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COVENANTS OF TRUST: THE CITIZEN POET MICHEAL O’SIADHAIL recently, Waterstones, the British bookstore chain in Ireland and the United States told us that poetry can sell as well as hardback fiction. So the old cliché that nobody reads poetry anymore just won’t do. But what is the role of the poet in this society of ours? What sort of citizen is the poet? In many ways we are still the inheritors of the Byronic image of the poet as the passionate and irresponsible romantic. In an age dominated by impersonal bureaucracy, consumerism, and galloping technology, that image retains an understandable appeal. Yet, to accept that image is to marginalize the poet. Of course, the role of the despairing outsider is alluring . Sometimes, as an overreaction to a glorified outsiderism, we want to take a loud political line, as though to demand a share in the action. When I think of the poet as worker, I suppose I have a certain vision of the polis, of an ecology of living, of the poet as citizen. I’m not saying that, as I close the door of my study, this vision is uppermost in my mind. I understand any artist who maintains that there is far too much to do just getting the work right and that such philosophizing is best left to others. Of course, like any one else I’m consumed with a desire for the true line. In some ways, I’m simply hooked on the thrill—the pulse of a phrase, and I’m a boy playing again on the garden path. Two children are turning the ends of a skipping rope, and I’m nodding my head to the rhythm waiting to jump in. Jelly on the plate, jelly on the plate, wibelty, wobelty. . . . It’s just as exciting and just as precarious. Or am I remembering that first self-recognition in a poem that wants to send some message of wonderment on and on? Is it the balm of release—something borne for so long at last sculptured and left in peace? I’m sure, like any decision, any commitment, there is a whole nexus of emotions, memories, and compulsions—conscious and unconscious—that carries us along. Yet, despite any dread of an intellectualization that loses its rootedCOVENANTS OF TRUST: THE CITIZEN POET 7 ness in the earth, I know that I have some vision of a poet as a citizen, a belief that an individual search for truth and understanding has a task and an accountability. Of course, it’s impossible to define such a viewpoint in an intellectual climate where such a thought is regarded as a subjective illusion . But I cling stubbornly to the notion of the covenant with the polis. There are so many tasks: to appropriate a tradition, to recharge words with mystery, to somehow find, here and now, the images to shape our meaning. I have the highest and the humblest of ambitions: to move, just a little, someone’s flagging heart. So often people ask out of a natural curiosity whether I write poetry every day. It’s hard to explain. What can I say except that, for all the complex detours, every moment of my life is invested in every poem? It is an extraordinary time to be alive—all the changes, the sifting of the rubble of old certainties for new and tentative points of departure. To be there in the whirl is a lifelong venture, and I think I have been very fortunate in my background. I can’t pretend there was any grand plan. Or was there? Sometimes in hindsight it looks as if there might have been. But I wasn’t in control. I just stumbled there. Rightly or wrongly, some instinct kept me away from too much literary criticism. I think I’ve always been afraid it might jam me up, afraid that the drudgery of essays and exam answers might dim my passion. I’m glad that I was trained in linguistics. It has been such an enablement , and at so many levels. It’s not just the concentrated clarity which scientific rigor imposes, although I’m grateful for that...


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