Gill Books are delighted to announce bestselling author Mary O’Rourke as our first Ambassador for Reading. Earlier this week, Mary O’Rourke launched our new campaign, Books Are Good For You, encouraging the nation to read more. Get involved, pledge to read every day and win a year’s supply of books from Gill Books!
Mary O’Rourke will be choosing a new book every month. This March, it’s Soundings: Poems we did for our Leaving Cert. Read Mary’s blog on her days as a schoolteacher and a special place that this book holds in her own reading memory.
Gill Books in the last twelve months have issued many imaginative publications. Amongst the books issued and re-issued, one stands commandingly out to me. That is the re-issue of Soundings – Poems We Did for the Leaving Cert with a wonderful new forward by Joseph O’Connor. I feel a huge sense of love for Soundings.
The first edition was of course the work of Professor Augustine Martin – the person who revolutionised the whole teaching of poetry and brought such lustre to his position as Professor of Anglo Irish Literature in UCD. His sad and far too early demise in the mid-1990’s brought a sense of shock to so many.
Way back in the mid-fifties, I did my BA in the old UCD in Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin, now the home of the National Concert Hall (by the way, that conversion from dusty classrooms and echoing chambers of learning to the home of soaring concerts now was made beautifully and in character – a very rare occurrence).
As the readers will know, all first Arts students do a plethora of subjects of various kinds. I took English among others. At the end of first Arts, I achieved a reasonable and to me astonishing result. This result enabled me to go forward to do Group 4 English for second and third year leading to a major Degree in English with a subsidiary subject.
We were a very small bunch of students starting out at about twenty and ending up in our final term with a bunch of twelve disparate souls, widely different in character, background and temperament but we shared a wonderful palette of lecturers. I still remember the buoyant and wildly extravagant Professor Lorna Reynolds, the steady pace of Roger McHugh and so many others. I never minded going into lectures with such company. Because we were so few in number, we got to know one another well.
Among those students was Gus Martin. I remember him as a steady, imaginative student volunteering freely his views and often leading arguments with us after lectures were over. I followed his career always after that until, as I say, his untimely death.
Then in the late 1960’s, I started teaching in a girls’ secondary school in Athlone – Summerhill Convent and there, through the pages of his original Soundings book of poetry for Leaving Cert, we renewed our friendship. That was a wonderful pleasure but even more so was the pleasure I got from renewing my friendship with the wonderful poetry contained in that book. I loved teaching girls nearing young womanhood, aged 16, 17 and 18, bursting with ideas but overlaid with constant doubts about themselves, about their role in life, about their relationships with their family, with their peers and full of tentative worries about what the world could offer them.
To them the poems contained in Soundings were like an Aladdin’s cave – lids could be lifted to unexplained treasures of words, of imagination, of vistas, of far-off places. Every poem was accompanied by a wonderful glossary at the back where mysterious words could be explained. But young people don’t need explanations and together young students and myself explored the wonderful world of words. It always gave me great pleasure to encourage my students to read the poetry aloud and to themselves at their own pace, to stumble over the grand words but to read, read, read. As we know if you read aloud, the rhythm of the poem takes hold and somehow through the rhythm the meaning of the poem takes hold of the reader. After a couple of such readings, the intent of the poet and the message he/she is conveying become clear.
I never used the stereotype book which set out to explain what everything meant. There is only one explanation to the young mind of a poem and that is the reading of it and through the reading, the wonder of it shines through.
That is what I discovered anew when I perused my copy of Soundings for my fresh faced students. There were set poems laid out each year for the Leaving Cert course and these were the ones we studied firstly and at length, but I always encouraged another peak inside the book’s covers, another taste of that same poet way beyond the poems outlined for the utilitarian Leaving Certificate.
So what poems appealed to the students? The Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan unveiled itself as a stark reminder to the young minds who mostly came from rural County Roscommon backgrounds that there was poetry in freshly dug earth and that there were unexplained faintly understood mountains to climb if one had the inclination to so do. The wonder of Inniskeen Road: July Evening. The students always loved this poem: There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight. They could understand this poem because it related to their own life and suddenly poets didn’t become mysterious old men with beards, they were live people who were telling them stories and they could come back with their version of the same stories.
Emily Dickinson was another find for the students and a re-discovery for me. I will never forget the soaring words of: “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me. The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality”. Students relished these words not in a macabre sense but somehow like in a bolt of lightning, they understood. They felt an affinity across the Atlantic to the town of Amherst in Massachusetts. There Emily in her lonely room across the oceans and the centuries wrote such wonderful lines which students sitting in a dusty classroom in rural Ireland could enjoy and savour.
Lest I portray my students as budding Shakespeares, that is not so. Often they did not understand the poetry, but that was not the point. They enjoyed reading the poetry and enjoyed it because they were teenagers grasping with life, with relationships and with what lay ahead for them and suddenly the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Andrew Marvell and so many others lovingly gathered together by Gus Martin made sense to their often anguished minds.
I have my new copy of Soundings and find myself going frequently to it when all else fails me and as in the classroom of yore, I am renewed again in spirit and mind.
Get Soundings, read it again and again and you will be transported to delights of imagination.
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Soundings: Poems We Did for our Leaving Cert is available from Gill Books and all good bookshops nationwide.