The Sound of a Blackbird Rising

Poet Kirsten Kearney reviews the latest anthology of NI poetry

It is the 9th century. In the monastery at Bangor, a scribe is penning a poetic fragment which comes to be symbolic for poetry in the North. Lon Dubh Loch LaoThe Lagan Blackbird. The tides turn and in the 21st century, poets, writers, critics and academics sit ferreted away in the labyrinthine corridors of the Seamus Heaney Centre of Poetry and write.

Each of these writers, writers before them, graduates and post-graduates have all contributed in some way to the nest of singing birds, hungry birds, or squabbling birds who fill the pages of this anthology of poetry from Queen’s University Belfast.

Central to ‘The Great Debate’ during the Linen Hall Library’s Celebrate Literary Belfast festival was the awareness that it is poetry, above all other art forms, that has put Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, on the world map.

Sinéad Morrissey, erstwhile writer in residence at Queen’s, speaks of the dual triumvirates of Heaney - Longley - Mahon, and Muldoon - Carson - McGuckian, but this collection is evidence that there is another generation standing on the shoulders of these giants.

Despite John Hewitt’s claim in 1945 that writers around Queen's had produced ‘little work of significance,’ reading this anthology, it becomes clear that Queen’s has transformed over the past 50 years into a creative source for all kinds of literary endeavour, as poets meet, discuss, work and decisively ignore each other’s sound advice.

The Blackbird’s Nest is a smaller volume than I had expected, being used to the weight of Poets from the North of Ireland and A Rage for Order and the door-stopping heft of Magnetic North. But within the pages of this beautifully-produced book, there are no less than 53 well-established poets; some with international reputations and Nobel prizes, others with their first, strong collections.

Working across Irish, English, Ulster Scots, Latin, Catalan and Italian in the original and translation, the poetry highlights the linguistic wealth and diversity of the Northern Irish community, indigenous and settled.

Soundly edited by Frank Ormsby and sandwiched smoothly between Seamus Heaney’s Foreword and Ciaran Carson’s Afterword, the collection is more an in-depth overview of the poetry scene in Northern Ireland rather than an academic pat on the back.

That so many of these poets were connected with Queen's and with the new Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, is testament to the impact that the poetic and creative culture of the University has established and continues to have in the writing communities throughout the North and further afield.

For those unfamiliar with the stories of Queen's, there may be a few surprises. English poet Philip Larkin, who spent time as librarian at Queen's, is in attendance, while poems appear from Philip Hobsbaum, who is usually only mentioned in connection with the poetry group he founded which spawned an out-of-scale wealth of poetic talent from Heaney to Deane, Longley (Michael and Edna) to Muldoon and Carson.

There are enough big names for a fairly conclusive ‘Who’s Who’ of Northern Irish poetry, with offerings from John Hewitt, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian sitting next to the younger generations of prize-winning poets from Sinéad Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Alan Gillies to Irish-language poet and musician Gearóid Mac Lochlainn.

The subtle strains of the Irish are also ably sounded in the work of Donegal-born Cathal O’Searcaigh and Dublin-born Gréagóir Ó Dúill, with translations provided.

We also get a glimpse into the poetic world of playwright Stewart Parker, who along with singer-songwriter James Simmons and the multi-talented poet Mairtín Crawford, is honoured posthumously.

The collection is strong and balanced, overwhelming in its diversity and the extent of its poetic challenge. It illustrates amply the strength of the literary talent at large in NI today. In the year of the MacNiece centenary, it is encouraging to discover new writers, rediscover older writers and remind yourself of the poetic riches on offer.

This is, of course, a collection centred round Queen’s, and thus does not and cannot reflect all of the sterling poets writing and performing today. Yet the collection, in its breadth, depth and height, captures Lon Dubh Loch Lao, the sound of a blackbird rising.

The Blackbird's Nest and the second issue of The Yellow Nib will be launched at a gala evening as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen's on November 4. Information on tickets is available on the Belfast Festival website.