‘Who reads poetry?’ asks Ireland’s Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Who are the readers of poetry? This was the provocative question explored by Ireland’s Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin at the annual Ireland Chair of Poetry lecture held in Trinity College Dublin on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

In her lecture, Professor Ní Chuilleanáin explored the relationship between the poet and their reader or audience, and considered how this has been affected by factors including the popular image of the poet, the historical moment in which the poet has written and been read, and the gender of both poet and reader.

The public lecture, entitled ‘I have my people and they are waiting: Who are the readers of poetry?’, forms part of Professor Ní Chuilleanáin’s public engagement programme as holder of the Ireland Chair of Poetry. The title of her lecture was drawn from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘The Same Again’ —  “I have my friends, my public, and they are waiting/ For me to come again as their one and only bard”.

Professor Ní Chuilleanáin gave the audience a glimpse of her own reading as a teenager and young poet, and looked at how poets are represented – often humorously and unfavourably – in the fiction of the early twentieth century, by writers including Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers, and George Orwell.

She also questioned whether the relationship between the poet and the public has historically been different in Ireland than elsewhere, discussing W. B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh’s difficulties with readers and audiences, comic depictions of poets in Joyce’s Ulysses and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, and a poem by Nuala Ní Dhomnaill, ‘You Are’, which she translated from the Irish.

Professor Ní Chuilleanáin also spoke about the relationships which exist between readers themselves – when, and how, readers might become communities. “The duty of the reader is to recognise the existence of poetry as a separate mode, and then to realise the importance of the words,” she said. “What helps, it seems, is to be part of an audience, which can be as tight as a family or a dinner-table, or as loose as the readership of a magazine.”

In reaching this conclusion, she drew on Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, and the unique personal example of the commonplace books kept by her mother and later by her sister in adolescence, into which they copied poems which were especially significant to them. These books, she said, are “the evidence that I have that a poem can reach its reader across cultural and temporal and national gaps”.

The Ireland Chair of Poetry was established by the Arts Council/ An Chomhairle Ealaíon, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast and University College Dublin to celebrate the exceptional contribution of Irish poets to the world of literature.Professor Ní Chuilleanáin, a Fellow of Trinity and former member of the School of English, was appointed to the Chair in 2016.  She is the seventh Irish Professor of Poetry, taking up the position from its previous holder, Paula Meehan, in 2016.

Introducing Professor Ní Chuilleanáin, Professor Nicholas Grene, Professor Emeritus, Trinity and Trustee of the Ireland Chair of Poetry, praised the “grace and daring” of her poetry, through which “she gives us free access to her own astounding imaginative world”.

Speaking about Professor Ní Chuilleanáin’s contribution to Irish literature he said: “Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s elusive and allusive lyric poems are compelling in the beauty of their formal control and the resonance of their images.  And as veteran editor of Cyphers, the literary magazine she co-founded in 1975, few can know the Irish literary scene as well as she does.  She is thus perfectly qualified for the distinguished position she now holds as Ireland Professor of Poetry.  In that capacity we welcome her back to Trinity where, as Emeritus Fellow and Associate Professor of English, she has of course never really left.”

More about Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin:

Eiléan Ni Chuilleanáin has long been established as one of the leading Irish poets of her generation, and her appointment to the Ireland Chair of Poetry in 2016 was widely recognised as the fitting tribute to her extraordinary achievement.  She has been an important advocate and spokesperson for poetry, both as an editor of the long-running journal Cyphers which she helped to found, and in her outreach activities such as the poetry workshops in schools and prisons which she has led with her husband, the poet Macdara Woods.

Born in Cork, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Acts and Monuments (1966), which won the Patrick Kavanagh Award; The Magdalene Sermon (1989); The Girl Who Married a Reindeer (2001); Selected Poems (2009); and The Sun-fish (2010), which won the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Her most recent volume, The Boys of Bluehill (2015), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. She translated two books by the Romanian poet Ileana Malancioiu, After the Raising of Lazarus (2005) and The Legend of the Walled-Up Wife (2012), as well as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s The Water Horse (2001, co-translated with Medbh McGuckian.  A fine scholar and teacher as well as a poet and translator, she is an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College Dublin where she taught from 1966 until her retirement as Professor of English in 2011.  She is a member of Aosdána, the Irish affiliation of writers and artists.

More about The Ireland Chair of Poetry:

The Ireland Chair of Poetry Trust was set up in 1998 following the award of the Nobel Prize of Literature to Seamus Heaney and is jointly supported by Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

Every three years a poet of honour and distinction is chosen to represent the Chair as Ireland’s Professor of Poetry. During their tenure the holder spends a year attached to each of the three universities and resides for a period of approximately eight weeks at each. While in residence, the poet gives informal workshops or readings, spends time working with students and performing outreach work and makes one formal presentation a year, usually in the form of a lecture.

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is the seventh Irish Professor of Poetry, taking up the position from its previous holder, Paula Meehan, in 2016.  John Montague was the first Ireland Professor of Poetry from 1998 to 2001 and was followed by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill in 2001. Paul Durcan was the third Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2004 to 2007. Michael Longley was the fourth Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2007 to 2010. Harry Clifton was the fifth Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2010 to 2013. Paula Meehan was the sixth Ireland Professor of Poetry, 2013 to 2016. http://irelandchairofpoetry.org/

Cover photo: Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin with former Irish Professor of Poetry Paula Meehan on the occasion of her appointment in 2016.

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