Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000, by Justin Quinn, Cambridge University Press, 256 pp, £14.99, 978-0521609258
It is two hundred years since Thomas Moore started to bring out his Melodies, well over a hundred years since the Irish Literary Revival got under way, seventy years since the death of Yeats, more than forty since that of Kavanagh and thirty or so since John Montague’s Great Cloak, Thomas Kinsella’s One and other poems and Seamus Heaney’s Field Work. And over the last three decades, culturally, economically and politically, Ireland has gone through significant changes.
We should not expect the post-Heaney generation to have a collective view of the past, present and future of Irish poetry, but it would be strange if a few attempts were not made to provide an overview. What would a backward look reveal? Does nineteenth century Irish poetry have any relevance to today’s readers and writers? Is the Revival project meaningful in an Ireland that proclaims its status as a successful player in the globalised economy? Can the poetic culture of the first forty years of independent Ireland be dismissed as glibly as its social and political culture tends to be? Will the contours of the Northern renaissance be redrawn as time passes and the political landscape changes? Are we gaining a perspective too on the less dramatic landscape of the South in the same period? Must the space that was claimed by women poets in the 1980s be fought for again and again? Is there any basis for the idea that Irish poetry is thriving?
It is only when a book like Justin Quinn’s Modern Irish Poetry,1800-2000 comes along that we realise how rare such critical overviews are. While most of the standing army of Irish poets – which often seems to be much larger than the standing army of Irish poetry readers – will not be buying this book, there will be much discreet checking of the index and riffling of pages in the bookshops. With many poets anxious not to make enemies, with reviewing sometimes difficult to separate from publicity and with some academics more interested in operating as cheerleaders for particular writers or tendencies than in offering opinions on the quality of individual works, critical honesty is not over-abundant. Himself a poet – he has several well-received books to his name – Quinn is doubtless aware of the bristling sensitivities of his fellow writers, but he has never been afraid to express his opinions. Along with David Wheatley, he founded and edited Metre, a poetry magazine of a consistently high standard which did not shrink from forthrightness in its reviewing. In American Errancy: Empire, Sublimity & Modern Poetry, Quinn has also offered a reading of modern American poetry that shows both intellectual independence and immersion in his subject. In that book, he goes unfussily about his business; if this involves making clear his disagreement with either conventional opinion or a respected critic, he states his case firmly and without waving his cleaver in the air. We may assume that it was for these qualities that he was invited to contribute a volume to the Cambridge Introduction series.
There is little or nothing about Irish poets of earlier generations in Quinn’s criticism prior to this book, so those of us who know him only through his writings would have little idea of what to expect of his encounter with two hundred years of Irish literary history. The value of a critical work will depend on the quality of the questions it sets itself as much as on the answers it offers. In his introduction, Quinn immediately lays out the questions that matter to him:
What is ‘Irish poetry’? Is it written in Irish or can it be written in English too? Must it be about the history, mythology and contemporary life of Ireland, or can it range wider, through Europe, the world, the cosmos? Does it include the work of poets from Northern Ireland, a territory that belongs to the British Crown, or is it restricted to poets from the Republic of Ireland? What are we to do with a poet who was born a subject of that Crown, receiving a Civil List pension from that same Crown, who could neither speak nor read Irish yet claimed he was in touch with the spirit of the nation? Does it include poets who lived and published for most of their lives in England? Does it include second-generation emigrants? What about a poet whose family lived for centuries in the country and were Protestants who believed in the Union with Britain? What if that same poet is one of the century’s best translators and interpreters of ancient Irish poetry? Is he somehow less Irish than a Catholic peasant poet who wrote in Irish? There are many more such questions, but they do not proliferate as thickly as their answers; which is to say, there is no consensus about what Irish literature is, let alone Irish poetry.
Before looking at Quinn’s own answers to these questions, let us look at the quality of the questions and at the audience they imply. The first question is of a type that can never be answered succintly and may never be answered at all. There is a situation to be negotiated rather than a phenomenon to be defined. Could English, British, American or Indian poetry be defined any more easily? Quinn’s second question is effectively a non-question: there is no significant body of opinion today that confines the term Irish poetry to work written in Irish. The third is also effectively a non-question. Though many living Irish poets have felt compelled to tangle with the national question in some form, the many who have not are not denounced as non-Irish. It is foreign readers and critics of Irish poetry who are most likely to express surprise at subject matter that is not overtly national. Regarding Yeats, the subject of the fourth question, the answer is that his right to his position at the centre of the story of modern Irish poetry goes almost unquestioned (though the political implications of his personal mythology are of course very much open to debate). Regarding poets who live or lived for most of their lives in Britain, who today is going to object to a degree of shared ownership? During his lifetime, Louis MacNeice was a major figure in the British literary world; more recently, interest in him has been greater in Northern Ireland (where he has been seen, usually by poets of Protestant or unionist background, as an enabling voice) than in either Britain or the Republic, but there has been no conspiracy to remove him from the national annals. As with Quinn’s next category, second generation writers, it is the nature of the writer’s own activities and affiliation that largely decides the matter of ownership. Such matters tend to be decided on a case-by-case basis. Quinn’s next questions refer to Samuel Ferguson. Ferguson demanded to be read as Irish; outside of Ireland or the field of Irish studies, nobody is laying claim to him; nor has there been any attempt over the last fifty years to evict him from Irish literary history or to call him a British writer.
