Poetry in motion


POETRY: CLAIR WILLSreviews The Penguin Book of Irish PoetryEdited by Patrick Crotty, with a preface by Seamus Heaney, Penguin Classics, 1032pp. £40

ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, during an interview in England for a job I didn’t get, I was trying to outline the subject of my research on contemporary Northern Irish poetry. I must have used the word “Irish” too often, for I was suddenly snapped at by an eminent professor of English: “It is still part of the Union, you know!” It is almost impossible to imagine such a reaction nowadays, which has as much to do with the strength of contemporary Irish poetry as it has with the changed situation in the North. So Patrick Crotty can confidently say he has organised this huge and absorbing anthology as a new “national tale” – the story of the nation unfolding in poetry over 14 centuries or more.

The impress of political history on so many of the poems in the Irish tradition is impossible to ignore. From Tadhg Dall Ó Huigínn’s 16th-century lament for Enniskillen to Ó Rathaille’s The Ruin that Befell the Great Families of Ireland,to Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, to the songs of the 1798 Rebellion, to Yeats’s Meditations in Time of Civil War, the poetry expresses, laments and sometimes furthers ethnic and religious divisions and their consequences: the variously fought battles between Christian and pre-Christian worlds, Gael and Viking, Gael and Anglo-Norman, Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist, the Irish and English languages.

By dividing the book into a series of mini-anthologies, mostly defined chronologically, Crotty insists that we orient ourselves historically in this huge body of work. The section devoted to the 17th and 18th centuries, for example, reveals two civilisations pitted against one another; indeed, if we compare the urbanity of Swift with the lyric intensity of Séamus Dall Mac Cuarta’s The Drowned Blackbirdwe witness two cultures barely able to comprehend one another.

The historical divisions slice arbitrarily through the corpus of individual poets. So we encounter Yeats twice: first in the section devoted to 1881-1921 (“Revival”), where we read his early work alongside Katharine Tynan, Synge, Thomas MacDonagh and Francis Ledwidge (but not Pearse or the more mawkish 1916 poets). His later work is contextualised in “1922-70”, where we find him washing in “The Sea of Disappointment” in the company of Clarke, Kavanagh and MacNeice and jostling with the early Boland, Heaney, Longley, Mahon and Montague.

One of the pleasures of reading the anthology lies in measuring the effects of these historical breaks, and tracing the continuities between them. Some are explicit, such as the backward look of the 19th-century romantics, who first turned to translation and the rhythms of song as a way of accessing the old Irish past and communicating it beyond the confines of the written page.

The star of this section is undoubtedly James Clarence Mangan, who comes across as an utterly visionary and extraordinary creature, so different from his Browningesque contemporary Ferguson, or the worthy Thomas Davis. The anthology itself contributes to the ongoing process of translation by including a large number of specially commissioned new versions, so that the body of Irish-language poetry up to 1800 now available to us in English is considerably increased. As Crotty puts it of his own translation practice, although the originals were written in the past “they were not in the past when they were written”, and despite the occasional jarring note there are wonderful translations here, which achieve a fine balance between the familiar and the strange.

Then there is our own familiarity to contend with. However good Paul Muldoon’s Myself and Pangur, I still miss the rhythms of “I and Pangur Bán, my cat”; however wise to substitute Mangan’s A Lament for Kilcashfor the much better-known version by Frank O’Connor, I still long for “What shall we do for timber?”

One division Crotty would like to downplay in his story of the nation is that between male and female. The Gaelic tradition is unusually open towards women’s perspectives and experiences, so that the earliest sections in the anthology are “alive with female voices”, including some created by women. Two wonderful song sections crowd with women’s popular love songs and laments.

But the claim that Ireland has produced more women poets than usual in western Europe is harder to sustain, at least from the selections produced here. Crotty’s decision to highlight “cross-gendering” female-voiced poems, such as Brian Merriman’s The Midnight Court, Ferguson’s Deirdre’s Lament for the Sons of Usnachand Padraic Colum’s The Poor Girl’s Meditation, seems dangerously close to special pleading.

This interest in cross-gendering helps explain the otherwise odd decision to begin the section devoted to contemporary poetry with an extract from Austin Clarke's Tiresias, the bit where he turns from man to woman and gets deflowered. Many readers will find the forced and slightly prurient style in which Clarke tries to find a language for physical pleasure hard to stomach – he is all burning sensations and cherrying nipples – but he is clearly one of Crotty’s heroes, a poet determined to explore the battle between body and spirit at whatever cost. He acts as a hinge between the brutal asceticism of The Great Hungerand the brutal sexual violence of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s Mermaid with Parish Priest: “He pushed against her again and again.”

Yet it is not so much the battle between sex and religion that comes across most strongly in recent poetry as the impress of religion itself. Reading through “Transformations: 1971-2009” I became intensely aware of the poets’ preoccupation with another world, one lying beyond, behind or within the grave. A line from Heaney’s Hailstones– “there you had / the truest foretaste of your aftermath” – might serve as an epigraph to this section, which includes a great many strong poems focusing on the recognition of mortality: Paul Durcan’s exuberant and breathless Give Him Bondi, Tom Paulin’s T he Road to Inver, Paul Muldoon’s Turkey Buzzards,Ciaran Carson’s The Fetch, poems by Michael Longley, Denis O’Driscoll, Thomas McCarthy, Rita Ann Higgins.

The division between the natural and the human world, or between this world and the next, is not the only division to be found here, but one that Crotty has tried hard to avoid is that between northern and southern poetry. It no longer has a place in the national tale, whatever about the Union. The selection from northern poets is generous, but it is encountered alongside Kinsella, Hartnett and Ní Chuilleanáin, as well as poets we might not have expected: Dorothy Molloy, Trevor Joyce, Maurice Scully.

Readers will be surprised to find no showing from several very accomplished contemporary poets, including Paula Meehan, Vona Groarke, Matthew Sweeney, Peter Sirr and the current Ireland professor of poetry, Harry Clifton, and the representation of recent poetry in Irish is particularly select. But it is impossible not to admire this vast and varied collection of poems and popular songs, written in so many languages, featuring so many formal innovations – impossible not to be moved by the intricate battles poets have fought and won through the years.

Clair Wills is professor of Irish literature at Queen Mary, University of London