Punching above our weight: Poetry magazine turns Chicago green again

25 poets in special Irish issue of ‘Poetry’ are worthy of international exposure, says Patrick Cotter

Muhammad Ali, the subject of a new poem in Poetry by Declan Ryan, poses a portrait in his robe in 1964. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali, the subject of a new poem in Poetry by Declan Ryan, poses a portrait in his robe in 1964. Photograph: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

 

In their beginnings the generation of poets that included Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, Richard Murphy and the slightly younger Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley found themselves publishing their way into a canonical vacuum. By the mid 1970s, with Clarke, Kavanagh and O’Connor (the great translator of medieval Irish poetry) all dead, Kinsella, Montague et al found themselves, while still in their 30s and 40s, the elder poets with international reputations. No other generation of Irish poets has been so feted in its lifetime. For those born in the 1950s – Thomas McCarthy, Paula Meehan, Mary O’Malley and Matthew Sweeney, to name but a few – there have been none of the great public celebrations for their 50th and 60th birthdays Heaney, Kinsella and Montague enjoyed. Neither have they attracted the critical attention of the university-thesis industry.

With the eldest generation still hale and productive, every generation of Irish poets since has found itself hitting a reputational glass ceiling. Now upwards of 60 or 70 Irish poets – from those born in the 1920s to those born in the 1980s – are publishing volumes of substance. A young Irish poet, even one of great talent, has little hope of reaching an audience and an appreciation as great as Montague and Kinsella did in their youth.

I have just finished editing an Irish issue of Poetry, the Chicago publication that is the world’s oldest English-language monthly poetry journal. In it I publish 25 Irish poets, all born after 1970. They grew up in a world where Irish poets dominated the international scene, where the bar was set high for poets of talent to prove themselves. I have encountered the poetry cultures of many small European countries, and although they have their poets of talent and greatness I remain amazed at the prizes and national reputations bestowed on some who would be lucky to find a spot at an open-mic session in Ireland. The Irish poetry scene is a tough one in which to prove oneself. Granted, we too have our volumes of mediocrity, but the standard is much higher than many people give it credit for.

The 25 young poets I have selected for Poetry are producing splendid work, worthy of being showcased anywhere in the world. And what a world showcase Poetry is. The print edition sells more than 26,000 copies, and the online edition has a readership in six figures. I have presented them in a context where they are not overshadowed by their elders. They will be read and judged purely on their own terms, for their virtuosity with language, for their compelling way with thought and narrative.

The internet has had a game-changing effect on poetry. Young Irish poets are as likely to be influenced by an Australian, a North American or a Russian poet in translation as they are to be by fellow Irish poets. Foreign work was once difficult to find in bookshops. The internet has made books, periodicals and other media from all over the world widely available. Most of the youngest generation of Irish poets do not constrain themselves with the strictures of Kinsella’s dual tradition. Here you will find Caitriona O’Reilly writing about Zeppelins, Ailbhe Darcey writing about Ansel Adams as easily as she does about Alice Maher, Declan Ryan writing about Muhammad Ali, Ciaran Berry about Elvis Presley.

Another remarkable fact about this generation is the equally recognised achievement of both sexes. In the 1995 special Irish issue of Poetry, only six of 40 poets and translators were women. This issue has an almost perfect balance. Young Irish fiction writers suffer no disadvantage compared with their elders. This issue of Poetry shows that young Irish poets should not either.

Patrick Cotter, author of the collections Making Music and Perplexed Skin, was the first Irish recipient of the Keats-Shelley Prize for Poetry

Next week on irishtimes.com: Poetry editor Don Share reflects on the issue and his lifeling love affait with Ireland and its poets.

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