Guest Review: Smith on a new Irish anthology from Harvard

Barbara Smith reviews
An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry
Edited by Wes Davis

It is a brave editor who takes on with creating a new Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, when its forerunners are considered. No less brave when the editor is the US scholar and critic Wes Davis. A brief survey of predecessors include the Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1986), edited by Paul Muldoon (with ten Irish poets, seven of whom were Northern Irish, stretching from 1939 to the mid 80s); the Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1991), edited by Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon (including thirty Irish poets, beginning with Thomas Kinsella’s work); and Modern Irish Poetry: An Anthology  (1995), edited by Patrick Crotty (including forty-seven Irish poets), the premise of which was to regard Irish poetry since Yeats as a ‘quarrel’ with that man’s work.

This anthology covers the work of fifty-three Irish poets, of whom, at the time of writing, only eight are deceased. The range of years of birth run from 1881 (Padraic Colum), to 1972 (Sinead Morrissey) – to all intents roughly four generations of Irish poets, allowing thirty years between them. Of course there is no Yeats; nor Joyce for that matter. If Crotty regarded Irish writing since Yeats as somewhat as a quarrel with his work, Davis partially picks this thread up in his Introduction, but clarifies it with reference to Joyce’s modernism.

The Introduction briefly traces the historical context and development of Irish poetry since Yeats’s death in 1939 and Joyce’s in 1941. Both are such writing behemoths that their legacies – Yeats’ tendency to elevation, Joyce’s to the flowing stream of modern life – can still be detected in many a fledgling Irish poet to this day. Davis speaks of ‘the richness of ordinary experience’, a strategy that Irish poets needed in emerging from that elevated distance of Yeats’ work: his preference for what Davis termed ‘elaboration [rather] than earthliness.’

This move towards ‘earthliness’ and the modernity of Joyce, Davis sees as being adopted by Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh (indeed, Kavanagh termed it ‘ordinary plenty’), in diverging ways to make poetry more relevant to the post-WWII period. Ireland’s neutral stance of those years (termed The Emergency) complicated not only Ireland’s relations with the rest of Europe, but also its internal relations with the north of the island, in ways that have reverberated down to the present. In a way, writers of the 1940s and 50s could be described as trying to escape the ‘Celtic Twilight’, post Yeats.

By the late 50s, Davis reasons, this sureness with the ‘ordinary’ moment had John Montague ‘stepping back from the mythic transformation that had once seemed the necessary function of poetry choosing to savor the bare fact of experience for its own sake.’ John Hewitt, regarded by many as the granddaddy of the Northern Irish school of poetry, was using the local landscape of Antrim and the local vernacular of the North to voice a lyric love of locale. In turn, Davis argues, this ‘embolden[ed] a new generation of poets in Northern Ireland ... the group ... gathering around the [the critic] Philip Hobsbaum’ that we came to know as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, et al.

So far, so more-or-less up-to-date. Davis speedily glosses over the rise of poets such Eavan Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuileanáin, ‘opening the way for a wave of younger women,’ and those working in Irish, such as Michael Davitt, Nuala Ní Domnaill and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, as well as the rise of the Celtic Tiger, the developing peace process in the North – in fact all those concerns of Irish poets writing within the last thirty years.

The Preface and the Introduction reference Yeats and Joyce as the starting point for the anthology from which they must necessarily be excluded. Davis’ choices for earlier poets like Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice are defined by ‘the kinds of poems that have stuck in the minds of later writers.’ Those later writers’ works, especially those writing now, are defined more loosely showing the ‘range of their styles and interests.’

Each poet’s selection opens with a short essay giving some background, setting them briefly in ideological and historical context and how they might relate to their peers. The essays are garnered from sources as wide as literary journals, radio interviews etc. and the scholarly footnotes look as though they would be well worth following up in some cases. The more recent poets’ essays suffer slightly from being written more than three years ago, in some cases. Peter Sirr is quoted as still being editor of the journal Poetry Ireland, and Sinead Morrissey’s essay focuses a great deal on her career pre-2002, neglecting to mention her 2007 UK National Poetry Winner, ‘Through the Square Window’, although by some recompense the poem is the last included. This would suggest compilation taking place prior to 2006/07 and the intervening years spent on collation and editing.

