Listen to or read Tom French’s inspiring address at the ‘A Poem for Ireland’ schools competition.

23rd May 2016
Tom French made this ispiring and moving address to all of the young poets during the Grand Final of the Libraries Ireland's 'A Poem for Ireland' poetry competition.
Thousands of budding poets in post-primary schools across the country entered 'A Poem for Ireland', the national poetry competition for Ireland 2016. Róisín Finnegan, a pupil at Holy Faith Secondary School, Clontarf was announced as the  winner of 'A Poem for Ireland' at the Grand Final which took place in Dublin Castle on Friday 6th May, 2016. The national juding panel were: Brendan Martin, County Librarian, Wicklow County Council; Gabriel Rosenstock, Poet and Member of Aosdána; Helen Walsh, County Librarian, Clare County Council; Maureen Kennelly, Director, Poetry Ireland; and Tom French, Poet and Local Studies Librarian, Meath County Council. 

Address by Tom French:

“... there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring.” James Wright

As someone with both a professional interest in books
and a personal interest in writing, I am delighted –
in this centenary spring – to see our Poet’s Rising –
what Francis Ledwidge describes as “a noble failure” –
being tackled by you, the coming generation of writers.

Ledwidge, despite his tender years, was wise
in the ways of poem making and knew –
when tasked by circumstance with writing an elegy
for his executed friend Thomas Mac Donagh,
that the best way to approach the problem was not
head on, but through Mac Donagh’s translation
of that perennial poem about the bittern.

Ledwidge searched and found a way in and,
in the process, wrote one of the durable utterances
of the revolutionary period. It has stood the test
of a century. It will stand the test of many more.


The great Belfast poet Michael Longley is on record
as saying that if he knew where poems came from
he would go there, which strikes me as a beautiful idea –
that there is, somewhere, a place, a kind of poem store,
a warehouse, a repository where the poems are waiting.

Francis Ledwidge went to that place for his
Lament for Thomas MacDonagh. That poem drew itself
out of him, and he might have gone to that place
many more times if he had not been blown
to Kingdom Come in Belgium while sheltering from rain
and drinking tea on the last day of July in 1917.

Many of you here today, I’m certain, found yourselves
seeking to go to that place where the poem is,
and to bring it back to the page in as perfect
a form as you could. I am certain too
you will have discovered, as you worked through
draft after draft of your poems, that there is as much
‘noble failure’ to be found in the act of poetry
as the Volunteers of 1916 found in the act of rebellion.

I know I speak for all of the judges of this competition
when I say – I hope that some of you discovered
that the reward is the poem itself, and that the poem
you attempted will be the beginning of a lifetime
of searching for that place from where the poem comes.

No Careers Guidance teacher worth his/her salt
will advise you to pursue the career of maker of poems,
so allow me – if just today – to be that demented
Careers Guidance teacher and to suggest to you
that the satisfaction when the poem you are in pursuit of
works out, cannot be compared with anything else
on this earth, and that all the noble failures vanish
when that one poem comes alive on the page. That poem –
that one poem, that single, perfectly constructed artifice
of words – is worth pursuing with your whole being.
That unexpected reward is worth everything.

It is entirely possible that every poem is a noble failure.
Your own reading and working at the craft will lead you
to your own poems. As a reader I look forward to them.
I hope they fulfil you in their making, and that they fulfil
their readers. I hope they lead you on to heights that
the writers who came before you never dreamed of.

Try to read everything. Fall in love with poems.
Fall out over them. Find new ones. Allow yourself
to be occupied by them. Listen to the exponents
of Spoken Word on The Web. Listen to Katie Tempest.
Be swept away by her wild flood of words. Find poems
you love. Steal from them. Make them yours. Figure out
how you might make a thing like that. Be surprised
when you do something you never intended. Get lost
in it. Get found. Lose track of time. Find what you weren’t
even looking for. Drive out west. Go wild in words. Be
restrained. Write a one line poem. Find a sentence that runs
through a quatrain, that leaves the rhymes naturally
where the ear says they should be. Discover what a couplet is.

Strain against the strictures of just two lines. Write a couplet
a day for a whole week, a month, and then figure out
what it is you have written and what it might be.
Listen out. Listen in. Don’t make a sound for hours on end.
Go to the place where the poems are. “The act of poetry,”
to quote the great Michael Hartnett, “is a rebel act.” Get in
on the act. Rip it up. Let rip. Rip it up and start again.
Write a rap. Learn it by heart. Rap what you’ve written.

Hear it live. Deliver it without a scrap of paper
in your two hands, into a world made of sounds,
of clay the word and clay the flesh. Hunt for your
own poem. Find out how it sounds. Be silenced by it.
Make what you will of this pantomime of tongue
and lips, these stays, these joys, these lifts,
these rants, these unexpected rewards, these noble failures.
Make, out of your own breath and words, your rebel acts.