Poetry is hard. Isn't it? It carries a lifetime's worth of baggage, all the way back to school and having to swot reams of it for exams. That's no way to learn about it -- or, no way to learn how to appreciate it.
The late Josephine Hart must have thought so, too. The Mullingar woman is a published author herself (her novel, Damage, was made into a movie by Louis Malle in 1992), but she is beloved among the literati for her Poetry Hours, during which time she would not only have invited a famous actor along to recite, but she herself would give incisive and entertaining background into the life of the man, or woman, of the moment.
This book is a collection of Hart's introductions from those events, and damned if I am not sorry I couldn't have been there in person.
The 19 poets range from Christina Rosetti to Sylvia Plath, from Philip Larkin to Walt Whitman, and in each essay, she presents us with a human being, whose life experiences infused their work.
Samples of those works follow the essays, and suddenly, what was once formal now feels lively, what was once a rhythm that made the poem easier to memorise is now music that sings the words.
I say 'essay' for lack of a better word: these pieces are exactly as she had presented them, live, during the series. She is wry, humourous, and anecdotal, and sometimes errs on the reader being more familiar than she is with the life of the poet under discussion.
Not often, though, and for those who may have liked to rescue poetry from the maw of past, bitter experience, this book is the way to go.
THE LAUGHTER OF MOTHERS
by Paul Durcan
Harvill Secker, 2012, €15.75
I picked up this book to refresh my memory before I wrote this review, and got lost all over again in the poetry of Paul Durcan. He makes me laugh, and makes me wonder, in the true sense of the word, how he can do so. His tone so colloquial and yet so artful, so often hilarious, so often heart-wrenching. Half of the poems are about his mum, and half about contemporary life in general. In total, they are lovely, vibrant, and moving.
TUSCANY AND UMBRIA: POETRY OF PLACE
by Gaia Servadio
Oh, to slip this wee book into my pocket and go for a wander in the north of Italy! Servadio has assembled poems to stir the Italophiles among us to hit the road. Background intervention is terse, which could go either way: well, if you just want the poems, or poorly if you're feeling educable.
REFLECTIONS FROM THE HEART
by Verona Petony
Universal, 2012, €10 ****
The debut collection of the Dublin poet, Reflections From the Heart distills everyday experience into verse. Petony's topics are all close to the art of the title: grief, loss, and fear are all emotions that have been stirred up by world events, much less personal episodes with each.
Her voice is at its best when it is detached, yet still invested in the emotion at hand, less so when one feels that that voice is still experiencing the mood. Support your local artist at veronapetony.com
THE world'S wife
by Carol Ann Duffy
Picador, 2000, €14.50 ****
England's Poet Laureate takes us on a journey to the other side of the story, creating the female counterpoints of famous men. Queen Kong, Mrs Darwin, and Frau Freud, to name only three, give their version of history, wittily. Duffy's writing is spare, incisive, yet evocative and highly entertaining. This is a great gift to give to the smart woman in your life.
the new faber book of love poems
by James Fenton
Faber, 2008, €14.50
One star off for not being all that new, but it earns the other four, for being utterly comprehensive.
All your love needs are included, be you hetero, homo, or lesbian.
Fans of centuries past are as well-catered-to as are contemporary poetry lovers. Lads: Valentine's Day is February 14. Need I say more?