There are many among generations of school-leavers who just don't get poetry, after years of conventional stuff imparted by dull English teachers. So when a poet comes along, whose cultural touchstones range from the wacky space animated series The Clangers, to the classic David Niven film A Matter Of Life And Death, the ancient art suddenly doesn't seem quite so stuffy.
Dr Sinead Morrissey is a modern writer with the look of another era. With her unruly bob and round green eyes, and her pale angular face – lifted by deep red lipstick – and style verging on vintage, she wouldn't have appeared out of place among Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury set. Belfast's poet laureate, as recently appointed by the Lord Mayor and supported by the Arts Council, Arts and Business and Moviehouse Ltd, has the literary ability to go with the blue-stocking look, a dazzling talent recognised by her shortlisting for the upcoming 2013 Forward Prize, the Pulitzer of poetry awards.
Her nominated collection, Parallex, explores paradoxes in the imagery and information we're bombarded with in life, along the way capturing David Niven on a magical marble escalator on his way to heaven, and 'matchstick men' artist LS Lowry's studio after his death, when his unpublished marionette works were discovered.
The afterlife – and even the notion of angels – is a theme in Dr Morrissey's assured and sometimes disquieting work. In 2007 she took first prize in the National Poetry Competition with Through the Square Window, a haunting poem that contrasts an image of the dead gathering outside a window, with that of a child sleeping peacefully indoors. Another poem, Storm, was inspired by a spooky experience in Switzerland.
"I've never seen a ghost, but I've been in clearly haunted rooms before," she says. "When I was pregnant with my first child, I was awarded a writing fellowship in Switzerland and I was sure the room I was staying in was haunted. I felt watched the whole time. There was a strong smell of cigarette smoke around the bed in the small hours of the morning – I don't smoke – as well as the sound of a dog barking in the corridor. There was no dog.
"I do believe in an afterlife; I believe that death is not the end of the spirit, but I have no idea what the afterlife might entail. Nobody does, by definition. All we have is the present moment in which we are alive, which is infinitely more important as a focus than speculation about what might happen after our deaths."
Dr Morrissey is 41 but sounds 14 on the phone. Her light, girly voice becomes intense when she reads her poetry; she recites beautifully, with a conspiratorial hushed intimacy. Her daughter Sofia (4) is showing early signs of following in her mother's footsteps, with her "delight in discovering rhyme in ordinary language". She also has a six-year-old son, Augustine, by her husband Joseph Pond, an acupuncturist and hypnotherapist from Arizona, who she describes as "my main reader and critic and also my greatest single inspiration".
They met in Japan – Sinead lived there and in the "heart-stoppingly beautiful" Waitakere rainforest of West Auckland in New Zealand after she graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. Aptly, the poet's emails carry the ID 'Sinead Seadhna Morrissey' – the middle name pronounced Shay-na, meaning 'wayfarer' or 'traveller' in Gaelic.
The couple settled in Belfast in 1999. Three years later Dr Morrissey was appointed Writer in Residence at Queen's University, Belfast, where she is currently Reader in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. There isn't much time for her to stand and smell the flowers these days.
"Between my full-time job at Queen's and the demands of small children and writing, I don't get much free time," she says. "I try and swim a kilometre once a week, and Joseph and I both love to cook for family and friends. I don't watch much television but I would switch on BBC Four before anything else. Whether the programmes are about the history of trams or the impact of Spanish Flu, they're well-made and fascinating and I learn a lot about things I didn't know. As for films, my all time favourites would include Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, both adaptations of brilliant novels."
Born in the former Carleton House hospital in Portadown in 1972, Dr Morrissey lived on the Rathmore Estate (since demolished) in Craigavon until she was six with her brother, her Catholic-born father Mike, from the Falls Road, and her English mother Hazel, who comes from an Anglican background. She wrote her first proper poem when she was in Primary Seven at school – The Beggar, which was about a cat, and was dedicated to her teacher, a Mr Ormonde, who was off work. He sent it here – to the Belfast Telegraph – where, to his delight, it was published.
By then the Morrissey family had moved to student accommodation on the campus of what was then the Ulster Polytechnic in Jordanstown, where Mike was a lecturer in Social Policy and Economics, and a warden. Long divorced, Mike and Hazel, a yoga teacher, met at a Communist party meeting in Belfast in 1968.
Dr Morrissey is eternally grateful for their support and influence: "They've been divorced for many years now but I'm close to both and can't imagine my life without either of them. I owe so much, and continue to owe so much, to my parents. Their early political commitment was hugely influential.
"My brother and I were brought up with no religious belief whatsoever and in a fiercely egalitarian household. I am very grateful to both of my parents for their intellectual audacity – for thinking so much outside of the standard Northern Irish box, or boxes.
