- The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse edited by Thomas Kinsella
Oxford, 423 pp, £12.50, May 1986, ISBN 0 19 211868 4
- The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry edited by Paul Muldoon
Faber, 415 pp, £10.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 571 13760 1
- Irish Poetry after Joyce by Dillon Johnston
Dolmen, 336 pp, £20.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 85105 437 4
Each of these books – two anthologies and a critical study – is notable for its exclusions, among other things; each takes a strong line over questions of definition and evaluation; and each contains much to applaud. Thomas Kinsella’s New Oxford Book goes right back to the beginning, to a rath in front of an oak wood singled out for comment by some anonymous poet of the sixth century, and cherished as a survival from an even more distant past, while the Faber book takes as its starting-point (as the blurb has it) the death of Yeats. The American publisher and critic Dillon Johnston plumps for Joyce, rather than Yeats, in his title: not on a whim, he tells us, but in acknowledgement of certain literary procedures sanctioned by Joyce, and afterwards available to poets, no less than prose-writers. The lofty tone perfected by Yeats didn’t do at all when it came to the bleakness and piecemeal quality of the post-Yeats world, so many poets found. Joyce’s more variable manner showed a way to take in every aspect of the new social conditions, and keep the end-result tricksy.
With the death of Yeats, in other words, came something like a full stop, and then with the death of Joyce a new beginning, as back after back was turned on all approaches to poetry not in keeping with the realities of the day. In that year, 1941, Patrick Kavanagh was writing a 757-line poem on the charmlessness of Irish country life, which nevertheless manages to encompass a good deal of its pungency:
The potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill ...
Austin Clarke was moving on from the kind of social criticism, lyrically expressed, which we get in ‘The Straying Student’, to a knottier and more derisive manifestation of the same drive (though it took him 17 years to get together a volume of poetry in the new mode – Ancient Lights came out in 1955, while 1938 was the date of its predecessor Night and Morning). Social criticism: this is one of the two major preoccupations of Irish writers in the 20th century, whether the tone is glum, angry, ironic or ebullient.
The other notable enterprise in contemporary Irish writing is the retrieval, or acknowledgement, of some facet of the past, generally for the purpose of savouring the sense of national distinctiveness. Such a past needn’t be beyond one’s own recall, as we find in Louis MacNeice’s enumeration of the egregious inheritances of Ulster:
The linen mills, the long wet grass, the
And one read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man’s damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save – as you prefer – the King or Ireland
However, one of the most important reclamations of recent years is the group of translations, by Thomas Kinsella, of poems assembled by Sean O Tuama, and brought out in a dual-language anthology called An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (1981). During the three centuries covered in this book, the destruction of Gaelic Ireland was deplored as it was taking place, in the mordant verses of poets like O Bruadair and O Rathaille, and also in the more mellifluous aislingi (vision poems) which proliferated in the 18th century. Kinsella has included a good supply of the Duanaire translations in his New Oxford Book. Some of these are of greater merit than others – O Rathaille’s lovely ‘Gile na Gile’ (‘Brightness Most Bright’), which defeated Mangan in the 19th century, and Frank O’Connor in the 20th, doesn’t prove manipulable by Thomas Kinsella either – but all are of the utmost interest and signficance in denoting the cultural resources of the unregenerate Irish.
As literature in Irish dwindled virtually to a handful of songs scattered throughout the countryside, the note most frequently sounded became a plaintive one; at the same time, while the Gaelic tradition was all but eradicated, another was forging ahead, as various confident and sagacious Anglo-Irish voices were raised in deliberation or mockery. Swift, Goldsmith, Sheridan: these turn up in the Oxford anthology, alongside the anonymous authors of such demotic verses as ‘Lilli Burlero’ – the title and refrain of this Orange song is surely the transliteration of an Irish phrase, An lile ba leir ee- ba linn an la, which means roughly ‘the lily [the Orange lily] was triumphant, we won the day,’ and not, as Kinsella asserts in a note, ‘a nonsense parody of the Irish language’. For another line on the Williamite Wars, Kinsella – who, in the interests of consistency, sticks to his own translations, with no more than two exceptions – might really have got in the Frank O’Connor version of the anonymous ‘Slan Chum Padraig Sairseal’ (‘Farewell to Patrick Sarsfield’), a tribute to the vanquished Lord Lucan written after the Siege of Limerick in 1691, and among the earliest utterances of an untutored Gaelic voice:
At the Boyne Bridge we took our first beating,
From the bridge at Slane we were soon retreating,
And then we were beaten at Aughrim too –
Ah, fragrant Ireland, that was goodbye to you.
