Words of Life and Death: Poetry and Culture in Crisis – Pádraig Ó Tuama

By Dr Beth Dodd

This series of events brought together poets from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and poetic schools to speak about matters of life, death and poetry. These are universal discussions, but perhaps heightened by the ongoing crises currently facing our world.

In the final session we welcomed the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, who led the conflict resolution organization, the Corrymeela Community, from 2014-2019. Informed by this work and by his own experiences, his poetry and theology reflects on violence, power and religion, and the importance of language in human relationships. He is now Theologian in Residence for On Being and presents their podcast series, Poetry Unbound. He has published his own poetry (Readings from the Book of Exile and Sorry For Your Troubles, Canterbury Press 2012 and 2013), and recently a collection of essays and poetry on the Book of Ruth, Crossing Borders: Challenging Barriers with the Book of Ruth with Glenn Jordan (Canterbury Press).

During his reading Ó Tuama spoke of the paradoxical power of language to shock, to subvert and to disrupt as well as to comfort and heal. It is a power that is often not held equally, and in situations of conflict and colonization can be used to reject or ignore the experiences of others. The contribution that poetry makes into these situations is its capacity to bear witness, which is a form of truth-telling. This may be a witness to death, but even out of despairing words hope emerges simply from the knowledge that a story has been told.

Postcards to the Centre is one such poem where the words of the marginalised are presented not in measured discourse but as brief missives ‘from the edge’ – short telegraphs, words squeezed into the small available space, abridged communications for the short attention span of the comfortable. These are at once reminders of existence, appeals for recognition and challenges to oppression: ‘If you drown out all our voices you will not drown out your fear, we’re still here’. The urgency and relevance of these words was given particular focus as we reflected on the the upcoming centenary of Irish partition and the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland,[1] not much more than 20 years after the groundbreaking achievement of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Ó Tuama’s poetic style is one that delights in the craft, exploiting established forms and making strong use of structures of rhythm and rhyme. Against this orderly backdrop the subversions of paradox and contradiction stand out more prominently, as a cause of both delight and disturbance in the hearer. The Potato Famine is the story of Ó Tuama’s grandfather’s grandfather, the only survivor in the family of the famines of the mid 1800s. It takes the form of a villanelle with two repeated lines that draw a connection between the present and the past, the habits learned from ancient trauma: ‘My father likes his spuds piled high upon his plate … My great great grandad was the only one who made it’. The challenge presented by such poems is one that works simultaneously within and against the structures and strictures of form, a poetic tone that in some ways reflects an approach to conflict resolution. There is not always peace to be found here, and reconciliation may feel a long way off, but there is the beginning of a long but necessary journey towards empathy and understanding.

Postcards to the Centre

The Potato Famine

[1] On the complexities of naming, see “[the] north[ern] [of] ireland”, Pádraig Ó Tuama,  https://onbeing.org/poetry/the-northern-of-ireland/

Dr Beth Dodd is Director of Studies, Centre for Formation in Ministry, and Lecturer in Doctrine and Theology, Arts and Culture at Sarum College. She convened the Words of Life and Death: Poetry and Culture in Crisis series on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture (OCRC) and in association with Sarum College.

Photo by Trevor Brady

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