Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?
by Eavan Boland Years ago my father saw the keen, or caoine. It was the 1920s; he was a student at Trinity College. On a trip one Easter, he went a hundred miles west and a whole century back to Connemara and the Atlantic coast of Ireland. There, one morning, he saw the emigrant boat, about to leave for Liverpool. There was a small group of old women gathered on the pier. They were the keeners. They could be hired for a few pennies to come to a wake or a funeral or, as here, to a final emigrant farewell on the Galway docks. As the passengers disappeared on board and the boat drew out—or so my father told me—the old women put their shawls over their heads and began the keen. He remembered it as eerie, powerful, terrible. I put forward this small anecdote as a way of trying to answer Sandra Gilbert’s important question: “Is poetry in fact consoling as a performance of grief—that is, is poetry a genre that helps mourners confront loss and overcome sorrow?” The answer has to be as complex