The opening paragraph suggests that, rather than asking new questions of his own, Quinn is intent on re-answering some rather tired old ones. The implicit challenge is to exclusivist ideas of Irish identity. Given that the publisher is British and that the readership will be British as well as Irish, it is disappointing that, rather than being challenged in any way, the British reader is being invited – in a move all too familiar – to identify with the enlightened Irish writer (our author) as he challenges narrower Irish understandings of the field. But are we reading too much into what might be simply a clearing of the ground? Perhaps Quinn’s own answers will sow fresh seeds in tired soil.
Before proceeding any further, it might be appropriate to explain why the introduction merits such attention. First, the thinking that underlies it has crucially determined the organisation of the book, the way in which poets, movements and periods are introduced and the aspects of an individual poet’s work that are emphasised. Second, it can be assumed that the intended readers of a book of this type will not already have a developed view of the subject and that the introduction will therefore significantly shape their understanding of the area. Third, the introduction exemplifies an approach to Irish cultural matters that can also be found beyond the literary field.
The title of the first chapter of the book, “The Appearance of Ireland”, is explained by the fact that, with the Act of Union, Ireland’s fate is joined to Britain’s and that nationalism becomes “the motive force in poetry written in Ireland”; the title of the last chapter, “The Disappearance of Ireland”, “points to the gradual abandonment of the nation as a framework for Irish poetry”. Quinn goes on to elaborate his ideas about the nationalist ideology that “informs much of Ireland’s finest art and literature in this period, as well as many of the most intense cultural debates”.
Given that it is Quinn himself who has put nationalist ideology at the centre of the book’s concerns, one might expect that the phenomenon would be analysed in the context of Irish history, society and culture. No such analysis would be complete without confronting the many and varied ways in which Irish realities were shaped, whether directly or reactively, by the relationship with the country’s dominant neighbour, Britain – in the period leading to 1800 as well as the period under scrutiny. Unfortunately, no such analysis is provided. History begins in 1800. Readers are offered not even a brief sketch of the sectarian power structure of eighteenth century Ireland, of British-Irish relations before the Union, of the connection between Anglophone culture in Ireland and the British model on which it drew, of cultural, class and religious differences within Ireland or of the connection between the Act of Union and 1798.
No sketch of the changing nature of Protestant society after the Union is offered. Instead of seeing ideology as the articulation of conflicting social, political and cultural energies, frustrations and aspirations, mediated by the modes of communication available at the time, Quinn presents a world in which nationalism, a mysterious and unpleasant phenomenon – the ideological equivalent of potato blight, one might say – spreads across Europe. Reinforcing a sometimes dangerous commonplace of British public culture (one with serious consequences when it comes to its intervention in world affairs), Quinn does not apply the concept of nationalism to Britain or England. His summary of Irish nationalist ideology – it “both imagines an origin back in the vague ancient past and fantasises a glorious utopian future for the nation” – is a decontextualised and undifferentiated caricature. If Quinn could point to other writings of his own in which he had engaged with Leah Greenfield or Adrian Hastings, for example, on the issue of English nationalism, or in which he had acknowledged how Breandán Ó Buachalla and others have traced the evolution of Irish political awareness from the seventeenth century on, there might be reason to accept his pronouncements or his lumping together of Seamus Deane, Thomas Kinsella, Eavan Boland and Declan Kiberd as neo-nationalists.
It is curious that Quinn, whose book on modern American poetry shows a deep engagement with the nineteenth century, makes no attempt to link Anglophone Ireland and the United States as two cultures in formation, though both hugely under the sway of English example. He touches on an interesting point when he says that Anglophone Irish poets were more profoundly influenced by Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth and Tennyson than by Gaelic literature but he seems more intent on point-scoring – the language Tennyson shared with Irish poets was “infinitely [my italics] more important than differing opinions of British imperialism” – than on seeking to understand just what happens when Anglophone Irish, Australian, Indian and American writers move back in time and, in a sense, reverse the break with English literary history that founded their national literatures. In the Irish case, of course, there is a double break: to follow the internal history of literature in Ireland and gain access to most of the work of pre-nineteenth-century writers, the Anglophone writer has to negotiate the break between one language and another. The topic is one which would have allowed Quinn to engage in critical dialogue with Deane and Kinsella, with their sense of permanent incompletion, or with Kiberd, who can see opportunity as much as difficulty in such breaks.