"Communism, of course, collapsed as a viable political ideology in 1989 and my parents' commitments changed, but my unconventionally politicised childhood has also left me with a fascination for the Soviet Union, which I write about in Parallex."
Sinead's family moved to the Cavehill Road in Belfast when Dr Morrissey was 10 and she lived there – during some of the worst times of the Troubles – until she left home at 18 for university in Dublin. In her 1996 poem There Was Fire in Vancouver, from the first of her six collections, she writes about being seen, erroneously, as either Catholic, because of her name, or Protestant, because of her school uniform. A reaction against sectarianism is at the heart of her earliest poems.
"Anti-sectarianism was engrained in me from a young age, along with anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-homophobia. A big pull back to Northern Ireland when I moved home in 1999 was the peace process. A lot has been achieved here, which is to be celebrated.
"Of course a lot still needs to be done and there are huge problems of abiding sectarianism. But there are broader issues too. Employment and general prosperity. The welcome transition to a multi-cultural society. Gender equality issues. The environment."
Since she became the youngest ever winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 1990, at 18, Dr Morrissey has attracted wide acclaim for her effortless style, her clear-eyed outlook, her arresting takes on the themes of grief and grace, and the taut rhythms in her work. Her poetry draws on family, sexuality and motherhood as frequently as on historical material. She has an enviable talent for simple yet powerful images, for example describing 'William as pale as a basin', from the poem 1801 on quiet rural living, or her desire to capture a moment in life, as in 'catch the day in my hands like a fish/and have it always', in the poem Electric Edwardians.
A personal favourite (of mine) is The Clangers, a tender and philosophical poem inspired by the quite creepy and highly original 1970s BBC children's programme set in outer space. As the writing suggests, this learned academic and poet is open to the idea of life on other planets.
"Given the number of other planets orbiting around other stars in the universe, and the laws of probability, I think there is life on other planets, but it's not something I'm particularly exercised by. I was drawn to write that poem because I wanted to capture something of the Clangers' creator Oliver Postgate's philosophical magic.
"The Clangers to me was a series about how to encounter difference, strangeness, in a non-aggressive way, and was weird, in the way television and literature for children often is, but in such a charming way. The series was so fundamentally poetic and unpredictable, I thought it deserved a poem in its honour."
Good humoured and refreshingly lacking in self-importance, Dr Morrissey stands to win £10,000 if she wins the Best Collection category in the Forward Prize. It was won by Seamus Heaney in 2010 and this year's prize will be awarded by Jeanette Winterson on October 1 at the Southbank Centre, London.
For all her international acclaim and travels, Dr Morrissey has a close affinity with Belfast and wants her ashes to be scattered on Belfast Lough. Between the ages of six and ten, she could see the lough beyond the field at the back of her house off the Cavehill Road.
"I have wanted to be close to the sea ever since then. We can see the lough now too from the windows of my son's bedroom. I've written maybe a dozen poems about this stretch of water and in a completely irrational way, believe that it's mine – especially the stretch between Hazelbank and the Loughshore Park. It's where I feel most anchored."
The Clangers, by Sinead Morrissey
This planet, this cloudy planet, is the earth.
We cannot guess how small and insignificant it is
unless we travel, in our imaginations, to another star –
to another stone-pocked sphere without atmosphere
where an orderly people, curious and conciliatory,
stares out across the vast and silent territory
of intergalactic space, dreaming of otherness ...
which arrived, once, in the shape of an iron chicken
they cobbled together from sky detritus.
It couldn't understand its own co-ordinates
and blundered all over the meteor garden
until Tiny Clanger, there now there,
calmed it into submission like a horse whisperer.
As thanks it laid an iron egg before flapping away
to its spiky nest. The nest was filled with staves
which Tiny Clanger planted and watched turn into music trees.
On other star-bright days, when otherness fails to visit them,
the Clangers resort to flying machines to catch
whatever passing instrument or implement they can.
Flying machines are Major Clanger's passion.
It is the otherness of sky-fishing that excites him:
a functioning television set or a hat with live inhabitants–
whatever the harvest is it must be clamorously exhibited
for the benefit of everyone, then taken
on a trolley to the Soup Dragon.
Inside the Clanger Planet
there are caves and caves and caves full of flowers
and only the glow-buzzers know they are there at all.
Small Clanger got lost once, like all the countless dead before Theseus,
following the glow-buzzers to the glow-honey source.
At first he didn't notice: the caves an enticement of pearly lights
and unexpected airiness, the flowers a theatre.
While Granny Clanger nodded over her knitting
he was bowing to each extraordinary face in turn.
(Eventually, the glow-buzzers led him out again.)
Goodbye Clangers! That stretched and iridescent shawl
of stars and dark between your world and ours is beckoning ...
Tuck yourselves into bed. Fold your ears over your eyes.
Whistle your singing-kettle breath one last time.
From Through the Square Window, Carcanet Press, 2009