Just before Christmas, at the end of a year where quality poetry-readings welcoming school-age audiences became commonplace, the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh hosted the end of a five-city (Dublin, Belfast, London, Swansea, Edinburgh) tour by RS Thomas (Wales), Michael Longley (IrelandBelfast), Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (IrelandDublin), Grace Nichols (GuyanaLondon) and Iain Crichton Smith (Scotland).
Over the year, I had put three basic questions for The TESS to a number of visiting writers. These included Whitbread Award winners Paul Durcan and Ciaran Carson in Castlemilk, English poet P J Kavanagh and Paul Muldoon in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Scottish Poetry Association, and a number of the writers who appeared in joint ventures by the Lemon Tree Group and Central Library in Aberdeen.
Most significantly, I also met the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai who took part in the inspired poetry programme at the heart of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival in August.
The questions were: does poetry educate? Can it be taught? Does it activate new writing?
Yes, no and yes were the usual answers. Kavanagh showed preference for the word "stimulate" to all three. It was Amichai who brought authoritative substance to his series of considered answers. In a morning interview that turned into a day-long conversation, he spoke of the "necessary, indeed emotionally imperative, urgency to get poetry into young minds as soon as possible. It awakens the soul, the spiritual - often unknown - verbal side of the human that only music can inspire. It makes the possibility of an articulate peace, a credo, a faith beyond religions." As a member of the Government negotiation team with the Palestinians, he was obviously speaking from experience.
I put the initial questions, and Amichai's response, to the five visiting poets. To the first and third questions there was uniformity. "Catching enthusiasm from a teacher, a real teacher, one who loves the word, is of course educational . . . though I fear for the word in the face of new technology," said Thomas.
Ni Dhomhnaill, coming from an Irish Gaelic-speaking background, found "through my teacher, a nun, a new world, a joy". Longley also admitted that he was "inspired rather than merely schooled" by his teacher. "He would slap his hand on his thigh after reading a poem by, say, Patrick Kavanagh or W R Rodgers and say 'is the man a poet or not, I should say so . . . a poet'. So now I see poetry as the antidote to indifference."
Crichton Smith believed his introduction to poetry was an introduction to a "healthy form of thinking in speech".
The responses to Amichai's comments were electrifying and educative in a real sense. Thomas began by quoting Wordsworth: "Poetry is the incarnation of thought". He then developed his own thinking on these matters in relation to young people. "Poetry is the antenna of civilisation these days. People, particularly, especially, young people are spirits too easily misled or disregarded. As spirits they must be stirred, maybe even redeemed, by poetry."
Ni Dhomhnaill acknowledged the "sacramental centre of poetry" and her "everyday need" to share the same. Longley, whose poem "Ceasefire" became central to much optimism in Ireland in August 1994, spoke of the "necessity for solace". Smith saw poetry as "evidence of palpable idealism, a common sense of civilisation". There was unique common resonance in the air.
The fifth writer, Grace Nichols, had arrived too late for the group conversation, yet serendipity reigned. "Yes," she said, "poetry gives insights, loosens the mind from stereotype thinking." But, "No, it cannot be taught as such but it can bring a new dimension to classroom thinking. It is spiritually the essence in an all too drab world."