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To those about to read at the Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival
I started writing something—I didn’t know what—when I was at a Benedictine boarding school, Glenstal Abbey, in County Limerick in Ireland, and when I left that school, I was sure about my future path. I would study to become a veterinary surgeon. I’d known that from my earliest years.
I presented myself at Trinity College in Dublin, and they sent me away. They said I was too young. So, I turned to a pre-university science course and returned a year later, by which time, I’ll admit, I’d begun to have doubts about my calling as a vet.
I continued writing. I met people who said they wrote poems, and they called my writing poetry. I started to organize readings and to edit and publish a magazine; to work with musicians and tour, giving concerts of poems with musical accompaniment and of songs for which I’d written the words. I started a press, the Gallery Press, and became the publisher of two of my professors. This was a time when there weren’t creative writing courses on offer in universities. There weren’t MFAs. But, as the poet Patrick Kavanagh said, a man “dabbles in words and verses and finds that they become his life.”
I remember the moment I formed the question, Could I imagine my life without poetry at the center of it? And at that same moment, the answer was clear.
The rest, as we say, is geography. I returned to County Meath in the Irish midlands where I’d grown up. I worked on my poems, ran a small farm raising sheep, and continued to direct the Gallery Press as it grew.
I teach from time to time, at Trinity often, because I long for and love the possibility of what might happen in a classroom, those moments that run parallel to my work as an editor, in that collaboration on texts I call invisible mending. It is my hope as a teacher not to overpraise, but to identify and celebrate what is praiseworthy.
My students know the rubric of my workshops. I call them the Assembly of Poetry—assembly in the sense of putting-together, the making of something out of ideas, images, feelings, words, even silence. I have in mind also another assembly—of all the poems that ever have been—what we call the tradition that we enter and try to expand with our offerings.
And I have in mind another assembly, the assembly of those who might come into a poem’s orbit as its readers, participating in a dialogue with that poem now or in a time to come. For writing, as John Cheever said, is “like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”
To the ancients, the poet was a maker. Think of the Scots poet William Dunbar and his magisterial “Lament for the Makar,” that is, the maker, the poet. Think also of the word for the author of drama—playwright—a coinage still attached to the craft of the boatwright and the wain- and cartwright.
I wish we had the word poemwright, because poems can be made, constructed, or assembled as often as written. They can be composed in the way of music, and being composed, they may reflect that state that Robert Frost called the “momentary stay against confusion,” or what Yeats and Seamus Heaney had in mind in their quotation of Walter Pater: “The end of art is peace.”
My first language was German. I learned English later. When my mother and sister and I came home to my uncle’s farm in Ireland, we could, without giving it a thought, use German if we wanted to say something to which our cousins or neighbors mightn’t be privy. I knew in my marrow that there were different ways of saying things.
I learned Irish, French, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon, and when I made my way back to the farm life of County Meath, I realized I had become fluent in another language, a language I’d learned, a language of literature and of the academy, as I began to relearn and to remember the idiom and dialect of local ways and deeds. In time, I became what I’ve called bilingual in English. It was a revelation.There were different ways of saying things in the one language.
So what have we in store? in the immediate present, at this festival, we look forward to readings from 25 poets selected by their mentors and teachers at 25 colleges in this region.
By my count 18 of the poets are women. What does this say?
Perhaps nothing. Or the answer could lie close to that response to a Harvard graduate seminar questionnaire that asked, Why haven’t there been as many great American women poets in the past as men? To which someone answered, few women poets have had wives.
And, in the longer term, what might lie in store? A crowded arena, that’s for sure. I heard recently that Poetry magazine receives 100,000 submissions each year.
I hope for you the possibility of finding that way of seeing and saying that will lead to the making of work—through the hard work of writing, reading, and rewriting—that must be first of all its own reward.
The primary satisfaction I get resides in the knowledge that when I’m working on a poem I am most myself. And perhaps you’ll all learn what came as something of a surprise to me. That is, that for all of one’s practice of this simultaneously mundane and mysterious art, one doesn’t learn how to write poems. Some people think they do, and what I find is that they rewrite the same poem. They become forgers of themselves.
If one is lucky, one learns how to write the poem one is working on at the time. And that poem, whether it’s a mirror or a window (both objects framed in a form and with a purpose), whether it’s born of experience or imagination, should aim first not for greatness or to impress anybody, but to be honest. It should aim to be your own poem, derived from your own life, mediated through your own voice. The American poet William Stafford once described his poems as being inevitable “given who I am.”
Study the art. Read and read and read. Consider the inner workings of a poem, the way it’s assembled and its reason for being. Study the forms. Perhaps you will find yourselves, as my students here this term have admitted finding themselves, liberated in some way into those very structures.
I come from a country and culture in which poetry’s position and poets’ profiles are different from here. In Ireland, it and they remain closer to the core of daily life. Poets are known, recognized, listened to, even heeded. I could never say, “I am a poet,” with the ease with which I hear that claim uttered here. It is a title that should be earned, but it’s one that has been bestowed on 25 of you this evening. Bear it responsibly. Bear it with care.
Peter Fallon held the chair of Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies for 2012–13, during which time he taught a graduate seminar on Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel and a poetry-writing workshop for undergraduates. In 1970, he founded Ireland’s Gallery Press, whose author list includes Heaney, Friel, and other distinguished writers. On April 11 in the Murray Room, he spoke to participants and guests at the annual Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival. His essay is drawn from that talk.