
and view my wasting skin
and say, would God it came to pass
my heart had shrunk as thin.
As part of my work with young people – which I enjoy very much – I wrote a poem called, Windows (included in my collection, Echolocation). We have heaps of fun with the poem and it prompts great writing. I begin by asking if they, sometimes, peep at their reflection when passing shop windows. Some giggle – one or two even blush a little but a lively discussion is always guaranteed. We seem to need to constantly take stock – to see what we want to see:
At my age I need to admire myself
and when I run out of mirrors,
I sneak up on shop windows…
window, window in the street,
keep me cool and dig my beat.
I listened to an interview with the legendary German footballer, Franz Beckenbauer, where he was asked for his thoughts on his future. He replied by saying, he tended to concentrate on his past as there was a lot more of it to reflect on. I often think of his words. He didn’t write poetry – he might have for all we know – but one thing was certain, he was a great artist with the ball at his feet. He lit up when reflecting.
Shakespeare did it with his pen and in his theatre. In Sonnet 3, Look in thy Glass and tell the Face thou Viewest, he is exhorting a handsome young man to get married and pass his beauty on to his children:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest.
Now is the time that face should form another.
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
calls back the lovely April of her prime.
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
despite the wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live rememb’red not to be
die single, and thine image dies with thee.
I remember facilitating a fascinating and memorable workshop with a group of about twenty adults with specific learning disabilities in a small town in the west of Ireland. I admit to being surprised when they came through the door. They were expecting a storyteller and I was expecting a group of writers. I was on the back foot with beads of sweat gathering where sweat gathers. We settled into a neat semi-circle and exchanged pleasantries. I was under observation. Where do I go from here? I opened a book and the first work I saw was ‘turf’. Who can tell me a turf story, I called out hopefully – longing for snippets of guidance and inspiration.
The response was immediate and amazing: almost all of them had experience of turf in some shape or form. Some reflected on days of working in the bog. If they we hadn’t done it themselves, they knew people who had. We all told stories and reflected on the antics of neighbours in their bogs. Sunburn, tea and sandwiches in the late afternoon was discussed. A woman saying that she used to wash her hands and look at her reflection in a puddle, prompted me to tell the story of Narcissus. Wonderful language in colour and flower shapes ensued. What a day!
There is something about reflection and writing that makes us whole. The future is informed by the past. Women appear less afraid to reflect. A male participant in one of my workshops – who had cycled Rout 66 and lots of other arduous routes – told us, that women will almost always ask, were you not lonely?, while men tend to ask, were you not bored? The cyclist helped us to reflect.
Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem for young people, Looking-Glass River, writes about looking into the reflections in a river.
We can see our coloured faces
floating on the shaken pool
down in cool places
dim and very cool.
All of life is really past tense. In the words of Buddha, you can’t step into the same river twice – things that are passed cannot be revisited. We can reflect – attempt to hold on to youth. Some try more than others. Oscar Wilde gave us the picture of Dorian Gray. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, told us all things are one, but at the same time everything is constantly in states of change or flux. This tension keeps us alive and reflecting on the world as we perceive it. We have our arts to help us try to understand and make sense of existence. – to reflect on the human condition. In the words of William Wordsworth: I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hours of thoughtless youth, but hearing, oftentimes the still sad music of humanity.
© Terry McDonagh
Terry McDonagh, Irish poet and dramatist has worked in Europe, Asia and Australia. He’s taught creative writing at Hamburg University and was Drama Director at Hamburg International School. Published eleven poetry collections, letters, drama, prose and poetry for young people. In March 2022, he was poet in residence and Grand Marshal as part of the Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Brussels. His work has been translated into German and Indonesian. His poem, ‘UCG by Degrees’ is included in the Galway Poetry Trail on Galway University campus. In 2020, Two Notes for Home – a two-part radio documentary, compiled and presented by Werner Lewon, on The Life and Work of Terry McDonagh, The Modern Bard of Cill Aodáin. His latest poetry collection, ‘Two Notes for Home’ – published by Arlen House – September 2022. He returned to live in County Mayo in 2019. www.terry-mcdonagh.com