BACHE Visiting Writers Series: Joan McBreen and the Sound of Poetry
Poetry readings, at least in the popular imagination, are typically construed as exercises in the intentional fallacy. Audiences come to poetry readings expecting the poet to explain what he or she really meant or to ask about the poet’s inspiration. These audiences believe that listening to a poet read his or her own work will somehow allow them to “crack the code” to discover the poem’s one true meaning. However, in a literary landscape in which the author is not only dead but has also gone cold and been buried, the poet has no greater voice in interpreting a poem than the reader. In this way, the fascination with hearing a poet read his or her own work is somewhat archaic—more appropriate to an age of oral poetry sung by bards in mead halls than the quiet lecture halls of universities. When Samford students and faculty gathered to hear Irish poet Joan McBreen read selections from her poetry earlier this fall, however, McBreen changed what could have been a simple poetry reading into an exploration of the relationship between poetry and music.
Poetry, as literary critics have often noted, has an inherent musical quality. When poetry is read out loud, it takes on a rhythm and cadence similar to that of a song. As the poet emphasizes and deemphasizes words, speeds up over certain passages and slows down over others, and adjusts the pitch of his or her voice to give the words of the poem an emotional immediacy, the audience—listening in contrasting silence—has an experience similar to that of a concert. After all, there is a reason poetry readings hearken back to an age of bards and mead halls: poetry and music were originally combined. At least in the Western poetic tradition, poetry began as verses sung over musical accompaniment with a live audience. The two were so closely linked that the modern practice of reading poetry without music would seem strange to our original poets and boring to their original audiences. McBreen is interested in a new type of poetry reading: one that incorporates the power of music to create something beyond the limits of either poetry or music alone.
During the reading, McBreen intermittently played recordings of traditional Irish music to complement her poetry. She would read a few poems, pause, play a recording of a song, and then continue reading once the song was over. The music, the audience gradually discovered, was just as much a part of the reading as the poetry. To end the reading, McBreen sat down as part of the audience while she played recordings of several traditional Irish songs, making the music the final focus of the reading. This combination of music and poetry is only a part of McBreen’s larger project to explore the relationship between language and sound. In 2004 she released a CD compilation titled The Long Light on the Land, which featured McBreen reading poetry over traditional Irish and classical music. Once again, the poetry and the music are given equal weight in creating the experience of the CD. With this collection, McBreen is participating in a tradition that is both new and old: she is taking advantage of modern technology to release her poetry as audio instead of text at the same time that she is returning to an age of oral poetry.
For McBreen, music and poetry fulfill the same roles. Both music and poetry have the ability to cross cultural, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. The sound of a song or a poem remains beautiful whether it is heard in Sligo, Ireland, or in Birmingham, Alabama; in Irish or in English; yesterday or today. Music and poetry both have the ability to preserve traditional Irish heritage while representing the current Irish experience; they inform and complement each other. As a result, the most accurate symbol of McBreen’s poetry may be the young musician playing an old song. The song can be hundreds or even thousands of years old, but each young musician’s interpretation of the song will always remain new. In this way, the young musician not only preserves the traditional music but also revives it and makes it relevant for a contemporary audience.
It is this role that McBreen occupies in the current state of Irish poetry. A prominent anthologist, McBreen works to collect the poetry of younger poets in volumes such as The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets and The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth-Century Irish Women Poets. At the same time, McBreen cites older poets who were deeply engaged in reviving traditional Irish forms such as William Butler Yeats, Louis MacNeice, and the recently deceased Seamus Heaney as primary influences. Just as her reading attempted to bridge two closely related forms, music and poetry, McBreen’s work can be understood to bridge time frames as well: past, present, and future. Tapping into a longstanding poetic tradition in Ireland while recasting it in her own voice, McBreen’s career stands as a model for this and the next generation of Irish poets.
McBreen, Joan. The Long Light on the Land. Ernest Lyons Production, 2004. CD. ---. The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets. Knockeven, Ireland: Salmon Publishing, 2009.
---. The White Page/ An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth-Century Irish Women Poets. Knockeven, Ireland: Salmon Publishing, 2000.
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