The New Irish Poets

Controversial critic Fred Johnston reviews Bloodaxe's take on new Irish poetry

This is not a book about new Irish poets. It’s about something else. And some poets given here are not so new, either.

And there is an undue bowing in the direction of Metre magazine, to which Selina McGuinness contributes, as well as being a reviewer on occasion for The Irish Times; count how often in the introduction Justin Quinn, one of Metre’s editors, is named, or for that matter Vona Groarke – later brought out in a Metre edition publication – or her partner Conor O’Callaghan (who gets 13 pages in this book) or Metre maid, Catriona O’Reilly. Indeed, just under half-a-dozen lines are devoted to Metre by the third paragraph.

This is a book about how cosy the Irish literary scene – particularly that in the Republic – can be, and how an individual editor can stray incredibly far off the path of his or her brief and still cling to a justification for doing so.

As for Bloodaxe, they’re simply indulging their ongoing commercial envie for Paddy Poetry while it’s hot; they got a €6,000 grant from the Republic’s Arts Council to bring out this hot potato, the appearance of which was muttered about in Irish literary circles for months. And they still couldn’t get it right, either editorially or in terms of production; my copy came complete with an errata slip for errors in a poem by Cathal McCabe and another one, ironically, in a poem by Metre’s David Wheatley.

The cover, no matter how Irish it may intend itself to be, can’t help looking like an Edward Hopper, as lonely-sky mid-American as can be. As one poet remarked to me quite recently, the greatest danger posed by this anthology is that someone might think it either representative or definitive; already, I’m told, some poor soul is hunting it up in pursuit of work for an anthology of Irish poetry in Italian.

Selina Guinness’s introduction answers some questions and dodges others, such as why poets in the Irish Republic did not go for the throat of politicians and businessmen caught on the take and the make, but preferred the safer option, from the distance of the Republic, of, for instance, lambasting the Provos.

Nor does she illustrate how the witches-on-the-heath creation of Aosdána in one blow bought the political silence of the majority of the Republic’s writers with the promise of a dole, a cnuas, of a couple of hundred Euro, and one must think here of the late Micheal Hartnett’s remark to Aosdána in its loftiness that ‘cnuas’ in English actually means a ‘bunch of nuts’.

For Selina Guinness, even the 70s is history: as for modernist Irish poets, or neo-modernism in Irish poetry, she mentions a few practitioners such as Maurice Scully and Trevor Joyce, but doesn’t include any of their poetry, a neglect which doesn’t make the least sense (particularly when one notes that they and Catriona O’Reilly and David Wheatley, both of whom are represented here, have all been published by Wild Honey Press) but in fact says a lot about the anthology; it is dominated and driven, for all its alleged fire and fury, by the Republic’s cultural conservatism.

And then the surrealism sets in – a handful of the poets here aren’t even Irish. This open attitude to granting Irish citizenship by proxy is quaint and even interesting, but to leave out Scully and Joyce and les autres and stick in Anthony Caleshu, a New Englander who worked for a time in a Galway bookstore, Paul Grattan, a Glaswegian, or Michael Murphy from Liverpool beggar’s critical belief.

There is a goodly selection of Northern Ireland’s poets and so there should be. They are by far more interesting, more engaged and more engaging than some of their counterparts from the Republic for whom ‘Ulster’ has primarily meant a sort of raincoat worn by characters in Conan Doyle novels. Is that why Northern writers are envied, however lightly?

The next Nobel prize for literature since Beckett was given to an Ulsterman and recently. The second Faber & Faber poet after Richard Murphy to originate in the Republic is the late Dorothy Molloy; Muldoon and Heaney were off and running a long time since. There’s something of the poorer cousin about all of that.

Portadown-born poet, Sinéad Morrissey – depicted here in a fetching and very Bloomsbury photograph – has had truck with the Troubles in her collection, There was Fire in Vancouver, but is represented here by other types of poem, direct, imagistic, even disturbingly violent:

…every spilled, exploded word has been a stitch
in a blanket made for an imaginary baby.
‘Stitches’

Celia de Fréine, from Co Down, writes as Gaeilge and is published in Connemara, and is represented here by some poems which carry English translations, such as produces:

Under the arch of a million sighs
where the water is deepest
the souls of the newly-dead
throng to breast the current…
‘Chattels/Airneis’

Downpatrick’s Leontia Flynn, who followed me as writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library earlier this year, has some spikey poems, and takes a wok on the wild side with lines like:

Without me and without you, what’s the point
of the fact that you fried onions like you were harpooning shrimp
in a wok found in a skip near a flat on Wellesley?

