Terry McDonagh – I Write Because…
Guest Editorial

McDonagh LE P&W July 2024

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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing July 2024

I Write Because…guest editorial by Terry McDonagh.

Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

In the words of W.H. Auden, “poets hang around words the way bikers do around street corners.” But poets are not alone in trying to make use of the magic in words, are they? In another life I had a job as a salesman and met very successful colleagues who knew a lot about words and used them very successfully. Hang around any pub and you’ll find very proficient storytellers who, in their own words might find poetry and poets colourless, tedious – even irksome and of little importance but some of these people know how to use words and the audience listen.

What, then, is poetry? The poet, Michael Longley said “If I knew where poetry came from, I’d go there.” Perhaps these few words could be the beginning of an attempt to make sense of the impulse to choose some words rather than others when trying to piece a poem together. We are into the realm of mystery – a spiritual diary which is very personal but public in its own way. I find it fascinating to look back to my first poetry collection, The Road Out – published in 1992 – to my most recent collection, Two Notes for Home – 2022. They are light years apart and all the other books and publications, in between, are a line of ants on a bramble. These poems are my social, spiritual and emotional history – my diary in progress. Again, I quote Auden: “Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind.” We can only write what we know or believe we know. For me, here lies the mystery and wonder in poetry. It is something intangible – delving into tiring limbs, fingerprints on the surface of the universe, wavering sun in long grass or happy and unhappy memories.

I work a lot with young people and am often asked, why do you write? I remember one young boy asking me, when will you have made enough money to be able to give up this poetry stuff? His question prompted me to jot down reason why I write:

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.

I try to write what’s in me – what I know. Popular trends, political opinions, freak winds and social justice issues find expression in poetry as well. They come and go but I try to listen the internal mutterings of my heart and soul for inspiration. I’m quite sure I’m not alone when I say I need to avoid silly noises that take me away from rich streets, rivers, mountains and clouds – when I should stop and wait for myself to catch up – to allow time to write what’s just under the skin. Writing has been good to me. I have published more than a dozen poetry collections, travelled quite a lot and met lots very interesting people. I met and had a long conversation with Philip in Broken Hill, an Australian town.


Philip out of Sydney
is sixty-two and sedentary.
He’s had a family. Here
in Broken Hill, he’s
the wise Englishman
who knows everything, but
how to avoid beer-halls
and dice. He’s got a pension
out of narrowing arteries
for church dinners and
a hostel bed. One morning
he took me for a walk,
showed me a little wound
and told me of his children.
Behind a church, he turned
his pockets out. They were full
of cuttings from the past.

When I look through my most recent, collection, Two Notes for Home, I can see myself in the process of leaving Hamburg after more than thirty years to return to a much-changed Ireland. It is a journey of discovery. In Hamburg I learned to speak – not just a new language but I felt I could speak my mind as an adult for the first time. It was exhilarating.

The Right to Speak

I’m not muddled nor am I without sleep when I say
I came to Hamburg in the eighties like a
half-baked alien full of mischief and light-headedness.

I’d wanted to slip in and out of my own ego – be
in a storybook – get lost and tangle about like
a fistful of feathers in a vortex of my own making.

It was about discovery – no longing, no life. Shoots
pop up when you least expect. John Lennon said:
I was born in Liverpool but grew up in Hamburg…

I’m back on Home Ground and feeling free and positive in a much-changed Ireland.

Home Ground

I’m back on home ground
where, these days, farmers
flaunt and preen in shorts
without fear of ridicule.
Daughters study Agriculture
and rock up on tractors while

partners and others drink carrot juice
or cappuccinos in convivial company
discussing wellness, bargains,
divorce options and good settlements.

It didn’t used to be this way.
There were forms of incarceration
and torture that included
till death do us part, listening
to sermons on Sundays
or doing time in demon-black-bogs….

In this piece, I’ve tried to talk about language – about words, and I’ve only got words to say what I want to say. There is so much unspoken, suggested and expressed in music, body language – visual arts speak volumes but, here, I’ve only got words to have my say. Patrick Kavanagh said, “Poetry made me a sort of outcast and I became abnormally normal.” I can only hope I will always be a little abnormal – as a poet around words like a biker on a street corner because I like to talk and need to talk – to write and write because I need to write.

© 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

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