As Reviewed By: Justin Quinn
The Edge of Ireland
Eve Patten. Samuel Ferguson and the Culture of Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Four Courts Press. 207pp.
R.F. Foster. W.B. Yeats: A Life. II: The Arch Poet, 1915-1939. Oxford University Press. 798pp.
Antoinette Quinn. Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography. Gill & Macmillan. 524pp.
Patrick Kavanagh. Collected Poems. Ed. Antoinette Quinn. Allen Lane. 299pp.
Tim Kendall & Peter McDonald, eds. Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays. Liverpool University Press. 192pp.
Peter Sirr. Nonetheless. Gallery Press. 79pp.
Peter Sirr. Selected Poems. Gallery Press. 94pp.
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Where does Irish poetry come from? The answers to this question are almost as complex as the island’s history in the last millennium. To broach these, one must first specify whether one means Irish poetry written in the Irish language or the English. Some critics say that linguistic duality characterizes Irish poetry. The play of the two languages through imitation, translation and other more oblique means has created a body of work that is distinctive from the poetry of England. Other critics used to say that Irish-language poetry was superseded sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and its finest characteristics were absorbed by anglophone poetry on the island, thus once again creating a poetic tradition distinct from England. More recently, some poets and critics have suggested that the poet belongs above all to his or her language, and that adjectives like “Irish” or “English” etc., in front of the word “poet” are only a type of game-playing. This is an attractive idea as it provides a way to side-step the divisive issue of nationalism in poetry, both for the poets themselves and their readers: to hold a certain passport and to write in a certain language does not mean that your subject-matter is already determined for you; one critic has gone as far as to say that Ireland has now entered a “post-nationalist” phase.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Irish
poets and translators were preoccupied with origins. Samuel Ferguson
(1810-1886), poet, critic, antiquarian and barrister, made his first
important mark on Irish culture with a four-part review of a book of
translations from the Irish, Irish
Minstrelsy or Bardic Remains of Ireland with English Translations
(1831), edited by James Hardiman. The notice, which was about half the
length of an academic monograph, was published in the Dublin
University Magazine, viewed by many as the voice of the Protestant
Ascendancy in Ireland. To today’s distant observer, it might seem
paradoxical that a Unionist publication should take such pains over
translations from Irish poetry (it is inconceivable now), but Ferguson
belonged to the second group of critics mentioned above and was serious
enough about Irish poetry to go to the trouble of learning the language.
As Eve Patten remarks, “on the one hand the journal was patriotically
committed to Irish culture and history, but on the other it sought to
express an aggressive unionist response to the growing self-confidence of
the Catholic population after emancipation.” For over a century,
Ferguson was considered one of the outstanding spokesmen for this
Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland; however, in her chapter about the
Irish Minstrelsy review, Patten
shows that Ferguson’s relationship with this social and cultural
formation was more complex than previously presumed:
identification of Ferguson with the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy however,
largely on the basis of his 1848 marriage into [sic]
a scion of the Guinness family, completely bypasses the co-ordinates of
his background, economic position and career path, none of which conformed
neatly to any decided social profile. The political heterogeneity of his
peer group militates against the idea that he was simply an Ascendancy
evangelist ruthlessly engaged in a sustained project of cultural
indoctrination. While he frequently had difficulty in defining his own
audience, his instinctive feel was for the urban professional activist,
and for a civic confederacy which, while it might very well maintain
necessary relationships with the landed aristocracy or the Castle, was
nonetheless a new and pragmatic voice in Irish political and cultural
One of those important co-ordinates which Patten discusses was Ferguson’s connection with the intellectual life of Scotland, especially with Blackwood’s Magazine. For many decades critics have been almost exclusively preoccupied with the dialogue between England and Ireland during the colonial and post-colonial period; Patten is not the first to shift the emphasis to Scotland, but she makes judicious use of it in explaining the dynamics of Irish cultural life in the mid-nineteenth century. Some readers might feel that the impact of English culture is overlooked (for instance, Tennyson, although a significant influence on Ferguson, makes no appearance in the book), but the profits of Patten’s approach outweigh such a reservation. She writes excellent prose, and does not let critical theory distract her from the history of the period. One wants to hear more from such a critic; for instance, how does she view the Revival which followed Ferguson’s death? After all, Ferguson and his time were merely the run-up to the great events of the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
To say that W. B. Yeats is the greatest Irish poet of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is to indicate a good deal more than the fact that he was born in 1865 and died in 1939. The poetry of his first phase from the publication of The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889 to—roughly—the 1900s was the culmination of nineteenth-century Irish poetry in English. He drew on much of the antiquarian material about Irish mythology that was gathered by scholars and then employed by poets such as Ferguson, James Clarence Mangan and Thomas Davis. And because his engagement with English Romanticism was so profound, these Irish materials were suddenly given a poetic force that they previously lacked. In the twentieth century he famously learned to abandon the style which won him so much fame earlier, because, as he said, “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked”. The poetry of his fin de siècle cohorts such as Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson could not have withstood the noonday glare of the twentieth century, with its vast wars and radical poetic experiments, but Yeats, protean as ever, metamorphosed in response to the challenge.
