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Some years back the Mercier Press published Favourite Poems We Learned at School edited by Thomas F. Walsh. On foot of its success more books followed, More Favourite Poems We Learned at School  and Favourite Poems We learned at School As Gaeilge.The publisher’s blurb states:

‘The poems in this anthology will remain with us until we reach the end of our journey in this life, mainly because we learned them when we were young, and consequently they have become part of us. The poems are evocative and they will stir a nostalgic chord in all our hearts.’

Copies of the very ancient Fίon na Filίochta turn up very rarely and are eagerly seized on according to the man in Cathach Books on Duke Street. I recall leafing through another anthology of old bits and pieces we learned in the National Schools of the fifties, also edited by Walsh. An extract from a senior infants’ reader brought me instantly back to Miss Heaney’s class not, I fear, with feelings of unmixed delight. Both Miss Heaney and I had come in contact with the fists and boots of a certain Tadhg whom I now suspect had some issues with that same reader.

I did entertain the idea that nostalgia alone was not the main driver of this interest in the curricula of the past. Perhaps folks just wanted to know whether their memories were real and whether they were shared by others. More recently there has been a further upsurge in the republication of defunct schoolbooks most notably Soundings, the Leaving Cert poetry anthology for over thirty years. On the eve of the change in the Leaving Cert English syllabus which heralded the end of Soundings, teacher Pat Hunt wrote an Irishman’s Diary column in The Irish Times on Soundings (IT June 6th 2000). Hunt recalled the unforgettable Augustine Martin, editor of Soundings. Gus, he stated,             

‘annotated the poems and provided a set of “exploration” questions at the end of each poem. The title Soundings caught in one word Gus Martin’s raison d’etre as a teacher. He abhorred paraphrase, prepared and potted responses to poetry; in every class he ever taught he endeavoured to take soundings, to plumb and probe the depths of individual response.’

There were no ‘notes’ as such in Soundings. Gus wished to encourage pupils and teachers to discover for themselves. Was this the ‘critical thinking’ and ‘skills’ we hear so much about these days? Ironically, the annual anthologies for the Leaving Cert poetry course since 2000 are hefty tomes packed with the ‘notes’ so beloved of the Celtic Tiger consumer student, her parents and the grind schools. The message here is that poetry is not for life but for points. Gus loathed this attitude. I remember a seminar for L.C. students at UCD where, prior to quoting a Kavanagh poem which was not on that year’s syllabus, he said somewhat  wearily  ‘Those of you with teachers brave enough to read a poem which is not on the course might remember this one’. He saw what way the utilitarian wind was blowing in education. I identified with his frustration and loved him for it.

In response to Pat Hunt’s piece the following appeared in the letters to the editor of the Irish Times on June 21st 2000 –

Sir, – I read Pat Hunt’s affectionate tribute to Gus Martin and his Soundings anthology (An Irishman’s Diary, June 6th) after it came up at a recent gathering of friends. Three of us, now living in different parts of France, were among the million Irish adults who had first discovered such poets as Eliot or Hopkins in its pages. We sipped wine around a table in a sunlit garden in a village near Lyon, remembering classrooms with the rain coming down outside as we sailed to Byzantium or listened to the still, sad music of humanity. Gus Martin (later my tutor in UCD) would have been amused.

An educational publisher for whom I worked here gets regular, impassioned requests for long-out-of-print “classic” schoolbooks; he marvels at how attached people can become to them. I predict a run on Soundings in the second-hand bookshops and have already reserved my copy. – Yours, etc.,  Jean O’Sullivan, Passage Rauch, 75011 Paris, France.

Those of us on the eager countdown to retirement were cheered by this letter. Perhaps we had not lived in vain after all. ‘I see Soundings  is reissued’ I said last year to the man behind the counter in Hodges Figgis. ‘I caught this morning morning’s minion’ he replied. What is it that turns  the surly teenager into a maudlin adult sailing to Byzantium? I am reminded of a friend’s response to an aggressive young man who asked why he had to bother with Hamlet. ‘So that you won’t look foolish in the pub in ten years time’, she said. Perhaps having fumbled in the greasy till for a certain time they really do, to paraphrase Yeats, ‘come to sense’. I recall bumping into a past pupil on the street many years ago and being greeted with ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’. Interestingly she had been in an ordinary level class which might now be described as ‘challenged’.

