Selected poets and their work ‘alive and present to the reader’
Gerald Dawe reflects on his editing of ‘The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets’ (2017)
Poets Nuala Ni Dhomhnail (left) and Eavan Boland. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
There’s a faintly Victorian tint to the term “companion”; what exactly is it? After having a good look through previous Cambridge Companions, I quickly realised what it’s not: not an anthology, not a reader, not a handbook, not a dictionary and not a history. It is a Companion, a very site-specific publication with clear, if negotiable, terms of reference, in my case, limited to 30 or fewer individual essays on individual poets, with a historical starting point (Ireland and the 1590s) and a definitive or symbolic endpoint, in my case, the emergence, with widespread critical recognition, of a poet from a “minority” language into the English mainstream of a vastly globalised world.
The time-span of, roughly, five centuries, is how the reader approaches the new(ish) century and then promptly leaves the stage, it is hoped, encouraged to read and discover more, via the selected reading list which signposts critical, historical, biographical studies and poetry anthologies as first ports of call.
This particular Companion also lives within an extensive series of such Irish-related studies, published by Cambridge University Press, including the Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry edited by Matthew Campbell (2003); the Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry 1900-2000, edited by Justin Quinn (2008); the two volumes of the Cambridge History of Irish Literature, edited by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary (2006); A History of Irish Working Class Literature, edited by Michael Pierse (2017); A History of Irish Autobiography, edited by Liam Harte (2018); and the forthcoming History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature, edited by Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir. So it needed to “fit in” to this wider picture as well.
The invitation to prepare a Companion was clearly predicated on poetic value – excellence and influence. Soon into the research it was clear that the ratio of first-class women poets after 1945 is high, pre-1945 lower. There are social, cultural and historical reasons for this which the Companion reflects. Similarly, the pressure to acknowledge contemporary or recent Irish poets, both men and women, was also clear from the outset, but the choice was made to close the historical circle at the turn of the millennium with those poets who had already established international recognition with the bulk of substantial work behind them, and literary reputations critically acknowledged as such with scholarship. In other words, this Companion wasn’t going to be a Companion to Irish Poetry since 2000, or a Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry, although either (future) publication could sit neatly alongside it.
On the subject of more women poets as subjects for essays, had this Companion focused on contemporary Irish poets, options would have abounded, but going back through the centuries, consulting all the standard anthologies and literary histories, it was difficult to identify, outside of specific research subjects, poets who were women and who had, under the rubric of this Companion, achieved global recognition and canonical status. As has been illustrated in other artistic communities, it may well be the fault of the canon and its development into a domain often overpopulated with artists who are men. The equivalent Companion to English Poets, edited by Claude Rawson, which applies the same lens of poetic value to English literary history, has two woman poets; the American version, edited by Mark Richardson, has nine; the Irish has four. So this is obviously an important debate in its own right.
However, if such a book as this produces discussion and makes us think about the poetic tradition that informs our culture and of how to identify, recognise, foster and support artistic and literary excellence, so much the better. When the formal qualities, the aesthetics, of the purely artistic drive and structure of imagination are refashioned through a different set of priorities, the balancing act between equality and excellence, and the strains of subjectivity which underpin all decision-making, clearly need to be examined and redefined.
For this Companion the overriding and defining priority was to provide an introductory portrait of 29 Irish poets, spanning five centuries, covering both languages and presenting these in a readable and engaging style so that the general reader could approach the book with confidence that the self-contained essays would not be overly technical in terminology or use an imposing academic style. I think the contributors have achieved this as the selected poets and their work are alive and present to the reader.
The Companion is not “themed”, yet certain themes emerge and gender is one of them. Lucy Collins’ essay on Austin Clarke, for instance, establishes an astute identification early on in Clarke’s oeuvre with “the lives of the most vulnerable in Irish society . . . and he is alert to the systemic failure of institutions to protect the marginalised”, in particular his “concern for the fate of children” as much as his interest in “gender transformation”, “once again showing Clarke to be ahead of his time in pushing the boundaries of sexual identity and debate”.
James Ward remarks in his essay on Swift, “Gender in these poems is sometimes not quite as clear in its polarity as the critics have been in theirs”. Michael Griffin points to how, on the recurring issue of trans-national ideologies, “Goldsmith distrusted the contemporary British ideology of liberty . . . most evident in The Traveller and The Deserted Village”. This “ahead of time” poetic intelligence is fascinating to notice going back through the centuries as well as being evident in the playfulness and questioning of gender and sexuality in the poems of Murphy, Montague and Kennelly, along with the pressing relevance of “questions of geography” which Chris Morash raises in relation to Louis MacNeice. In one of the concluding essays, on Medbh McGuckian, Maria Johnston produces a fascinating examination of charges of obscurity: “[McGuckian’s] poems are, to paraphrase that other connoisseur of chaos Wallace Stevens, poems of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice.”
The four women poets in the Companion who have established international reputations – Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Medbh McGuckian and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill – anticipate the burgeoning contemporary poetry scene as “trailblazers” and form part of a much wider discourse of women’s voices – poets as much as critics – throughout the Companion. During the early phase of the compilation of the Companion, invitations and approaches had been extended to various women academics / writers, some of whom, for different reasons, were not able to commit to contribute to the edition.
Criss-crossing generations and borders in a vibrant conversation within the Companion, the reader encounters Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, Anne Atik, Patricia Avis, Alice Curtayne, Eilis Dillon, Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, Katherine Mansfield, Caitlín Maude, Rita Kelly, Sinead Morrissey, Mary Farl Power, Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, Simone Weil, Julia Kristeva, Helen Vendler, Edna Longley, Susan Howe, Antoinette Quinn, Anne Fogarty, Anne Mulhall, Gerardine Meaney, Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, Leontia Flynn, Patricia Fara, Rióna Ní Fhrighil, Clíodhna Ó Gallchoir, Vona Groarke, Patricia Rosenmeyer, Jane Moore, Emer Nolan, Heather Clark, Jane Stabler, Melissa Fegan, Clair Wills, Oona Frawley, Kit Fryatt, among them.
When I edited Earth Voices Whispering: an anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945 (2008) the 416 pages included several fascinating Irish women poets who had largely been forgotten; among them, Mary Devenport O’Neill, Blanaid Salkeld, Winifred Letts, Freda Laughton, Eileen Shanahan and Sheila Wingfield. As with The New Younger Irish Poets (1991) I was surprised by the critical silence which, outside the classroom, largely met these exciting inclusions at the time. There is no way of telling about such things.
This Companion will, I hope, be read, enjoyed and debated by all those around the globe who love poetry and have a particular interest in knowing a little more about how this country has produced so many great poets, including but not limited to, the representative 29 voices explored here with such skill and care by writers and scholars, many of whom have devoted their personal and professional lives to poetry from Ireland and many other younger contributors in whose custodianship the tradition is placed for revision and reimagining into the future.
Ten or 20 years hence, who knows what sort of a book the next Companion will make; it is an exhilarating and challenging prospect. But in the interim, and to interrogate issues raised in relation to the Irish poetic canon, a plan is taking shape to engage specifically with the issue of Missing Voices: Irish Women Poets, 16th-20st centuries in the form of a public symposium, hosted by Poetry Ireland under their gender equality and diversity policy in the autumn of 2018, which will conclude with a publication of selected papers the following year. Further information will be announced later in the spring.
- Gerald Dawe’s The Wrong Country: Essays on Modern Irish Writing, is fortncoming from Irish Academic Press . His most recent poetry books include Selected Poems (2012) and Mickey Finn’s Air (2014)