Of course, Yeats’s early poetry is not great because he made this connection and responded to this challenge—anybody could do that—but because he was a great poet. This begs the question, but there is never any sound explanation for the emergence of a great poet. In any case, Yeats’s entire career begs many questions. Here are a few: how did a man who came from a declining social group (Anglo-Irish Protestant) produce the poetry that gave profound expression to some ideas and emotions that continue to move through Ireland to this day? How did a man with no formal education and no knowledge of foreign languages write a philosophical, meditative poetry capable of persuasively surveying the European cultural heritage, and on occasion accurately predicting its future course? How did a man who relied on the drawing up of horoscopes and séances, in order to understand people as well as historical situations, understand and influence the politics of his own country, and indeed write some of the best political poetry in the English language? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, but they all point to the way greatness in literature baffles our usual categories and prejudices.
He continues to do so. For several
critics in the twentieth century he was an anomaly which had to be
resolved. The problem he posed was this: if we agree that the great leap
forward for the twentieth century was the Modernism of Eliot, Pound, et
al., what are we to do with a poet like Yeats, who is so obviously major
and yet so obviously not Modernist in this vein (no collage poems, no
macaronics)? The answer was to do the same as was done to Robert Frost,
that is, turn him into a Modernist poet malgré lui. This persuaded many people for a few decades, but since
the whole Modernist project as represented by Eliot and Pound is not so
wholly attractive as it once was, the game now does not seem worth the
candle. Indeed Yeats’s Oxford Book
of Modern Verse (1936) clearly demonstrated that he had little
interest in Modernist poetry, even when written by a close friend such as
Pound. In the last months of his life Yeats proclaimed himself a part of a
different twentieth-century tradition which is arguably of more importance
than Modernism. Such a poetry does not turn away from what Eliot called
“the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary
history,” but rather it shows up works such as The
Waste Land and its like as a symptom of that contemporary history. It
asserts that there is no need to “make it new,” no need to be
“original”; it asserts ownership of intellectual complexity of the
most contemporary kind, while not abrogating the rhetorical resources of
the European poetic tradition. This is Edna Longley’s argument in Poetry
in the Wars (1986) where she shows that Yeats’s poem “Nineteen
Hundred and Nineteen” was “at least as epoch-making and epoch-defining
as The Waste Land; and it may
have proved more paradigmatic of poetry in this century.” Among the
poets Yeats identified as part of this tradition were Paul Valéry, Stefan
George and Rainer Maria Rilke:
base ourselves on the traditional conclusions of philosophy & its
modern development. We seek in words & in art what the Greeks sought.
Man knows perfection for perfection’s sake or for the sake of the Gods.
Our thought because it needs leisure is rural like all ancient art. Modern
civilization, created by industrialism, has been a violent interruption.
We are not romantics but classicists.
Longley argues in reference to anglophone poetry alone—Hardy, Edward Thomas, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. In thematic terms, Yeats reaches for a further range which is continental, and in certain respects, global (of the poets named in the last sentence, perhaps only Mahon equals this). Like Rilke and Valéry, Yeats was a poet whose grand egotism illuminated the world in astonishing ways.
