Poetry Ireland salutes a new ‘Rising Generation’
Best of the current review’s poems show confidence, inventiveness and imagination
Vona Groarke, editor of The Rising Generation. Photograph: Ed Swinden/The Gallery Press
Poetry Ireland Review has been publishing new poems and reviews of new poetry for many decades, printing the work of debutants alongside internationally known poets in a format whose high production values are a benchmark for literary journals. Recently, it has developed a nice line in special issues, including a “God issue” under the editorship of John F Deane and, more recently and no less expansively, bestselling special issues on the work of Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats. Its latest issue places its emphasis firmly on new writers, isolating a particular set of poets in order to present a snapshot of current practice in poetry.
Poetry Ireland Review 118: The Rising Generation (€12) is dedicated entirely to the work of poets who have published their first pamphlets and books in the past five years. It is a sign of the vigour of new Irish poetry that its selection of three dozen poets is by no means exhaustive. Editor Vona Groarke allows the poets and their poems to speak for themselves, but her editorial flags up the arbitrariness of generational anthologies like this – why 36 poets, instead of 10? Why collections published in the past five years, instead of a decade, or by writers under a certain age? It is, of course, a partial list, but, as she writes, this issue offers one window onto new poems that “respond to poetic tradition in ways that have knowledge of contemporary life, and of the language we share to describe it”.
The “Rising Generation” is also, clearly, enabled and constrained by the choices that editor-publishers of Irish poetry have made over the past five years: this new issue acts as an editorial hat-tip to other editor-talentspotters at work in the field. The “Rising Generation” are published by a surprising array of established and new publishers: the biographical notes mention Arc, Arlen House, Bloodaxe, Carcanet, Coiscéim, Dedalus, Doire, the Dreadful Press, the Emma Press, Eyewear, Faber & Faber, the Gallery Press, Moth Editions, New Binary, Poetry Salzburg, Salmon, Seren, Smith/Doorstop, Southword Editions, Templar Poetry, Test Centre and Wurm Press.
Such healthy diversity is an impressive turnaround, possibly a consequence of new publishing technologies and cheaper costs, as well as the rise in festival and event nights through which publishers can sell the books. But it also suggests a question about the reception of new poetry: welcome as the emergence of presses with good production values is, is there a review culture which situates and considers these books? How are books’ successes and shortcomings judged, and who is reading them in relation to one another, in relation to poetry’s existing audience in Ireland, as well as to new audiences, and the increasingly international and wired literary culture in which English-language poetry in particular operates? Poetry Ireland Review and its associated publication, Trumpet, do clearly cover critical reviewing, as do other venues, but there are not nearly as many journals as there are publishers of Irish poetry: it would certainly be good to see both more argument and careful reading of the books written by the “Rising Generation” in the “little magazines” and online journals which would match the growth in publication of new poems.
This special issue of Poetry Ireland Review has its own unusual and subtle way of establishing the cultural horizons of its contributors: each poet’s work is prefaced with their answers to a set questionnaire, which is enjoyable and telling about how the poets see themselves. The questionnaire mixes straight talking, mischief and invitations to wax lyrical or rhetorical, and the poets make intriguing responses to questions such as: “If someone described you as a political poet what would your reaction be?”; “Your friend is depressed: what’s the very last poetry book you would give him/her?” (Poems to Read at Your Wedding, responds one poet); “If your ideal poem were an outfit, what would it be?”; “Do you too dislike it?”
Another question asks contributors to pick a time when they could be “dropped amongst the three best poets alive at that moment”, a nicely worded way of asking about generations, and about influences. The competing schools of American poetry in the 1950s and ’60s feature prominently, but so do the mid-17th century and Ovid’s Rome. There is, in other words, a very wide range of reference in both the questionnaires and the poems and nothing exactly definitive about the poets of the “Rising Generation”. However, as was the case with Pat Cotter’s edition of Poetry (Chicago) last year, it is easy to imagine we will be reading the work of some of its contributors for decades to come. And its juxtaposition of poets with different aesthetics and tones and ambitions should start, or re-ignite, conversations about poetry, prompting emerging poets who have not yet begun to publish, and acting as a spur to more established poets.
“Would you rather be the poet or the poem?” is another question the poets answer. In the spirit of that question, it seems invidious to single out particular poets, but there are poems here, or parts of poems, which have new sounds, or an intimation that a new way of putting words together is under way. And among the issue’s many engaging or atmospheric or mischievous and compelling poems, some manage all of these qualities with sustained music and mastery of line and syntax: the titles I have, so far, dog-eared and returned to include Your First Guitar Lesson, The Magnetic Hill, The Lumber Room, Room Air, Notes from the Sanatorium, Lines Written on Spinal Morphine, Cork Schoolgirl Considers the GPO O’Connell Street Dublin 2016, and Anniversary whose confidence, inventiveness and imagination are exemplary of the best work here:
The giddy cathedral swooned –
the night had been unremarkable for
and was much like 1916 and mostly unlike
It would have been her twenty-fifth
birthday, he said
of the older sister he always felt had been
who appeared in dreams as a porch-light
in the mist,
an igloo once, once as the breast plate
of Dolph Lundgren as He-Man. The bars
Young men sallied in the streets like
She never had a name, he said, so he
thought of one.
John McAuliffe’s fourth collection is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He teaches poetry at the University of Manchester