Being fifty-something, I love an experience anchored by a moment in history. A happening my future self can align to something important. It’s a variation on “where I was when …” the twin towers collapsed/John Lennon was shot/the Berlin wall came down.
My future self will now remember the day I saw Ancient Rain as the day the literary world
erupted hiccuped to the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Why? Because Ancient Rain (like Bob Dylan) jumps the fences we build between various mediums and (like Dylan) fuses poetry and musical performance to deliver an amazing, distinctive experience.
Stay with me.
Here’s a blurb about Ancient Rain, which I experienced as part of the Melbourne Festival.
“Ancient Rain brings together exceptional artists Paul Kelly and Camille O’Sullivan in a work inspired by the last 100 years of Irish poetry. Paul Kelly is a master chronicler of love, loss, guilt and redemption. His songs and stories are filled with deeply flawed and hungry humanity, recognisable to us all. Camille O’Sullivan, either in full flight or in stillness, is powerful, vulnerable, complex and shape-shifting; a lover, mother, daughter, loner, visionary and witness. Together with composer/pianist Feargal Murray, Camille and Paul have set poems to music—some well-known and loved by Yeats, Heaney and Kavanagh. Others by Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Jessica Traynor and Enda Wyley have emerged in recent years and are already on their way to becoming classics.”
Some background. Over the last year or so I’ve enjoyed several Irish-themed performances in Melbourne: poetry readings, short plays and other works in celebration of the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that forever changed the course of Ireland’s history. I previously had no knowledge or connection to this event or where it sat in history. If not for an Irish friend who kindly invited me to these events, I still wouldn’t.
Amazing poetry chronicles the events of the Easter Rising. I now understand that the (mostly) men penning the poetry were providing a citizen’s commentary. They were the Tweeters and the Instagrammers of their time, sharing the alternative-to-the-press view. In the same way, Bob Dylan has used his lyrics/music to provide commentary on the happening of his time.
I had read (and loved) WB Yeats’ work previously but had never identified him as Irish. Even though for many years I emblazoned my business card with a Yeats quote: “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” Nor had I connected James Joyce to Ireland, though I knew of his work.
The twelve months has taught me much … about poetry, about people, about rebellion, about death and courage. And Ancient Rain taught me that, when set to music and taken to the stage, poetry takes on extraordinary meaning. New rhythms bring new understanding, new nuance.
I know WB Yeats could never have imagined his poignant works set to modern music. Who knows what he would have thought. And does it matter? What really matters, in my book, is that Ancient Rain’s interpretation of 100 years of Irish poetry brings the works (and the stories) to new audiences and connects in new and meaningful ways.
Between Camille O’Sullivan’s earthy, rich and emotional delivery and Paul Kelly’s musicianship, there’s plenty to love about this poetry/song-cycle.
Camille’s gritty, dramatic interpretation of Paula Meehan’s The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks was mind-blowing. It will long stay with me. The set-up for the poem goes something like this …
“Paula Meehan wrote this unsettling, powerful poem in response to a shocking event. In January 1984 a fifteen-year-old girl named Ann Lovett died giving birth, in secret, to her baby son, at the hillside grotto on the outskirts of her home town of Granard, Co. Longford. She was found by passersby but by then her baby boy was dead and she herself died later that day, 31 January, in hospital. A whole generation still remembers the name Ann Lovett and the awful heartbreak and loneliness associated with her story.”
This line is unforgettable:
Death is just another harvest
scripted to the season’s play.
And this passage:
On a night like this I remember the child
who came with fifteen summers to her name,
and she lay down alone at my feet
without midwife or doctor or friend to hold her hand
and she pushed her secret out into the night,
far from the town tucked up in little scandals,
bargains struck, words broken, prayers, promises,
and though she cried out to me in extremis
I did not move,
I didn’t lift a finger to help her,
I didn’t intercede with heaven,
nor whisper the charmed word in God’s ear.
Read the full piece here.
And read WB Yeats Easter 1916 here. Let that notion of “a terrible beauty is born” settle on you awhile and understand how brilliant the piece is.
Poetry is not for everyone. Nor is Ancient Rain. Nor is historical poetry set to music (nor modern poetry, for many). Nor is Paul Kelly. Nor is Bob Dylan. Isn’t that the point of literature, in all its forms and mediums and permutations, awarded and unawarded, that it’s not for everyone?
Literature is about discovering what’s for you. It’s a continuum of styles, periods, mediums, meanings and storytellers … pigeon-holing it is a disservice to it, and to self.