The first part of R. F. Foster’s biography, W. B. Yeats: A Life. I: The Apprentice Mage. 1865-1914 was published in 1998 and was spared no superlatives by reviewers; the second, and final, volume appeared in 2003 and was even better. Any praise that I can add two years later is superfluous, but I must say that it is a flawless book, written with outstanding verve and learned insight; it grips the reader with the same force as Tolstoy and is the best literary biography I have ever read. (Tolstoy is brought to mind for the way that he was able to comprehend the gold-leaf flickers of the most delicate intelligences of his age with the grand narratives of European history.) The story is picked up in 1915 and brings the reader through one of the most turbulent periods in Irish history, from the Easter Rising of 1916 to the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922 in the midst of a civil war and its subsequent ramifications. Yeats played a key role in this period and was used occasionally by Irish politicians as an informal ambassador to England. (Here one recalls how often the roles of poet and diplomat were combined, for instance by Philip Sidney, Joachim du Bellay, Octavio Paz and Denis Devlin.) Foster, a historian by profession, skillfully imbricates Yeats’s life within national history, but is also marvelously attentive to his development as a poet also. For the most part, he works with earlier drafts of the poems in order to situate them within their historical moment, but he never reduces the poetry to some kind of epiphenomenon of that moment (a common error of historicist literary critics). Foster never loses sight of the way that while Yeats’s poetry both reflects and reflects upon history, it also is history.
Foster also deals tactfully with
Yeats’s interest in the occult—in this volume, mainly with his wife as
a medium through automatic writing, which Pound described as “very very
very bug-house.” Rather than mock his subject’s credulity, Foster
analyses the transcripts of the automatic writing sessions for what they
can tell us about the husband and wife:
remains astonishing is the depth, ingenuity, and oracular confidence of
the bizarre wisdoms she imparted. From her side, the phenomenon is
convincing evidence of her powerful mind and wide reading. From his, it
reveals a good deal about what he wanted to know, and what he wished to be
Foster reports the remarks of a young Canadian visitor to the Yeats house at around this time. George, Yeats’s wife, seemed to hold “some strange power of divination,” and “wby talked hypnotically and mystically about the phases of the moon until problems of financing a repertory theatre came up, when he became at once ‘completely objective and realistic.’” Such a transition—from trance to pragmatism—is repeated throughout the two volumes. It illuminates Yeats’s personality, as well as the way his poetry can swing from dreamy and lyrical atmospheres to hard-headed commentary on anything from the egotism of lovers to revolutionary politics. The book is also entertaining because it gives so much sea-room for Yeats’s own entertaining aspects, and those of his family and inner circle—from his mordant, hilarious thumbnail sketches of contemporaries (for instance, one is described as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”) to his unselfconscious volte-faces, like the one described above.
When reviewing Yeats’s Autobiographies, Æ (George Russell), a long-time associate and friend, remarked: “assuredly Ireland from 1890 to 1916 was abundantly and richly alive and in many ways, all of which added to each other’s vitality. Some time a real historian will unite both the body and soul of Ireland in a history of our times, and it will be seen that few nations, contemporary with ours, had a richer life.” This is quoted by Foster and it cries out as description of the achievement of Foster’s own book over the longer period of 1865 to 1939.
That the same cannot be said of Patrick Kavanagh: A Biography is not the fault of Antoinette Quinn (no relation, but she was once my tutor at Trinity College, Dublin), and there are two reasons for this. First, during the period of Kavanagh’s life, Ireland was a particularly bleak period, both economically and culturally. The long-time leader, Eamon de Valera, was pursuing a policy of economic self-sufficiency, which led to a trade war with Britain, and then to neutrality during World War II. This was also the period when the Catholic Church laid hold on Irish society, and did not let go till the late 1980s. Anybody who spoke out against Catholic values could very easily have their livelihood taken away from them, and writers for the most part learnt to keep their criticisms of the status quo to the snugs of Dublin public houses. Second, Patrick Kavanagh’s career was simply not as wide-ranging as Yeats’s. For the most part he remained on the lower-slopes of hack journalism, with an occasional visit to John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin. This hardly compares to Yeats dining somewhat regularly with the likes of Asquith. As I’ve indicated above, an account of Yeats’s life is, to a large degree, an account of the emergence of the modern Irish state. With Kavanagh, we trawl through the lackluster and timorous Bohemia of Ireland in the mid-century.