‘Without Me’

Selina Guinness has made no effort to trawl for Ulster-Scots poetry here, and one might ask why. She acknowledges or mentions some interesting enough things in her introduction, such as the formalising of poetic form in Ireland and the reasons for it – all the more reason, then, to include the poets like Joyce, Scully and such for whom this edict is meaningless; and the fact that ‘Cheap air-travel, a globalised communications network and the aggressive marketing of international brands (does this include Bloodaxe?) have impacted on life in Ireland as much as in any member-state of the European Union’.

Surely she means ‘had an impact upon’ and not that dreadful globalising tendency to Americanise language and make verbs out of nouns in a word such as ‘impacting’? Her introduction attempts to be lucid, temperately argued and fair and it is, generally; it’s just isn’t dreadfully exciting in its assumptions.

The New Republic has ditched Yeats in favour of Colin Farrell, dropped literature for Riverdance, itself lead-danced by two Americans to the rhythms, not of Ireland, but of Romania and Bulgaria. And this did not happen in the Neanderthal 60s or the grunt-‘n’-thump 70s, but in the 90s, when anyone could be a poet; style, apprenticeship and learning meant less by the day; creative writing became the new Bingo; and cultural memory endeavoured to wipe itself clean of the election of the late Francis Stuart, a man who’d written radio scripts for Lord Haw-Haw and broadcast himself for the Nazis, to the highest artistic accolade in the Republic.

The Republic of Ireland has never in its short history known her true cultural identity less nor had any vision of what it should or could be. Politics lacks the least sense of doing the right thing, of common fairness; there are cliques and claques dominating the literary scene from Dublin to Galway and all points South and whole parades of poets who don’t speak to each other.

Over everything hangs the unspoken need, almost in the blood, a deeply rural need, not to upset the applecart, coupled with the post-colonial neurosis of admiring the ‘cute hoor’, as the late great political commentator Dick Walsh christened him, the ‘lad’ who could pull strokes and get away with things. Seldom has there been such a crying need for the Republic to have writers and poets who will step up to the light.

But if we are to be given, from the shelves of a prominent poetry house such as Bloodaxe, a rag-bag quasi-Irish poetry anthology such as this one, wherein, one suspects, youthfulness is a priority over artistic mastery – to give her her due, Selina Guinness does say something about the ‘early days’ quality of some of the work her in her intro – then the question of who we are remains not merely unanswered but unasked.

World-travelling we may be, as comfortably at home in Prague as in Portadown; but the difference between the literary consciousness of Portadown and, say, Portarlington remains unexplored here, as if it didn’t exist. Vona Groarke may, in a poem here, imagine the Easter Rising as a ‘gourmet’s bunfight’ (Selina Guinness), but however amusing that might be to some, it merely illustrates to others the enormous distance in political and social consciousness that separates Southern poets from Northern ones; and it does not do anything to explain how, if a pivotal point in Irish history is simply imaginatively reducible to an analysis of what was available food-wise to Pearse and others in Dublin’s GPO, young and not-so-young men, Loyalist and Republican, have been willing to kill and be killed for the past forty years in a continuance of that history.

What our young writers need to explain to us is not why Ireland, more, arguably in the Republic than in Northern Ireland, has changed so much, but why it has changed so little in spite of changing so much; why strange ways of writing poetry leave you excluded from and being American gets you in to an anthology of Irish poetry; why we in the South adore the ‘forrdin’ and ignore Ulster; how we have become so tame that even politicians quote from our works.

And since we know what politics is down here, what does that say about our poetry?

Perhaps a new generation of Irish poets will spark up an engine of serious cultural revival, but this will not happen until the individual, and not the group, the caste, the side, is permitted rightful prominence. At any rate, soon all will be academic, all will be changed utterly.

With immigration, particularly in the Republic, a new poetry, an entirely new literature, is in embryonic form even as I type this. It will be Irish but also Nigerian, Roumanian, Russian, Filippino. It will require neither Yeats nor Heaney for model, and it will not ask the approval of New York or London.

As they pore over their secondary school books, even their primary school readers they are, these new Irish writers of a generation even younger than the majority in Selina Guinness’s collection, preparing to bury us under an as yet-unwritten literature more imaginative, more colourful and miraculous than any we’ve known hitherto.

For our rural allegiances, for our tribal sanctities, they will not care a jot. Nor should they. And for what we have grown to call poetry, or what Bloodaxe Books called Irish poetry back in Prehistoric 2004, they will care even less.

Fred Johnston is a poet, novelist and critic, born in Belfast in 1951. Founder of the Cúirt literature festival in Galway, he is founder manager of the Western Writers’ Centre in Galway, Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude. An outspoken literary critic, in 2004 he was writer-in-residence to the Princess Grace Irish Library at Monaco.