Eamon Grennan, an Irish poet and the author of more than ten poetry collections, read a selection of poems to a rapt audience last Thursday. Grennan’s soothing voice and scenic, playful poems set an atmosphere of poetic serenity, providing an hour-long breath of fresh air. The poet, whose daughter and wife are both Swarthmore alumnae, read primarily from his most recent book, Out of Sight: New and Selected Poems.
With a beautifully written introduction combining quotes from Grennan’s poems with her own analysis, English Professor Nathalie Anderson introduced Grennan at the reading. Grennan was born and raised in Dublin, earned his PhD at Harvard University, and taught for many years at Vassar College until his retirement in 2004. He has been awarded more than a dozen awards and fellowships for his work. Anderson cited the first line of Out of Sight to describe the prolific poet’s gentle and moving style: “I would like to let things be.”
Grennan began with a poem called “Place” about returning home. “Going back, there is always a sense of a little lift when you enter the place that you’ve chosen to be. I’ll read a small little poem that is about that little lift of recognition and pleasure,” he said. The poem communicated that feeling perfectly with subtle, simple adjectives and imagery such as “the cover of my mother’s prayer book wrinkles with light” and “the old cottages lie like bones over the open fields.”
Between some of his poems, Grennan described his inspiration and the ideas that captured him and became poems: “I try and connect the big and the little—the cosmic and the terrestrial.” Before a poem called “Cave Painters,” he explained, “I loved the cave painters and the art they left behind and the mystery of them and their art. I loved the fact that we don’t know […] where they came from, why they were doing it. We do know they made sense of their immediate environment.” After reading the poem, he paused and repeated a line that particularly struck him: “Nowhere is now here,” and said that lines like that made him remember “the language pleasures of writing this stuff.”
The poems Grennan read were striking in their appreciation of subtle details, taking moments and feelings and interpreting them exquisitely. In a series of poems about art, he read a new piece inspired by the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, so new, “as they say about painting, [it’s] probably still wet.” Grennan spoke of listening to Renoir’s village street, reminding us all to obey the feelings that art provokes.
Grennan also writes a fair amount of poems about his family and children, poeticizing the significant moments in their lives. Before a poem about his daughter (Kira Grennan ’08) heading off on a train, he said that his parenthood poems describe “Moments of change, of stepping from one zone into another—which of course is what we observe as parents. Our children are always disappearing into the next phase.”
Grennan referenced his discussions with the Contemporary Irish Poetry class earlier that day and said he wanted to include William Butler Yeats in his reading. He quoted Yeats’ famous words, “Even when a poet seems most himself, a poet never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table: he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.” Grennan then added with humor, “breakfast must have been a happy time in the Yeats household,” and read a poem he wrote called “Yeats in the Kitchen.” With images of Yeats stirring pasta sauce with one hand and holding a book of poems in the other, Grennan evoked the scent and feel of a family kitchen. The poem ended with the line “I will prop up the book against the bowl and eat,” and Grennan added rhetorically after finishing, “am I eating the book or the pasta, who knows?”
Fittingly, Grennan concluded with a poem called “Detail.” He said that with that poem, he began to understand how his poems “happen.” “You have your eye on something small and some big terrible truth strikes you and carries off your heart,” he said.