Paula Meehan Lecture: “Imaginary bonnets with real bees in them”

(Annual lecture of the Ireland Professor of Poetry, Paula Meehan: 26th February 2014)

The luck of this, to have been in Theatre M (UCD) on a rainy Wednesday night to hear Paula Meehan speak, one of an intimate crowd of about 250 people – yes, it did feel intimate, because everyone seemed to know at least one other person there and to half-recognize several more. So many waves and smiles were exchanged as the theatre filled, it might as well have been a party.

It would be ridiculous to try and capture the essence of this extraordinary talk.  Paula Meehan herself said it was a series of meditations on and around poetry, but it was far more than that.  Ambitious in scope, it ranged across thousands of years, from prehistory through myth and folklore, the Brehon laws, actual history and the present to the edge of an environmentally uncertain future. Along the way she quoted an equally generous range of poets: Marianne Moore (from whose “Ars Poetica” the title of the lecture is derived) Theodore Roethke, Yeats, Carol Ann Duffy, Auden, Kate Newmann, Louis MacNeice, Euripides, Samuel Ferguson, William Blake, Gary Snyder.

Topics she covered included: mythology, geology, the environment, bees and their coded dance, 40 000 year-old cave paintings, amber, honey, language, the Brehon laws, the nature of poetry, personal history, grief, the joyous transgressions of schoolgirls, fossils, dolmens, the internet, Seamus Heaney, Doris Lessing (her Golden Notebook in particular life-changing for so many young women) Beckett, Edmund Hillery, and did I mention Yeats? No wonder we were all stunned.

The lecture was a tour de force. It was magnificent. Paula got a standing ovation – not one of those half-hearted ones where the company’s family stand up self-consciously and after a while other people shuffle to their feet too:  people leapt from their seats to cheer. I think lusty is the right word, for the cheers that were in it.  There was joy in the air, an immediate buzz in the crowd as though the lecture’s bees had infiltrated the theatre. I had to leave; I just wanted to travel home alone in the dark and think.

Introducing the lecture, Frank McGuinness referred to Paula Meehan’s ‘oceanic imagination’. I wonder had he any notion of what she was going to say, because the evening certainly turned out to be an epic, oceanic experience: deep, stirring through darkness and light, sketching dreams and bursts of colour, intimations of life-forms we may never know or  fully understand but are free to wonder at, if we’re lucky enough to find true guides along the way.

A recording of the lecture will be made available on the Ireland Chair of Poetry website


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