You have passed on, but your words have not. I think there is an extra chamber in my heart where they fully inhabit, pumping wonder and beauty into the places in my being which need them the most. I know your words circle in others peoples hearts too, lining them with awe, and grace, and now an infinite beat of gratitude. We have much to thank you for.
You let your words rest on blank pages, arranged in configurations of strange symbols which we place together as consonants, then poems. But your configurations have a special quality, something rooted and ethereal at once. More constellation than star, more forest than seed. We could say your poems carry the touch of mystery, but I think you’d call it love instead; that your pen was a point of capture and your words a place of gathering, so we can see it more clearly, in the grass and the way light falls daily, or the way a cricket carries its song. You reminded us that it is all love really, this earthly presence of being, this wild and precious life.
Little did you know it Mary, but for more than half my life, since I first read your poems, you have come everywhere with me. I’ve packed you in my backpack and we have travelled the world. I’ve taken you on bus journeys, planes journeys, ferry rides and long undulating walks. We’ve stayed up late at night with a torch under the bedcovers. Do you remember the time when we on a beach in Greece reading poems to the sea? Or the time when my little dog sat beside me and I read your dog poems aloud to her? Or the multiple nights on my yoga mat, when you’d tuck into position by my side, and tell me, over and over, to trust in the way of things. You’d let me cry tears if needed, whether of joy or sadness, and you’d always wipe them with beauty. You have been my companion in dark corners and tunnels which I thought would never end. Your words, the best of friends. Your poems, a lighthouse.
‘You do not have to be good’, you whispered to me in one particular dark patch’, ‘you only have to let the soft animal of your body loves what it loves’. That became my mantra, recalled with regularity and devotion.
You have given instructions for living a life. ‘Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it’.In this, I can say, I am trying.
And you have reminded me that the ‘boxes of darkness can also be gifts’.I open them differently now.
You have said the world offers itself to our imaginations, no matter who we are, no matter how lonely. So you have been training me to seek the imaginative possibility. Belong to this world, you suggested, and give yourself to it, ‘married to amazement’.In this I can say I am wed, only my vows need to be renewed daily. Your poems take me there.
You have spared me the worry of haste and urgency. ‘Don’t worry’, you say, ‘things take the time they take’.
And then you offered me one question which thread so close that is has changed everything. ‘So, tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’. I wake up with those words on my lips and each day I long to live into them. It it the best kind of quest.
Yours was wild, yours was precious, and you have made mine all richer through the gifting of your gift. I hope to thank you in the pay it forward kind of way, in a way I think you’d like, with the simple gestures of love, and a heart seeking always to speak to the wonder of it all.
Rest in peace dear Mary Oliver. May your words work their infinite wonder in the hearts of many more,
The circle of the year is turning. As the leaves fall back home to the earth, and the evenings begin to turn in on themselves, there is a signalling to gather. Inwards.
The fire is lit. The poetry books are scattered around a low coffee table. The invite had been sent a few weeks previously. The season of the poetry salon is upon us. Now, all there is left to do is light some candles, and wait. ‘Whoever comes are the right people’, ‘Whenever it starts is the right time’. I reiterate some gathering guidelines I learned through the Art of Hosting community. They remind me that once an intention is set, once the foundations have been laid with beauty, beauty can only be braided deeper, whatever form it takes. This is not about numbers, after all, but about the act of gathering, and listening, and leaning into the space between friends and strangers, with poetry as the gateway and the salon as the template.
Lady Wilde, or ‘Speranza’ was a woman who lived up to her name, or so the accounts of the 1860s would have us believe. Oscar Wilde’s mother, a poet, Irish nationalist, folklorist and passionate women’s rights advocate, was a gatherer and host of one of the most notorious and flamboyant Dublin salons. Number One Merrion Square, grand and elegant, opened its doors to the literati, musicians, artists, social commentators, medics, law makers and perhaps law breakers, of the time. Under candlelight they gathered to discuss a gamut of affairs and culture. W.B Yeats, Ruskin and suffragist Millicent Fawcett, were all said to have crossed the door, with a young Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves.
Lady Wilde’s salon was not in isolation. Across Europe, from Italy to France in the 17th and 18th centuries, salons were places for the circulation of ideas, knowledge and conversation. Often hosted by women, the salon was a ground for the development of an active civic and public life. We can assume these gathering places were not always sober, and not necessarily always civil, but they did create public places for the gathering of difference, for dialogue and debate outside the formal realms of either church or state. They brought together the intersections of disciplines and sectors, where the rules of one did not outweigh the rules of another. Put a woman in the centre of things, especially in those times, especially in Ireland, and here are the ingredients for ripe and radical activism. Here was a way to do things differently.
