This is not a poem – learning by heart in a rote world

By Liam Heneghan

For Patricia Monaghan, poet and friend

“I am cold and alone on my tree root, sitting as still as stone.” I recited this forlornly, lost in E. J. Scovell’s poem. I was ten years old and competitively reciting at the Father Matthew Feis, an annual all-Ireland poetry festival. The year was 1974. “The fish come to my net,” I continued, “I scorned the Boy Fishing0001 sun, the voices on the road and they have gone.” Beneath me I could feel, not the stage boards of the Father Matthew Hall in Church Street, Dublin, but dead root-timber; the stage light was the sun. “My eyes are buried in the cold pond under the cold, spread leaves; my thoughts are silver-wet.” The scuffling schoolboys and girls, their mammies and daddies and their elocution teachers, were gone; I was staring into the peat-dark and swollen waters of the Finglas River which emptied onto an Atlantic beach in Camp, Co. Kerry, my fishing rod in hand, dressed up as the sky.

This was my father’s experiment: on an overcast afternoon, beneath the dreep of autumn hedges, dress your sons in plastic rubbish sacks, fashion hats out of blue shopping bags and set them loose on the banks. No bites that day for me; perhaps the fish were fooled or perhaps in their own piscine way they shared the bemusement of the mirthful onlookers who strolled over to examine the young boys that were disguised as the sky. I scorned them, I scorned them all and slumped humiliated beneath the hedge and gazed damply into the waters; I endured my own thoughts; I waited. Though I failed at being the sky, and failed as a fisherman, I was, however, remarkably good at memorizing poems. An achievement made more remarkable maybe, by the fact that, at the time, I remained functionally illiterate.

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