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The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing

Essays on Modern Irish Writing
Gerald Dawe
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Irish Academic Press
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STANDING APART – GEORGE REAVEY

John Hewitt’s A North Light: Twenty-five years in a Municipal Art Gallery  shows he was a much-travelled, well-read, enthusiastic art lover with an independent spirit and sense of dissent. He recounts, for instance, as a 22-year-old, a trip to Paris in 1929. It is interesting to note that also in Paris in the same year – 1929 – Samuel Beckett would meet the Northern Irish poet and editor, George Reavey and mark the beginnings of a relationship that would include the establishing of Europa Press. Reavey’s pioneering collaboration with such leading figures in the modernist movement based in the city – from Picasso to Beckett – and his w Union during the Second World War, his life in London, New York and elsewhere since leaving Cambridge behind, tells its own fascinating if little known story.

In his introduction to George Reavey’s Faust’s Metamorphoses (1932), ‘Foreword to a Sunken Continent’, the editor and publisher, Samuel Putnam, made the following astute assessment of Reavey’s significance:

There is, conceivably, such a thing as electing, and even eclecting, one’s racial tradition. I know of no better example of this than George Reavey and [his] poetry … I do not believe that any poet could be more European, more difficult for the average American to understand, or better worth an effort at trans- Atlantic comprehension. We who have no tradition, and who are endeavouring so painfully hard to discover or to create one, have here an opportunity to see what it means to assemble a new haven, and a new earth, one’s own.

The brash individualism aside, Putnam’s view is unerringly reminiscent of a comment made some thirty years later by Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, when, in introducing the edition of Denis Devlin’s poetry to an American audience, they stated:

 ‘[T]here are almost no traces of Yeats’s ‘romantic Ireland’ of the Celtic Twilight. Devlin was one of the pioneers of the international poetic English, which now [1963] prevails on both sides of the Atlantic’.

Looking back, ‘prevails’ might well have been a somewhat exaggerated claim, certainly if one is looking back from an Irish perspective. Because it seems that, a little like Denis Devlin, the fate of George Reavey’s poetry has been to merge into the shadows of critical attention, as public and academic focus remains firmly focused on those writers who are palpably part of one national tradition or another, and not, as Putnam suggests, of many. I suspect that is what he means when he refers to Reavey as being ‘European’ in a similar way that Penn Warren and Tate refer to Devlin as not being identifiable with the dominant Yeatsian legacy of poetry or as a precursor for the ‘Northern’ poetry revival. Reavey is, from various kinds of critical viewpoints, a conundrum. Where does one place him? He does not fit in to the customary ‘national’ bases of poetic identification, a little like, for instance, the problematic way that David Gascoyne ‘fits’ into the English poetic tradition. Reavey’s accomplishment as a poet therefore is more difficult to assess because, as we all know, achievement is at least in part measured by and through common critical and cultural grounds of acceptable understanding. So what happens if we turn to consider a poet with different priorities in mind, such as the ‘transatlantic comprehension’ to which Putnam alludes, or, more pressingly, in the context of a poet such as Reavey who is so ‘European’?

As James Mays remarked of another poet who has encountered similar issues of critical category, Brian Coffey, ‘to dismiss a writer’s claim to be considered on his own terms in favour of

assigning him a role in a predetermined scheme’9 is effectively to isolate him or her, and that has been Reavey’s fate, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. The question is, of course, what it means when we use a phrase such as ‘European’ or ‘transatlantic’, in terms of a poet’s standing, and his or her worth as a poet.

Derek Mahon once memorably expressed it many years ago when the issue of the nationality of Louis MacNeice raised its head, ‘Is he an Irish poet? An Anglo Irish poet?’ should clear the room as promptly as asking how ‘European’ a poet is, or should be. But there is an unease or uncertainty still abroad, when critics who are much more at ease dealing with Anglophone literary cultures address those poets who, as with Reavey, are (or were) obviously indebted to non-English cultures – such as, in Reavey’s case, Russian and French. Yet Reavey poses a fascinatingly contemporary perspective.

