Don Share: ‘Ireland was and remains for me a country of and for poets’

The editor of Chicago’s prestigious Poetry magazine on its special September issue on young Irish poets and his lifelong love affair with the land of Heaney and Kavanagh

When I was a very young poet, that is to say a benighted fellow with little money and less knowledge, I made a pilgrimage. I say I knew little, but there were some sources of wisdom for me even then: chiefly that of the Irish poets. I had few books, but did own a withdrawn library copy of Kathleen Hoagland’s 1,000 Years of Irish Poetry – and a green hardcover book with no dust jacket into which I had sunk my savings, Patrick Kavanagh’s November Haggard. The latter had been hand printed by the poet’s brother Peter in the US, and involved months of an agonising pre-internet correspondence in which I was obliged to convince the latter why he should sell the book to me.

Like virtually all would-be poets in Boston, I had been introduced to, and then fascinated by Seamus Heaney. He (like more-or-less Bostonians Walcott and Brodsky at the time) loomed like an amiable but stern uncle in the large family of would-be local poets. His was a generous and salutary presence. From Seamus’s Station Island, I learned of the tradition of pilgrimage to Lough Derg, and I took it upon myself to make it. This I never did, but I was inspired to make a lesser pilgrimage – to Sligo, where I stole a tiny bit of gravel from Yeats’s grave site, Galway, where I spent all my time in Kennys, and of course Dublin, where I met the inspiring Theo Dorgan. In this last named place, I also mused while resting on a bench beside the great and enthralling Kavanagh (the bronze version, of course), and absorbed his vivid, rueful thought that “there was some kink in me, put there by Verse.” He said, “A man (I am thinking of myself) innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds that it is his life.”

It didn’t, at the time, seem a terrible fate to be such a dabbler, and still doesn’t.

This digression is by means of looking back on my own lifetime of writing and editing poetry, so stirred, always, by Irish poetry. It was among the first poetry I knew, and you don’t forget your first poetry loves. I was lucky to be smitten and shaken by new books from Paul Muldoon, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Paul Durcan, and Ciaran Carson that I purchased in real Irish money – no euro then! I went to Ireland four times, all for poetry: it was and remains for me – I say so without exaggeration – a country of and for poets.


Nowadays, as editor of Poetry magazine, I’m fortunate to arise and go wherever verse can take me. And in my recent travels, with the insightful help of the Cork poet Patrick Cotter, I’ve come to know many among the coming generations of Irish poets. Like all guides, Pat is experienced and unshy of controversy. He helped me work my way through the work of numerous Irish poets born after 1970, and curated (as we say too often in the States), the issue of Poetry now winging its way to the magazine’s many thousands of readers. Though the magazine has regularly published Irish poets in unthemed issues, the last one specifically highlighting Irish poetry appeared in the fall of 1995. Among the poets selected by Chris Agee were Heaney, Eamon Grennan, Peter Sirr, Derek Mahon, Bernard O’Donoghue, Ciaran Carson, Harry Clifton, Maire Mhac an Tsaoi, Tom Paulin, John Montague, Michael Hartnett, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Peter Fallon, Richard Murphy, John F. Deane, Thomas Kinsella, and Eavan Boland. A solid issue still worth reading, though it contained few surprises and few women.

The 2015 issue complements and does not supersede it, but is very different in texture: notably, it includes poems written in Irish, focuses on younger writers, and also has what in the States is called gender balance. I hope it arouses readers’ excitement, but perhaps also controversy, as it has no aim to establish or reinforce a canon, but rather to highlight work around which a critical response can take place. Both issues will remain valuable testimony to the vitality of Irish poetry, and what they have in common is that each is a pleasure to read and reread.

Working on it has been, you could say, a reverse pilgrimage for me: a movement that spirals out into the world from an inspiring spiritual island. As Cotter says in his preface to the issue, our issue doesn’t tell the whole story – how could it? But the poets we’ve assembled will provide compelling reading to readers everywhere. I’m proud to publish their work because, as Thomas McCarthy says in an essay also in the issue, “When you meet poets who are so young and so patently gifted… you want to do something – to push them on, to shove them into the arms of reporters, photographers, award-givers.” You want them, he says, “to have that lovely feeling of being carried away by fame…” until they reap the harvest of the work that will come as their careers unfold. We will remember these voices because, as Maya Catherine Popa adds in another piece, from their difficult imaginations emerge “a variety of voices and possibilities that draw their center from the island and stretch far beyond it.”

Don Share is editor of Poetry, whose September issue is available now.