John Hewitt

One of the most significant 'Ulster poets’.

Born in Belfast in 1907, John Hewitt was one of Northern Ireland's most significant poets previous to the 1960s ‘renaissance’ of Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, James Simmons and Derek Mahon.

With leanings to the left, Hewitt wrote propagandist verse as well as lyric poetry. A comparison of Hewitt’s career with that of his exact contemporary Louis MacNeice, reveals the former to be stylistically cautious, but politically engaged. 

As Frank Ormsby, the editor of his Collected Poems admits, ‘there are tracts of his verse that are at best worthy, at worst dull.’ Hewitt himself acknowledged the ‘reticent’ and ‘mannered’ tendencies in his poetry.

However, his work is still capable of powerful clarity, and of a sympathetic, tempered optimism.
At the heart of his work as a poet and activist was the notion of a 'region' as ‘some grouping smaller than the nation, larger than the family, with which we could effectively identify.’

Hewitt's 'Ulster Regionalism' was part political prescription, part aesthetic programme. He insisted that the writer ‘must be a rooted man, must carry the native tang of his idiom like the native dust on his sleeve.’ Much of his best writing seems prompted by the idea of rootedness, and the contradictions between city and country the idea of regionalism could not quite resolve. 

Hewitt was at his most convincing as a nature poet. His own version of ‘the first written reference/to my native place’ is a model of clarity and control:

Across Lock Laig
The yellow-billed blackbird
Whistles from the blossomed whin. 

Hewitt left Belfast, more or less literally 'sent to Coventry', where he acted as director of the Herbert Art Gallery between 1957 and 1972. Hewitt found his visions of just society taking urban form:
…this eager city,
the tolerance that laced its blatant roar,
its famous steeples and its web of girders,
an image of the state hope argued for.
Following his return to Belfast, Hewitt experienced a creative revival and a degree of public and critical attention. Between 1972 and his death in 1987, Hewitt published six collections of poetry, and was made a freeman of the city of Belfast in 1983. Ancestral Voices, a selection from his prose writings, was posthumously published in 1987, and his Collected Poems followed in 1991.

Further Reading
Collected Poems (1991) edited by Frank Ormsby; Ancestral Voices (1987) edited by Tom Clyde. Some of his papers are also held in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.