Nevertheless, this is a hugely entertaining book (first published in 2001, and in a new paperback edition in 2003), witty, informed and sympathetic to its subject; and that sympathy is somewhat miraculous given the God-awfulness of Kavanagh’s personality. One is almost glad that the period of one’s life does not overlap with his. He was a man who was given to groping his younger sisters out of sexual desperation. Later, when one of them wanted to escape to a Belgian convent, the family discovered her intention and vetoed the idea. Quinn tells us how they found out: “[Kavanagh], beneath the dreamy, heedless pose he liked to affect, was razor sharp in his assessments and given to snooping and spying. Celia had written to the Belgian convent on a new notepad and Patrick read her letter by holding the blotting paper up to a mirror.” He was a man who embezzled the funds of the football team he played for. He was a man who would ask you for a banknote to buy you both some drinks and then keep the change from it. He was an almost habitual liar. He had little or no integrity in his treatment of friends or in his political opinions. Some of those who invited him to dinner or even to stay as a houseguest would find their wives insulted. He was casually misogynistic, describing female writers who appeared in journals as “Little girls who should be at home nursing babies or cooking the dinner.” (Quinn’s comment on this is mordant: “Such misogyny was also self-serving: female writers were taking the bread from his, more deserving because male, mouth.”) Some of this bad behavior was motivated by the desire to épater les bourgeois: Kavanagh came from a farming background and felt socially uneasy in Dublin. But mostly it was because he was—to reach for euphemism—an extremely unpleasant individual.
Having said this, I must then say that
his reputation is treated with almost total reverence in Ireland. When he
came to Dublin first in 1931, it was something of cultural event. Not that
he gave a reading or lecture, or even saw many people. He visited an
editor who had published him, Æ, spent the night in a doss-house and went
home. To understand the importance of it, one has to backtrack to the
Literary Revival, in which Æ himself had played an important part along
with Yeats, Augusta Gregory and J. M. Synge. A lot of what was written
depended on certain ideas of Irish peasantry formulated by people who, by
birth and station, were distant from their subject. (Works of the Literary
Revival were occasionally and cynically graded for “PQ”, which stood
for “peasant quality.”) Put crudely, the Irish peasant of the Literary
Revival had a somewhat notional existence (Yeats for one used this to his
advantage in “The Fisherman”); when Kavanagh made the journey to
Dublin, he knew the effect would be like that of a monkey giving a lecture
at a zoology conference. Quinn describes his journey thus:
set off to visit [Æ] a week before Christmas…. He was apparently acting
on impulse, since he did not inform Æ of his intended arrival. Lest the
sage doubt his rural authenticity or need for patronage, he decided to
wear his shabby old work clothes for the visit instead of dressing up in
his Sunday suit. Since his appearance was unmistakably countrified, his
adoption of the guise of a Syngean tramp was, as he later realised, quite
unnecessary. To exaggerate his peasant persona still further, Kavanagh
decided to walk the sixty-odd miles to Dublin, rather than travel by train
or bicycle, though it was the depths of winter and the journey took the
best part of three days.… He was deliberately acting the part of a
“country gobshite,” “pretending” instead of behaving “honestly,
One can only but admire the seriousness of his approach. It also helps us to see how his duplicity on a personal level was of a part with his manipulation of an Irish archetype at the center of much debate in this period. However, this graded into a desire to be merely topical in the late 1930s and ’40s, and his long poem “The Great Hunger” nowadays looks like little more than a salvo in the culture war that the anti-clerical editors of The Bell tried, and failed, to precipitate.
