Launch of Gerald Dawe's Selected Poems
Douglas Hyde Gallery
Trinity College Dublin
23 April 2012
Welcome everybody to this launch and to the first leg of Gerald Dawe's ‘world tour’ of Ireland.
I'm delighted that Gerry has chosen to launch his book and start his tour in Trinity, and that this evening is to feature readings from six Trinity poets and critics - six wonderfully diverse poets and critics, ranging from:
- Brendan Kennelly, our now retired Professor of Modern Literature and author of thirty books;
- to Eadaoin Lynch, who is in her final year here studying English;
- from Eilean Ni Chuilleanain who I last heard read in Moscow at the Ambassador's Residence, a poem to her son's marriage;
- to Iggy McGovern whose poem 'Grania' I had the pleasure to read for Lady Normanby.
This range shows the strength of poetry writing and teaching in Trinity. This is appropriate given how much Gerry has done for poetry and creative writing in this university.
Gerry has been on the staff here since 1988. And in 1998 he co-founded, with Brendan Kennelly, the Oscar Wilde Centre of Irish Writing, which is located in 21 Westland Row, Oscar Wilde's birthplace.
The Masters in Creative Writing, run from the Centre, is the first such programme ever offered in an Irish university. Its establishment was ground-breaking.
Trinity excels at interdisciplinary collaboration, fostered in centres of innovation and creativity - the Oscar Wilde Centre, the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, the Centre for Music Composition, the Long Room Hub; recently we have complemented these with the TCD-UCD Innovation Academy run from Foster Place.
None of these existed when I was an undergraduate here in the early Eighties. There were, of course, wonderfully creative individuals in College, but there was little emphasis on encouraging creativity as part of teaching.
Scholarly learning, on the one hand, and the kind of creativity these centres embody on the other, were seen somewhat apart from each other. To paraphrase Yeats, universities were 'monuments of unageing intellect' and not to be 'caught' as a matter of their nature 'in that sensual music' that goes on in the world outside them.
This new emphasis on fostering creativity and innovation is something we are tremendously excited by, and that we expect great things of – as a force for good, as a force for social and economic regeneration in this country.
Gerry is at the forefront of this change. The Oscar Wilde Centre has led the way in sending out the message that universities are not just about critiquing great works of art - but about creating them too. I congratulate Gerry, and Brendan, for this, and I thank you. You have combated the facile and pernicious Shavian notion that 'those who can't, teach.'
Gerry, in interviews, you have spoken out against [I quote] 'the arrogant assumption that because someone is a teacher, or a doctor, or a bus driver, or whatever, that they are somehow less a writer'.
You have pointed out that - yes, 'there is always going to be a tension between a teacher’s life and a writer's life, but it can be a fruitful tension'.
Since embarking on your career as lecturer and teacher, you have published eight books of poetry and four books of essays, and have been a source of inspiration for students – so you’ve obviously discovered how to make that tension fruitful.
Today we launch your Selected Poems – your greatest hits, as it were. As a noted lover of, and writer on, music – as indeed, I understand also a former rock musician - you are, I suspect, wary of Greatest Hits. The purist music lover doesn't have the Greatest Hits, or the Best Of, he has Astral Weeks and Avalon Sunset. But after an artist had produced a significant body of work, such as you have done, it is time to take stock and assess. From that point of view Greatest Hits or Selected Poems are indispensable.
So it is with this book, which starts with poems about Belfast, where you grew up – including, I note, a very fine poem on the signing of the Ulster Covenant in September 1912, which is of course particularly pertinent this centenary, and which will feature in the commemorations.
From Belfast, we move to rural Galway, to other European countries, which you travel across on boats and in trains.
Very naturally, if sadly, the images of Europe's tragic history take possession of you. Well – Europe's sombre images but its joyful images too. In so many of these poems ‘the brazen light of day’ is contrasted with ‘the shapes of installations in the darkness’.
It seems no accident that the book ends with the lines:
'cries of laughter, shouts of grief /
mingle and merge in the noonday sun'.
That ‘mingling and merging’ is part of the pleasure of reading these poems.
You may also be the first poet to ever write a poem to his inhaler! Anyone who has ever struggled for breath – will appreciate how the congestion of the opening of the poem clears as the narrator 'plays upon this alto of metered air'.
I congratulate you, Gerry, on the achievement that this book represents and I congratulate Gallery Press on the handsome production. Colm Toibin has called the Gallery Press 'probably one of the two or three best poetry presses in the world'. We in Trinity like that best-in–the-world feeling. The Gallery Press bears witness to the extraordinary strength of poetry on this island – a strength which, with the example and the teaching of Gerald Dawe, is set to continue.
But now I'll stop so we can get on with hearing these poems read by people who know how to read them.
Thank you very much.