John Hewitt: The Granddaddy of Ulster Poets

The forerunner of the new wave of poetry in the 1960s

Born in Belfast in 1907, John Hewitt was one of the most significant of Ulster poets to influence the 1960s ‘renaissance’ of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, James Simmons and Derek Mahon. Simmons was to call the elder poet ‘the granddaddy of us all’.

A man of the left, he wrote propagandist verse as well as lyric poetry, especially during the 1930s. A comparison of Hewitt’s career with that of his contemporary Louis MacNeice reveals Hewitt’s caution as a stylist, as well as the depth of his political engagement.

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, at its best his work is capable of powerful clarity, and a sympathetic, tempered optimism.

At the heart of his work as a poet and as a cultural and political activist was the notion of the region, ‘some grouping smaller than the nation, larger than the family, with which we could effectively identify’.

His Ulster Regionalism was part political prescription and 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 is prompted by the idea of rootedness, and the contradictions between city and country, which his regional idea could never quite resolve. As a nature poet he could be at his most convincing. 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.

But in exile from intolerant Belfast (Hewitt was more or less literally ‘sent to Coventry’, where he was Director of the Herbert Art Gallery in the city between 1957 and 1972) he found his visions of the 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 as the forerunner of a wave of younger poets. Between 1972 and his death in 1987, he 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.

Martin Mooney

Further reading:
Collected Poems (1991) by John Hewitt, edited by Frank Ormsby; Ancestral Voices (1987) by John Hewitt, edited by Tom Clyde.