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The Poet as Anthologist

Abstract and Keywords

Irish poets have often assembled their work into anthologies, in part to better define the nature of their own writing. Many questions have preoccupied all Irish poets seeking to put together anthologies from the outset of the twentieth century, such as how much Gaelic writing should be included in an anthology of Irish poetry; whether Gaelic poetry should appear only in translation; what prominence should be given to the Young Ireland poets of the 1840s, as the first consciously ‘national’ poets; whether an anthology of modern writing should include writers who largely lived, or are living, in other countries; or whether W. B. Yeats should form the first poet anthologised in a volume of twentieth-century Irish poetry or not. This chapter presents a chronology of poetry anthologies created by Irish poets across the twentieth century, from Yeats to Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, and Thomas Kinsella.

Keywords: Irish poetry, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Thomas Kinsella, anthologies, Gaelic poetry, Young Ireland poets

Irish poets have typically used the opportunity provided them by publishers to gather poems into anthologies, in order better to define the nature of their own writing, and the stand it takes within the various possible histories and contexts pressing upon it. In the twentieth century, anthology introductions often form key essays by Irish poets, essays which have been written to describe the poetic past out of which the poets’ own writing also derives. The selection of poems included by poets in an anthology can also be telling: works which are essential precursors to the later poets’ classic pieces, of course, often appear in their pages. But it is also true that surprising inclusions can throw interesting and important sidelights upon the later poets’ own work. Anthologies open up further possibilities for thinking through how the later poet has partly derived their work from, or partly in resistance to, certain aspects of earlier Irish and international writing.

Necessarily here, of course, the notion of ‘tradition’ is itself a matter for contestation. How much Gaelic writing should be included in an anthology of Irish poetry, historical or ‘modern’? Should Gaelic poetry appear only in translation? When, historically, should an anthology of Irish poetry begin? What prominence should be given to the Young Ireland poets of the 1840s, as the first consciously ‘national’ poets? Should an anthology of modern writing include writers who largely lived, or are living, in other countries? Should Yeats form the first poet anthologized in a volume of twentieth-century Irish poetry or not? Should a poet see the anthology as a ‘personal selection’, or should the selections included in the book aim to be more representative? How far should the poet draw attention to the fact that their selection includes both Protestant and Catholic writing—what is implied by doing so? Should a volume of ‘contemporary’ verse include only the more internationally recognizable figures, or should it make an attempt to include the myriad small press, newspaper, and pamphlet poems and poets, in an attempt both to be more representative, but also to put some new Irish poets’ names ‘on the map’? These, and similar questions, have preoccupied all Irish poets seeking to put together anthologies from the outset of the twentieth century, and continue to do so in (p. 535) the most recent examples. It is on these various questions that this chapter, which seeks to provide a chronology of poetry anthologies created by Irish poets across the twentieth century, must centre.

Inevitably, Yeats forms, in relation to such questions, a troubling and illuminating exemplum of the genre at the outset of this survey. Early on in his career Yeats had anthologized folk tales and occult stories in The Celtic Twilight (1893), a compendium of source materials for the poetry which he was then engaged upon. In his A Book of Irish Verse Selected from Modern Writers [1895] (revised edition 1900), however, Yeats more deliberately sought to locate that recent poetry of his own within, and against, a particular literary and critical context, one which would become increasingly important to him as his own career developed. The polemical intent of A Book of Irish Verse is visible from its inception. Writing to F. J. Bigger about the 1895 first edition, Yeats described the volume as ‘an attempt to begin that spring cleaning’ of which Irish literature was, he felt, to be so in need. But it is Yeats's desire, as expressed to Bigger, for his anthology to escape from a critical understanding of Irish literature that was ‘partizan’ (sic), and to try to ‘win over to Irish things all Irish people no matter what their politics’, which is the more striking for Yeats's own work at this period and beyond.1 Such desire establishes both a common thread through poet-editors’ introductions for their anthologies across the twentieth century, but also seeks to establish the worth of the anthology as a genre in Ireland per se. This worth is founded upon a conception of the poetry anthology as a mode, for the modern Irish poet, of demonstrating and representing significant openness to the several traditions within Irish poetry; an openness which in itself might have important cultural and political resonance within broader national debates.

To this end, Yeats's introductory essay on ‘Modern Irish Writing’, in A Book of Irish Verse, shows him striving to navigate the poetic past. But he does so in ways that now read contentiously, whatever their hugely influential significance (an influence which will be taken up across this chapter). In this essay, Yeats drives a space between aesthetics and politics, and between the Gaelic and English traditions of Irish poetry, a space in which his own favoured precursors are made to appear more authoritatively than they might otherwise have done. After a nod towards Gaelic poetry of the eighteenth century, which, Yeats claims, ‘made the people, crushed by the disasters of the Boyne and Aughrim, remember their ancient greatness’, it becomes clear that Yeats dates ‘modern’ Irish writing from the establishment of several key major poets’ careers. These were poets, inevitably, who were all writing in English, yet poets who have some connection with Ireland, however tenuous. Oliver Goldsmith (whose adult life was spent mostly in England and Europe), and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (whose connection to Ireland came via his parents, not through his adult abode) head Yeats's selection of work in the anthology.