We have Twitter now of course. And we have digital discussion rooms. But here we also have the digital infrastructure for polarisation and fraction to escalate. We have fear, and worse still, fear mongering. The institutions which one held the power and prestige are crumbling around us and in many cases, rightly so. But I question the spaces in which ‘conversations’ are happening. I watched the recent Presidential debates in Ireland for instance, and I wondered, ‘Where is the room for genuine listening? Where is the room for robust debate, unpinned with respect, and dare I say it, perhaps the most radical word of all, love. There was a poet in the midst too, running for re-election, now under attack for caring to too much about things that do not have a direct economic value. Things like poetry, and things like dignity. Would we, as a nation, dare to listen?
You find the respect in pockets of course, and the digital world can amplify those pockets. I find it with writers, like the environmentalist Terry Tempest WilIiams and Robert McFarlane, with social commentators like Rebecca Solnit, and I find it in online watering holes like BrainPickings and On Being, the latter offering us guidelines for convening with their ‘Grounding Virtues’. I love how words like ’Generous Listening’, ‘Adventurous Civility’, and ‘Humility’, are now active and explicit participants in this online space, values which I know spill over and enliven their public events. Here too: a template.
Right out at the edge of Europe on the west coast of Ireland, my little home goes by the name of ‘Wren Cottage’. It’s no Number One Merrion Square, but it’s cozy and if there are not enough chairs there are always cushions and floor space. Knock on the door by knock on the door, a little flock gathers. Some have come before, some are new. Tea is made, more logs on the fire, and we make our way naturally into a circle. I mention briefly the history of the salons, thinking of Lady Wilde, and I make reference to On Being’s ‘Grounding Virtues’. There is not much need for small talk and soon the poetry takes over. By way of tradition, Mary Oliver opens, then Rilke joins the chorus. There are sighs of awe, and sighs of not knowing what to say because the poem is just beyond words. The poems leave trails around the room. Another participant picks up a scent and offers fresh language into the circle.Then we laugh and marvel at Sharon Olds’ poem about breasts, and we delight in the spaciousness in the language of the Chinese poet Zhao Lihong, a poet new to most of us. Convulsions of laughter ripple outwards in thinking about Rumi on a modern dating site. The laughter builds a deeper bond. The circle tightens.
As the salon continues, I am aware of a friend of mine, attending an environmental conference in the US on the same weekend. It is a place for bringing together activists and changemakers. But he speaks of the fear in the room, and an intense anger too. He speaks of the deep deep grief for these times we are in, and a sense of paralysed frenzy. It makes us wonder, ‘What room for joy amidst such times? What room for beauty? And definitely, what room for poetry?’ A while later he sends me some words from another role model in our midst, the scholar and activist, Joanna Macy, on this thing called ‘Active Hope’;
‘Active Hope is not wishful thinking. Active Hope is not waiting to be rescued by some saviour. Active Hope is waking up to the beauty of life on whose behalf we can act.. a readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts, our quickness of mind, our steadiness of purpose, our own authority, our love of life, the liveliness of our curiosity, the unsuspected deep well of patience and diligence, the keenness of our senses, and our capacity to lead. None of these can be discovered in an armchair or without risk’.
Around the circle the fire crackles and the flames spark. More tea is made. In my Celtic tradition, like so many indigenous traditions around the world, the circle was the primary shape of things. Stone circles. Fairy rings. In the shape of the circle is the container for the whole; fear and grief, joy and beauty. The circle holds both yin and yang, the masculine and the feminine, the light and the dark. It’s not a place for blind optimism, wishful thinking, nor deepest despair. Instead is a place to return those things back to their wholeness with a singular message: we are in this together.
I am interested in the intersections of things: ‘Where do you end and I begin?; Where does fear become courage?; Where do the arts become activism?; Where does beauty simply beget beauty and joy beget joy? In dark and challenging times, I’m with Joanna Macy on this: there is a radicalism in insisting on beauty and joy, for the very amplification of those things. Yes: Active Hope.
With that we get to ask questions like this: What if we didn’t need more platforms for opinions, but more platforms for presence and connection instead? What if our presidential candidates were seated in a circle, grounded in virtues and invited first to listen, then to speak. What if instead of defending a position, they were asked to defend their values? Then read a poem.
