Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Poem I May Never Write


Some readers of this blog might think that I have never had a moment's thought that I didn't turn into a poem, or a story, or a blog post. But in fact there are some ideas that I have never been able to successfully translate into words. This evening I found myself thinking specifically of a poem that I have wanted to write for many years-- one that I have tried to write on several occasions-- but which I've never succeeded in writing.

(It isn't the only such example. In fact, there is a poem that I've wanted to write for decades. It's a poem about the depths concealed behind every human eye, the idea that the human eye is more beautiful than any gemstone.)

More recently-- for five years or so-- I've grappled with a subject for a poem that I've never been able to bring off. I've actually produced several poems which tried to be this poem, but which weren't.

It's about the fountain in the Omni shopping centre in Dublin's Santry, pictured above. But, of course, it's about much more. Or it would be, if I ever wrote it.

The fountain in the Omni has long been, to me, a symbol of something I can't express very easily. I could say "Life", which would be accurate-- but which wouldn't explain anything. I could say, "The infinite energy of life", which would be accurate-- but which wouldn't explain much more. I could say, "The beauty of the ordinary", which would be accurate, but which still wouldn't capture it.

But, if I can't capture it in poetry, how could I capture it in prose?

Nonetheless, you know what I'm getting at. I'm sure it is something that all of us have felt. It is expressed in the poetry of Walt Whitman. It is a constant theme in the writing G.K. Chesterton. It is marvellously conveyed in my favourite movie, Groundhog Day.

It is what we feel when we look at some old mural, or painting, or story-- from the friezes in Pompei, to the vignettes in The Canterbury Tales-- and we find ourselves recognizing, across the centuries, the same carnival of playing children, huckstering traders, pranking students, drinking men, and mooning teenagers-- that continues around us, in the streets and living rooms and pubs and schools of the world, every minute of the day.

It is the sensation we feel when we look at "the Blue Marble", the famous first picture of the Earth taken from space.

It is well expressed in the line from the TV series, John Adams, when the former President of America, in retirement, says: "I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there."

I always hear it particularly in the sound of children playing in the street, drifting through an open window. But I hear it just as much in the memories of old men and old women-- and, indeed, in the memories of not-so-old men and not-so-old women.

I hear it in proverbs and jokes and popular nicknames and every sort of folklore.

I encounter in the beautiful poem of Patrick Pearse, 'The Wayfarer', that my aunt Kitty had mounted and framed in her kitchen (with a picture of a ladybird), and which I've quoted on this blog before:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.


I meet it in Hallmark shops, and crowded city centres, and empty cinemas before the movie begins.

I sense it when I hear a renewal of some old, old debate-- whether it's about the existence of God or the best James Bond.

I find it especially in Christmas trees and Halloween bonfires.

I find it in hype and commercialism and cliché and old wives tales and motivational posters.

It hits me whenever I realise that every environment-- an office, or a hospital ward, or a dormitory, or a football club-- has a life and a memory and a soul all of its own. It hits me when I realise that a newborn baby already has a personality.

And I see a unique symbol of it in the fountain in the Omni Centre, Santry. When I tell people about my love for this fountain, I sometimes regret it, because they tell me about bigger and better and more spectacular fountains. But I don't want bigger and better and more spectacular. The fountain in the Omni is, for me, the perfect expression of what I'm invoking here.

 It's just the right size, and just the right height, and in just the right surroundings and atmosphere. The water pumps at just the right pressure. People pay it just the right amount of attention. it's the centrepiece of the shopping centre, but the likelihood is low that any given person is looking at it at any given time-- although people sit at its edges, and the dining areas of three cafés look onto it.

Sometimes it's switched off-- and yet, for me, it's a symbol of the eternal, or the eternal-in-the-everyday-- what Louis MacNeice described as "foaming, never finished, never the same twice."

It's a symbol of The People-- The People who are so sentimental, reactionary, novelty-hunting, acquisitive, generous, impulsive, fickle, stubborn, tribal, universal, and anything else you please. But it's only a symbol of The People in the way that Chesterton specified: "In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody."

Even thinking of this poem often brings me to tears. It brings me to tears especially when I think of all the wars and disasters and tragedies and plagues that have failed to dry up this fountain-- that haven't even impeded it for a moment. Whenever I read about the Blitz or the Holocaust or the Black Death or communism, one thing is poignantly clear-- that life went on, even in the valley of death, even in the shadow of apocalypse, with hardly-slackened vitality-- and that all of these horrors were instantly absorbed in myth, memory, humour and storytelling.

The refrain of this poem haunts me, but I can't think of the right verb. The fountain thunders on? The fountain surges on?  The fountain rushes on?

Perhaps I shall never write this poem.

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