Quinn, who has lived for many years in the Czech Republic, is aware of the language question. His book will deal with Irish-language poetry only
insofar as it impinges on Irish Anglophone poetry – a separate book would be required to trace its development in the period. However, I have throughout tried to attend to the border between the two languages, especially to the occasions when writers pretend it doesn’t exist.
This is a perfectly reasonable position.
Quinn sees the British Empire as another important issue in his reading of Irish literature. He tells us that his approach has been influenced by a general change in attitude towards the British Empire and quotes Niall Ferguson:
. . . what is very striking about the history of the Empire is that whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society. Indeed, so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character.
How “general” is this “change in attitude”? Sympathetic accounts of the empire were not unusual in British culture or historiography even during the heyday of the New Left. Is there not something almost servile in the way that Quinn allows this fine example of British self-congratulation to pass totally unchallenged? Could he not have acknowledged that, along with its “self-liquidating character”, the British Empire was also capable of liquidating the natives of Tasmania with little more thought than a game-keeper of the time gave to destroying crows and hawks so that the pheasants would go unmolested? Surely it is possible for Irish intellectuals to establish a post-nationalist position without uncritically embracing those forces and ideologies against which Irish nationalism defined itself? Too often Quinn formulates problems in ways that discourage exploration and connection. His use of the word empire is in itself curious, as when he reads almost any challenge to British power, authority or prestige in Ireland in terms of the empire; not only does this not reflect the way in which most people of whatever persuasion saw British/Irish relations but it also undermines his point that Ireland is bound into the British cultural sphere in ways that defy simplistic oppositions.
As might be expected, Justin Quinn can be an exacting and illuminating reader of individual poems and poets. Given that he is writing an introductory work, and that much pre-Revival Anglophone Irish poetry would hold little interest for the general reader, he does not linger over the dozens of poets gathered, for example, by Stopford A Brooke and TW Rolleston in A Treasury of Irish Poetry in the English Tongue at the turn of the twentieth century. He devotes his first chapter to Thomas Moore, JJ Callanan and James Clarence Mangan. While not neglecting the famous Melodies, he draws particular attention to Moore’s espousal of Whig positions in England. The long poem “Lalla Rookh” – an orientalist work in today’s critical parlance – “confirms Moore as a poet of the British Empire, but there is no reason why that should make him any less of an Irish poet for that”. For Quinn then, it seems that this is a straightforward poem of empire. He downplays the clear allegory of national oppression which was central to Moore’s view of Ireland and which took its most explicit form in his Memoirs of Captain Rock. In a reference to Moore’s “high status in nationalist hagiography”, in his brief characterisation of the difference between Moore’s Catholicism and Daniel O’Connell’s and in his concluding sentence on Moore, one begins to wonder whether Quinn is trying to introduce Irish poetry to the international reader or merely correcting the views of the largely anonymous super-nationalist critic by whom he seems haunted.
We have to go to the notes to discover the identity of one incarnation of this figure:
In the same way that Moore was censored for a nationalist readership, so too was Callanan, even as late as 2005 in an edition of his poems which purported [sic] to select only the Irish material, as that was deemed superior.
Gregory A Schirmer, an American academic with a balanced and informative history of Irish poetry to his name, is the guilty party. And indeed Quinn is right to object to Schirmer’s failure to mention Callanan’s “fulsome poem of praise at the coronation of George IV”. When it comes to the influence of Byron and Shelley on Callanan’s language and form, or to the particular qualities of lyricism to be found in a poem like “The Outlaw of Loch Lene”, Quinn is quite perceptive. Like most writers on early nineteenth century Irish poetry, he is happy to get his teeth into the Mangan case, paying particular attention to his translations, both real and imaginary.
Chapter 2, “Tennyson’s Ireland”, is devoted to James Henry, Samuel Ferguson and William Allingham. Henry, after disappearing from public view for a century and a half, was resurrected, in a selection edited by Christopher Ricks, in 2002. He was a classical scholar and a doctor, whose writings were to languish unread on the shelves of Trinity College’s rare book section. Quinn holds him in high regard:
Though he was a civic-minded patriot, healthily critical of the British Empire, he did not care in the least about the emergent Irish nation, and his poems presented a world more various and vivid than Moore, Callanan, Mangan, Ferguson or Allingham could ever have imagined. For that reason, standard accounts have omitted him.
The case for Henry is arguable; but the reason for his neglect may be less perverse. It is more likely that nationalist literary historians were completely unaware of the existence of this writer (who, having inherited a fortune when in his forties, spent much of his time travelling from library to library on the Continent and self-published many of his books). Quinn finds “Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire” witty, and is impressed by its tone and diction. This is the beginning of the passage he quotes:
And a Proclamation
Of Martial Law in Heaven was just being read
When, in a sweat of agony and fear,
I woke, and found myself in Germany,
In the close prison of a German bed,
And at my bedside Mr Oberkellner
With printed list of questions in his hand:
Not everyone will see this as a high point of nineteenth century Irish verse.
