- Poetry in the Wars by Edna Longley
Bloodaxe, 264 pp, £12.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 906427 74 6
- We Irish: The Selected Essays of Denis Donoghue
Harvester, 275 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1011 3
- The Battle of The Books by W.J. McCormack
Lilliput, 94 pp, £3.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 946640 13 0
- The Twilight of Ascendancy by Mark Bence-Jones
Constable, 327 pp, £14.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 09 465490 5
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl edited by John Quinn
Methuen, 144 pp, £8.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 413 14350 3
Wars and battles: these words, appearing prominently in the titles of two of the books under consideration, might give the impression that poetry, or criticism, or the criticism of poetry, is a belligerent business. It doesn’t stop with the book titles, either: the chapter on Edna Longley in W.J. McCormack’s short and contentious study of Irish cultural debate requires us to attend to ‘the reaction from Ulster’, and sums it up thus: ‘Fighting or Writing?’ This humorously echoes the famous anti-Home Rule poster with its caption, ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,’ while referring specifically to the critical reception of the ‘Field Day’ pamphlets (nine to date), which deal with questions – thorny questions – of identity and cultural heritage in Ireland. Edna Longley, McCormack says, ‘has been the most consistent critic of the “Field Day” enterprise’, taking issue, as she does, with its refusal to distinguish properly between poetry and politics (fusing the two, that is, instead of allowing them to interact productively).
‘Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland’ is the title of the essay (the penultimate one in Poetry in the Wars) in which Edna Longley gets to grips with ‘Field Day’. One of her objections to the ‘Field Day’ standpoint has already been mooted in the essay on Seamus Heaney’s North: she dislikes the practice of equating one set of circumstances with another, without sufficiently allowing for the differences between the two. Hence, she says, Heaney’s Iron Age Danish excavations yield up material so alien to contemporary Ireland that the two can’t be linked without a measure of falsification, even if the purpose is emblematic. Seamus Deane likewise comes in for criticism when he traces a line of continuity (in his first ‘Field Day’ publication, ‘Civilians and Barbarians’) from Spenser’s slurs on the Irish (‘stern and savage’) to certain terms bandied about today: ‘terrorist’, ‘bomber’. Brian Friel, another of the ‘Field Day’ directors, does something similar in his play, Translations, which isn’t only about the act of translating place-names from Irish to English, but also ‘translates’ a typical British battalion in the Belfast or Derry of the 1970s, back into a pungent era of the past. Friel manages this translation very well, Edna Longley admits, but falls short in his aim of recharging certain historical images, because, in the play, ‘no perspective discriminates between past and present, 19th-century Ireland and 20th-century Northern Ireland. There is simply equation ... ’
If such equations don’t come out right, neither can a case be made out for division of the kind propounded by Tom Paulin, when he tries, in his poetry, to reinstate some indiosyncratic words: so Edna Longley contends. ‘Paulin creates division where unities [i.e. a common language, standard English] already exist.’ In fact, it is hard to see what the objection is to Paulin’s rather sparing insertion into his poems of words like ‘sheugh’ (ditch) and ‘clabbery’ (muddy). This is just a way of asserting local singularity, and a perfectly reasonable poetic strategy. As Seamus Deane has noted, Paulin’s blending of ‘a kind of academic surrealism’ and the tones of darkest Ulster has an ironic ring to it; it doesn’t seem to me at all affected or patronising, as it does to Edna Longley. And it’s wrong to say of Paulin’s 1983 collection, Liberty Tree – as she does – that it ‘attacks contemporary Unionism for betraying the French and Irish Republican principles of ’98’. You can’t ‘betray’ what you never subscribed to, and Unionism evolved in direct opposition to those enlightened principles. What Paulin is deploring, in this book, is one kind of discontinuity, the ‘snapped connection’ which occurred after 1798, when Presbyterian and free-thinking Republicanism came to an end. That particular way of jettisoning a sectarian mentality was itself jettisoned. Throughout the 19th century, religious intolerance thrived in Ulster, culminating in the kind of arid conviction forcefully evoked by Tom Paulin in his poem ‘Desertmartin’:
This bitter village shows the flag
In a baked absolute September light.
Here the Word has withered to a few
Parched certainties, and the charred stubble
Tightens like a black belt, a crop of Bibles.
Odd to find Edna Longley dismissing these lines as ‘ cliché’d, external impression of the Protestant community’.