It may come as a surprise to aficionados of Soundings to know that Higher Level Leaving Cert 2012 features no poet earlier than the twentieth century. The eight poets prescribed are Eavan Boland, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Thomas Kinsella, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich. Shakespeare and Wordsworth are to get a look in for 2013 and Yeats makes a comeback in 2014. It had long been a complaint of teachers that there was only one woman poet in Soundings (Dickinson)  and only one living poet (Kinsella) so it is gratifying to note the presence of more of these on the list. Soundings had never been intended as a permanent anthology. ‘Interim’ was boldly  printed on the cover. Funds being what they were the department never saw fit to provide for a larger, permanent anthology. However, there is something a little lopsided here. The canon, it seems, is no longer cool. Very little Sailing to Byzantium for future students. Not a romantic in sight for LCH 2012. Just ‘Ozymandias’ for ordinary level. I mentioned this trend to someone I met recently. Her horrified reaction was ‘What? All that lovely Chaucer gone?’ Not only Chaucer but Milton and Pope seem unlikely to figure again. The disappearance of  Latin sealed the fate of the latter two. Gus foresaw this in an article he wrote for The Irish Press some time before his death. Latin! The ‘mums’ would never stand for it. Not ‘useful’ you understand. God rest the mammies. They saved their pennies in tougher times that we might have this privilege. Generations got the jokes in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ because they remembered the ‘dixit’ in Virgil.

‘Relevance’ was the chant of the armies of experts with flipcharts we met over the years. Experts? The word ‘chancer’ springs to my mind when a flipchart or powerpoint makes an appearance. Jean O’Sullivan’s letter above surely gives the lie to the ‘relevant to their lives’ mantra. How insulting to young people to assume that they could not imaginatively engage with Chaucer’s pilgrims or with Belinda on the loss of her precious lock. Does everything have to be of the here and now? In Ulysses and Us Declan Kiberd says ‘…teachers should ask questions, open children to ancient legends, ask them to contemplate the faraway and the remote as children naturally want to do’.

Jean O’Sullivan predicted correctly that there would be a run on Soundings. The movement gathers apace.This Christmas we have witnessed the reprint of Exploring English 1, the short story anthology of the old Inter Cert., also edited by Gus. A U.K. based nephew had expressed a desire for this some years ago and I managed to get him a copy. Many copies will be winging their way to the diaspora this Christmas. One imagines them having one more chuckle at ‘First Confession’  and some thoughtful moments re-reading ‘Guests of the Nation’. A reprint of Exploring English, the poetry anthology, cannot be far behind. Could there be a moment’s revival for Padraic Colum and Aubrey de Vere? ‘L’Allegro’ anybody? What joy. The open choice, at the teacher’s discretion, of poetry, short stories and novels at Junior Cert has been something of a disaster. We need a new Gus to make wise choices.

Having done L.C. in 1966 I was of a pre-Soundings generation. We had an anthology called Senior Poetry, an anthology of Matriculation and Leaving Certificate Poetry, Patrick J.Kennedy ed. published also by Gill and Macmillan. It was hard –backed and could be passed on since it contained the choices for all years. Not a bad idea for these straitened times. Picture it –a bunch of sixty somethings  a few weeks back lunching luxuriously in the Royal Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire and remembering our elfin teacher Sr Domenico O.P. and her enthusiasm for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Plus ça change…. Senior Poetry now reclines on the shelf beside Soundings  and my mother’s Palgrave’s Golden Treasury which she used for Matric 1928.

Educational nostalgia amongst the thirty and forty somethings has not stopped at English. Noting the success of Soundings, the daughters of Deirdre Madden, author of All About Home Economics, long the standard text for that subject in Irish schools, decided to republish their mother’s book. This has been enthusiastically received and now, like Soundings and Exploring English 1 enjoys its own Facebook page. http://www.facebook.com/pages/All-About-Home-Economics/255655484471315  http://www.facebook.com/SoundingsPoetry  (Sadly the present writer was of a pre-Deirdre Madden cohort also. See the earlier post Tίos). Seemingly there are women nationwide who swear by Madden in their kitchens. Eat your hearts out Delia and Jamie. Those engaged on drawing up plans for changes in syllabi would do well to read the comments on these sites. If it aint broke…… It is the wretched culture of grinds, notes and summaries we need to review. Learning poetry by heart has clearly been valued by those who have done so. One note of hope however lies in the success of the Poetry Aloud competition in the National Library of Ireland. The next generation face an economically impoverished future. The least we can do is to make sure it is not a spiritually impoverished one also. Many of us have witnessed the barely suppressed rage of those thus deprived. ‘…..and it never did me any harm’. Yeah right.