However, Kinsella doesn’t overlook the fact that, as he has it, ‘the Irish tradition has always presented an intimate fusion of literature and history,’ or that the pattern thereby created is continually being adapted to accommodate contemporary feelings about past events, along with items extracted from one context to enrich another. ‘Rapparees, white-boys, volunteers, ribbonmen ...’: so runs a line in Richard Murphy’s poem ‘Green Martyrs’, one of Kinsella’s choices, naming bands of disaffected countrymen from the 17th century to the 19th, and getting the fullest flavour from these allusions; in a similar way, the phrase ‘hedge school’, with its connotations of deprivation and resilience, crops up in the work of Heaney and Montague, recharged. And when Patrick Kavanagh writes about carting dung to an outlying farm, he remembers a casual labourer and Gaelic poet of the 1750s or thereabouts, who, with his mind inappropriately engaged by literary matters, forgot to empty a cart-load of manure at the top of a hill and trundled the whole lot down again – and calls his poem ‘Art McCooey’.
Kavanagh, testy and disgruntled and lyrical, marks the middle stage in the rural Irish mode: before his hardy approach, in the present century, comes the work of many minor poets who succumbed too readily to wistfulness and associated emotions – hankering after a cottage in a bog, that sort of thing – and in his wake we get the urbanities superimposed over country themes by such accomplished writers as Heaney and Muldoon. Neither innocent pastoralism nor innocent Republicanism, to be sure, was a tenable sentiment in Irish writing from about 1910 on (though these modes didn’t altogether die out), as the ironic way of looking at things, and its attendant complexities, supervened. Once we reach the present, and the resourceful imaginations of poets like Muldoon, various new and memorable configurations are obtained by means of an outrageous and productive rifling of standard verse-forms like the aisling. John Montague, a poet much given to the perusal of the past, has a blunter, if no less telling method of setting out his historical material:
a shattered procession
of anonymous suffering
files through the brain:
burnt houses, pillaged farms,
a province in flames.
The province laid waste in this way is Ulster, whose historical assets are suppressed and fragmented: ‘All around,’ Montague writes elsewhere, ‘shards of a lost tradition’ – some of which reside in Gaelic place-names like Glenchuill, Glen of the Hazels, and names commemorating bygone emergencies. These shards are recoverable, if not restorable, like the devices of Gaelic literature – for example, Austin Clarke’s most celebrated recovery, as Dillon Johnston points out, was that of ‘certain assonant effects adapted from Irish poetry’. What else do we find among the special bequests of Irish writers? Well, there are always those potent emblems, discredited or not, like the harp sighed over so copiously by Thomas Moore.
Moore of ‘Moore’s Maladies’ as Joyce called them, is well-represented in the part of Kinsella’s anthology given over to the 19th century, and many other standard works of the era get a showing: Mangan’s ‘Dark Rosaleen’, Thomas Davis’s ‘A Nation Once Again’, Ferguson’s ‘Lament for Thomas Davis’, and all. Still, space has been found for somewhat better and less familiar works by Ferguson – ‘At the Polo-Ground’, for instance, a blank-verse monologue ‘in the manner of Browning’, according to the author’s wife and biographer Lady Ferguson, which imagines the musings and misgivings of an Invincible recruit and participant in the Phoenix Park murders of 1882. From this point, we come up pretty swiftly to the modern age, via Yeats, Synge, Francis Ledwidge, Padraig Colum and one or two others: no Joyce, James Stephens, Joseph Campbell, F.R. Higgins, Donagh MacDonagh or W.R. Rodgers. It’s hard not to feel that John Montague’s Faber Book of Irish Verse of 1974 offers a rather more satisfactory selection from the middle part of this century.
Kinsella is at pains to repudiate any idea of a ‘Northern Irish Renaissance’, claiming those Northerners whose work he admires, such as Heaney and Mahon, for the whole of the country, not just a fraction of it. This is an attitude from which few Northern poets would wish to dissociate themselves, yet we’re left with a feeling that Kinsella has carried things altogether too far in the effort not to weaken his assertion by suggesting a concentration of talent in a single area (i.e. the North). We look in vain, in his book, for anything by John Hewitt, an important poet whose unostentatious manner has rendered him liable to disregard. Muldoon is absent – it’s true that he is ten years younger than the youngest of Kinsella’s contributors, but John Montague got him into the Faber anthology. Simmons Paulin, Ormsby, Carson, McGuckian ... the list goes on. Perhaps the most singular omission, though, is that of Michael Longley, whose Poems 1963-83, issued last year by the Salamander Press, shows a poet of incomparable fluency and discernment. When it comes to the Heaney selection (five poems), Kinsella has been rather unenterprising: nothing at all from Station Island, not even the masterly title-sequence, only ‘The Gutteral Muse’ from Field Work, and everything geared to disclose the popular, rather than the formidable element in Heaney’s work. Mahon’s ‘Disused Shed’, with its starting-point in the grounds of J.G. Farrell’s burnt-out hotel in Troubles, is in – a choice with which no one can possibly quarrel. But where are ‘The Spring Vacation’ and ‘Courtyards in Delft’? And why, among the Montague collections available for scrutiny, has The Rough Field been passed over?
