2015 Paula Meehan
On April 22, 2015, the University of St. Thomas Center for Irish Studies presented the nineteenth O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry in a private ceremony at the university’s St. Paul campus. The following citation was read on that occasion.
For more than three decades and across seven collections of poetry and eight plays, as well as in workshops, classrooms, articles, and lectures, Paula Meehan has balanced her private vision—the autobiographical territory of experience—with her keen awareness that poetry lives in our civic realm. Indeed, the highly public nature of her life as a poet was underscored in 2014, when she was named the sixth Ireland Professor of Poetry—in effect, Ireland’s “poet in chief.”
Meehan’s journey into poetry began in the working-class neighborhood of Finglas, where the swing and slant of Dublin speech and story marked her imagination, as we find in poems like “A Child’s Map of Dublin.” In all her collections, we encounter poems that remember and transfigure her family; one of the most memorable is “My Father Perceived as a Vision of St. Francis.” The plain purpose of Meehan’s way through the world is to come home to it, as these lines from “Home” say:
When the song that is in me is the song I hear from the world
I’ll be home. It’s not written down and I don’t remember the words.
I know when I hear it I’ll have made it myself. I’ll be home.
Meehan’s compassionate imagination often surprises the reader’s expectations; as one critic has said, she finds her world by displacing it. Her writing was shaped early on by Eavan Boland (the first O’Shaughnessy honoree), as well as in her studies in the United States, under the tutelage of Gary Snyder. Meehan has opened herself to influences little heard in Irish poetry, including Buddhism and environmental ethics, as we see in her 2002 collection Dharmakaya.
Similarly, after returning to Dublin in 1984, she took up the work of giving living voice to Ireland’s outsiders. Meehan’s inner city of remembered life tests the present of Ireland after the Tiger. To do so, she resists the artifice of the well-made poem. In the title poem of her first book, “Return and No Blame,” she plainly recounts the reckoning of a daughter –that is, of herself—whose muse has led her away from her family.
In other poems, Meehan writes movingly and mystifyingly of love. These poems—not lyrics, exactly—evoke desire and frustration, regret and exasperation. Sometimes they employ common speech and popular song. Sometimes they rope in the myth of the moon and muse. Sometimes they use the traditional materials of the Irish pastoral, as does a poem from Pillow Talk (1994) titled by its first line: “Not alone the rue in my herb garden….”
Meehan the public poet has commanded the attentions of contemporary Ireland. She has consistently questioned the received wisdom of Ireland: about women, about Dublin’s strictures of class, and lately, about Ireland’s neglect of its environment. Her best-known poem is the bitter “Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks,” recently shortlisted by Radio Telefis Éireann as a defining Irish poem of the last hundred years. In it, her appropriation of Mary’s voice seethes with anger:
They call me Mary — Blessed, Holy, Virgin.
They fit me to a myth of a man crucified:
the scourging and the falling, and the falling again,
the thorny crown, the hammer blow of iron
into wrist and ankle, the sacred bleeding heart.
They name me Mother of all this grief
though mated to no mortal man.
They kneel before me and their prayers
fly up like sparks from a bonfire
that blaze a moment, then wink out.
Because—in our world—the Virgin is only a voice in a statue, she cannot act and can only witness. Meehan’s own witness is a kind of moved compassion, an empathy that can come in the guises of humor. A Dubliner’s jokes and digs frame many of Meehan’s pained observations of class and pretense. And sometimes, she turns the joke on herself, as when she asks, “Who’d be a dog, a poet’s dog?”
We must note, too, how powerfully Meehan evokes the woundedness of the natural world, quietly moving into the role of the environmental poet. In the opening poem of Painting Rain, “Death of a Field.” Meehan echoes the lost liturgy when she laments the small extinctions that will be worked by a new housing development:
The end of the field as we know it is the start of the estate
The site to be planted with houses each two or three bedroom
Nest of sorrow and chemical, cargo of joy
And ending with,
Who amongst us is able to number the end of grasses
To number the losses of each seeding head?
Who amongst us? If anyone, it will be our poets.
For the play of talk and language in her lines, for the humors and sorrows in her poems, for the compassionate imagination of her poetry, for the dauntless intimacy of her writing across the decades, we at the University of St. Thomas and the Center for Irish Studies are honored to recognize Paula Meehan with the nineteenth O’Shaughnessy Prize for Poetry.