Sunday, 3 October 2010

Celtic Eclipse?

Professor Patrick Crotty has compiled a massive anthology of Irish poetry, The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, that covers an impressive chronological sweep, and features many new translations, by the editor, David Wheatley, Tiffany Atkinson, and others; it also has a preface by Seamus Heaney.  At over 1,000 pages, it can hardly be said to be less than definitive.


It would be foolish to carp, but odd gaps remain in the book, chinks that naturally intrigue critical arrowing in.  I am still reading the book, but a few questions - they are really just that - have emerged.  Firstly, why are the ballads put at the end, as their own section?  Some, like 'Down by the Salley Gardens' or Kavanagh's Raglan Road lyric, could easily have worked within the main historical sections.  It seems an unnecessary distinction in genre.  More notably, where is the 'Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire'?


More curiously, there are no poems by Oliver St. John Gogarty or A.E. - surely important Celtic Twilight / Victorian Irish poets.  Crotty downsizes the value of that era, by implying it only produced one major poet (Yeats), while the contemporary Irish scene has many (Heaney, Mahon, Longley, and Muldoon, etc) - though  it may be that in 100 years, some of these poets will have been winnowed out as ruthlessly as Crotty dispenses with poor George Russell.


Of modern and contemporary inclusions and absences, it seems odd to see several of the major Yeats poems missing - perhaps because they are deemed chestnuts now.  Valentin Iremonger would have been good to have.  More oddly, Eavan Boland's work seems clipped to a few poems; a relatively short long poem of Muldoon's is presented in excerpt (as if it were 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'); and several important Irish poets of the current scene are missing, especially Mathew Sweeney, Tom French, and Siobhan Campbell.


I would also have enjoyed seeing (among others, and taking into account page-rationing) Nessa O'MahonyPaul Perry, and Kevin Higgins included, as well as Justin Quinn.  For the younger poets, Crotty has tended to focus on those published in the UK.  While women are finally given their due, I can't help but feeling the full value of 20th century women's poetry from Ireland is not entirely embraced (no Leland Bardwell).  Notably, a few "experimental" poets like Trevor Joyce and Maurice Scully are anthologised, which is a refreshing statement of inclusivity.


This is still a superb collection, and a long work of brilliant scholarship - one that no interested reader of Irish writing should be without.
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