Last week, the Irish nation took to the polls. The poet was re-elected. Our president speaks of the power of words, and values. ‘We are in a time of transformation and there is a momentum for empathy, compassion, inclusion and solidarity which must be recognised and celebrated’, Michael D Higgins said at this acceptance speech, ‘Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide’.
The thing is this: people got up from their armchairs. They voted. They dared. Not all of us, not enough of us, but enough to #keepthepoet . Enough to insist on words mattering, and dignity too.
Back around the fire our poems circled and circled. Towards the end of the evening, my friend Orlagh suggested we each write a question on a post-it note. Any question, any question at all. Then we’d gather those questions to see how they converge. A few minutes later there is a shriek at the back of the kitchen where Orlagh is curating the post-it’s as an archivist would, or an archeologist. Two of us have written the exact same question. ‘Where does poetry come from and where does it go to?’ And the other questions? Well this is what emerged; a poem, written by the whole, from our wren circle:
Where do poems live when the book is closed?
Why does the light on the sea always stretch towards you,
Why do the stars stare?
Where does poetry come from and where does it go?
If the news showed poems instead of the tragic, what would the world become?
When is the Tao not the Tao?
Only in the forgetting of love.
Do I dare?
Around the circle, awe rolls out into the night with hints of laughter and impossible delight. I can feel Lady Wilde smiling from the great beyond, and Oscar Wilde listening in from the alcoves. This thing we are in together? We think it might be magic. If only we can get out of our way long enough to get out of our armchairs and hear the poetry of the world rising. I think the circle might just be our ears. And the salon? Well that’s up to you. Now you have a template. Go.
December can be such a whirl – the noise of busyness, the demands of the season.
So, how about treating yourself to 15 minutes of poetry and stories of poems.
Over the course of the month I will be sharing 10 poetry salons with the invitation to pull up a chair, listen in, and tune into the space and deep questions which the poems may open up inside of you. I really hope you enjoy – it has been such a pleasure to put these together of you. Please feel free to share with others who you think could dose with a dose of poetry at the moment too!
But I don’t know where to start?
But how do I know if I am on the right path?
But I have so many ideas and interests I don’t know what to follow first?
‘Start close in’
That’s a line from a beautiful David Whyte poem.
‘Don’t take the second step/ or the third/ start with the first thing/ close in/ the step you don’t want to take’
In the world of options and openings, in the world of possibility and promise, there are many pathways. As we fill our world with media and screens and flickering glittering lights, it can be hard stop, let alone start. We jump ahead of ourselves. We follow a flock just because there is already movement there. We expect the answers elsewhere, externally.
‘Start close in’
You see, our bodies know. The intimacies of our cells and the spaces between the fibres of our inner being know when we are on the right track. They vibrate with aliveness and seek out the mystery. They are generous and open and communicative with the very thing that sets them vibrating.
And when we’re not on the right path? We’ll, it’s contraction. It’s that deep pit in the stomach, distinct from nerves, which offers us ominous signs. It’s a tightening in the shoulders, a gripping of the jaw, a fake smile, an endless tiredness, an apathy that laces us up from within. Sometimes you can’t rationalise it. But you know.
To stop is to face up to it and really listen. To stop can be the biggest, boldest move you will ever make. It is then that you’ll know you have to shake things up and make that daring move- leave a job, leave a relationship, face up to your addiction, apologise. You feel a quickening, and simultaneously the world that was known to you- your crutches and your vices- begin to rattle and wobble. No wonder you feel shaken.
‘Start with the ground you know’, Whyte adds. It is a nod to what will steady us; ‘the pale ground beneath your feet, your way of opening the conversation’
In learning to stand with solid feet on the ground, we learn to steady ourselves. We learn to take responsibility for our own presence here; the weight of our beingness, the quality of our relationship with our own aliveness. And when we stand still, and start there, we allow the silence in. This is a real place of courage and bravery: the place we find when we stop.
We quickly learn that the silence isn’t really silence. It too has a voice. It resonates with the conversation we are inviting with ourselves. The real conversation. It welcomes in questions we haven’t wanted to face; the hard, bitter and challenging questions which we know will change us. The silence fine tunes our bodies so we can trust again, knowing what doors to close.As the silence rests in our bodies we can respond again to the clues that will set us on the right path. The silence is the key.
So, when you are wondering what is the next best thing to do or when you are unclear of the path, can you make space for the silence?
