Aaron Mannion Reviews An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry

By | 1 August 2014

The complexity here derives from the speaker, who is the daughter of a mermaid. To her, water is an estranged medium, as is Irish to the English-speaking Irish poet. The sense of mourning for a passing language and its culture is felt keenly (perhaps keened feelingly) in Máirtin Ó Direáin’s ‘The Essence is not in the Living’. Ó Direáin flips common conceits of the relationship of poetry and essence:

Unliving things slip
Away from life and leave it:
Was it thus
The island left my poem,
Or did you notice?

The essence here is not the living kernel, but is something that can only be held briefly, if at all, by the living medium of poetry.

Though this poetry often works toward the common project of a national literature, it is not a poetry of compromise and consensus. Each poet pulls and pushes this project in their own direction, creating a rowdy democracy of competing voices. Poetry and politics combine in Ireland in a way unusual elsewhere. Key leaders of the 1916 Uprising – Joseph Mary Plunkett, Pádraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh – were poets. The current president, Michael D. Higgins, is a published poet. Though sales of contemporary chapbooks and collections may not rival Boyzone, poetry still seems to command general respect as a mode of political thought. In this context, nationalism can sometimes transcend itself, moving through the local to make common cause with other groups. Mary O’Malley’s ‘Ceres in Caherlistrane’ links the deaths of Irish navies with the African-American experience:

Somewhere near forty-second street,
a girl, copper-haired, sings for a hawk-eyed man.
He tastes, in the lark’s pillar of sound
honey and turf-fires. […]

She has no idea these underriver walls
are shored up with Irish bones, black men’s bodies.
She thinks all the buskers in New York are down
here tonight like cats. She hears them – a keen,
a skein of blues.
[…] the all souls’ chorus a filter

for certain songs that rise from a cold source.
Brandy and honey notes replace spring water –
the gift price to sing an octave deeper
than sweet, tuned to a buried watercourse.

O’Malley leverages nationalism to open the Irish experience up to a larger solidarity. In the shared tonality of African-American blues and the Irish ballad, she witnesses the transubstantiation of brute suffering into song that is ‘an octave deeper/than sweet’, ‘tuned to buried watercourse’ of common humanity. Here, poetry is political, but not sectarian; here, poetry creates community.

No reader will be disappointed by the quality of work that Davis has collected. It is supple, strong and surprising; the torque of technical ability enables these poets to crack open the marrow of their imagination and experience. The book captures not only the individual flavours of many great poets, but also the palate of Irish poetry. What the anthology doesn’t do is provide us with a new way of looking at the work, nor does it guide us to find the less obvious connections between the poets and their tradition. In both his selection and commentary, Davis concentrates on the obvious themes: modernity versus myth, the Troubles, the relation to British poetry. He rarely surprises us with insight or chooses work that might challenge a diasporic Irish Studies major with a less obvious vision of Ireland. The trajectory of the anthology can be gauged by the under-representation of younger poets. Covering a period of seventy-odd years, this is understandable; however, the youngest poet featured, Sinéad Morrissey, was born in 1972. Notable, also, is the preponderance of poets wedded to an accessible, ‘plain-speaking’ style. Though this probably reflects a reality of Irish poetry, it seems unlikely that the more experimental practices currently embraced in Australia, for example, are absent from Ireland. Such inclusion would add not only breadth, but would also allow us to understand the mutations and variations such avant-garde forms take when transplanted to a strong national tradition.

An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry is itself a disarmingly humble title: just an anthology, definitely not the anthology, and not even the Harvard Anthology. Perhaps Davis’s modesty stems from a recognition of the momentousness of anthologising. Anthologising is a political act. Not only, as in this case, because it may define a nation that does not exist as a single political entity; but also because each anthology posits a polis, a community of voices. The book will serve well as textbook for survey courses on Irish poetry, but it fails to capture poetry’s transformative force. This is a disappointment, more so because the anthology’s subject is a country whose poets martyred themselves to effect change. ‘Easter, 1916’, Yeats’s eulogy to the poet’s rebellion, marks not only how revolution transforms, but also how poetry revolutionises, transforming its objects and listeners:

I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In a more humble way, anthologies should also aspire to the same.

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