Feature Articles

FOLK-POETRY IN THE MAKING by Fred Johnston

(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2003)

In the course of my work, I have been in a position to collate as well as encourage the writing of ordinary, modest people, none of whom had pretensions towards literary Fred Johnstonfame. Through small writers' groups, as well as writers' projects organised in schools, I have been brought into contact with a vibrant and acutely aware living poetry, unaffected by the grab for recognition which has, alas, become a hallmark of so many 'literary' poets. Yet this enormous body of work goes unnoticed by contemporary literary critics and anthologists.

The essential role of poetry was to record and historicize the psychic life of the tribe. As a mode of recording, of rending into written or oral history ordinary community events that had achieved a certain mythic status, this role has continued. But it has slipped underground; rather, it has been pushed underground. And the loss of this poetry to a wider audience is distressing.

There has been a rise in recent years of the local published history. Particularly in rural communities, individuals have stepped forward to write small histories, to document in a modest, but not insignificant way, the life and times of the place in which they and their families have lived for generations. Name-places, habitations, industries, personalities, customs, often in a broth of facts and a showering of figures - nonetheless the histories are printed, made available to a wider audience. The folk traditions are made into print, and passed out of the parish for possible inspection in a wider world.

It is not unknown for such publications to carry the words of a song composed in honour of a place or event by a local man or woman. Perhaps nothing else fell from their pen. This is folk-poetry in the making, the origin of our folk songs, ballads, the blood of tradition.

Yet, for critics and anthologists of a more academic stamp - a clinical, tradition-less school - these modest poetic efforts count for nothing. It is doubtful whether they are considered at all. When was the last time you read the lyrics of a satire by, say, Tim Lyons? Who, you say? Yet I have seen Tim stun and silence an entire public house audience on a weekend night by an unaccompanied rendition of a satire. Can his importance be argued against?

I have listened in rural school rooms as shy and genteel elderly ladies recited poems they had written in the Irish language as well as English. Lovely poems, celebrated in a traditional rhyme and metre, rooted still in song and music and mnemonic. None of these poems, I would argue, would ever grace the pages of one of our small literary magazines. Certainly you wouldn't find them in The Irish Times. Nor will they appear in the 'New Irish Writing' page of The Sunday Tribune. In any case, so unassuming are their authors that the notion that anyone else might wish to bring wider recognition in their work would astound them.

Instead, we are content with a poetry occasionally deemed, ludicrously and without definition, as 'meaningful,' and 'important', poetry which carries little or no lyrical substance, is hardly touched by the Muse, is more often chopped lines of prose. Our critics, keeping the head well down and being good boys, never demand that the emperor look into a mirror.

A huge divorce has occurred between one poetry and another; between the poetry of drawing rooms, festivals, anthologies, awards, and the poetry of the everyday lived experience of ordinary people, for which there are complex socio-historic reasons. This is not to confer automatic legitimacy on the consequences of this divorce, nor to provide an easy excuse for the relegation of folk-poetry.

And the importance of the latter poetry of community is immense. Tradition and folk-memory are retrieved and maintained within its working. The soul of community, of historic belonging, is maintained in a way that many more 'professional' poets would envy and, indeed, may often strive for. No less than traditional music played in its home-place, folk- or community-poetry - either term is reasonable - stirs the vital essence of a communal unity by being born out of that community and offering itself back into it.

In my view, it is the duty of those poets who are sent to teach or instruct to encourage and develop this poetry, because such poetry will survive in folk-memory when the glossy anthologies and glittering prizes are dust and rust.

The essential reason for its survival is that it is born out of the community to which it refers; it becomes, with ease, as much part of the life of that community as the local postman. It is passed on through a robust and millennia-old oral tradition of acquired casual learning - as poetry was before the arrival of print type. In this sense, and immediately, this poetry can be said to have its importance, as well as its relevance. Individuals become associated directly with a piece of spoken or sung poetry in a way that many of us who dwell in the world of the book-publication would envy.
I've clanged the note of distance here; the poetry of community, folk-poetry is too often them, while the 'real' poetry (that which means nothing to community but a lot to the individual, often the same individual who wrote it) is us. This is very unfortunate and, ultimately, works to the detriment of all poetry.

It seems to me that a major reassessment of folk-poetry is long overdue; intelligent poets of whatever stamp will understand the importance of this. Those who ignore it will continue, in my view, to create a poetry of squeaking, rather than speaking.

More often, a poetry which does not, cannot sing, because community is poetry's voice.

Fred Johnston, poet, novelist and critic, is Director of the Western Writers' Centre (a.k.a. Caitlín Maude Writers' Centre / Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude), Canavan House, Nun's Island, Galway.

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