Can you choose to stop, to ground and find a way back into yourself because the wonderful thing is that when you start close in, you continue close in. You are closer to your own truth. This can be your gift to the world, for there you will be a better guide to others. There you can be a listening ear, a balm or a brave companion to another. And that way, together, we all can find our way to our own first steps, close in.
Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.
Start with the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet, your own way of starting the conversation.
Start with your own question, give up on other people’s questions, don’t let them smother something simple.
To find another’s voice, follow your own voice, wait until that voice becomes a private ear listening to another.
Start right now take a small step you can call your own don’t follow someone else’s heroics, be humble and focused, start close in, don’t mistake that other for your own.
Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.
The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life.
The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.
I think it is fair to say that Martin Dyar has a way with words. His poems pack powerfully gentle punches, turning you to cadences and verbal connections which you may never have experienced before. They become particularly alive when read aloud; his own renditions doing them the best justice. For a while I hosted a poetry evening in my home (soon to be reactivated!). On the occasions when Martin would come, he made the whole experience into treasure- his knowledge of poetry, and beyond it, his passion for poetry, would fill any room with light.
Martin’s debut collection of poems Maiden Names (Arleen House, 2013) was a book of the year selection in both the Guardian and The Irish Times, and was shortlisted for both the Pigott Poetry Prize and the Shine/ Strong Awards. He has also written a play, Tom Loves a Lord, about the Irish poet Thomas Moore. He won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2009, and the Strokestown International Award in 2001. He is currently working on his first novel.
I am delighted to bring you Creative Islander… Martin Dyar:
What keeps you in Ireland?
A strong sense of home, a sense of possibility, and maybe from time to time the special historical sense of this being a writer’s island. Ireland is an endless, beautifully eccentric subject.
What makes you tick?
I am motivated by the curious optimism of the instinct to pursue a writing life. It kicked in early, with its own meaning, and I am following and responding as best I can.
What do you do just for the love of it?
I sometimes get up from my desk and dance. It mortifies my dog. Recent songs that have got me to my feet are ‘The Way Young Lovers Do’ by Van Morrison, and even mellower things, like ‘Caught a Long Wind’ by Feist. The American novelist Johnathan Franzen made a very memorable remark about creative commitment, along the lines of: ‘In order to be relentless, first you must love the thing.’ It is hard to be in love with the whole experience of writing. But the good days are full of amazement, and they can be magically restorative.
Photos: Clare Mulvany
What does the creative process teach you?
My learned process has taught me the skill of expressing before thinking. A central concern is to parry the shadows of perfectionism and self-criticism. I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is some truth in the idea that if you can speak you can write. I prefer to generate looser improvised material and then accept a longer process of finalisation than to sit there invoking inspiration and begging the page to reveal a single path. I’m debunking the muse a bit perhaps, but there is also the sense of the artist as a channel, and there are certain experiences which are best explained by that term. Neil Young once said, ‘When the songs are coming, it’s my job to get out of the way.’ That’s a massively idealistic remark, but then Neil Young may well have been born with a cosmic tap inside his head.
Why do you do what you do?
I don’t know why I started. But I keep going to honour the special echoes that still reach me from the beginning. Also, I believe in poetry and fiction as essential forms of communication. A good poem can stop time. The poem ‘Reuben Bright’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson can stop time when read aloud. The novel ‘The Member of the Wedding’ by Carson McCullers stopped time for me recently.
What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?
I played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in secondary school in Swinford in County Mayo. I was thirteen, and my mother and I somehow made easy work of memorising the lines. I recall being asked to write a poem in an English class around the same time, and lifting my head after about twenty minutes in a crazed peace and satisfaction. In 2000 I spent a year in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. I was hungry to learn and to get my writing dream off the ground. It seemed that all of the faculty and graduate students in Carbondale were going around saying vatic and pithy things about what stories and poems were and where they came from. ‘Go back to your story,’ the fiction writer Beth Lordan, a powerful mentor, used to say, ‘Your story will tell you what she needs.’
I won the Stokestown International Poetry Award in 2001, and that depth-charge of encouragement, and the localised thrill of the Strokestown festival, and the people I met through that experience, helped me to get serious and perhaps through the lastingness of those happy memories, to stay serious about my work. I was quite young, but terribly hungry to proceed. I would also say that the process of doing a PhD in Trinity was a great help, both in terms of the people I met, and the discipline that had to be mustered. I was an Assistant Warden in Trinity Hall, the university’s off-campus accommodation facility on Dartry road, during that time. A formative, and very happy period. I was subsequently a lecturer in the School of Medicine in Trinity, teaching ethics and literature. That exposure to the language of medical education, the privilege of teaching medical students, and the experience of hunting for the poetry of science with them, has branded my writing mind entirely. More recently, a year spent at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa was like following the pied piper into the mountain and then discovering a tumult of generosity and inspiration.
