The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, by Patrick Crotty (ed), Penguin Classics, 1,120 pages, £40, ISBN: 978-0141439457
An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, by Wes Davis (ed), Harvard University Press, 1,024 pp, £21.95, ISBN: 978-0674049512
At around a thousand pages in length, the Penguin Book of Irish Poetry and An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry are both “fine, fat books”, as, if memory serves, Terence de Vere White used to say of the biographies of Victorian politicians he reviewed in The Irish Times. Both volumes are pale-covered; one is decorated with green foliage, the other with individual green leaves. Perhaps this reflects the ambition of the editors: with its winding stems and purple flowers, not to mention its caterpillars, Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book is an attempt to represent the knowable history of Irish poetry, from early Christian times to the present day; Wes Davis’s Belknap/Harvard volume, with its variously shaped and sized leaves, has the less daunting task of presenting a selection of Irish poets of the last sixty years or so.
Though the choice of living voices is inevitably contentious ‑ and what we all hurry towards when scanning the reviews ‑ justice demands that the scale, architecture and detailing of the Penguin Book should be given its due. Crotty has acknowledged that his book was not delivered to the publisher on the agreed date; he was hardly to know, as he took possession of the site, just how much effort would be required to move from outline planning permission to delivery and the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon. Unlike a rather Muldoonian building in the Sandyford area of Dublin, where the facade is a huge hanging canvas on which fake apartments, balconies and tenants are depicted, this is a fully realised, multi-storey edifice with only a few vacancies or – the word undesirable or squatter can hardly be applied in this context – contestable tenancies.
The book comes in nine sections, each with an identity of its own: 1 Writing Out of Doors: Earliest Times to 1200; II There is No Land on Earth its Peer 1201-1600; Civilizations: 1601-1800; IV Song to 1800; V Union and Dissension: 1801-1880; VI Revival:1881-1921; VII The Sea of Disappointment: 1922-70; VIII Transformations: 1971-2009; IX Songs and ballads since 1801.
If we set aside the song sections for the moment, it is clear that the book breaks the story of Irish poetry into periods as much political as literary – but, as the editor makes clear, the fractured history of poetry (and literary culture/s) in Ireland cannot be grasped without some sense of the fractured political and linguistic history of the island. Periodisation of this kind is a necessary simplification; and the lines that Crotty draws are more than justifiable, whether separating the broadly monastic period from the bardic order that followed or deciding that the magic wand of transformation should be waved over the sea of disappointment in 1970.
Apart from the willingness of a publisher to keep it in print, an anthology can stay alive for a number of reasons: it can become a set text for schools and universities; it may be a tidy encapsulation of a world view (Ireland’s green-covered The Spirit of the Nation; the comforting green and pleasant land of England’s Golden Treasury); it may conveniently gather material not otherwise easily accessible; it may present its chosen territory with particular discernment or imagination; or it may mark or initiate a shift in literary taste. Alvarez’s New British Poetry in the 1960s, Miłosz’s Post-War Polish Poetry in the 1970s and An Duanaire and An Crann faoi Bhláth in the 1980s probably fulfil several of these criteria. Patrick Crotty must have asked himself just why, other than the failure of other publishers to update, it was worthwhile creating a new anthology. In the first flush of publication, the poly-vocal, multi-lingual nature of the undertaking has been commented on. Crotty has certainly adopted a different approach from Thomas Kinsella who, in the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), decided to provide his own translations of almost all the Irish-language material. Regarding other translations, Kinsella decided that, “where they exist, there is a great unevenness in the range covered by these, and no agreement on verbal accuracy or, what is often more important, on accuracy of tone or rhythm”. As a result of this choice, the Oxford anthology became a monument to Kinsella’s scholarship and devotion to Ireland’s literary history, but it couldn’t but take on more of the impress of his own voice than he would have intended. It should be noted, however, that Kinsella did include poems from the Latin, from Norman French and from Early English. John Montague, too, in the Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974), recognised the linguistic diversity of the island of Ireland. In addition to his own translations, those of Robert Graves, James Carney, Kuno Meyer, Douglas Hyde, James Clarence Mangan, Thomas McIntyre and Michael Hartnett feature in the opening twenty pages. (Crotty pays generous tribute to Kinsella, Montague, Brendan Kennelly and other editors in his acknowledgements: “The larger scope and greater cultural pluralism of the present volume are to be understood in terms of evolutionary conversation rather than dispute with these ground-breaking books.”)
At one level, it is the scale on which he is able to work that marks Crotty out from his predecessors; with a thousand pages available to him, he is able to demonstrate, and not merely to gesture towards, the linguistic and formal variety of a fifteen-hundred-year-long history. Thus over four pages can be devoted to “The Maker on High”, a poem in Latin that has been attributed to Colum Cille; seven pages to Tennyson’s rendition of “The Voyage of Maeldune” (an interesting choice); six pages to the “The Land of Cockayne’; fifteen pages to “The Deserted Village”; twenty-seven pages to “Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche” (The Midnight Court); and six pages to the Ulster Scots of James Orr. The very act of including and juxtaposing such works means that what belonged largely to specialists can more easily filter into common knowledge.