In the French village where I spend the Summer we have the custom of taking turns to read a poem after dinner à la terrasse. One evening last Summer, hearing a rustle behind the hedge, I explained what we were doing  to my neighbour Jean-Luc. He responded by parting the shrubbery, sticking his head through and reciting ‘Sensation’ by Arthur Rimbaud. ‘Je l’ai appris à l’école’, he added.

It is customary at funeral masses to bring gifts to the altar to represent the life of the deceased. The daughters have been given instructions that one of those gifts should be my battered copy of Soundings to represent the better moments of an otherwise chequered teaching life.

Everything I have said here has been expressed more succintly and in less ponderous prose by that megablogger An Spailpίn Fánach whose post on Soundings from October 11th 2010 I take the liberty of including here. I love the bit about the baton being passed. An Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna has now dropped that baton it would seem.Take it away Spailpίn –

Have Ye No Pomes to Go To? The Return of Soundings

The republishing of Soundings, the Leaving Cert poetry anthology that was discontinued at the end of the last century, tells us many things about our current culture. Not all of them are good, but there is a definite light of hope.

The general welcome that the re-publication has received has been fuelled more than somewhat by nostalgia. The already-doodled cover is redolent of schoolroom ennui, and the new introduction by Joe O’Connor assures us that it’s socially acceptable to be seen with the book. The O’Connor imprimatur means there is no need to sandwich your copy shamefully between volumes of Pynchion and Vargos Llosa when approaching the till in Hodges Figgis.

However. The fact remains that Soundings is a schoolbook, and bears all the fell taint of that. Every poem is accompanied by questions to increase understanding of the work, but reading those questions again is too redolent of wet winter evenings, copybooks, pencil cases, Barry Lang’s Hotline on 2FM and general misery.

“Would you agree that the poem has some striking combinations of sound, vision and sense?” Yes, yes, yes, I’ll sign anything you want – just get me away from this damned desk and somewhere within a hundred mile radius of Belinda Carlisle.

The fact that Gill and Macmillan saw fit to mail freebie copies of the book to many media outlets and left out everybody’s favourite Irish blogger does little to endear it also. Bastards.

Those cavils aside, the republishing of Soundings, the initial demand that made its republishing worthwhile in the first place, and the general warmth with which a secondary school textbook has been welcomed tells us something that’s been lost in recent years. That there is such a thing as a poetry, and there is such a thing as the Western Canon. And if there wasn’t, there ought to be.People like pomes. They don’t always know what they are, because the goalposts shift from day to day. People are told Séamus Heaney is a great poet, but are at a loss to recite any of his poems. You could recite a line, certainly, but you could recite a line from the Simpsons too and that doesn’t make Homer … er, never mind.
Soundings means certainty. Soundings was written before the Marxist critiques of the Western Canon and the general scorn of a Dead While Male establishment had taken hold. The Canon is based on the idea that, as Gus Martin puts it in his original introduction, there are such things as great poems written by great poets. That a baton has been passed down the ages from Chaucer, Shakespeare and Johnson, Donne and Marvell, Pope and Dryden, Shelley and Keats, Tennyson and Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. That there is a shared culture that allows one generation to connect to the generation that preceded it and to pass something on to the generation that follows.

Because it’s so very difficult to define what poetry is, perhaps An Spailpín can suggest taking a leaf out of the American academic and critic and say that poetry is that which is fun to recite out loud? When he wrote How to Read and Why, Bloom remarked in passing that he had to declaim verse in private, on deserted beaches or in empty fields, lest the PC police that roamed US university campuses at that time caught him and send him to the gulag.

But those days are old now and poetry declaimers may safely return to the light, holding their pints close to their hearts as they tell of country pleasures, travellers from antique lands, the ten years’ war in Troy, the Sunday in every week, and all those other dead loves that were born for me.

Soundings is not a complete collection, of course, but no collection can ever be. A thousand year. tradition is lot to cram into one book. But as a statement of value and worth and a jumping off point for lifetime’s delight, Soundings is sheer solid gold. Hurrah for its return.

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