What is the role of national traditions in a globalised world? What does ‘hybridity’ mean in relation to a poet such as Reavey, with his multicultural and multilingual background? From a more localised point of view, what does Reavey say to us in Ireland today, about our understanding of the Europeness of our country, and the history of difference within the island – a history which spans several generations of ethnic, refugee and émigré stock, assimilated in cities, such as Belfast since the turn of the last century, and elsewhere in Ireland going back to the late eighteenth century. Reavey is in this sense an utterly modern man in so many ways; a harbinger of twenty-first century Ireland, bringing a significant and substantial artistic and critical presence that predates the somewhat faddish and self-regarding concerns with Europe of more recent times – concerns, to be frank, generally economic in the main, rather than anything else. For Reavey, like his friend, Samuel Beckett, identified with continental literary and artistic developments. This was not as a way of rejecting or becoming self-consciously distant from their Irish roots (in fact the reverse might be argued in Beckett’s case), but of expressing that experience, such as it was, in a different way.

Beckett, like Reavey, translated for a living, and was deeply indebted to French, German, Italian and Mexican writing, both modern and classical. Like Beckett, Reavey was clearly aware of the social, political and historical sea changes that were taking place on the European mainland during the thirties and forties, before, that is, he left for America. We should not overlook his work in this regard as an anthologist and critic in, for instance, Soviet Literature To-Day (1946).

George Reavey’s situation mirrors that of much better known writers of his time such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. And more potently, his life and writing has much in common with the great wave of émigré artists who arrived in New York during the war and post-war years, several of who would become his friends. When I think of Reavey at this time, though, I go back to the testimony of his college friend and contemporary, Kathleen Raine in a letter to Reavey’’s biographer, Sandra O’Connell:

He did not have the English undergraduate immaturity but stood apart – he also did not look like an English undergraduate or behave like one, or fit into the Experiment picture … His appearance was very unEnglish and unCambridge – Paris and New York suited him much better.

Reavey’s sense of himself – as poet, editor, translator and publisher – is indelibly linked to his vision of writing (in English) as acreative interchange and collaboration between various non-

English cultures (literary and visual), which were all connected through the overarching cultural (or if you prefer, underlying) assumptions of Europe and of being European. Reavey also had, through his own childhood experiences of revolution and social violence, in Russia and in Northern Ireland, an instinctive understanding and insight into the realities of political struggle and the human cost of historical change. As Edna Longley remarks about fellow Northern poet, Louis MacNeice, his [MacNeice’s] politics began ‘in childhood because Irish politics begin with the family and not at voting age. Hence the deeper sedimentation of [MacNeice’s] political awareness than was usual among English writers during the 1930s’. In this, too, a parallel with Louis MacNeice is apt again in Edna Longley’s comment that MacNeice ‘was not only amused but, like Orwell, frightened by the surrender of intellectuals to totalitarian habits of mind, to strategic imperatives’.

A ‘surrender’ which Reavey stoically resisted as he came under increasing pressure in America during the Cold War to declare against the Soviet Union. The same deep-seated understanding of politics and the imaginative life permeate Reavey’s self-awareness as an artist. We should be seeing in George Reavey – this highly sophisticated, polyglot Northern Irish-Russian- Polish poet and editor – a sociable, troubled man, sometimes overshadowed by family difficulties but also a survivor of revolutions and wars, the loss of friends, and the ordinary worries of getting by as a literary figure, displaced by time and place, indeed as a figure of displacement itself. We should see him as the embodiment of mid-twentieth century realities, over which he tried to live and maintain a poet’s life. I think his was a heroic accomplishment in itself. As Reavey commented in a note to his sequence of poems, Nostradam, ‘some connection between my emotive life and the world of historical experience’ is not too far below the surface of his poetry, yet both the life and work remain largely hidden from the contemporary record.

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