While we are dealing with the broad lines of the anthology, and with matters of space and language, a question of presentation – but one with broader ramifications – arises. In an ideal world, any translation would be accompanied by the original so that even those with limited understanding of the translated language, but with sufficient curiosity, could get closer to the meaning, rhythm and texture of the original.
If we cannot reasonably demand this of an already bulky anthology intended for an international public, an anthology presumably to appear before too long in paperback, can we ask for a little more than what Montague and Kinsella offered: the title, where such existed, of a translated poem, the language in question and the name of the translator? Could we not have the title or first line in the original language as well as in its translated form? It would also be a simple matter to put the date of the translation in brackets after the translator’s name so that we could more easily contextualise the translation. In their different ways, writers like Kinsella, Montague and Heaney have not just written about the relationship between English-language poetry in Ireland and its Irish-language hinterland, but have actively explored the relationship by means of translation. Ciaran Carson is frenetically active as both writer and translator. Though some aspects of such relationships have not been fully addressed, the way in which Paul Muldoon and others have made a contemporary Irish-language poet like Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill’s work available in English has drawn further attention to the question of translation. And what of Michael Hartnett, translating Spanish poets into both English and Irish, for example, and moving back and forth between English and Irish? Here, separating the writer from the translator is almost impossible. Unfortunately, there is no convenient way to track a particular role-changing writer/translator’s appearances through the volume.
Though Crotty is very interesting on his own practice as translator, he is far from alone as an editor in not providing enough detail on the translation process as regards others. We may know about Kuno Meyer, Frank O’Connor or Flann O’Brien. We might know about the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan’s extraordinary accomplishments. A few of us might know that Thomas Owen Clancy and Patrick K Ford are authorities on Celtic languages. We might know that David Wheatley has recently discovered a lively interest in the Irish language but suspect that he cannot yet venture unaided into bardic territory. And then there are the Kit Fryatts, the Tiffany Atkinsons, the Maurice Riordans, the Kathleen Jamies and others, with their various degrees of familiarity with the territory and with the business of translation. Though contemporary Ireland continues to compliment itself on its cosmopolitanism, substantial sections of the literary world persist in their disregard for love and knowledge of languages in favour of an I’m-a-poet, hand-me-the-crib-sheet mentality. It is precisely because he would never be accused of such casual disrespect and complacency, because respect for language, deep engagement and attention to detail are built into the fabric of his anthology, that Crotty can be held to a higher standard.
Clearly, practical limitations will have played a part here. The editor must have stretched the patience and resources of his publisher by his sheer ambition for the project. He has spoken of the difficult cuts that had to be made at a late stage. One can imagine the publisher’s reaction if further space had been sought for details of translation practice. We are, however, operating in the twenty-first century and there are options available outside the hard covers of a first edition. It would be possible to create a website that, in addition to the kind of details discussed above, could provide original texts where these are out of copyright, or links to such texts where access is already possible. Annotations to individual poems, useful background material and updates ‑ even queries and discussion ‑ could also feature. All this might draw further attention to the book in the long term and prolong its shelf-life. (To the newly released Patrick Crotty, all this would probably sound like an invitation to return to editorial prison.)
Among his predecessors, it is with Montague’s Faber that Crotty has the deepest affinity. (There is a personal connection here too of course. Crotty describes Montague’s anthology as “lively and various” and speaks of the poet-editor as his “inspirational tutor” at UCC – something those who dozed through his normal lectures will have to take on trust.) To compare the two anthologies is to discover just why a radical re-imagining of the course of Irish poetry was called for. Montague’s introduction (“In the Irish Grain”, a characteristic nod to America) is deft, informative and personal. He throws off some striking formulations: “It is this long-drawn-out death song of an order, monotonous in its intensity, like a dog howling after its master, which one finds in later bardic poetry.” Or again: “So the stage was set for Tom Moore, whose light charm covered a multitude of artistic sins.” He could demonstrate a sweeping vision:
Brian Merriman was not a minstrel (he was a teacher of mathematics) but if we compare his Midnight Court with The Deserted Village we discover both that he was more Augustan than is generally allowed, and Goldsmith more Irish. It has never been pointed out, I think, that the four best long poems – I am thinking of Laurence Bloomfield, as well as The Great Hunger – by Irishmen since the late eighteenth century are all variations on the same rural theme.
He did not shrink from assessing a peer such as Kinsella:
His work so far presents a central paradox: modern in its reliance on the integrity of the individual sensibility, it is still haunted by the mournfulness of an Irish Catholic upbringing, and despite his years in America and his overwhelming awareness of contemporary evil, he can still lapse into Parnassian meter and diction.
A certain breeziness of tone here might be considered characteristic of a self-confident practitioner, but something else must also be taken into consideration: Montague was writing at the tail end of the old, gentlemanly academic order, before the expansion of English departments, the reclaiming of Wilde and other Anglo-Irish writers for Irish literature, the growth of specialised MA and PhD programmes, the setting up of Irish Studies outposts around the world, the post-colonial focus on Ireland, the massive expansion in historical and literary research across all periods, the opening up of feminist perspectives, the first steps in the liberation of Celtic Studies from enslavement to the nineteenth century German model, and of course the publication of thousands of books and articles on every corner of Irish literature.
If Crotty’s introduction is both longer and more dense (while displaying its own finely compacted formulations), it is because he wishes to make available to the reader not just his guiding principles and an outline history of poetry in Ireland but also a sense of the relevant – and often shifting – historical, cultural and literary frameworks and debates. See, for example, how he deals with The Deserted Village and with Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche/The Midnight Court, both of which feature in full. In a little over a page, Crotty achieves a great deal: posing the question of whether Goldsmith’s poem refers to Ireland at all; relating (somewhat over-imaginatively?) the “wretched maiden” figure to the cailleach and sovereignty goddess of the Gaelic world; wondering whether Irish concerns are not smuggled in under cover of universalising English Augustanism; pondering why The Midnight Court, written at a time of population explosion, invokes the idea of decline and depopulation; suggesting that Merriman was aware of and influenced by Goldsmith’s poem; suggesting that “Merriman’s townland (rather than village) is deserted because wealth accumulates and women decay…”; and speculating that, had Irish-language literary culture not collapsed in the nineteenth century, The Midnight Court “might have served as the foundation of an entirely new literature”. This kind of writing demands depth of reading, intellectual confidence and profound familiarity with the literature. Crotty goes on to define Merriman’s style and to capture the particular strengths of the four poet/translators on whom he draws: Ciaran Carson (for “the exuberance and outrageousness of Merriman’s mode of address”); Seamus Heaney (for “the poem’s thumping assonantal drive and rootedness in living speech”); Thomas Kinsella (for its matter-of-fact approach to love and marriage); and Frank O’Connor (for the more Augustan qualities of the poem). This is one of many examples of Crotty’s creative interweaving of past(s) and present(s).
When Montague and Kennelly were doing their anthologies, they tended, naturally enough, to select the dramatic highlights: the most immediate and almost imagistic nature lyrics; tortured love lyrics from nuns and monks; Suibhne/Sweeny; the unavoidable Hag of Beare; and so on. Crotty’s comprehensive approach means that, besides selecting from two hundred years of translations, he has to produce or commission a wide range of translations himself from several languages. It is a measure of his commitment to his own vision of the period, informed by the latest scholarship, that he passes over the fine, though partial, translations of the Hag/the Cailleach Béara/the Old Woman of Beare … and delivers a complete version of his own. We are thus invited to experience the poem (now titled “The lament of Baoi, the Nun of Beare Island”) as a fascinating expression of its time and place and not as a more easily assimilable, almost twentieth century, dramatic monologue.
To have translations from such writers as Edwin Morgan, Kathleen Jamie, Seamus Heaney (who also provides a prefatory imprimatur), Derek Mahon and Maurice Riordan clearly adds to the attraction of the volume. Where translation of poetry is concerned, the demands of literal sense, stanza shape, rhythm and overall thrust may make difficult and competing demands on the translator’s resources. Neither being a poet in one’s own right nor being knowledgeable in the field guarantees success. The following extracts demonstrate great variation in practice from period to period, from individual to individual, and even within the work of one translator.
- How good to hear your voice again,
Old love, no longer young, but true,
As when in Ulster I grew up
And we were bedmates, I and you.
- Shame on these thoughts of mine
that dart every way
they are piling up trouble
for Judgement Day
- Wilt thou steer my frail black bark
O’er the dark broad ocean’s foam?
Wilt thou come, Lord, to my boat,
Where afloat, my will would roam?
- When I find myself with the elders
I lay down the law against fun;
when I wind up with the clubbers
I go-go like the youngest one.
- Such stock
(spurred by spite
thwarts as he
hates and envies)
made for enemies.
- Virgin full and fertile,
Trembling and yet joyful
Waiting on the Word;
A blind reading would enable separation between older and newer translations; knowledge of the original would reveal what has been gained and lost in the cause of rhythm and rhyme in 1., 2. and 3; the free adaptation is easily spotted (successful in its way, but the last line rhythmically laboured); and, if 3. and 5. are from the Latin, who would guess that 5., with its abrupt and sometimes unpleasant line-breaks, and 6. are from one of the separate song sections of the anthology? With rhyme falling away as an aspect of poetic craft, and with so little consideration of rhythm and texture in reviews of and conversation around poetry, it may be that the current generation of poet/translators is at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the formalities of earlier poetry.
In the course of a century, Sweeny has moved from a corner of the Celtic scholar’s study into becoming an almost over-familiar alter ego for the poets of today. Crotty’s selection here is questionable. The Flann O’Brien extract does not read as well as the outstanding “Scel Lem Dúib” that sits a few pages away. The particular verses from the Heaney version are among his dullest. Paul Batchelor’s piece makes prose sense, even poetic sense, but does not move well, or at all, within the stanzaic frame (“Silver birch, waltz/in the wind that scatters/aspen leaves/like staves in a battle”). The Trevor Joyce extract is the outstanding one. While the neglect of Joyce’s early writings was not entirely surprising, the disappearance of The Poems of Sweeny Peregrine, which came out in a very attractive New Writers Press edition in 1976, is one of the great mysteries of the Irish literary world. And while we are on the subject of obscurity, perhaps a fillet or two from Augustus Young’s little book Dánta Grádha. Love Poems from the Irish (AD 1350-1750) might have enhanced the bardic section. Overall, however, Crotty has done a great service in opening up the first thousand years of Irish poetry.
Brief reference has already been made to the Song to 1800 section of the anthology. Unlike Montague, who has a separate section only for songs from the Irish, Crotty separates Songs and Ballads since 1801, in both English and Irish, from poems proper. This is a reasonable call by the editor, but demarcation issues inevitably arise, given that the nineteenth century translations of anonymous songs from the Irish – by Samuel Ferguson and Douglas Hyde, for example – are superior to much of the original poetry of the same period, and that literary ballads and parodies derived from folk tradition may be reassimilated to that tradition. Our imaginary website would of course offer links to recordings of this material – which also touches quite interestingly on political history. Some of the newspaper coverage of the song section has seriously misrepresented the editor ‑ suggesting that he sees Christy Moore as a better poet than the excluded poets, for example. This is to deny song its own logic ‑ both as a form in itself and as part of the anthology. Nonetheless, it is hard to have full confidence in Crotty’s choices and excavations (and blanket exclusions) in this area ‑ or to share his opinion that “Lisdoonvarna” more successfully stands alone on the page than the rest of contemporary song across all genres.
One area in which Crotty steps well away from his predecessor is in the recognition of the female voice. Montague (who was writing some of his finest love poems in the 1970s) must have kept his head down and smiled in secret relief as, not many years later, the storms of feminist rage swept over Kinsella and the Field Day enterprise. For the entire post-1800 period, Montague had found a total of three acceptable English-language poems by women: two by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and one by Eavan Boland. He had, however, recognised the particularity of the female voice in the Gaelic era; it is the manner in which he did so that makes this paragraph very much a document of its day:
And here we should remark another aspect of early Irish poetry: it is the only literature in Europe, and perhaps in the world, where one finds a succession of women poets. Psychologically, a female poet has always seemed an absurdity, because of the necessarily intense relationship between the poet and the Muse. Why then did poetry always seem a natural mode of expression for gifted Irish women? I think this was because there was no discrimination against them: the first woman poet of whom we hear, Liadan of Corkaguiney, was a fully-qualified member of the poets’ guild, which could mean as much as twelve years of study. It was as an equal that the poet Curithir wooed her, and though she drove him off, for religious reasons, her lament rings in our ears today.
An interesting case of Irish exceptionalism: Robert Graves’s White Goddess rules, except in egalitarian Ireland. This is a critical idiom, and a style of generalisation (it extends to “a racial sensibility waiting to be reborn”), that Crotty does not indulge or indulge in. On the contrary, the second section of his introduction (between An Ancient Art and the Practice of Poetry) is titled Poetry and Women. As he makes clear, his interpretation ‑ and the material in the corresponding sections of the anthology itself ‑ draws heavily on the thinking and research of scholars like Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and her colleagues in Volumes 4 and 5 of the Field Day Anthology. One might even guess that the presence of Kathleen Jamie – a very interesting figure in herself but a very minor contributor in the context of the volume – among the four named translators on the cover is a pre-emptive or deflective measure, having a female name on the cover being advisable. The decision to give full respect to the early and bardic periods is of course Crotty’s own – though in this regard he himself points to Kinsella as a model.
Within the space available to him, Crotty has done everything possible, first, to sketch a whole cultural world and then to convey in English translation a rich sampling of an under-explored corpus of poetry. With so much of value locked in the less than generally accessible Field Day volumes ‑ whole chunks of which, whether modified or expanded, still deserve to be available in some relatively cheap format ‑ and with so little available for the general reader on Irish literary culture between 600 and 1600, in either Irish or English, we have to wonder at the failure of most of the few dozen relevant academic Columbuses to report back to us on their explorations. To how many of them has it ever occurred that the occasional act of public communication would not be a sin against the integrity of their trade? The campaign against the university authorities who wished to decommission the relevant professorship at UCD might have been more energetic if the public had known anything at all of their sphere of expertise. Meanwhile, the annotated ambushes and footnoted stabbings proceed in the undergrowth. Little seems to have changed since the 1970s when, for example, many who would have been initially curious about that world headed for greener hills after a year’s experience of oppressive pedantry at UCC – or since 1989 when Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha herself very politely wondered in the pages of Graph if the world in which she operated was not just a little self-enclosed and if it might not benefit from some interchange with the outside world. Let us hope in any case that the interest sparked by the early sections of Crotty’s anthology will encourage greater attention to the period.
Carefully writing around rather than about the Penguin anthology in a recent column in the Guardian, Nick Laird pondered, with no little complacency, Ireland’s special aptitude for literature, taking Nobel prizes as his yardstick. As Crotty himself recognises, a less dewy-eyed reading of the relevant section here would lead to the conclusion that, while the Revival was important in giving Anglophone Ireland the confidence to be a literary centre in its own right, it did not witness a general poetic flowering. Crotty presents a few fine poems (Colum’s “A Drover”, or Synge’s “In Kerry”, the bony last line especially), some interesting or representative poems, some largely forgotten poems (Joseph Campbell), but for sustained quality of utterance there is only WB Yeats – and even the young WB as presented here (“The Madness of King Goll” and “Fergus and the Druid”, chosen perhaps for their dialogue with the Gaelic past) doesn’t quite jolt into life until we come to the last verse of “The Man who Dreamed of Fairyland” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus”. The Post-Revival period comes under the banner The Sea of Disappointment (1922-1970) and it is disappointing that six of the pages devoted to the later Yeats are taken up with “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, more interesting than truly wonderful. Campbell returns with prison poems, among others; Blanaid Selkeld has an appealing view of “imagination pulling on its socks” in “Art” but Crotty is not inclined to resurrect the female dead of this period; Clarke, Kavanagh and MacNeice stand out, as they must; Padraic Fallon appears a little diminished; Beckett’s best gets its page; we have John Hewitt’s “The Colony”, a lengthy statement of position, rather than a few shorter lyrics; Patrick MacDonogh’s memorably cutting “No Mean City” is here, and his “Come to the Land”, but not “Shock” (“Love, like a broken eagle, falls / Among the stones of daily life. / Two dream-fed lovers stare appalled / And know themselves for man and wife.”). Of the Irish-language poets, Máirtín Ó Direáin, Seán Ó Ríordáin and Máire Mhac an tSaoi (the complex “Mary Hogan’s Quatrains”, but not the folk-simplicity of “le Coinnle na nAingeal”) are welcomed, almost all in Crotty’s own translations; Ó Ríordáin’s seem to be the hardest of the three to bring over into English as poems. (Will Greg Delanty’s crack at the job ever re-emerge from the publishing darkness into which it abruptly plunged?) Meanwhile, Richard Murphy, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, Derek Mahon and Eavan Boland begin to make their mark. Does the Kinsella selection show him at his best? Does Montague’s “What a View” deserve to stand alongside his “All Legendary Obstacles”? A little more Hartnett would be welcome – especially the mysterious “I have exhausted the delighted range…”.
In an anthology of this size, one that wishes to do justice to the full span of literary history, the contemporary section, Transformations: 1971-2009, will always arouse outrage: many will feel called, but few enough will be chosen. Patrick Crotty edited the Blackstaff Anthology of Modern Irish Verse in 1995 and so knew what he was undertaking. Like a Great War veteran signing up again in 1939, he is to be saluted for his courage in coming back for more. It must be said that the earlier book showed independent judgement, not just in the weighting of poet against poet, but in not going for the obvious choices when it came to individual poets. A fair portion of the first 75 pages of this section of the Penguin is taken up with the later career of those who managed to wade out of the sea of disappointment and into the age of transformation. The aged Clarke celebrates sexuality in “Tiresias”; Murphy’s awed apprehension of a more brutal sexuality is here too, in “Seals at High Island”. Kinsella is there in number, but is the best of One and Other poems or A Technical Supplement properly represented? Should we have had more of Montague as love poet rather than the somewhat portentous “Mount Eagle”? Three poems from Heaney’s Fieldwork is still not enough, and the choice could be questioned, as “The Strand at Lough Beg” –though admirable as human testimony – does not quite achieve what it reaches for. Hartnett, an oddly mixed talent, emerges weaker than he should. Does anyone begin a poem better than Mahon at his best (“Even now there are places where a thought might grow …” or “Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile …”)? Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Eavan Boland reappear, in inverse proportion to their renown. Others come on board along with the returnees of course. There is much to admire (the dying otter in “Between Hovers”, for example) in Longley’s testimony. Even truncated, Eamon Grennan makes a breezy entrance. But why the inflated, meandering rather than the controlled Kennelly?
It is at this point that general battle tends to commence. Let us, therefore, stand back from the fray and see if any pattern emerges. One way to do this, one that allows a degree of objectivity, is to assess the gains and losses between the Blackstaff anthology and the Penguin – always bearing in mind that Crotty will remain true to some earlier exclusions (Anthony Cronin, Desmond O’Grady, Aidan Mathews …) and that there must be a serious difference between an anthology devoted to the modern and the tail end of a survey of all Irish poetry.
The following poets appeared in the Blackstaff but do not make it into the Penguin: Thomas McGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Valentin Iremonger, Fergus Allen, James Simmons, Biddy Jenkinson, Matthew Sweeney, Ian Duhig, Paula Meehan, Sean Dunne, Peter Sirr and Martin Mooney. Poets of Mooney’s age or older who were not in the Blackstaff but are in the Penguin are as follows: Dorothy Molloy, John F Deane, Trevor Joyce, Peter Fallon, Kerry Hardie, Maurice Scully, Dennis O’Driscoll, Rita Ann Higgins and Greg Delanty. One curious pattern emerges: the 1930s modernists are erased while a handful of recent modernists are brought aboard. What we can loosely call today’s avant-garde and its academic backers have tended to overvalue the achievements of their predecessors but there are a handful of poems by each of them that should be excluded only in extremis. Whether we are in extremis may become clearer as we go on.
We do not know the logic of the other exclusions, and need not comment on all: Duhig has a presence in British anthologies; Crotty’s comments on Sirr in the Blackstaff would not be described as enthusiastic; Sweeney can console himself with being acclaimed as the best of his generation in an Examiner review by Tom McCarthy, which, though highly Corkocentric, does not note Seán Dunne’s deletion … Some of Meehan’s reputation is based on an iconic presence, on the values she represents and voices, but does this mean that she deserves total erasure? Particularly as we are treated to a long prosy piece by Rita Ann Higgins – again, with all due respect to the values she represents and to the subject matter of the poem. One imagines that those pages will be looked at with some bemusement by some other women poets who would, rightly or wrongly, have hoped to have earned the right to a half-page or more. Those who had already made a reputation when the Blackstaff was put together, but who remain in outer darkness, cannot be entirely surprised – even if, as in the case of Harry Clifton, the arresting urgency of the recent work marks a qualitative change from the cool and rather uninvolving formality of the earlier books.
Some inner transmogrification has also occurred in John F Deane’s poetry of late: the long poem here is a brave call. Biddy Jenkinson has a defiant attitude to translation into English, believing that automatic and immediate translation – as happens with Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill – risks devaluing the poem’s existence in its own language. And Jenkinson may have a point when one considers the chatty self-indulgence of too much of Ní Dhómhnaill’s and Ó Searcaigh’s later work. In any case, má chuir sí lámh ina bás féin, if Jenkinson is dead by her own hand, as it were, so be it; otherwise, this is one of Crotty’s poorest decisions. It could be argued that the Irish-language choices display a rather Anglophone tilt – and Tomás Mac Síomóin could give Trevor Joyce and Maurice Scully lessons in the loneliness of the long-distance avant-gardist.
The next group we have to deal with are the new voices, those younger than Mooney, the last entry in the Blackstaff: Colette Bryce, David Wheatley, Sinead Morrissey, Alan Gillis, Caitriona O’Reilly, Leontia Flynn and Nick Laird. Given the pressure of space (and of disbelief, glee, envy and outrage) these arrivals rather need to justify their existence. To mumble about hard choices and say nothing in particular, as a number of reviewers have done, is unfair to Crotty and a soft option for the reviewer. So let’s call it: Wheatley is a fine critic but less obviously a fine poet (one piece of smartness here; another poem attempting a rollickingly free voice but, where rhythm is concerned, stumbling both within and between lines); if the shorter Gillis piece is effective in its way, the polite thing to say about the (chatty) longer one is that it is a homage to the 1980s Ciaran Carson, and there is already a plenitude, if not an excess, of Carson poems; one of the two O’Reilly pieces is over-extended (and is it advisable to let a breathtaking sentence by Francis Bacon into your poem?); one of Leontia Flynn’s poems takes its own (chatty) charm for granted but may go down well at readings; and the delicate tone of the concluding sections of Laird’s poem does not justify the forty-five preceding (and rather gabby) lines.
As some of the comments above suggest, a tendency to indulge sometimes quite long poems about matters of life and death (and a few about almost nothing), regardless of verbal quality, is a disappointing aspect of Crotty’s choices for the Penguin. Is there a sentimentalist lurking under the editorial persona? Thus, Bernard O’Donoghue’s “Ter Conatus” works as a story to ponder but not as a poem and the two Delanty poems ‑ with due respect to their occasion ‑ are sentimental. Some of us would be baffled by Crotty’s belief that the fifteen pages of Paul Durcan’s gabby “Give him Bondi” (is this a good poem because it is about a near-drowning?) stand comparison “with the best poems written anywhere in the anglophone world over the last half century”. We have Tom Paulin’s equally gabby (and somehow Pessoa-connected) “The Road to Inver” (“I’m going to spend the night in Inver /– check in to some B&B / because I can’t stay in Belfast / but when I get to Inver I’ll be sorry / I didn’t stay behind in Belfast /…”). Is Ní Dhómhnaill’s “Mermaid with Parish Priest” there for poetic or journalistic reasons? Maurice Riordan’s second selection could be ousted in favour of the brilliantly compacted “Caisson”.
It would appear, then, that by allowing too many loosely written poems into the contemporary selection, and by not packing enough undiluted quality into his choices among younger writers, Crotty has not done enough to hush the (theoretically) persuadable among his critics. That said, the absence of some poets who are currently in popular or journalistic or academic favour is not in itself an indictment of the editor (and in certain cases is entirely to his credit). We must remember that no selection in this area will ever please everybody, that poetry cannot be adjudicated on in percentage terms (so much representation for male and female, so much for this or that decade, so much for this or that region, this or that language, so much for the reviewer’s friends …) and that anyone picking up a dusty anthology will quickly realise how unpredictably reputations fade, wilt, die and occasionally sprout miraculously out of nowhere.
The inevitable controversy over the contemporary choices in Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry must not detract from the fact that this large, architecturally conceived and thought-provoking anthology has fully justified its right to existence.
Though the sheer size of An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry must bring its own demands and pressures, Wes Davis’s editorial task is a far simpler one than Crotty’s. He doesn’t need to investigate the dark corners of literary history; he doesn’t need to create or commission material; he doesn’t need to rebalance his priorities as he moves through the centuries; he doesn’t have to deal with as many languages and poetic cultures. With the best part of a thousand pages available to him, Davis can defuse some of the potential ill-feeling that is almost unavoidable when a century has to be compacted into a tenth of that space. No Harvard editor is going to out-Muldoon Muldoon by perhaps handing a hundred pages each to each of ten poets and tossing the rest overboard. Inclusivity is almost forced on the editor: instead of a vicious fight for survival on a few rocky fields, we should be dealing with a Golden Vale of poetry where there is a bountiful field or two for everyone.
As all editors know, it never quite works out so simply. By their presence here, Pearse Hutchinson, Anthony Cronin, Desmond O’Grady, John Ennis, Harry Clifton, Gerald Dawe, Matthew Sweeney, Mary O’Malley, Peter Sirr, Vona Groarke, Enda Wyley, Sara Berkeley, Conor O’Callaghan and Justin Quinn may feel partially compensated for their non-appearance in the Penguin. As readers we can decide for ourselves whether justice has been truly dispensed. But, to reverse the old saying, God never opens one window but he closes another: many of the younger writers who made it into the Penguin do not feature here, and neither do, for example, Trevor Joyce, Maurice Scully or Greg Delanty. An element of luck, the personal history of the editor, the responsiveness of this nervous system to that stimulus, the friendship that directs attention to this rather than that obscure volume – such uncontrollable factors are always at play where editorial choices are in question. In this case, it is Mary O’Malley rather than Roz Cowman, Sara Berkeley rather than Catherine Phil McCarthy, Matthew Sweeney rather than Michael O’Loughlin, or – of those who are no longer with us – James Simmons rather than Seán Dunne. Once again, every individual choice cannot be questioned: what should interest us is the patterns that emerge.
In this sense, it does not appear entirely accidental that the volume opens with Padraic Colum, who was born in 1881 and died in 1972. It may be that he is there as a kind of ground-bass over which modern Irish poetry can weave its melodies, or as a link to what is now an Ireland of the mind. The result, in any case, is that the first poems that readers will encounter are “The Plougher”, “A Connachtman”, “She Moved through the Fair”, “The Poor Girl’s Meditation” and “Legend” – a mix, therefore, of Revivalist pastoralism and echoes of folk tradition. From Colum, we move on to Austin Clarke, C Day Lewis and Patrick Kavanagh. Clearly, the editor is not setting out to provide a comprehensive overview of the first half of the twentieth century. If Colum is in, if Day Lewis, like MacNeice, has been repatriated, we cannot help but observe the absence of the handful at least of poems by McGreevy, Devlin and Coffey that we might like to see feature, whether out of admiration or as an indication of alternative approaches. As we read on, we realise that this is indeed a pattern: that though Wes Davis does not stick entirely to well-trodden paths – Padraic Fiacc and John Ennis are not always marked on the visitor’s map – he has not generally strayed far from the middle ground, or from middle age, Sinéad Morrissey (born in 1972) being the youngest inclusion. The avantgardist Joycescullymillswalshhealysquires school, having barely secured a foothold in the Penguin, is waved away or has simply not registered. Are the Ravens of the 1980s gone without a croak? And are editors forgetting to investigate the seemingly casual poetry of Dermot Healy, perhaps because he is filed under prose-writer in most minds?