Quinn has also edited a much-needed new
edition of Kavanagh’s poems, published at the end of last year. In an
editorial note, she remarks that the selection was made “with the aim of
presenting the best of Patrick Kavanagh’s poetry” and directs
interested readers to www.tcd.ie/English/patrickkavanagh
where the uncollected poems may be found. There are about 255 generously
space pages of poetry here, most of which, it should immediately be
admitted, are awful. Kavanagh is a poet who remains of interest because of
a handful of poems, and even most of these are flawed and clichéd in many
places. For many years he thought of himself as a satirist in the
neo-classical mode, but, first, he lacked the technical facility necessary
to make these poems convincing, and, second, he simply wasn’t as
intelligent as Pope or Dryden, and most of his work in this line is a
monotonous complaint that he has been badly treated by the world at large.
His egoism obtrudes elsewhere also. For instance, his long poem “Lough
Derg,” written in 1942 but unpublished until 1971, is about the place of
pilgrimage which also appears in poems by Denis Devlin and Seamus Heaney,
and begins like this:
From Cavan and from Leitrim and from Mayo,
This is so awkwardly done as to make the bitterness and envy of the non-entity attach itself to the speaker, rather than to those described. In its wake, one can trust nothing of what Kavanagh says—not his prolix analyses of the Irish character, not his condescending tenderness, not his histrionic self-deprecation at the poem’s conclusion—because we feel that all is distorted by egoism. The critic Ron Callan once remarked that it’s interesting to compare Kavanagh’s poetry, marred by egoism, with that of Whitman and his scions for whom egoism, or rather egotism, made their work expansive, generous and inclusive. But there are poems here which amaze, among them “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” “Shancoduff,” “Plough-Horses,” “Epic” and perhaps “Canal Bank Walk”; also of importance is “On Raglan Road” in the musical rendition of Luke Kelly and sung by Van Morrison. In these poems, Kavanagh achieves a momentary mastery over his ego, and what is revealed is a rich, somber landscape with human figures balanced against the forces of nature and history.
On a technical note, it is a shame that the binding of the Allen Lane-Penguin edition is so poor: the pages are not stitched, but glued to the spine, and so are likely to fall out after a while. Clearly, the publishers, like many other large houses over the last few years, want to get a larger profit out of the hardback edition, and so they cut back on the least conspicuous and most crucial place. It seems to me pointless to buy such editions; the paperback is the one to wait for.
The first sentence on the back cover of Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays remarks that Muldoon “is one of the key figures in the contemporary literary landscapes of Ireland, Britain and the U.S.” In some respects, this is true, and in another it is an overstatement. Muldoon was an amazingly precocious poet, publishing his first collection in 1973 (with Faber & Faber) at the age of twenty-one. His influence on British poets from the 1980s forward cannot be exaggerated. For instance, only in his fourth collection did Ian Duhig come out from under Muldoon’s shadow, and Don Paterson still hasn’t. In Ireland, arguably, he has also had a retrospective and more positive influence on the work of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, as they have engaged and demurred with his work over the years.
As for his being a key figure in the U.S., certainly, he is published by one of the finest poetry publishers in the U.S., Farrar Straus & Giroux; certainly, he holds a position at Princeton University; and certainly, he occasionally appears in high-profiles outlets such as the New Yorker. But his impact on American poetry is not yet apparent. Perhaps it would be better to say that he is a key figure for Irish and British readers in their understanding of America. Even before he moved to the U.S. in 1987, American culture (especially Native American) fascinated him, and his long poem “Madoc—A Mystery” (1990) recounts the hypothetical expedition of Coleridge and Southey to America to establish a Pantisocratic colony. Hybridity is a word that repeatedly crops up in Muldoon criticism in order to describe the ways that he explores the borders of Irishness and demonstrates the serious and serendipitous ways that it segues into other cultures. But expanding Irishness to include America has not yet led to the expansion of American ideas of poetry to include this Irish poet.