Quinn does not go overboard on the poetic abilities of Ferguson and Allingham. His starting point is Peter Denman’s desription of Ferguson as “at once the most innovative and the most unoriginal of Irish poets” – innovative in his handling of Irish source material but very conventional as a poet. He also draws attention to the loving evocation of Dublin Bay at the end of the late poem “Congal”, where the hero sees
Slow fields of sunshine spread o’er fields of rich, corn-bearing land;
Red glebe and meadow-margin green commingling to the view
With yellow stubble, browning woods, and upland tracts of blue;
As one would expect, when looking at Ferguson and Allingham (Lawrence Bloomfield in Ireland in particular), Quinn is more understanding of their benevolent paternalism towards the Catholic peasantry than some of his critical antagonists would be. Though he does note, for example, the parallel between some lines of Allingham’s and “antebellum pro-slavery propaganda from the American South”, this does not lead to any excoriation of unionist ideology. Instead, as if to underline his own broadmindedness, he strikes this fulsome note: “The two Unionist poets, Ferguson and Allingham, in this way express their love and benevolent wishes for Ireland.”
As elsewhere in the book, Quinn’s historical lead-in to the chapter on Revival is more patchy than suggestive. He never gets to grips with the energies behind the movement but acknowledges that the opposition of Modernism and Revival is a false one, and a quotation from John Hutchinson goes some way to providing a broad perspective on the connection between cultural nationalism and modernisation. Hyde is of course a key figure of the period; Quinn rightly credits him with opening up a new vein in English-language poetry as he searches for an equivalent to the Irish-language originals (but the extent to which Hyde and others were working on fragments is exaggerated). Like other writers on this subject, he is indebted to Robert Welch for his A History of Verse Translation from the Irish 1789-1897. This chapter features as many female writers – Katharine Tynan, Ethna Carbery, Emily Lawless, Eva Gore-Booth and Susan Mitchell – as male ones, though Quinn does not beat the drum on the matter. He sees Lawless as successfully escaping the impress of Yeats and emphasises that the real Gore-Booth is not to be sought in Yeats’s lines about her. (Some day soon, perhaps, the story of the appearing and disappearing Irish woman poet will be told by someone who has looked at the publishers’ lists, critical works, magazines and anthologies of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It will almost certainly prove a more complex story than the tidy version proposed by Eavan Boland. (In a book published in 1918, for example, Modern English Writers: Being a study of Imaginative literature 1890-1914, there is a separate chapter on “Irish Poetesses”, featuring Jane Barlow, “Moira O’Neill”, Eva Gore-Booth, Alice Milligan, Ella Young, Nora Hopper, Katharine Tynan and Dora Sigerson Shorter.)
The Irish Literary Revival, alongside many other similar movements of the time, was an attempt to transform Ireland from what it seemed to be becoming – a derivative, provincial British backwater given to exaggerated bluster about its Irishness – into an autonomous and self-respecting cultural centre. This is the logic behind Douglas Hyde’s “On the Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland”. Quinn shows no interest in or understanding of this aspect of the Revival – it would, after all, involve getting to grips with the dynamics of Anglo-Irish cultural relations, with due attention to both sides of the hyphen. Characteristically, he seems driven by the necessity of re-Anglicising Ireland – not as a serious cultural project but as a way of undermining the insular nationalist critic of his imagination. Hence the over-interpretation of a sentence of Declan Kiberd’s and the heavy stress on the fact that the Revival was beholden to America for financial support and to England for a major part of its audience and its artistic models:
One of the primary reasons for the success of the Revival was the recognition by some of is exponents that the English language and the English people were not inimical to Anglophone Irish literature, but were in fact the necessary condition for its existence.
We might wonder at Quinn’s needing to remind us that the English language was not inimical to Anglophone Irish literature, but there is nothing novel or shattering in the idea that Revival literature was not purely Gaelic, that Yeats was deeply indebted to William Morris and the poets of the English fin de siècle (as well as to French and other influences), that Irish writers could not live on their Irish earnings or that sections of English society were very hospitable towards Irish writing and art – and to the artists and writers themselves. None of this, however, changes the fact that the Revival’s importance lies in its proposing (and, more successfully than previous movements, enacting) a new cultural model, one that draws a clear line between Wilde and Shaw (for whom, as for many earlier Anglo-Irish writers, London was the intellectual and cultural centre that mattered) and Yeats (for whom Ireland had the potential to be an autonomous cultural locus – preferably with Yeats himself at its centre). In one of the first book-length appraisals of Yeats by an Irish critic – appearing in the Noted Irish Lives series in 1935 – JH Pollock makes numerous references to Milton, Shelley, Morris, Pater and other English writers. Whether this is exceptional or not, one has to wonder at this assertion of Quinn’s: “To admit that our writers owe more to the English tradition than to the Irish original seems a type of treason.” If one sets aside such statements or the dubious historical references – the younger Yeats’s contact with “moderate nationalism” through John O’Leary and his associates (O’Leary was a radical nationalist); the oversimple notion that “the main currents in Irish nationalism turned away from parliamentary action to the cultural sphere” with the death of Parnell; the failure to situate 1916 in the context of what had happened in Britain and in Ireland (North and South) since 1912 etc. – Quinn’s Chapter 4 provides a useful critical survey of Yeats’s poetry.