Disputable absences and inclusions, which no editor can avoid, are more justly to be dwelt on in the case of an anthology like Kinsella’s, which purports to be representative, than one like Muldoon’s, which makes its impact, and asserts its purpose, by being very choosy. Contemporary Irish poets, in Muldoon’s book, can be counted on the fingers of two hands, and here they are: Kavanagh, MacNeice, Kinsella, Montague, Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Durcan, Paulin, McGuckian. No Muldoon, we notice straight away, which is understandable, if regrettable. Muldoon is famous for his oblique approach to things, and we see this feeling for indirection at work in the prologue to Contemporary Irish Poetry – not a manifesto by Muldoon, not even a note on his selection principles, but part of a BBC exchange between F.R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice on tendencies in modern poetry, broadcast in 1939 and reprinted in a Listener of that year. Higgins’s attribution of a special kind of purity to poetry in Ireland has less appeal for Muldoon, we can be sure, than the ‘common-sense’ attitude taken by MacNeice, who said: ‘I think that the poet is a sensitive instrument designed to record anything which interests his mind or affects his emotions. If a gasometer, for instance, affects his emotions, or if the Marxian dialectic, let us say, interests his mind, then let them come into his poetry. He will be fulfilling his function as a poet if he records these things with integrity and with as much music as he can compass or as is appropriate to the subject.’ Muldoon’s ten poets are all robust along the lines set out by MacNeice, and not in the least burdened with a sense of Irish spirituality, as F.R. Higgins would have it: ‘The sort of belief I see in Ireland is a belief emanating from life, from nature, from revealed religion, and from the nation.’ This notion of Irish spirituality, of course, was very much a figment of the time, and it even came to be cited, once war had broken out, as a factor in Ireland’s exemption from joining in. England, so one argument went, had had it coming to her on account of her enthralment with materialism. Dillon Johnston, at the start of his book, mentions the inevitable psychological result of neutrality in Ireland, in association with continuing censorship: undue introspectiveness. He also notes a requirement of reactionary Irish readers: that ‘poetic truths’ should be expressed in ways not inconsistent with certain political and moral assumptions. It didn’t make for vigour or flexibility.
Still, there were always Irish writers who resisted the lure of such restrictions, who bore in mind the limitless possibilities indicated by Joyce, and the immense achievement of Yeats, and activated their own literary impulses accordingly. Flann O’Brien comes to mind, along with the Bell’s editorial staff and contributors: the O’Faolain dissentients. In 1951, Dillon Johnston reminds us, came the Dolmen Press, under whose imprint first collections by Thomas Kinsella, Richard Murphy and John Montague were issued in due course. Dillon Johnston has a good deal to say about these poets and others, much of it enlightening; he is, however, a literary historian and critic, and not a social historian, and consequently the atmosphere prevailing in Ireland at various moments is not made altogether palpable in his book. Verse-patterns, tone and focus are what he is interested in, not the patterns formed by an interaction between historical circumstances and poetic practices, though he doesn’t underestimate the importance of the latter. Irish Poetry after Joyce consists of six chapters, in four of which a present-day poet is juxtaposed with a slightly earlier one, to illuminating effect. Kinsella/Clarke, Montague/Devlin, Heaney/Kavanagh, Mahon/MacNeice: these are the arrangements, designed to show how each of the younger poets revises or extends or sidesteps the tradition embodied in the predecessor he’s placed alongside. Johnston’s opening chapter considers ‘the Irish poet and his society’, though without placing too much emphasis on the extra-literary ingredients of that society, and in Chapter Six the author briefly adverts to the work of certain poets not appraised elsewhere, like Murphy and Muldoon. Whom does he omit? Most noticeably, Paul Durcan and Tom Paulin: the Southern jauntiness of one, and the Northern astringency of the other, seem to call for recognition in a study like this. Paulin’s appropriation of the ‘Lagan Jacobins’, the Presbyterian and free-thinking republicans of the 1790s – forms an attractive addition to those historical motifs which explain or enhance, for contemporary poets, some aspect of the present, with its predicaments. Poems like Paulin’s ‘Desertmartin’ (included in the Faber anthology) look backwards and forwards at the same time: back in response to the ‘local stir’, the consciousness of being in a special position, and forward to a recovery of something sorely missed, like the democratic spirit that went out with the 18th century.
In his preface Thomas Kinsella explains his somewhat skimpy selection of recent poems by remarking that ‘the adequate presentation of contemporary careers would require another book.’ Muldoon, who includes no fewer than thirteen poems by any of his contributors (MacNeice has over thirty), has surely provided it. He starts with Patrick Kavanagh and ends with Medbh McGuckian, and between these two – the exponent of the out-of-doors and the domestic prestidigitator – presents a range of poems shaped by criteria so exacting, and so felicitously composed, in almost every instance, that complaint on any ground seems out of place.