Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public? by Eavan Boland

Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland.

There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible.

I put forward this small anecdote as a way of trying to answer Sandra Gilbert’s important question: “Is poetry in fact consoling as a performance of grief—that is, is poetry a genre that helps mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow?”

The answer has to be as complex as the question. All his life my father remembered the keen. But not, I think, as an expression of grief; more likely as a theater of it. It was a ritual that neither resolved nor diminished the anguish of the Irish losing their sons and daughters. But it noted it. The keen’s atonal array of primitive sounds is often mentioned in Irish literature—at the end of Riders to the Sea by J.M. Synge, for instance: keening exists there as a rite that gives unquestioned ritualistic and consensual shape to public mourning.

Can poetry do that? This is Sandra Gilbert’s other question: How . . . can our poets formulate public sorrow?

via Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public? by Eavan Boland.

4 Responses to “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public? by Eavan Boland”
  1. johncoyote says:

    Words have great power. Can create emotion of love, sadness and memory. Poetry is healing and can show the way to understanding. A lot of thoughts to ponder in your thoughts,

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