Chapter 5, “Wild Earth”, though threaded through with references to Padraic Colum’s early poems, concentrates on the three major figures of the post-Revival period: Austin Clarke, Patrick Kavanagh and Louis MacNeice. Is the pure lyricism of the best Kavanagh sufficiently conveyed? Is the shock that ‘The Great Hunger’ dealt to readers’ expectations not treated a little flatly? Critics will differ on such matters but these are, on the whole, strongly outlined, engaged readings of the poets in question. The chapter concludes: “perhaps the greatest achievement of poets who came after the Revival was that they familiarised the idea that Irish poetry did not have to depend on the Irish language”. However, one has no sense that he is familiar with the intellectual culture of the period – the range of material and the variety of opinion expressed in both secular and religious magazines in the Free State, for example – and he is entirely uninterested in unionist cultural ideology or indeed in the particular questions posed by the career of a figure such as John Hewitt. Padraic Fallon and Thomas MacGreevy go entirely unmentioned and it is not clear whether his own reading of Valentine Iremonger, Patrick MacDonogh and their like has gone beyond the anthologised poems to which he refers.
Chapter 6 is titled “The ends of Modernism: Kinsella and Irish experiment”. In the 1970s, New Writers Press and Lace Curtain magazine sought to draw attention to the narrow stream of Irish modernism, reminding us of the existence of Denis Devlin and Brian Coffey. These writers had not been entirely neglected – the Irish University Review had devoted entire issues to them as well as occasionally publishing individual poems and sequences by Coffey – but it was then that younger writers began to invoke them (as well as the young Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy) as enabling ancestors or as figures to trouble the agreed narrative of Irish poetry. Rather than treat the more radical modernists from the 1930s to the present day in isolation, Quinn sets them alongside Thomas Kinsella and John Montague, writers who at an early stage in their careers showed an interest in Pound and Eliot and the new American poetry. This may not please some of today’s avowed experimentalists and their academic backers – who would see Kinsella as part of the conventional mainstream – but it is as defensible an approach as any other. Quinn finds Devlin’s poems only patchily interesting (though impressive in intellectual range and ambition) but there is in them “a promise of poetry that deals with Irish experience against a European background”. He is less kind to Coffey. Having quoted a passage from “Death of Hektor”, he writes:
The passage is sonorous enough at the beginning but one of the problems here, as everywhere in Coffey, is the blandness and vagueness of the language . . . Indeed, it is difficult to see justification for the claims that Coffey is an experimental poet in any meaningful sense; certainly, bizarre punctuation and spacing of words do not in themselves constitute originality. So while Coffey adopted some of the earlier aspects of Modernist experiment, he himself did not extend them.
This will certainly annoy Coffey’s admirers and probably does an injustice to the handful of beautiful works that poet produced. If we leave debate over Coffey’s achievement for another day, there is still a curious aspect to Quinn’s treatment of the Modernists. A poet who is associated with Modernism and does not extend the language can be dismissed, whereas – as we shall see – relatively conventional writers who move towards a more liberated language are congratulated.
Quinn’s respectful but somewhat carping treatment of Thomas Kinsella is a case in point:
It is worth remarking here that Kinsella’s adoption of poetic techniques that were ground-breaking fifty years previously does not mean that he is an experimental poet. He only appears experimental in Ireland because of that country’s overwhelming poetic conservatism.
Used in this sense, the term experimental refers to writing that foregrounds its own techniques and that, by implication or in theory, abolishes the link between writing and individual voice. Kinsella is not (and would not claim to be) an experimental writer of this kind, but he has sifted through or tested his own life and perceptions, as well as his cultural and literary inheritance, in a search for a language that, while haunted by a drive for order and totality, does not falsify loss and discontinuity. This is Kinsella’s experiment and he takes his project (and the role of poet) seriously; for those unsympathetic to him or to his poetry, self-scrutiny slides into self-importance. Thus Quinn’s note of scepticism: “And in the case of the artist, we must ask, what exactly is the ordeal he undergoes when trying to comprehend history?” To give readers a stronger sense of what is at stake and of Kinsella’s trajectory, Quinn might have offered a quotation from the early volumes that would explain the excitement that new voice created. (The point could be generalised: in an introductory volume, the choice of quotation is crucial for readers unfamiliar with the writers in question; in this regard, Quinn often lets his writers down.) One detail: Quinn paraphrases Andrew Fitzsimons as pointing out that the early Kinsella volumes avoid the question of the nation; what Fitzsimons says is that Kinsella turned aside from “established literary modes of Irishness”.
