I have just published my seventh book of poetry entitled An Act of Courage. It is a collection of poems I wrote during 2016 and it marks a change of pace for me, since I experimented with different styles and subjects. The book contains a selection of 53 poems chosen from the output of a rather prolific year when I produced more poetry than in any other previous year.
I tend to start off a poem with a certain phrase that seems good to me and then follow a line of images that come to my mind by describing them using metaphor and simile until the poem is finished. Whenever I reread one of my own poems those images come back into my mind like a little movie playing in my head. One of the things I have to watch out for, though, is making sure I seize a subject from the start and run with it, rather than rambling on without really saying anything tangible. Hopefully, I have achieved substance over miasma in this book.
I used to think that poetry was the result of articulating some strong emotion and the stronger the emotion the better the poetry. Unfortunately, the tendency to work up strong emotions can kick in and ruin a poem rather than enhance it. On the other hand, when I actually start a poem with something specific in mind that I want to say, usually the result is something that is usable. I’m not saying that there is no emotion that goes into poetry. All I’m saying is that, for me at least, that is not enough. When you can achieve both in a poem then you have a chance of producing something decent, or even great.
I have also found that writing poetry on subjects that are intellectually rather than emotionally engaging has the same effect as writing poetry when I feel strongly about something. In other words, in these cases, the quality of the poetry is not affected by what I feel about it when I’m writing it but rather comes out of the subject matter itself.
One thing I have rarely tried is writing a long-form poem, mostly because I didn’t have anything portentous enough to say, but also because, as you can imagine, it looks a tad daunting. However, my sister-in-law passed away in December 2015 at the age of 49 and her passing was not only unbearably sad but also very inspiring, because she bore her suffering with such saint-like patience. Consequently, I wrote a long poem called “An Act of Courage” as a kind of tribute to her and to in some way celebrate her life. This is an example of a poem which I found intellectually stimulating as well as emotionally moving. The phrase ‘an act of courage’ is taken from the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The poem is written in loosely alexandrine lines, rhyming ababcdcdefef etc., goes on for some 320 lines, and comes in at just under 3,000 words. It appears as the first poem in the book.
The poems in the book range from fairly strictly metered and rhymed offerings to free-form poems devoid of punctuation. The latter wasn’t because I simply can’t do grammar and punctuation or because I couldn’t be bothered; I chose that form because the ambiguity that sets in when it is a little unclear what noun an adjective refers to or what verb an adverb modifies, hopefully lends deeper nuance to the poem.
The blurb for the book, written by John Yocum PhD, runs as follows:
An Act of Courage is Sean O’Neill’s seventh collection of poetry. Set primarily against the background of a Midwestern American industrial city, its streets and strip malls, factories and parks, interwoven with soliloquies evoked by portraits, photos and memories, the poems explore courage in the face of weariness; of loss of domestic and spiritual illusions; of the frightening approach of personal intimacy; above all, in the face of the transience of life and the prospect of a final reckoning.
These poems are, by turns, haunting, consoling, bracing and surprising.
I think it is a fairly accurate description. One of the things I was trying to achieve through these poems was to render the sense of human beings finding themselves in the world alone, where no human relationship can fill the longing in the human psyche, which ultimately only God can satisfy. The poems are not as bleak as you might imagine, however, but instead hold out the prospect of ultimate fulfillment in uniting with the creator-father.
The book cover was designed by my son, Sid O’Neill, of Highland Creative and I think it accurately portrays the spirit of the book. It shows a diminutive figure standing close to a huge waterfall, head bowed, but determined and courageous in the face of potential ruin.
Anyone interested in reading this book of poems can see a preview on Amazon and buy the paperback or Kindle e-book for a paltry sum. The book is available at the following links: