James Harpur has had six poetry collections published by Carcanet and Anvil Press and is a member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of arts. He has won a number of awards for his poetry, including a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship, the British National Poetry Competition, and the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize, which enabled him to travel to Australia and spend time in Melbourne and Sydney. His books include The White Silhouette (2018) an Irish Times Book of the Year; Angels and Harvesters (2012) a PBS Recommendation and shortlisted for the 2013 Irish Times Award; and The Dark Age (2007), winner of the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize. James regularly broadcasts his work on radio and gives readings and talks about poetry, inspiration and the imagination in schools and universities and at literary festivals. www.jamesharpur.com

A Vision of Water

This essay will make the connection between water and the power of imagination, and argue that by losing touch with the ancient tradition that water is holy, we treat streams, rivers and wells as merely utilitarian objects, to be exploited and not revered. This desacralisation of water is an attitude found with other aspects of nature and, I shall argue, is analogous to a loss of a sense of mythic imagination in poetry and other arts. The diminution of the mythopoeic worldview and rise of science in the eighteenth century resulted in people seeing and treating water, and nature, in a brutally pragmatic way. Also, with streams and rivers being used as conveyors of chemicals and other waste, instead of ‘fonts’ of inspiration, poetry has lost one of its core metaphors for creativity and the imagination. I will emphasise the role that William Blake’s idea of ‘Double Vision’ — perceiving the sacred reality behind the surface object — is central to changing our view of rivers (and nature). And I will illustrate this through examples of poems, including GM Hopkins’s ‘Inversnaid’, Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Waterfall’,  and Emily Dickinson’s ‘What mystery pervades a well!’.

Keywords: water; pollution; poetry; imagination