Leaving the grateful and ungrateful dead behind him, with this chapter Quinn has entered the more treacherous land of the living, visible and invisible. Anthologists and surveyors of literature make their calls, knowing that, no matter what choices they make, many will be displeased and few will forget. In the small world of Irish poetry, it takes a certain courage to make calls as clear as some of Quinn’s – and in writing, not in behind-back mutterings or the wink and elbow language of spite. Even if there were space to do so, it would not be right to argue over Quinn’s opinion of every individual poet, so what follows must be a mixture of brief observations and more fundamental objections.
Quinn is probably right that John Montague will live as a writer of lyrics rather than as a builder of personal and national mythologies; the relatively brief overview here feels incomplete in the absence of a few lines from one of Montague’s best love poems. Quinn’s treatment of Trevor Joyce’s work is not only incomplete but baffling. He is lumped in with his experimental successors and mentioned only as returning to “issues of Irish language and literature in an attempt to find alternative meanings there”. This is an extremely reductive reading of The Poems of Sweeney Peregrine and the freedom of language the poet finds in the persona; of the rest of Joyce’s early work, it is simply a non-reading. The only positive point is that Quinn mentions With the First Dream of Fire They Hunt the Cold: A Body of work 1966-2000; it is to be hoped that some readers will ignore their guide and explore this for themselves. The injustice to Joyce is all the greater when it is immediately followed by quotation from and serious commentary on a few examples of sophisticated undergraduate humour by Randolph Healy. This is not to suggest that Healy and (even more) his comrade-in-experiment Maurice Scully are not deserving of attention.
Under the chapter heading “Ireland’s Empire”, Quinn presents the work of Richard Murphy, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. He feels that he is righting an imbalance here:
The usual way of viewing work by poets of Protestant background is to admit it a place, somewhat patronisingly, within the poetry of the Irish nation. These poets do something of greater magnitude: they offer ways for the poetry of Ireland to become cathected by the wider issues (poetic and historical) of Europe and the world.
There may be critics who do not fully acknowledge the Protestant culture(s) in Ireland but who are the critics who invoke the Irish nation where Longley is concerned, for example? And is Quinn not guilty of equal distortion in placing these three very different writers together under the banner of empire? Murphy is clearly connected to the British Empire through his childhood in Ceylon/Sri Lanka and through family history. Longley’s parents were English and his father took part in two world wars; it makes sense to see him as having a mixed British/Irish identity rather than to invoke the empire. Mahon is of Belfast Protestant/Unionist background; he takes his place in the line of sceptical ironists who have detached themselves from that background.
It is noteworthy that, in a book which manages hardly a paragraph of coherent historical background where Ireland is concerned, Quinn becomes almost eloquent on the subject of the British Empire. There is a dramatic contrast in tone between his treatment of Irish nationalist history and his lump-in-the-throat paraphrase of a section of Murphy’s memoir, The Kick:
Murphy comments on the way family history inspires heroism and sacrifice in the service of Empire in strange ways, and here the memory of Murphy’s grandfather makes Murphy’s father stalwart in the face of adversity.
A concluding rattle of comments, then:
The only Derek Mahon poem quoted in its original form (as opposed to run-on prose with slash-marks) is “Sunday Morning”, one of many poems in which Mahon plays with ironic reversal or finds his imagination sparked by the depiction of various forms of exhaustion and decay: “Black diplomats with gorgeous wives, / Promenading, notice the natives / Dozing beside the palace gates –“. Mahon is no more a poet of empire because he has written this poem than he is a poet of horticulture because he has written about mushrooms. Is it not possible that – as well as being “one of the outstanding critics of Irish literature” who has argued against “sophisticated nationalist readings” – Edna Longley has a political agenda of her own? Though he proclaims a more truly cosmopolitan position, it becomes clear that Quinn believes that participation in empire opens out onto global concerns in a way that being oppressed by empire does not. And in view of his tenuous grasp of Irish history (not to mention historiography) – “1969 saw many fierce riots between Protestants, Catholics and the security forces” (we learn more about South Africa); “eight hundred years of sectarian hatred” etc) – the bibliography should perhaps have included a concise history of Ireland – or indeed of these islands.
Numerous books and articles have been written about Seamus Heaney; given both his prominence and his level of achievement, it is not surprising that Quinn devotes a chapter to him. One has the feeling that a longer history of familiarity and reflection underlies this chapter than many others. (But why pass over Field Work, which must contain at least half a dozen of Heaney’s most sheerly beautiful poems?)
