Each year March 21st rolls around. Some years, like 2021, it is also the spring equinox (or equilux as I like to think of it as we bask in lengthening daylight). But it is always UNESCO World Poetry Day. And, if you are not already familiar with it, UNESCO stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. After UNICEF, it is probably the most high profile of the United Nation’s work, other than sending in military peace keeping missions in hotspots around the globe. UNESCO World Poetry Day is also a landmark in my own life as I launch an exciting poetry project that I am curating. But first, let’s have a little digression as I unpack the acronym and it’s context.
UNESCO covers, broadly, what is our world heritage. That is why Skellig Michael, Newgrange and the Giant’s Causeway and Coast have earned the UNESCO World Heritage site moniker. The science bit covers the land we live on – the rocks, the waterways, the weather that sculpts the land over time – in an ice age or in a weekend when a fierce storm blows through. The land pretty much dictates our culture as we adapt to our habitat and create art and customs informed by our geographical location. Education is how we transmit both heritage, scientific knowledge and culture.
The United Nations was always in my consciousness from an early age. When we lived in Queens, there was a United Nations Village beside my sister’s and eldest brother’s primary School, St. Nicholas of Tollentine. So they had classmates of children whose parents were working at the UN. The actual building where those parents worked was across the East River and opened in 1952. I went on a tour of the building in 1963 when it still was spanking new and very modern. What lives in my memory is a mural that was very abstract. I asked the tour guide what did it mean. I earned indulgent chuckles from the audience. Little children often ask the questions that the adults think, but also reckon will make them look unsophisticated.
Which brings me to another UNESCO designation that is close to my heart and where I make my home. I live within the demesne of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark. It is a global geopark because it straddles an international boundary; Fermanagh is in the UK’s Northern Ireland and Cavan is in the Republic of Ireland. It was the first cross-border global geopark on the planet. That it was created in the wake of the Good Friday Belfast Treaty in 1998 is a cultural monument to co-operation after over thirty years of civil strife. The geology of this area has huge international significance and the artefacts from the previous millenia tell the story of how our human inhabitants developed their culture.
What better way to transmit that heritage then with poetry? The first dwellers probably sang songs of successful hunts, lamented loved ones who passed, celebrated births and the seasons’ passing. Those first stories will have changed over time as each age changed the tune and timing, but the great themes are eternal and connect those of us living today with our mitochondrial mothers. Science helps us excavate new facts and amazing discoveries where we can alter our view about how this living organism -Earth – lives, breaths and shape shifts. Poetry transmits how we interlink with other living organisms. The work of poetry is to make connections.
Which brings me to the perfect marriage of my biophilia and poetry. Today, we launch a digital project with Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark where we will be mapping the geopark poem by poem. Five established poets have been commissioned to create new work on the geoheritage of sites across the geopark. I will be curating the project and reaching out to new and emerging poets asking them for their own contributions. Twelve of those poets will also feature on the Geopark’s digital poetry map. As schools reopen I will be doing outreach with the 9-12 year olds who have visited geopark sites where they live for contributions.
The project has been funded by the Geological Survey of Ireland’s Geoheritage Fund. Cavan Arts Office is funding my work as curator of the project through an Artist Development Award. We are also grateful for Cavan’s Ramor Theatre contributing professional actors to recite the work and to record sound files.
Ultimately, the Geopark Poetry Map will be on the Marble Arch Cave UNESCO Global Geopark website. later in 2021. You will be able to click onto the digital map and read the poem off the screen and click on the sound file and hear it in your ear. Poetry is both a visual and aural experience. The Geopark Poetry Map is a vehicle for doing outreach from a safe distance in these pandemic times.
I live in what feels like a miraculous landscape. My hope is that the poems will educate, entertain and inspire the public to cherish this precious place where I have been graced to live these past twenty years.
If you would like to know more about the Geopark Poetry Map, how to submit a poem for consideration, or to just get more background information about some of the seventy sites around Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark, please email
I look forward to reading the poems that will celebrate the great geoheritage of this landscape.
Since this is a poetry blog I better finish with a poem. The poem is dedicated to Dr. Kirsten Lemon, who was the geologist who taught me and the other Cavan Geopark Ambassadors about the wonders of the earth beneath our feet back in 2011.
Iapetus For Dr. Kirsten Lemon The primordial soup boiled over, a neonising tsunami overflowing, making a subtropical hollow ocean over iron stained desert floor Ebb and flow , sun up and down, landmass creaks and groans. Still - the magma goes. The Cailleach never shrugged. Not at all! Nor she shirked. She bore the granite load, lugging it, going heave-ho! Playing pat-a-cake, She mixed mud and stone, taking the two and making one – an island of halves, bi-valved, being both, doing the double, tied with her apron’s strings. Running her giant’s thumb down the seam the Cailleach made her mark with a spit and a lick. She sealed its secret, calling it a promise. Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. By permission of the author.