Irish Poet's Words Soothe Audience
According to Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Irish poetry is unique in that it is “closer to song” than other forms of poetry. Perhaps it is MacCarthy’s inherent lyricism that has made her one of the most renowned poets in Ireland. Born in 1954 and raised in Limerick, MacCarthy’s poetry and recent novel have won her accolades all over the world. She is currently touring colleges in the U.S., giving young American readers and writers a taste of her regionally renowned, but internationally obscured, talent.
At a reading on Monday, Nov. 18, one could get a sense of the controlled, song-like impact of her work and its delivery. There is as much lyricism in MacCarthy’s writing and reading as in choruses in popular folk that linger after only one listen. With precise, simple word choices, she lulls her audience into comfort before surprising them with the force of her perceptions. MacCarthy subtly builds to such memorable climaxes as the question, “By what goddess is your future ransomed?” Merging subject matter that is commonplace and mystical, MacCarthy steps inside a voice that is often soft and understated; toward the end, it comes to prophetic and sometimes melodramatic conclusions.
At the reading in Wilder, MacCarthy explained that she draws subjects from her experiences growing up in a “rural farming community” in Ireland. The beginning of her life was marked by the then-novel access to electricity and later the sudden appearance of motorcars. But a more mythic perspective informs her conclusions about such an experience, which seem to extend beyond the immediate or concrete context of her poems.
It makes sense; MacCarthy’s writing admittedly comes from a personal “wish to understand — a search for value.” She uses a framework of anecdotes, such as sneaking into a Protestant church to “see if God was hiding out [there];” the time her father bought his first car and went out drinking to celebrate; a flight from Ireland to America where she saw the “eclipse in reverse.” Each story is a device to explain the presence of something larger.
One poem that achieves this is an account of MacCarthy and her husband watching a swan on a pond, wondering where its partner is. When they inquire, they find out from a local that the swan’s mate met an untimely death when it flew into an electrical cable near the water. The poem reaches its apex when MacCarthy reflects that she and her own partner were deeply moved by the tragedy and were, in that moment in their lives, “falling deeply in love with disaster.”
MacCarthy is not only an archivist of her own life: she pays attention to relevant fixtures, playing off their status in pop culture. She does this with the mention of terrorism in northern Ireland, “Teach Your Children” — the song by Crosby Stills Nash & Young — and an Irish mythological spell called a geis. In one poem, she juxtaposes Beanie Babies with biblical mysticism.
MacCarthy’s poetry elucidates deep importance in all these things, grave and trivial. She even halts her reading to warmly inquire about the audiences’ recognition of the CSNY song. All in all, MacCarthy isn’t hesitant to reference what she knows, no matter how simple or quaint, to illustrate what she believes.
Though poetry communicates with an audience, MacCarthy first uses it as a means to communicate with herself. She sees poetry as a “connection with the inner self.” Out of this practice of creative self-searching, MacCarthy has achieved consistent commercial success. Her first novel, One Room an Everywhere, was nominated for the Irish Sunday Independent/Hughes and Hughes Novel of the Year Award.
Her poetry has garnered her many acclamations and awards. In 1990, she won the Irish National Women’s Poetry Competition. She went on to earn the distinction of writer-in-residence for the city of Dublin. She has served as editor of the Poetry Ireland Review and teaches creative writing at the Irish Writers Centre.
MacCarthy describes the actualization that she needed to be a writer with a familiarly grounded, yet epic tone: “It was like hitting water — [it was] this thing that brought everything else together.”