Questions of language and translation, the subject of Chapter 9 (“Irsko po Polsku: poetry and translation”), are of great importance to Quinn and – along with a few further appearances of his ideological leitmotifs – there is food for thought here. His primary concern is with the interface between languages, and one of the points he makes is that, though much is made of Anglophone poets translating from the Irish, Irish-language poetry has been hugely influenced by poetry in English. He looks at how Anglophone poets write of the Irish language (quoting David Wheatley’s criticism of Eavan Boland in this regard), goes over the top in his use of a quotation from Seán Ó Ríordáin, sharply disagrees with Kinsella’s idea of the dual tradition while praising his bilingual anthology, suggests that Muldoon’s translations are superior to Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill’s originals, mentions the many Irish translators who do not know the language from which they are translating, discusses Michael Hartnett, who criss-crossed between many languages, and returns to Mahon and Longley when dealing with translation from the Latin – in which context we also encounter Peter Fallon. As already acknowledged, an introductory work must make hard choices, but it may be that Quinn’s attachment to the idea of disappearing Ireland has caused him to neglect the internationalism and devotion to the hard work of translation that can be found among certain writers of the sixties and seventies generation. There is something more substantial than Ryanair cosmopolitanism or the Slovenian-in-June, Turkish-in-July Annaghmakerriganism of recent times to be found among such writers as Michael Smith, Pearse Hutchinson and Desmond O’Grady (two of whom also worked in or from the Irish language).
A few pedantic details: Quinn confuses tense and person in translating the word bímse in an Ó Ríordáin poem; Hartnett’s Lorca translation predated his move into Irish; he translated St John of the Cross into Irish after his return to English for his own poetry; and pointes d’appui should read points d’appui wherever the term appears in the book; there is also an error in the French of the bilingual Aidan Rooney poem that is quoted.
Finally, the “original French glory” of Beckett’s “Mirlitonnades” is very much open to question and the space given to Quinn and Wheatley’s efforts to translate them (as previously seen in the TLS) might more usefully have been devoted to, for example, the poet Biddy Jenkinson’s ideas on translation, or the much neglected poet (in two languages) Eoghan Ó Tuairisc/Eugene Watters, or the extraordinary spate of translations into Irish produced by Gabriel Rosenstock, who has worked mostly from the German but whose translation of “The Wild Swans at Coole” into Irish is of a level with Bonnefoy’s into French.
Quinn acknowledges that, by putting several women poets together in one chapter, he is open to challenge, and he quotes a comment from Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill on the corralling of women poets. Putting the five poets he has selected – Eavan Boland, Paula Meehan, Catherine Walsh, Medbh McGuckian and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – under the chapter heading “Feminism and Irish Poetry” raises further questions. Would Ní Chuilleanáin, for example, want to be read under this rubric? And aren’t there other women poets who would merit brief mention at the very least? Quinn will, doubtless, come in for criticism on this score and would have been wise to lay out his thinking more fully. On the other hand, in a second extract from the Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill/Medbh McGuckian conversation, he finds Ní Dhómhnaill sympathetic to McGuckian’s “hurt and confusion” in their conversation about their experience of the English and Irish languages, where some of us would find it difficult to get beyond the extraordinary self-indulgence and mutual boosting displayed. He is sympathetic to Eavan Boland’s efforts to find a language within poetry for women’s experience but finds that the voice in most of her recent work “has hardened into monotonous authority”. The paragraph on Paula Meehan is dutiful rather than enthusiastic. Catherine Walsh is experimental and is therefore criticised for not being more so. It is only in writing about McGuckian and Ní Chuilleanáin that his own writing is energised. Vona Groarke, who, in the introduction, flounders when asked about her Irishness, is mentioned at the end of this chapter as looking forward to debate about feminism and writing being made redundant.
In Chapter 11, “Out of Ireland: Muldoon and other émigrés”, Quinn looks at how the Irish-American world expects Irish poets to live up to a certain vision of Irish writing. He quotes Dennis O’Driscoll as suggesting that “Irish Studies Programmes increasingly influence the terms on which Irish poetry is read – maybe even written – at home.” Quinn then appears to misinterpret O’Driscoll:
The remark is significant because it supposes a model of poetic production in Ireland that resembles the production of Aran sweaters: a small authentic cottage industry which exports to foreign markets. The demands of those markets, however, transform, even sully, the authentic product.
There is nothing to suggest that O’Driscoll is interested in keeping Irish writing authentically Irish and free of foreign influence. O’Driscoll is himself more aware of and curious about writing outside Ireland than most, and has no fears of foreign poetic influence; what would concern him is that individual writers might find themselves influenced towards the version of Irishness defined by Irish Studies programmes, with the financial and travel opportunities they offer. Quinn goes on to look at Irish writers who have based themselves in the United States. It is here that he looks – in a measured way and at some length – at the work of Paul Muldoon.
Other Irish poets are mentioned as “negotiating their resident alien status in America”, – though, in this as in other regards, shouldn’t Nuala Archer be dealt with in a category of her own? Greg Delanty and Eavan Boland feature but it is to the work of Eamon Grennan that Quinn responds most warmly. The chapter concludes with a quick survey of the ever-wandering Harry Clifton (a pity the book had gone to press before the latest Clifton appeared) and the English-based Peter MacDonald, Tom Paulin and Bernard O’Donoghue. Towards the end of the last paragraph, Quinn resumes some of his themes and beats the drum for the re-entry of his schema:
Yeats established an Irish poetic tradition that depended minimally on the Irish language, and could assert his poetry’s Irishness purely by use of Irish themes; this, in its turn, was sustained by nationalist ideology. As that ideology has withdrawn, there appears to be no means – or indeed desire – to restrict our idea of Irish poetry. The concept will be stretched so thin that it will lose all explanatory power.
