The New North

Innovative collaboration sees exclusive US publication of three generations of Northern Irish poetry 

Over the last fifty years Belfast has witnessed what the academic Ed Larrissy calls ‘the most important flowering of poetry in the Anglophone world’. Now an innovative literary project is giving American audiences a unique opportunity to enjoy the best of contemporary poetry from Northern Ireland.

A collaborative venture between the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland sees the exclusive publication in the United States of The New North, an anthology of past and present generations of Northern Irish poets, and, on this side of the water, the release of New Voices, a collection of up-and-coming writers from the US. 

This special trans-Atlantic publication is being celebrated at a Gala Poetry reading at Queen’s University on October 18 as part of the Belfast festival.

‘These anthologies bring together the work of new and emerging poets, the post Carson, Heaney, Longley and Muldoon generation. They recognise the contribution talented writers make to society, both here and in America, and are testament to the quality and portability of modern poetry. Both volumes are highly accessible and will help to expand the range of opportunities for people to enjoy the arts,’ explains Dr Philip Hammond, director of arts support with the ACNI. 

The New North is the first English-language publication under the NEA scheme – previous collaborative collections have taken in Russia, Pakistan and Mexico. 

The anthology presents American readers with the highlights from the past and present of Northern Irish poetry, as a glance at its table of contents reveals. Selections of ‘classic poems’ by such heavyweights as Heaney, Mahon and Carson are interspersed with the work of ‘emerging’ poets such as Gary Allen, Leontia Flynn and Damian Smyth, and includes this poem by Jean Bleakney.

'Stargazing for Feminists'

Well proud of the horizon,
undressed to kill, the both of them
– full moon all bosomy white
and Venus, faceted and glittery,
as bold as you like;
admiring one another
as well they might
and amplified because of it.

Between, caught up in the cross-talk,
Orion: Mighty Hunter, skirt-chaser,
tormentor of the Pleiades
– but not such a big lad tonight.
As body outlines go
he’s a bit splayed out,
a bit of a John Doe,
now that the girls are back in town. 

The selection criteria for inclusion in either collection were strictly adhered to – emerging poets had to be born after 1956 for The New North and after 1966 for New Voices. As Chris Agee, editor of The New North and also a poet included in the anthology, explains, ‘the US is 200 times larger than Northern Ireland so we needed a larger field for Northern Ireland'.

The publishers recognised that Agee - an American who has lived and worked in Belfast for the last three decades - was in a unique position to edit a collection of Northern Irish poetry for an American audience. ‘As an insider and an outsider I could bring a particular perspective to bear on the project,’ he says.

The title ‘New North’, Agee explains, refers to ‘the Northern Ireland that has emerged from the Troubles’, a period which he believes fundamentally shaped Northern Irish poets and their poetry.

‘The famous generation of Heaney, Longley and Mahon came to prominence as poets before the Troubles but their reputations were confirmed in the first decade of the Troubles. The second wave of poets – Muldoon, McGukian, Ormsby, Paulin – all emerged in the first decade of the Troubles.’

Though children of the Troubles, Agee argues that the new generation of Northern Irish poets are no longer tied by the shackles of the past - ‘the sense of place and of scene has been normalised. These poets are much more likely to be interested in new technology, ecology, eastern Europe or bilingualism than in any expected manifestations of the northern issue.’

Agee believes that the diversity of subject matter dealt with by the poets featured in The New North is proof, if any were needed, that we are all now living in a new north.

‘It’s a very good illustration of how in some intangible way literature can come to embody the new atmosphere in Northern Ireland, the zeitgeist, maybe even catch it ahead of society itself.’ 

Peter Geoghegan

The Gala poetry reading takes place in the Great Hall at Queen's University Belfast on October 18 at 7.30 Check out Culture Live! listings for more information on this event.