MISSING: Have you seen these poets?


The deliberate exclusion of a generation of Irish poets from the Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is a wasted opportunity, writes MICHAEL O'LOUGHLIN

A LOST GENERATION? There must have been something special in the water in Ireland in that period from the official coming into being of the Irish Republic in 1949 to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. How else could it have given rise to a generation of poets that included Paula Meehan, Aidan Matthews, Dennis O’Driscoll, Harry Clifton, Peter Sirr, Matthew Sweeney, Pat Boran, Vona Groarke, and many others? This particular generation must be the most startling array of poetic talent since the foundation of the state.

Of course, sociological and cultural factors may also have led to this flowering of poetic expression. The introduction of free secondary education in 1967 opened up higher education to large sections of the population to whom it had been previously inaccessible. This generation came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s, when all kinds of seismic shifts were occurring. The mundanity of daily life in a barely functional nation state, combined with the rumblings from the North, had led ultimately to the decline of nationalism as a force in the South.

A new Irish society, mainly urban-based, untrammelled by questions of the centrality of the Irish language or national identity, was quietly growing under the citadel, which would eventually crumble. But this new Ireland was still largely invisible, and these writers were instrumental in many cases for its emergence into the light. A new self-confidence was apparent in all cultural sectors.

With the Irish Writers Co-op, Raven Arts Press and Gallery Press, Irish publishing was booming, producing books primarily for a local readership.

Sebastian Barry provides a fascinating snapshot of this generation in his epochal anthology, The Inherited Boundaries, published in 1986. As well as work by many of the poets mentioned above, it includes poetry by himself and Dermot Bolger, because one characteristic of this energetic generation is its promiscuous embrace of forms, from poetry to the novel and the stage.

Barry’s argument, put forward bashfully and self-consciously (another characteristic of this generation is its reluctance to plead its own case), is the obvious one: people who had grown up within the Republic of Ireland, as opposed to Northern Ireland, had a subtly different sensibility, “producing a poetry on different terms”, as he puts it.

Indeed, the poetry of this generation is mirror to the changes on every level that Ireland was going through. This is poetry from here, a place which was, really, nowhere. However, this point is not laboured, and not mentioned again. When academic arguments about identity, nationality and so on were raised, this generation preferred to quietly leave the room.

Apart from the accident of place and time it is hard to find anything that binds this generation together. On closer investigation, a few vaguely shared characteristics emerge. They are more likely to have turned to Berlin than Boston, many of them have lived abroad for long periods, and are more likely to have translated from Italian or German than from the Irish. In addition – and this may be the crucial factor in their invisibility – they have maintained a resolutely semi-detached relationship to academia (not to mention “Brand Ireland”).

And yet, in having no agenda and little sense of national identity one way or another, they are the generation of poets that Irish history was working towards – a generation, to borrow a formulation from Kavanagh, whose purpose was to have no purpose. But this generation has fashioned a body of work that defines the last decades in Ireland, and skilfully, unselfconsciously, solved the cultural conundrums they inherited.

So, in any book that calls itself the Penguin Book of Irish Poetryand lays special emphasis on “a national tale”, it is reasonable to expect that this body of work would form the capstone. After all, this would be the first generation to be unselfconsciously Irish, in whose sensibility Beowulfwould pass the time of day with Cúchulainn, without any cultural baggage on either side. But to my amazement, this generation seems to have got lost from the book edited by Patrick Crotty.

No Clifton, no Meehan, no Sirr. Not to mention at least 20 other poets from the Republic of Ireland, not just from the “invisible” generation but from its outriders fore and aft, ranging from Tom McGreevy and Anthony Cronin to Justin Quinn.

I am not the only one to have noticed this. In her review of the book in this newspaper, the academic Clair Wills points out the absence of this generation but, curiously, draws no conclusion. Which is like pointing out the absence of black faces at a Tea Party rally in Washington DC. Wills is disingenuous in avoiding mention of the political subtext.

She makes the startling statement: “The division . . . which Crotty has tried hard to avoid is that between northern and southern poetry. It no longer has a place in the national tale.” This will come as quite a surprise to many. The last time I looked, the national tale was still bifurcate.

But what she is saying is clear: in this new “national tale”, there is no room for the pesky fact of the shabby, flawed, vaguely autonomous entity that has been the Republic of Ireland. Nor for those writers who have sung it and continue to live in it. For all kinds of reasons, the experience of this generation is too unclassifiable and too unwelcome.

Anthologies are strange things. WB Yeats’s 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verseis still remembered for its wilful exclusion of the war poets.

Patrick Crotty is no Yeats, but that, too, was a political decision. An anthology like this has long been desired, so it is a pity to see such an opportunity wasted. This anthology is nothing more than a curio, which will be remembered for its deliberate exclusion of an entire generation. And as for the “lost generation”? Well, the dogs bark, but the 40A bus still commutes to An Lár.