After the usual quick sketch of the socio-political background, Chapter 12, “The Disappearance of Ireland” presents poets seen as representing postnationalist Ireland. Quinn describes the satirical and political targets of Paul Durcan’s poetry; his opinion of Durcan as writer is not made clear. O’Driscoll reappears, now as a poet, though one might wish that the (admittedly not very numerous) lyrical poems were mentioned as well as the gloomy and satirical ones for which he is best known. Tastes differ: it may be that Kevin Higgins’s satire is indeed as sharp as Quinn suggests.
With a glance at globalisation and the younger generation of Northern Irish poets we are ready for the final flourish, the poets of disappearing Ireland. A brief digression on a different form of disappearance may be in order here. First, Cork – or maybe Waterford in Cork – appears to have undergone a preliminary disappearance all of its own, with no trace of the late Sean Dunne or Tom McCarthy (not a lyric to rub together, the pair of them …), not to mention Roz Cowman (doubly disappearing: Salmon poets also do not exist) or the quirky Gerry Murphy (no less interesting than Kevin Higgins surely). Second, it is delightful to learn how many of Justin Quinn’s contemporaries hold doctorates in literature; this may not have been the strong point of Dermot Bolger’s Raven Arts Press in the early 80s, but do the early books of Michael O’Loughlin, for example, the bilingual anthology An Tonn Gheal, and various other initiatives (not excluding translation) merit exclusion?
Quinn contrasts Kinsella’s Dublin with Peter Sirr’s: “for the first, it is slotted into the colonial narrative; for the second, it is part of the meditations of the poet-citizen on his city.” It is hard to imagine Sirr, who has written sympathetically about Kinsella’s work, concurring with the glib implications of “slotted into” above. Quinn reads Ciaran Carson in the context of “immersion in the local” as a response to the rapid pace of modernity rather than in the context of the Northern Ireland Troubles (which do not interest him anyway). To set Carson’s Belfast Confetti alongside Sirr’s Bring Everything is plausible at one level (at their best, they share an improvisatory exuberance and relish for detail), but it would be wrong to neglect the way in which the violence and madness of localised war is taken into the very core of the Carson book; the connection with David Wheatley and Conor O’Callaghan is less obvious. In the same paragraph, for some reason, Quinn comes back to feminism, or at least to Eavan Boland’s favourite themes. There is an awkward sententiousness to his tone here. The good news, according to Quinn, is that today “a female poet will not necessarily be viewed as a fey poetess if she writes about domesticity” and that “male poets will henceforth think twice about depicting the land as female”. One begins to imagine that, until the millennium perhaps, every hill and rock was female and that under every bush there lurked a mist-damaged copy of the nationalist agenda. Quinn concludes his look at Carson in, at this point, monotonously predictable fashion:
… and what is engaging is that Carson does not wish to restrict the meaning of the city to a merely Irish significance, but rather to show how that Irishness contains multitudes of other identities.
It is Quinn who, despite spasmodic attempts at a more complex understanding, persistently restricts the meaning of earlier Irish writing to “a merely Irish significance” and reinforces the simplistic polarities that he sees himself as superseding. He is right to delight in the imaginative freedom displayed in Peter Sirr’s “Edge Songs”, which translate, adapt, reinvent and completely invent poems in Old and Middle Irish and Latin. It is unlikely that Sirr would feel the need to dismiss the treasure trove of translations provided by Murphy, O’Connor and others as dead butterflies in museum cases. But Quinn is determined to impose his predetermined narrative scheme, in which, after two centuries of oppression by (unexplained, decontextualised) nationalist ideology, the trumpets blow and the walls fall down. Quinn could have presented Carson and Sirr as heralds of change and let the future take care of itself. Instead, a second wave of less proficient heralds is summoned to the fray and the last six pages of the text are devoted to poets strongly associated with Metre. If they have liberated themselves from nationalist ideology, they appear to have replaced it with little more than standard, largely middle-of-the-road professionalism.
The critic Kenneth Burke has suggested that every book is the infinite expansion of one sentence. Quinn decided on his sentence too quickly. If he had not treated Ireland as a cultural ghetto, if he had thought a little about the process of culture formation, if he had briefly suggested how his appearance/disappearance model relates to developments elsewhere, if he had shown a little curiosity about the dynamics of history and culture within the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain, if he had not so naively accepted the idea of revisionism as a progression from bad to good, if he had tested his preconceptions before evangelising for them, the sentence from which he started might have been richer and more suggestive. He has demonstrated his range and abilities elsewhere. The opportunity existed to reinterpret and open up the whole field of Irish poetry for his generation. He has made less than full use of this opportunity.
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). He works in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language sector.