Terry McDonagh – Secrets in Word and Music
Guest editorial

McDonagh LE P&W March 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing March 2024.

Secrets in Word and Music, Guest Editorial by Terry McDonagh.

Roman tabula or wax tablet with stylus
Roman tabula or wax tablet with stylus, wikipedia.

A writer in a café sipping a coffee might be a cliché, but a writer in a café sipping a coffee on a floor above a bookshop is a joy worthy of several cups. And this pleasure is all mine as I sit with my coffee on the first floor of The Bookshop in Castlebar, County Mayo. Even the stairs up to the café from the floor below, is a step to an adventure. I’m gathering thoughts for a Live Encounters editorial. Moments like these are special – a time of waiting for something to happen – pondering on this and that, taking notes and ordering a second coffee. I think of the term, tabula rasa – of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, where we are presented with a theatre space to fill with something exciting, interesting – enthralling even.

My head is the empty space but I have five senses as well as memory, colour and daily experiences to draw on. It’s a tingling time.

Just recently, I’ve been working quite a lot in schools with children of all ages. I love this work with young people, as, in most instances, they are unspoiled – full of lovely nonsense and, unlike us adults, they, usually, don’t have a literary or theatrical reputation to defend. Thankfully, there are grown-ups of all ages that have remained childlike.

As part of my work, I’ve had the pleasure of working with groups of young teenagers of varied cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I asked them to greet each other in their native tongue which led one student to suggest that language was music – and when people spoke in their native tongue – most of us couldn’t understand even though we were on the same topic – but we could listen to the music in the language. We ended up trying to guess what ‘others’ were saying. We, then, wrote in our own language and translated back and forth. On the one hand, this was a lot of fun, but, on the other hand, I was conscious of the importance of mother tongue as identity and enrichment. I lived in Germany for more than half my life where I learned to value being able to converse and communicate in more than one language.

We played with letters – took W.O.R.D and, in groups, made tableaus or frozen pictures of each letter which led us to conclude that a letter is a sketch, shape, picture or painting and when we put these ‘paintings’ together, we had a word…a sentence, a text, speech, poem or story. In like manner, we took lettering from other languages and played around with them to try and get a better understanding of what language really is all about. Letters become words and we use words to build a sentence – to communicate – which, in essence, is quite simple, but as we know, communication can be complex and can lead us to not only to elation and joy but, sometimes, into sad or tricky territory.

We chose the topic, Secrets Hidden in Words as a writing topic. I was asked why do you write? As I’d been asked this question many times over the years, I had constructed a poem, I Write Because, to save me having to explain each time I was asked.

I Write Because…

I write because
I’m on a train from home to here.
I write because
I see black sheep dotting mystery on a landscape.
I write because
I see children tussle with childhood.
I write because
I hear a Chihuahua doing battle in a handbag.
I write because
I hear a badger barking in my head.
I write because
I feel the urge to dislike words like outsider.
I write because
I feel a pen and anger in my hand.
I write because
I taste a lily-livered sun.
I write because
I taste angry salt on the swirling wind.
I write because
I smell smirking garlic in a sandwich.
I write because
I smell perfume before I see it.
I write because
I gallop into a gale with wild horses.
I write because
I can never trust a Mona Lisa smile.
I write because
I’m unravelling lines of light between trees.
I write because
I’m in a day that won’t come back to me.
I write because
I write.

Sitting here with my scribbler and second coffee, I feel at ease – my time is being well spent, even if the term, time is money, is not part of my morning’s work. I’m quite sure my colleagues would be of the same opinion if asked why they write, and the power of words in their lives.

A true friend of mine, the poet, Philip Casey, died in 2018. In January of this year, a collection of memories, by writers and friends of Philip’s, was published by Arlen House and launched in his native Gorey, County Wexford and in Dublin. I felt honoured when asked to launch this book in Gorey: Distant Summers – Remembering Philip Casey. It made me realize that a man who had dedicated his life to his love of letters and words was being recognized for his contribution to this world of literature. His body of work deserves to be remembered. ‘Words, words, words.’ This was Hamlet’s reply to Polonius’ question, ‘What do you read, my Lord? In this case, Hamlet suggests words are meaningless, but the power of ‘To be or not to be’ is indisputable.

When I think of the millions of words on the ground-floor shelves of this beautiful bookshop, I feel uplifted. I’m reminded of all the billions of words and pictures I have uttered and shared with friends and acquaintances in the course of my lifetime – and I try to imagine them shaping themselves into sentences, stories, legends, and tales for us to ponder on and have our lives enriched by the secrets hidden in those mountains of words. I often have to smile when I’m reminded of one young boy’s remark. When will you have made enough money to be able to give up this poetry writing?

I’ve done what I set out to do this morning and I won’t be giving up any time soon.

© 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

One Reply to “Terry McDonagh – Secrets in Word and Music
Guest editorial”

  1. This is a writing all writers should read. I taught children poetry in the schools in California for years and it is from them I learned how to play with words. “I Write Because” captures their wild imaginations we adults would do well to emulate. I commend Mark for publishing Terry McDonagh’s editorial. Let’s all start with a W.O.R.D. Thank you both! Quite awhile I wrote a poem “I don’t write because…” and had a fine time.

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