1 Aug 2018

PRESERVING IRISH VOICES: THE IRISH POETRY READING ARCHIVE

This post was placed joint third in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2018. 
This post is by Laura Ryan, UCD Library

Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, refers to Ireland as “a country of and for poets” – a sentiment I would not understand upon finishing the Leaving Certificate English course. I could recite Kavanagh, Frost, Rich or Yeats, or release a well-rehearsed spiel on their meanings picked from course books and class notes but on completion of the exams, my attitude towards the world of Irish poetry was apathetic at best. A class of secondary school teenagers taking turns at reading lines from ‘The Road Not Taken’ had never really done much justice to Frost.

 At university, I chose no poetry modules until my final year when one particular class caught my eye: Modern American Poetry. It was the first poetry class I had encountered where we listened to contemporary poets reciting their own works. Simply put, it changed my mind about poetry. I witnessed a rawness of emotion, a certainty of rhythm. I came to understand how some poets have a truly distinctive voice, giving life to the poetry itself.

My poetry education came to an abrupt halt at that point, as I went on to complete a Masters in the History of Art before stepping into my role with UCD Library. I brought with me skills in customer service, financial administration, and photography (among others) and I happily put these skills to good use. It came as quite a surprise when a request landed on my desk: assistance was needed in the administration of the Irish Poetry Reading Archive (Taisce Aithris Filíochta na hÉireann).

Irish Poetry Reading Archive Promotional Material courtesy of UCD Library Outreach Department

The Irish Poetry Reading Archive is a repository of recordings of Irish poets. They each select eight of their own poems to read, for which they give a brief note of context – detailing their influences, intent or inspiration. We make the recordings available for free via the Archive’s YouTube channel, and the video is preserved within UCD’s Digital Library. We store a signed collection of the published works of these poets, and the books remain accessible to our users. The poets also provide us with handwritten manuscripts of their poetry, available to readers via our Special Collections Reading Room.

Part of my personal work with the archive involves acting as liaison to poets, being their first point of contact and arranging anything necessary for recording sessions. I have acquired a unique view on their feelings towards Irish poetry and with regard to the archive itself. With print runs of poetic works often being quite small, our archive works to preserve as much as possible. Many poets have informed me that they are grateful that their work is being stored securely and will be accessible to future generations of readers and poets alike.

From the archive: Handwritten manuscripts of poems by Jessica Traynor, Michael Longley, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa.

I believe poetry is integral to Irish traditions. Our oral heritage is still alive and well, and we have a duty to preserve it as much as those who first documented Irish song, poetry, and folklore. In my time with the poetry archive, many of the poets have recited works influenced by current or recent affairs – including the movement to Repeal the 8th amendment, the homelessness crisis, poverty, Direct Provision, and the Tuam Mother and Baby homes to name just a few. It offers an insight into the current challenges, wrongs and rights of this country, explored through poetry in a very candid, honest way. Some of our recordings situate themselves in specific spaces in time and I hope will provide an understanding of our current world for future generations.

The project has changed my personal relationship with poetry, and I hope that my work aids in the preservation of Irish voices not only for future generations, but also for current students of Irish poetry. Over the last number of months, we have recorded poets who feature on the current Junior Certificate curriculum. We will work to make their recordings accessible to schools, so that students can experience how the poets read them and the individual qualities a poet’s personal voice provides. Education has changed greatly even in the few years since I have left school, and we hope that our multimedia archive will aid in teaching of poetry.

Don Share was absolutely correct in referring to Ireland as a country of poets. I should know – we have a long list of poets recorded, with an ever-growing list of those we are yet to record. When he said it was a country for poets, I believe that is where our library should play its part, by continuing our project to capture as many voices of Irish poetry as we possibly can.

I am a small part of a much larger team that includes staff from UCD’s Media Services, our Special Collections, Collections, Outreach, and Research Services departments, and of course the gracious contributions of Irish poets.

References
Share, D. (2015). Don Share: ‘Ireland was and remains for me a country of and for poets’. [online] The Irish Times. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/don-share-ireland-was-and-remains-for-me-a-country-of-and-for-poets-1.2329231 [Accessed 7 May 2018].

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