On its chosen ground, then, how does the anthology fare? There is one way in which Davis contrasts strongly with Crotty: whether in his Blackstaff or his Penguin persona, Crotty will on occasion decide that a single poem by a writer deserves inclusion on its merits, that someone who has written one good poem has not necessarily written ten. Whether we agree or not with Crotty’s choices, it must be said that he is in this regard being true to the unpredictable way in which poetry comes and goes. In their different ways, Kinsella and Heaney have been faithful to a certain idea of persistence, of steady courting of the muse, of the proper cultivation of the gift. There are other cases, however, where the Muse breaks off the relationship or the poet drives the Muse away. We have only to look at anthologies of ancient or medieval or renaissance poetry to see that some poets survive through a single, brief but overpowering tussle. Are we sure, for example, that Sebastian Barry will survive through his rambling and sentimental Steward of Christendom rather than the strangely beautiful love poem “Alphabets” which appears in neither anthology ?
Was it the greater teachability of a collection in which everyone who appears appears at some length (Harvard anthologies tend to become prescribed reading for university courses) or some personal judgement on the editor’s part that created this anthology as we have it, without the lucky strikes? The regularity of field size – Normandy rather than Connemara – might suggest an element of the programmatic. The explanation is probably more practical, however. In the heat of their publication, we tend to overestimate the importance of anthologies – and it is especially understandable that poets should do so. The fact is that anthologies are like guided tours: it’s a convenient way to be introduced to a city but it does not define your relationship to the city forever. This book is generous in the number of poetic sites it makes available but individual readers will create their own itineraries as they familiarise themselves with the territory. As an anthology is not a terminus, they may end up in distant and unforeseeable places. (And, like special travel passes, anthologies are cheap: cheaper than buying 327 individual volumes, in any case.) Poets who are included in the anthology will naturally appreciate the fact that a selection of their work is provided; enough to allow readers to form a reasonably well-founded opinion.
There are occasions when trusting solely to Davis’s editorial commentary might not be advisable, whether regarding the poetry itself or the fields of cultural and political history insofar as they emerge in the Introduction: the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland become two provinces; De Valera’s story is simplified once again; John Hewitt’s politics, regionalism and reception on home ground are smoothed out; James Simmons is granted an inflated role; we learn of “the escalation of sectarian tensions known as the Troubles”… Though the final paragraph does briefly allude to poets disparaging as well as encouraging each other, the general message is that that we can pack up the Troubles in our old kit-bag as we all go out on a high note: “[w]hat is sometimes called the Belfast renaissance turned out to be the stirring of a poetic revival that has since spread across the island”; women join the chorus (no troubles there; no need to mention the resistance, the polemics, the contradictions …); Irish-language poets, unproblematically translated by “the foremost English language poets”, step in; and here come the provinces, all of them; a minimalist here, a surrealist there, and, yes, at least one farmer has made it; happily, too, the office and suburbia join the throng; and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the voices of our exiled brothers and sisters in Japan, the Czech Republic and elsewhere can delight us from afar with their cosmopolitan vowel sounds …
A similar blandness characterises many of Davis’s introductory notes to individual poets, some of which appear either incomplete or in need of updating. To write about Kinsella while saying practically nothing of his work after “Butcher’s Dozen” is bizarre. There is a French as well as an American Montague. Michael Hartnett’s criss-crossing between languages (translating into Irish from Spanish, for example, or writing the Inchicore Haiku in the early 1980s) is not fully grasped. Paul Durcan is filtered through Edna Longley, whose pronouncements on Durcan and on North/South issues need more decoding than Davis appears to realise: we look forward to a teasing out of the way in which a poem commemorating the Miami Showband (massacred by Loyalist paramilitaries) could focus entirely on a Southern versifier’s support for the IRA. And to suggest that Tom McCarthy has something of interest to say about politics is a mistake many (including himself) have made since Eavan Boland’s review of his first volume, but it has drawn attention away from his best work; and Davis does not register his recent shift to an amalgam of fiction and poetry. Harry Clifton’s latest book barely registers and (with apologies to the Munster Literature Centre) Peter Sirr’s Dublin-ness is missed and the importance to his writing of actual travel overestimated. The unfortunate detail that led to legal proceedings was not the only one where a cold Irish eye might have been brought to bear.
We might wish for a sharper editorial point of view, for a few more contentious voices and some noises off. Essentially, however, this Belknap/Harvard anthology will stand as a voluminous, attractively produced gathering of a large number of modern Irish poets – a very useful resource for students and teachers, and useful too as a starting point for readers who have only begun the journey into modern Irish poetry.
Barra Ó Seaghdha has contributed essays, reviews and interviews in the areas of literature, cultural politics and music to publications ranging from Graph, which he co-edited, and Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press) to the JMI (Journal of Music in Ireland.