There have been two excellent book-length studies of Muldoon, the first by Tim Kendall in 1996, and the second by Clair Wills in 1998. Along with this latest book of essays, these have served to accustom readers with the radical experiments and frequent obscurity of reference in Muldoon’s poetry, so that now it is hard to remember why he was ever thought to be a difficult poet in the first place. Muldoon himself has helped this process along, first, by providing his critics with assistance and information, and, second, with the publication of a series of lectures, To Ireland, I (2000). Interestingly, John Lyon argues here that the allure of Muldoon’s poetry is that it is “attitudinally neutral or blank” and yet at the same time teases readers with the promises of hidden meaning, which it never delivers on: “What can be said quickly becomes vain, yet Muldoon’s critics seem reluctant to recognize that the party is so soon over.” This is both provocative and persuasive, and suggests that we should not dig in Muldoon’s poetry in the same way one digs in Joyce, but rather learn to skate its surfaces. Muldoon himself in interview remarked that some of his long (and difficult) poems are best read at speed, rather than ponderously with a lot of reference tools (although that’s a good way too, he immediately added).
In an excellent essay, “Rhyme and
Reconciliation in Muldoon,” Michael Allen reads the poetry from right to
left, attending to the ways in which rhyming has freighted some of
Muldoon’s most profound meanings. Allen begins by refuting the clichéd
idea that rhyme is a device that restricts the expression of meaning and
emotion, and offers close-readings of poems where the rhyming imperative
generates some of the most imaginative and transgressive lines. Often a
rhyme will be syncretic in nature (as for instance, “psilocybin” and
“linen”) where Muldoon connects an hallucinogenic popular in American
counterculture in the 1960s with the tradition linen industry of Northern
Ireland. One almost imagines that the poem (“Gathering Mushrooms”),
which stretches leftwards across the page from such rhymes, is merely an
excuse to accommodate this cultural collision and phonetic chime. Allen
can see already that Muldoon’s surrender to the energies inherent in
rhyme, an almost novelistic immersion (“I believe in the serendipity of
all that, of giving oneself over to that”), intensifies the sense
(already communicated by my more univocal Yeats and Heaney examples) of
the poetic persona as just one component of an exploratory process
involving extradiscursive forces. This is why the poems can respond so
sensitively to the metanarratives that accompany social change without any
discursive commitment; and why Muldoon’s response to a particular strain
of related doctrine, precept and practice originating in the America of
the 1960s is at once ironic, flirtatious and pervasive.
As I understand it, the extradiscursive forces Allen mentioned here are those of the violence in Northern Ireland of the last few decades but also the transitions between cultures that Muldoon himself has experienced. This constitutes a brilliant defense of the rhetorical resources of poetry for dealing with any material it likes—from autobiography to the current political situation—without being reduced to a position paper or editorial.
John Kerrigan’s bravura essay “Paul
Muldoon’s Transits: Muddling Through after Madoc”
begins by exploring the importance of emigration for recent Irish poetry.
Muldoon, he says, is “especially alert to the way the ‘emerald isle’
has been produced abroad,” and he offers dazzling readings of the poetry
and libretti of the 1990s, demonstrating how “Irish experience is
inextricably Irish-American and global.” Many readers have complained
about the verbal pyrotechnics in Hay
(1998), and Harry Clifton’s review of Muldoon’s collected poems,
caught this: “Entertaining some of these later texts may be, in a
brittle, emotionally hollowed-out way, but nothing compensates for their
loss of faith in reality.” The closing phrase is much too fuzzy
(“reality,” as Nabokov remarked, is a word that should never appear
outside quotation marks), but the general point is sound, and clearly
troubles Kerrigan. Here is his final paragraph:
the obvious danger that his poetry might be sapped by a species of
philological or self-editing pedantry, Muldoon has evidently been tempted
to let the idea that life is a muddle become quasi-ideological, an
enabling tenet, interesting himself more in the proliferation than the
valency of error, and making a record of its ubiquity displace other kinds
of witness and truth-telling that, in parts of The
Annals [of Chile] and Hay, he is willing to venture. Yet his pied and self-corrected verse
is often humanely accurate about damage and the desire to put it right. In
“The River”, and much recent
work, there is an affecting willingness to acknowledge that even success
is impure, muddles through, gives things up, and a correspondingly
impressive torque in the literally minute plotting of major life-transits.