Photo: Performing in Tom Loves a Lord
How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?
I swim every day, I walk the dog three times a day. These are tools and ways to retreat, and maybe amulets of a kind. But the only way unfortunately to get unstuck is to write. Maybe allowing oneself to write badly is the best way to get unstuck.
Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?
I can find inspiration in stories, poems and plays. When something really grabs me, really excites me, I will sometimes begin to hatch new dreams of writing. Recently, I was spellbound and boosted by Edna O’Brien’s story Baby Blue. I’ll always remember seeing Declan Conlon play John Proctor in The Crucible at the Abbey. And I feel I’m still recovering from the glory of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer, also in the Abbey. John McGahern’s story ‘The Country Funeral’, whenever I go it, draws me right in, and then makes me want to roll up my sleeves.
How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?
I’m a talker, a social person, and yet my work has always been solitary. Tough times I’ve learned require buckets of language, delivered face to face. But writing is a healing activity too, and a way to say something about the inevitability of darkness.
What key lessons have you learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way?What have you learned from your ‘failures’?
I’m thinking of Johnathan Franzen’s ‘First you must love the thing’ line again. Failure educates of course, but the springs of perseverance abide in a simple, private commitment to the act that is the centre of your art form. A new inscription: ‘First you must love the early night.’ My writing experience has also taught me that doubt is a dynamic force.
Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?
I like to set up my desk before going to bed. And I like to write early in the morning. It’s the most productive time, or maybe the best time to trap a bit of timelessness.
What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to?
Timebends, Arthur Miller’s autobiography.
The plays of Conor McPherson.
The novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
The short stories of Edna O’Brien and John Cheever.
John McGahern’s novels, especially The Pornographer, and That They May Face the Rising Sun.
The poems of Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Wallace Stevens, and Richard Wilbur.
The novel The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
The story ‘What Kind of Day Did You Have?’ by Saul Bellow.
W.B. Yeats’s poems ‘Her Praise’ and ‘Ego Dominus Tuus.’
The novel Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor
The Lifelong Season by Keith Duggan
What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?
I feel I had a very good start. But nothing can reduce the difficulty or the fearfulness of choosing a creative path. I recall feeling a sense of trepidation when I told my father that I wanted to be a writer. I felt I was confessing that I wasn’t going to be able to knuckle down with a real career. I also understood it as a promise of trouble. “I want to be a writer, Dad,” I said. “And nothing else.” My father thought for a moment, and then replied, “Well, you have plenty of paper.”
And what advice would you give to your future self?
I’d have to say something like ‘Don’t look back.’ There’s a wonderful moment in Rilke’s poem ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.’ Orpheus has chanted his way into the underworld and bargained for his love Eurydice’s release. Now he has the task of hiking back up to the surface, with the messenger god Hermes leading Eurydice along behind him in the darkness. It has been agreed that they will have another life together if Orpheus manages not to look back during the ascent. He succeeds in the challenge for a time, but then, tormented by the fear that she is no longer following him, he turns around. Here Rilke adds a magnificently poignant touch to the original myth. The poem portrays Eurydice as too deep in her death for revival, suggesting that if Orpheus had fulfilled the task their reunion might still have been doomed. When Hermes sees that Orpheus has looked back, he officiously raises his cloak and turns to lead Eurydice away from the light. By way of instructing her to return to the belly of the earth with him, he tells her simply: ‘He has turned around.’ Rilke puts one word in drowzy Eurydice’s mouth. She asks, “Who?”
I’m thinking that I am powerless to reach my future self, and that he might not remember me. I’m writing for him maybe. But I hope he won’t be living in the past. My favourite closing lines of any book are in John Banville’s novel Athena. The lines are: “‘Write to me,’ she said. ‘Write to me.’ I have written.”
Thank you so much Martin for your time and your eloquent insights- So very much appreciated, and I have no doubt that readers will appreciate them too.- Clare.
Have you spotted my new online course? Living Seasonally is a 5 day journey to dive into your dreams and visions, and create plans of action in tune with your energy. It start this coming Monday 24th August. There is still time to sign up. Head on over here to find out more.