Poetry as Autobiography

Book Review by Frank O’Shea


Paul Kelly. LOVE IS STRONG AS DEATH. Poems chosen by Paul Kelly. Hamish Hamilton 2019. 413 pp.

ISBN: 978 1 76089 268 5

RRP: €39.99 h/bimg026.jpg


Long ago in rural Ireland, we used to have what were called Ball Nights, neighbourhood get-togethers to mark someone emigrating or returning to America after a holiday. There would be music and dancing, songs and stories, a barrel out the back for the men, tea and cakes in the rarely-used sitting room, and we the kids were allowed to stay until we fell asleep. Some time during the night, my father would be asked for his party piece, which was a recitation that begins ‘With the sign of the cross on my forehead as I kneel on this cold dungeon floor.’ Later we would have Uncle Pete, who had a bad stammer, but would recite Dan McGrew or The Face on the Barroom Floor from beginning to end without stumble or stutter.

Fast forward a dozen years or so and now an undergraduate in Dublin, I struck gold by winning the Saturday crossword in the Irish Press. The prize was a postal order for five shillings which I used in Eason’s of O’Connell St as full payment for the collected verse of Banjo Paterson. It was my first introduction to Australia and it is entirely appropriate that a hardback of rhyming verse should take some accountability – blame or credit as you will – for me making my home in this country. I must stress that I am talking about verse and there was more to follow with John O’Brien’s Boree Log and C J Dennis’s Doreen, some examples committed to youthful memory with then-little difficulty.


While all this was going on, poetry was being hijacked by academics – mostly American – who were convincing people that rhyme was for babies and that all you needed was pretty prose which you could break up into lines of any length you liked. Here is an example:

I lived in a suburb, a suburb of Madrid, with bells, and clocks and trees. From there you could look out over Castille’s dry face: a leather ocean. My house was called the house of flowers, because in every cranny geraniums burst: it was a good-looking house with its dogs and children.

Elegant prose you would say, but if you break it into twelve lines of different length and put in a gap in the middle, you can call it poetry. Which is what Pablo Neruda does in a poem titled I’m Explaining a Few Things. Agreed, the original was in Spanish, and may lose something in the translation, but it is given here as an example of modern poetry and its disdain for rhyme.

The example is taken from Paul Kelly’s superb poetry anthology, Love is as Strong as Death, a collection of more than 300 poems from all historical eras and covering many world cultures. Kelly is a well-known Australian singer-songwriter-guitarist with a string of successful records and many years of performing all around the world. In his introduction, he says that he decided not to include song lyrics, but allowed himself to break that rule with poems like Danny Boy, Archie Roach’s Took the Children Away and Kev Carmody’s I’ve Been Moved.

Kelly is a fourth generation descendant of Jeremiah Kelly who emigrated from Ireland to South Australia in the final years of the Great Famine. So it is not surprising that he has included many Irish poets. Yeats has seven entries, Heaney five, Paula Meehan three, Máire Mhac an tSaoi two, and there are individual poems from Eavan Boland, Austin Clarke, Donagh MacDonagh, Louis MacNeice, Sinéad Morrissey, Padraig Pearse and Eiléan ní Chuilleanáin. Even more praiseworthy is his inclusion of a translation by Eleanor Hull of Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, taking up more than eight pages. He also includes John Montague’s translation of The Hag of Beare (An Chailleach Bhéara) and Lady Gregory’s translation of Donal Óg.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare has the most entries – sonnets as well as speeches or soliloquies from Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It among others. The book also has a number of pieces from the King James Bible, translations from the Greek classics and from writers in Chinese, Polish and Spanish.

The poems are evenly divided between those that rhyme and those that imitate the meanderings of Whitman and Sylvia Plath. And just as you are being confirmed in your grumpiness about the absence of rhyme, you find, two pages apart, Louis MacNeice’s wonderful Prayer Before Birth and Eavan Boland’s frightening famine poem, Quarantine,

In the morning they were both found dead
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

The English academic and poet John Whitworth, who died in April last year, is not included, but he has a memorable quote on the subject of rhyme.

What about the younger poets? They don’t rhyme much. Some of them do, but a lot of them don’t. Why is that? Even fewer American poets rhyme? And why is that? Is rhyming like wearing a tie, a formality we find ourselves inclined to dispense with? Or even like wearing a corset, a formality we wouldn’t dream of subjecting ourselves to?

Fortunately, there are many poets here who wear their ties – Tennyson, Blake, Keats, Hardy as well as Yeats and Heaney, Banjo Paterson and John O’Brien – and some with a corset – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dorothy Parker and Christina Rossetti. Many poets write about love and without doing the arithmetic, there seems to be large number of poems that deal with the earthier elements of ‘the ways of a man with a maid’.

It would be easy in a review like this to regret the absence of poem A or B, poet X or Y, but that would be to miss the point of the collection. What you get here is less a glimpse into how poets see life so much as a little insight into the mind of the person making the selection. Clearly here is a man with diverse interests, widely read, with concern for refugees and the downtrodden, with a feeling for the beauty and richness of language.

What, you wonder, would we learn about John Howard or Julia Gillard, Kay Cottee or Gary Ablett, Eric Bogle or Bono if they were to undertake a similar exercise?

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial collective of Tintean