One might remark that because a danger is obvious it does not fully cease to be dangerous. Kerrigan displays a little impatience with what he considers the more “obvious” criticisms of Muldoon, and he reacts to them by searching out more louche and baroque justifications (viz., the structure of this quoted paragraph). But perhaps this just boils down to my disagreement with Kerrigan: it is clear that Muldoon’s poetry wishes to succeed in Kerrigan’s terms as stated here, but I think the work of Hay, especially, fails. And it fails because of the “obvious danger” cited above.
One of the ideas that many of the essays touch upon is the importance of Muldoon’s relationship with Heaney, which Neil Corcoran wrote about so engagingly in Poets of Modern Ireland (1999). Fran Brearton’s essay makes a welcome corrective point when she draws attention to the importance of Michael Longley to Muldoon’s work, along with that of Heaney. Rachel Buxton’s archival research has unearthed some interesting backgrounds to the influence of Frost on Muldoon, although she fails to capitalize upon them in the second part of her essay. Other essays include Stephen Burt on Muldoon’s use of adolescent situations and imagery, John Redmond on the connection between Muldoon and Pragmatism, David Wheatley on Muldoon’s libretti and Matthew Campbell on Muldoon as elegist. If there is one glaring oversight in the editing of the book, it is the omission of Muldoon’s work with the Irish language—first, in his own poetry, and, second and more importantly, in his work as a translator of the Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. (That her name does not even appear in the index is surprising, to say the least.) One reason for this is perhaps that neither of the editors, to the best of my knowledge, knows Irish; more generally this might come down to the widespread demotion of translation at the present time. (In previous centuries there was little distinction made between a poet’s so-called “original” work and translation.) But this does not take away from the fact that Paul Muldoon: Critical Essays contains much outstanding criticism that is alert at all times to the poetry itself, and provides an excellent introduction to this most protean of poets.
By way of conclusion, I would like to turn to the work of Peter Sirr, one
of the most talented of Irish poets in the middle generation. Born in
1960, he published his first collection, Marginal
Zones, in 1984; Nonetheless,
published late last year, is his sixth collection and appeared
simultaneously with his Selected
Poems. One of the reasons why his work is not well known outside
Ireland might be that he published too much in the 1980s and 90s: often,
the collections from this period, while containing excellent poems, did
not have any compression or cumulative force. This pattern changed with
the publication of Bring Everything
in 2000, which is one of the best books of Irish poetry in the last ten
years, and my recommendation to those unfamiliar with his work is to start
there. Ireland has undergone great social and cultural change in the last
decade—economic improvement, increased immigration, openness to external
influences—and something of the energy of these transformations
cathected Sirr’s poetry. He has abandoned the nationalistic terms of
reference of previous generations—stretching from the nineteenth century
to poets such as Thomas Kinsella, Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney—and is
more preoccupied with the city as poetic arena. In this, he looks to
exemplars from the mainland of Europe, especially to Ferdinand Pessoa.
That abandonment has led to a kind of fluency of the soul that is quite
original in Irish poetry, as demonstrated by “Desire” from Bring
Reconstruct me from a closing bookshop,
Someone is arguing
The poem, its beginning and end excerpted here, is remarkable for the way it ranges, indeed disperses itself, geographically: it is a kind of rich errancy beyond familiar borders.
The outstanding and most surprising pages
of Nonetheless are to be found
in the section entitled “Edge Songs,” which are “workings,
adaptations, versions, ‘skeleton’ translations of poems in Old Irish,
Middle Irish, and Latin, as they might be remembered or misremembered by
an imagined Irish poet, and sometimes original poems written in response
to or in the shadow of poems from that tradition,” as Sirr puts in a
note. For over two centuries, this kind of material has been used to fuel
variations on nationalist ideology: so, reading these poems in Nonetheless is somewhat like watching butterflies take flight from
museum cases. It is startling that Sirr’s intense engagement with the
dirt and glitter of recent developments in Ireland has given him access to
some of its most ancient origins. Moreover, the great liberties he takes
with the Irish and Latin sources come out of a deeper faithfulness to the
mode of translation often practiced in the Middle Ages in which inventio
was a integral element in the process of bringing material over from one
language to another. This is the ground which Ferguson, Yeats and, to an
extent, Muldoon appropriated for themselves and their times; Sirr’s
entranced revision of this past is the new brink.