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Thursday, 13 January 2011

Guest Review: Begnal On The Best Irish Poetry 2010

Edited by Matthew Sweeney

Annual “best of” anthologies can be a succinct if limited way of staying au courant with the contemporary poetry of a given place and time period, and Southword Editions’ Best of Irish Poetry volumes are no exception.  Of course, how much and what kind of overview the reader gets ultimately boils down to the editor.  Does he or she make an attempt to be broad, or is it more a case of his or her individual biases coming into play?  Is this really a selection of the “best,” or are the usual suspects simply trotted out once again instead?  So with all this in mind, when I picked up Best of Irish Poetry 2010 I was immediately curious to read Matthew Sweeney’s Introduction.  In fact, like most of us, I often find an editor’s remarks to be among the more intriguing aspects of a given anthology, and I was not disappointed here.

Having been an editor of Irish poetry myself, with The Burning Bush (1999-2004), I was funnily enough reminded of the sorts of things I sometimes used to write in my own introductory remarks in said journal.  It seems that Sweeney and myself both bring a bit of an outsider’s eye to the Irish scene — I having been an immigrant to Ireland at the time I was editing The Burning Bush, and Sweeney, as he notes here, being a recently-returned emigrant.  One of my aims as journal editor at that time was to highlight and promote Irish “experimental” poetry.  But reading Sweeney’s comments I suppose this wasn’t so successful, because here today he bemoans the dearth of such writing.  Surveying his source material (literary magazines and published poetry collections of the previous year), Sweeney reports, “A lot was quiet, lyrical, understated.  Some of it was unsurprising, too content with the obvious, the non-fresh.  Very little was experimental at all (although I am aware that there is an experimental wing to Irish poetry that keeps itself apart, with key figures like Trevor Joyce or Maurice Scully sometimes straying into the pages of more mainstream journals).”  Now, I don’t know that these poets “keep themselves apart,” or if they are even anymore “kept apart” by the powers that be — both Joyce and Scully are members of Aosdána for example, after all — but Sweeney is right to point out the conservative tendency of contemporary Irish poetry, which still seems to predominate.  I suppose I’m not surprised anymore; Sweeney, though, being reacquainted with Irish poetry really since 2008 (he specifies), is understandably appalled that “the shores of realism were rarely departed from,” which, he reveals, “was a particular disappointment for this editor.”

Here then is an opportunity, perhaps.  So why don’t Joyce or Scully appear in this book?  Scully published a collection in 2009 (the year that Sweeney is selecting from), and I would imagine that Joyce at least published something in some journal somewhere.  Another poet often bestowed with the “experimental” tag, Catherine Walsh, also published a collection in 2009.  But none of these writers is included.  Well, an anthology with the title Best of Irish Poetry 2010 is of course inherently pitched to a more mainstream audience, and I don’t fault Sweeney for doing the job he was hired to do, for reflecting the broader reality of “quiet, lyrical, understated” Irish poetry.  Given the parameters he inevitably has to work in, Sweeney’s editorial choices are quite strong ones.  As he tells us himself, “there were more than enough well-made poems to fill this book,” and it’s true.

So who gets in?  Or rather, I should ask, which are the more interesting poems here?  Just as the editor’s selections are going to be based on his own subjective tastes (which Sweeney admits), so will the reader’s response.  Nothing new in that.  As with any anthology, one can quibble: Is xxxxx’s poem here really one of the “best”?  Why not xxxxx, who I happen to know published a great poem that year?  Etc.  “Best” in this book means what the editor thinks is best of the poems he was able to read; “best” in this review means what the reviewer thinks is best of the selections in the book.  Happily, there is a fair amount of convergence here.  No, there is no experimentalism of the sort discussed above, but I don’t only like “experimental” poetry anyway, and there is much worthwhile material in Best of Irish Poetry 2010, much that lives up to the expectations of such a title.

Contributors to the book (there are fifty) are equitably presented in alphabetical order.  Eva Bourke’s “Achill Killeen” is vivid and sometimes odd: “The holiday cottages across the bay are tired/ from rowing all night through the surf…”  What, the cottages row themselves across the bay?  Where did they come from?  Well, that’s just it; they’re out of place in this more desperate landscape (as the rest of the poem reveals).  It’s a nice touch.  Ciarán Carson’s sequence from his collection On the Night Watch (he gets a whole sequence, deservedly) is great in its short, enjambed-line imagism.  He reminds me a bit of William Carlos Williams in this regard, and in his flower references.  The last segment is a weirdly real reminiscence of early infancy (whether it’s “real” or not): “…pondering/ what age// I am what/ words for// the smell/ of what// is being voided// rising from/ the rubber sheet”. Carson is certainly one of Ireland’s best contemporary poets (and in his way one of the most radical), and I can only wholeheartedly affirm the ample inclusion of his work in this book.

Patrick Cotter’s “A Richard Brautigan Moment” is both a comment on the act of writing and a send-up of colonialist narratives — a Japanese girl’s hair shimmers “like a dark undiscovered continent,” and the music in a bar is a “jungle beat […] which shakes the potted palm leaves…”  John F. Deane’s dream poem “Ever the Night,” perhaps one of the best in the book, is full of lush language like, “I drifted, bemused/ that an angel’s bones might be coloured/ moon-white, star-blue?” — and that out-of-place question mark really makes these lines somehow.  Deane has a great attention to poetic detail.  Susan Millar DuMars offers a quite humorous parody of Christianity, and Leontia Flynn one of contemporary Belfast, which might as well apply to the whole of Ireland.  Both are amusing on one level while making deeper points on another.

There is much humor in this book, but occasionally some outright serious stuff, as in Fred Johnston’s political poem “Gaudete,” or Nick Laird’s meditation on death, “Conifer.”  Not to say that either is sententious, however.  Paul Muldoon’s wordplay in “A Mayfly” is amusing on one level of its own, but also leads the reader through strange patterns of the mind while harkening back to the Cú Chulainn myth.  Leanne O’Sullivan’s “Rapture” is reminiscent of a number of possible myths — Osiris, Orpheus, Christ.  It is her diction, though, in contrast to Muldoon’s, which brings us back to a more serious kind of seriousness.  Seriousness in poetry is not a bad thing by any means, if you are equal to the task.

Other poems I like in this book include Pádraig Rooney’s “Here Come the Warm Earls” (a crazy vision inspired by the Flight of the Earls), David Wheatley’s “On Tory Island” (which subtly employs the Balor myth to nice effect), Adam Wyeth’s “Life Is Shit” (great title!), and Augustus Young’s “A Stop Off in the Gaeltacht” (a skillful poem and ironic comment on the decline of the Irish language, among other things).  Speaking of the Irish language, I can’t help but note there are no poems in that medium here.  In his Introduction, Sweeney seems to suggest that this is the publisher’s decision, not his.  In fact, it is something he says he regrets.  Me too, but what are you going to do, I guess.  In any case, this anthology includes a number of other poems that are eye-catching or well-made, or both (or better), and to be honest a few that I didn’t like so much (subjectively speaking).  But it’s time to bring this review to a close.  To sum up, then, let’s call Best of Irish Poetry 2010 an astutely-edited snapshot of a quality, well-crafted, if particular, kind of Irish poetry, with both standouts and (a few) underwhelming moments, in recent publication.


Michael S. Begnal’s collections include Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005), and Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming 2011). He has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review, Notre Dame Review, Shearsman, and Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions (Litteraria Pragensia, 2006). Most recently, he composed the Afterword to James Liddy’s posthumous collection Fest City (Arlen House, 2010).
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