Exact contemporaries Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) and John Hewitt (1907-1987) were the two major figures of mid-century Northern Irish poetry, and the careers of both have been highly influential within Ulster and beyond.
MacNeice was educated in England and worked for the BBC in London. The ‘matter of Ireland’ and his early years in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, form a small but intense element in his extensive poetic output. His poem ‘Valediction’ sees:
Belfast, devout and profane and hard,
Built on reclaimed mud, hammers playing in the shipyard,
Time punched with holes like a steel sheet, time
Hardening the faces.
Hewitt, in contrast, made the predicament of ‘an Ulsterman of Planter stock’ the central feature of his work. In his writings on art and literature he often advocated a regionalism which later poets and writers have found suggestive, if ultimately flawed.
Hewitt found his imagination gripped by the tension between urban and rural Northern Ireland and his poems, while typically formal and cautious, occasionally draw a spark from that tension:
I should have made it plain that I stake my future
on birds flying in and out of the schoolroom-window,
on the council of sunburnt comrades in the sun,
and the picture carried with singing into the temple.
Lesser known poets of the mid-20th century include George Buchanan, an urban poet undeservedly neglected, and WR Rodgers, an exuberant erotic, religious and political poet, as well as an erstwhile Presbyterian minister at Loughgall, County Armagh. These writers, and younger poets such as Roy McFadden, Padraic Fiacc and John Montague, published largely in London or Dublin: outlets for poetry in Northern Ireland before the late 1960s were few, short lived, and small in circulation.
The early poetry of John Montague (born in Brooklyn in 1929 but brought up in Co Tyrone) can be regarded as a precursor to the late 1960s ‘renaissance’ in Northern Irish poetry.
A familiarity with American and continental modernism, coupled with a rejection of idealised images of rural Ulster life, signalled an important cultural departure. Montague’s book length poem The Rough Field (1972) set the recently erupted Troubles in historical, linguistic and cultural contexts in ways that would echo in the work of later poets.
Under the auspices of Philip Hobsbaum at Queen's University, Belfast, a ‘Group’ of poets—Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and James Simmons—came to national and, in some cases, international attention.
Heaney (born in County Londonderry in 1939) in particular found audiences in Britain and the US for early poems of rural childhood and historical, even archaeological, retrieval.
Later collections elaborated and enriched these themes, notably in Field Work’s political elegies and Station Island’s meditations on art and Catholicism. Heaney’s reputation was secured on the award of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Both Michael Longley (born in 1939) and Derek Mahon (born in 1941) studied Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and their poetry displays a formal precision that owes much to Latin and Greek models.
Nevertheless both Belfast born poets focus sharply upon contemporary Ulster. Longley sets a concern with the erotic life and with landscape against the political violence of the 1970s and 80s.
Mahon, following in the footsteps of Beckett and MacNeice, is by turns austere, stoic and cosmopolitan.
In contrast, Derry born James Simmons (1933-2001) found many of his formal models in folksong, blues, and other popular musical forms. A demotic voice coupled with a sure grasp of his forms—he sang, and recorded a number of his poems—Simmons was also the founding editor of The Honest Ulsterman, an irreverent literary magazine which was the first to publish many of the most important Northern Irish writers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Of the Northern Irish poets who came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps the most important are Tom Paulin, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. All four, like their immediate predecessors Heaney, Longley, Mahon and Simmons, found British rather than Irish publishers, though McGuckian currently publishes with the Gallery Press in Ireland.
Tom Paulin’s work has developed an abrasive, even confrontational edge. A deeply political poet, Paulin imaginatively confronts and constructs links between the contemporary Northern Irish situation and its historical roots in wider European culture.
A critic and cultural journalist as well as a poet, Paulin was, alongside Seamus Heaney, poet and critic Seamus Deane, and actor Stephen Rea, a founder of the Field Day theatre and publishing enterprise.
Born in County Armagh, Paul Muldoon is with Heaney the most widely known of Northern Irish poets. Playful, hermetic, technically exuberant and vastly allusive, Muldoon’s imaginative range includes native American culture, film noir, surrealism, drugs lore and much else.
Ciaran Carson’s poetry, since his second collection The Irish For No, has dwelt increasingly on an urban Belfast seen through the defamiliarising lenses of linguistic play, technical experiment and traditional musical and storytelling forms.
Carson is also an accomplished traditional musician and the author of poetic prose works including The Star Factory.
Medbh McGuckian is the most prominent of a growing number of Northern Irish women who have established themselves as poets in recent years. Her work is dense, rich in symbol and allusion, and subtly political—an aspect of her poetry that has come more to the fore with recent collections.
Younger Northern Irish poets currently publishing include Jean Bleakney, Moyra Donaldson, John Hughes, Peter MacDonald, Martin Mooney, Sinead Morrisey (was writer in residence at Queen’s University, Belfast), Damian Smyth, Nick Laird and Leontia Flynn. While a number are represented by British publishing houses, indigenous firms like the Blackstaff Press and Lagan Press ensure that Northern Irish poetry can find a local home.