The luck of the Irish poets

Ruth Padel is soothed by the undamaged goods produced by some damaged souls
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"All poets are damaged," said a friend of mine. "Haven't you noticed?" What rubbish. Having his book The Missing sell out in America does not, I told myself, make Andy O'Hagan an expert in what's missing from people's psyches. But poets I checked with agreed. Matthew Sweeney, editing an anthology of poems about mental breakdown, said damage is where poems come from. "Each poem is a tetanus jab. You go into a little bit of damage so that you don't get done in by the full load." Even when you write a funny poem? "Look at cartoonists," said another friend. "Mental crash- victims, the lot of them." So poems (and I suppose cartoons) are ways of dealing with damage? "We're all a mess," said Don Paterson. "To different degrees, of course," he added politely, taking another swig at my Rioja.

"Look at Heaney," I argued. "You couldn't say ..." "Ah," said Don from his unplumbable well of postmodernist Caledonian wisdom. "Heaney is the exception that proves the rule."

In Galway this March, I realised what an unusually damage-free zone Heaney is. Or seems to be. This was at Cuirt Literary Festival. "Cuirt" (say "korch") means "a gathering of poets". The Irish poet Harry Clifton told me the word "recalls happier days when poets were more honoured in society". "Poets are more honoured in your society than anywhere," I muttered, thinking of free flights and tax rebates showered on Irish poets by their sensible government.

They are honoured to the hilt in Galway, Irish music Mecca, Ireland's Monterey, full of painted houses, seafood, brilliant local poets like Rita Ann Higgins and international literary stars. Children charged through the streets clutching freshly-signed copies of Brian Patten's books like radioactive donuts.

They were all wonderful, the readings. Everyone read brilliantly, but Heaney was the ultimate star, introduced by a Galway dentist, a childhood friend. They first met with their mums outside matron's office on the first day of boarding school. He described the warm and close-knit Heaney family, which Heaney's wife compares to Nature's strongest protecting structure... "My wife compares me to an egg," said the poet mournfully. But Heaney does seem to sum up the concept of "Moral Luck" invented by philosopher Bernard Williams, which means (I think) being lucky in the personality-draw: getting born well-balanced, therefore good. If Heaney is moral luck soaring fully-fledged from a happy family egg, where's the damage here, Mr O'Hagan?

Well, some are born damaged, and some have damage thrust upon them. And maybe this damage stuff works best when a poet whose psyche resembles a scene from Twister meets a landscape similarly blasted. Cuirt Festival hangs out near Yeats's Tower, where the psychic mess Yeats leaned over a countryside in civil war and wrote poems like "The Stare's Nest By My Window", finding images in the stonework for the human damage he saw:

My wall is loosening: honey bees

Come build in the empty house of the


We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty...

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart's grown brutal from the


O honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the


The tower-top is way above the trees; you look down on a whole Milton Keynes of nest-building. Inside on the stairs was another nest with strawberry- terracotta eggs, the colour of Harrods at dawn. "Heritage eggs," said the novelist Colm Tobin. "They can't be real." But they were. Yeats's ghost is cohabiting with a Heaney family of kestrels.

Yeats spent whole summers at Coole Park nearby, irritating the pants off Lady Gregory's son, who made him bring his own decanter as well as wine. (There'd be a law against that now; no one treats Irish poets like that today, not male ones, anyway.) The lake is bleaker and stonier than I'd imagined. Where Yeats saw 59 swans we saw two!

Maybe Andy's damage idea is right, but if damage is what it takes to produce "The Wild Swans At Coole", who's complaining? You can't make omelettes without a spot of damage on the egg front. And maybe (as Sean O'Brien, another poet I asked, said), poets aren't that much more damaged than other people, they just don't hide it. Novelists and journalists pretend they're OK. You see at parties what hard work this is. Poets take each other's damage for granted. A gathering of poets, in Galway or anywhere else, is a very soothing thing.