A pity then that one particular essay is marred by the words: ‘perhaps wrongly.’ The words, in the essay about Pearse Hutchinson, refer to Paddy Joe Hill, one of six convicted of a pub bombing in Birmingham, UK, in 1975. These convictions were overturned in 1991, the result of a third appeal and a long campaign for justice. There really is no ‘perhaps wrongly’ about it. It is ironic that the poem referred to, ‘British Justice’ is but eight words long, and is doubly ironic in an essay which lauds Hutchinson’s linguistic facility. This unfortunate wording has caused much verbal and written exercise in the Irish media and it would be a very good thing to see these words excised from future editions.

Looking at the ‘wide swath of Irish poetry’ that Davis chose to include, the selections serve each poet fairly generously as can be expected in the close confines of squeezing four generations into 935 pages (not including notes and permissions). Without doubt there are some exclusions and omissions. Yet, it would have been good to read Moya Cannon, Rita Ann Higgins or Theo Dorgan, for example, not to mention more recent successes like Tom French, Colette Bryce, Kevin Higgins, Paul Perry or Leanne O’Sullivan, to mention a few. I suspect, not that Davis is unaware of these poets, but that the way he cut his cloth was to suit a broad representation across the four generations and some fell by the wayside in selection.

Thus the poetry runs more or less up to the present day, giving some indication of the directions that Irish poetry has most recently turned in. Where Irish poetry is moving towards is a hugely arguable subject. It is certainly more diverse and diffuse in its concerns, than back in the day when Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh were seizing Yeats’ and Joyce’s legacy by the scruff of the neck and shaking it to suit their changing world. There has been a huge growth in the number of Creative Writing programmes available in both a university context and as leisure classes. The continued support of Irish journals like The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland, Crannóg, Southword, The Yellow Nib and The SHOp, as well as smaller ones like Revival and Boyne Berries etc., ensures that there are plenty of outlets for emerging and established generation of writers, and venues where poetry can be heard all over Ireland seem to grow by the week.

Contemporary poets such as Kevin Higgins can gather the new ‘ordinary plenty’ such as the happenings in President Clinton’s trousers and once-avidly-followed television programmes into a poem, ‘Remembering the Nineties’, that comments ironically on media changes experienced since the 90s; Leanne O’Sullivan can write an eloquent collection on the subject of anorexia and teenage anxiety. This is but a small sample of recent concerns. Irish poets are now less concerned with the notion of insularity and more involved in the global – but Irish poetry still has a particular feel to it;  a touch of the lyrical that will always out. It is certainly a different kind of anthology that would be needed to showcase all the poetry flowing in Ireland in the present day, and it could be argued that the annual Best of Irish Poetry published by Munster Literature Centre since 06/07 already serves that purpose, or indeed some might look to The Echoing Years (2007) the third in a trilogy of anthologies that combined Irish and Canadian poetry.

In the poetry world longevity and a lasting contribution are always paramount. What we think now fades: tastes and expectations change; very often what is thought fifty, even one hundred, years henceforth (very often by critics and harvardisers, as Harry Clifton, newly appointed Irish Professor of Poetry coined it) is what fixes one writer above another; or conversely what resurrects a writer from ignominy. The view becomes more complete the further you stand away. Perhaps, in part, this may be one reason why the latest addition to the family tree of Irish modern anthologies is an edition from abroad.

Barbara Smith is a poet and writer living in Ireland. Recent work may be found in Ouroboros and Southword, both online. Her debut poetry collection was Kairos (2007), from Doghouse Books.  She will be reading for the Oxfam Poetry Series in London in December.


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