Wake: Up to Poetry
Celebrating the music of the past with the words of the present
Sculpture of Seán Ó Riada in Cúil Aodha, Ireland
As we look forward to Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of the Harvest season and the beginning of the “darker” winter months, we are quick to draw connections to our Western ideas of Halloween: spooky costumes, creepy decorations, grim horror stories, and a crisp fall chill that makes us shiver. While these traditions did stem from Samhain myths and customs, we often neglect the more celebratory tones latent in the history. Families will often decorate and set places at the table to welcome the spirits who return for this finite period. During Samhain, the Irish take measures to ward off evil spirits, but also devote themselves to celebrating the deceased.
In this poem, Thomas Kinsella celebrates the musical and artistic work of Irish composer Seán Ó Riada, who passed away in 1971. The nostalgic, auditory and kinesthetic imagery of Kinsella’s words pay homage to Ó Riada’s work, embodying the celebratory traditions of Samhain.
It is the staling music of memory
has brought us nosing once more
around our forgotten young hero
and his high-spirited doings.
Grieving solos fade
and twine on echoes of each other
down the shallow valley:
his own voices,
divided against themselves.
His spirit, in one piece still
(just for a little while,
and only just)
is cavorting in answer
all brains and bare feet
along the scruffy skyline,
stepping the parish boundary
and beckoning with a comical thumb
up over the edge:
Come and buy
My terrible new capabilities…
The little plants shivering
green and pale on the far slope
in a breeze out of the Next Testament,
unplaceable, familiar smells
stealing among the goats’
dainty, unbothered feet.
And there would be no sign
If we tried to follow
his shifting rhythms,
the throaty piping,
the dry taps fractured on the drum skin,
the delicate new hooves
on approval, slithering to the beat
down out of sight
into the stony places.
You can check out the pieces that Seán Ó Riada composed using Kinsella’s poems here on iTunes.