The Young Ireland movement is treated, in Yeats's introductory essay, via praise for Thomas Davis's sincerity and for his ‘flexible’ mind, but also via dismissal for the (p. 536) ‘mechanical nature’ of Davis's verse, driven as it is by nationalist ambition, ‘and today we are paying the reckoning with much bombast’. As ‘Modern Irish Poetry’ continues, this prioritization of ‘mind’, of Romantic self-reflection, over political ambition in poetry, strengthens. James Mangan is in turn dismissed for his being devoid of ‘self-knowledge … the harmony of mind, which enables the poet to be its master’. Only Samuel Ferguson, William Allingham, Aubrey de Vere, and, from more recent times, Lionel Johnson, are excepted from this criticism, since, according to Yeats here, they ‘work apart from politics’. In his peroration, Yeats makes the implication, for him, of this critical distinction between the traditions of Irish poetry, and between aesthetics and politics, into a statement about the situation of Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. For him, Ireland is coming now ‘to culture’, ‘ridding herself of incoherence and triviality’, but doing so by building a tradition of literature in English ‘unlike others’. Douglas Hyde's translations from the Gaelic are acknowledged for their own worth, and for their popularity, but are taken up into a wider point that Ireland is ‘communing with herself in Gaelic more and more’, but ‘speaking to foreign countries in English’, and so salving the ‘sickness’ which, according to Yeats, has daunted Irish poetry to this millennial moment.

Belatedly, then, for Yeats, Ireland is at last arriving at the creation of a unique ‘primeval poetry’, set apart from England, but also, to an extent, from its own historical inflections.2 The Gaelic-language movement is granted contemporary relevance by him, as an inward-looking necessity, in the move towards the creation of a national distinctiveness. But, predictably, priority is claimed for that internationally turned (and accepted) version of Irishness, which Yeats would strive to find ways of creating and promoting throughout his life.

These tensions and resolutions in Yeats's thinking found further controversial impetus late in his career, when he put together The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935 (1936). Yeats's ‘Introduction’ to The Oxford Book revels in a swirl of personal recollection relayed through anecdote, bon mots, and a rare opinionatedness, concerning the direction in which he felt poetry to be drifting, across the years covered by his survey. Remembering the rise of Socialism and the industrial upheavals of the 1890s, for instance, Yeats remarks that his circle of writers at ‘The Cheshire Cheese’ inn in London were ‘convinced that to take part in such movements would be only less disgraceful than to write for the newspapers’.3 He elides a passage in praise of recent translations from Gaelic verse into an anecdote about his friend Oliver St John Gogarty's ‘daring’ escape from a group of political agitators, whose feelings Gogarty had upset.4 More specifically, Yeats uses the ‘Introduction’ to register his dissatisfaction with the kind of poetry we would now consider ‘modernist’, specifically poetry written by the American poet Ezra (p. 537) Pound, and by the recently naturalized Englishman, T. S. Eliot. The latter's verse simply reflects the enervations of modern life in Yeats's view, producing work (particularly after Poems, 1920) which is ‘grey, cold, dry’. Pound is questioned for the incompletion and the obfuscations of his writing in The Cantos: ‘When I consider his work as a whole I find more style than form; at moments more style, more deliberate nobility and the means to convey it than in any contemporary poet known to me, but it is constantly interrupted, broken, twisted into nothing by its direct opposite, nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion.’5 What is implicit is a defence by Yeats of traditional form, of the necessity for the poet to seek to control and contain an increasingly distracting and nerveless modern existence, in order to sustain a more heroic and individually defined aesthetic.

Running across the ‘Introduction’ is Yeats's continuing sense that ‘the filthy tide’ (as he elsewhere called it) of modern life has been allowed to overwhelm modern poetry; that the confines of the traditional space which poetic form provides have become beaten down by the multiplicity of modern media, as they affect the individual poet's sensibility. The gap which the earlier A Book of Irish Verse had wanted to claim there to be, a gap between the aesthetic fastness of the complete poem, and the trends of contemporary history and politics, is under threat now, to Yeats's mind. Hence the perverse decisions taken by Yeats in his selections for The Oxford Book, and his tendentious justifications for them in this opening essay. The poets of the First World War are notoriously excluded by Yeats on these very grounds, since he has ‘distaste’ for them: ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’.6 His decision to include a long work by Herbert Read, one safely written long after the war, as representative of the experience of the years 1914–18, now looks very bizarre. But equally so does Yeats's other editorial work within his selections.

The book opens with his rendering into blank verse, under the title ‘Mona Lisa’, of a passage from Walter Pater's work on aesthetics, The Renaissance (1873), more in confirmation of Yeats's own later view of the cyclical movement of history, than as a marker of the real tonality of modern verse (‘She has been dead many times,/And learned the secrets of the grave’).7 Equally notorious was Yeats's inclusion of Oscar Wilde's ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, but in a version that preserved only 38 out of the 109 stanzas of Wilde's original poem. Seamus Heaney has written largely in praise of Yeats's redaction, claiming that it allows the ‘objective tale of a condemned man's last days’ to shine through, out of the ‘romantic’, ‘compensatory and confiding’ nature of the original (Yeats suppressed the stanza containing Wilde's most famous line, ‘… each man kills the thing he loves’).8 Yeats's version seems anxious to remove what he considered the genuine poetry of Wilde's work from the taint which surrounded the life (and what he arguably viewed as that life's ‘passive suffering’). It is a decision which underlies the many other, (p. 538) now odd, strategies deployed by him in this Oxford Book, which foregrounds the other-worldly and dated verse of his friends, such as W. J. Turner and Dorothy Wellesley, over what we would now think of as the most significant voices in early twentieth-century British, Irish, and American writing. It is a strategy of perversity only leavened by Yeats's praise in his ‘Introduction’ for the poets emerging in the 1930s, who he clearly sees as returning to the poetic traditions, and structured poetic forms, with which he was more comfortable, whatever their political ambitions. The relatively full selection from Louis MacNeice, towards the end of the volume, clearly sanctions some implicit potential sense of an emerging tradition within Anglo-Irish poetry itself, in Yeats's mind. Yet these many tensions in Yeats's ‘Introduction’ and selection threw a long shadow, as will become clear, over subsequent Irish poets’ acceptance of commissions to make anthologies.

The lack of anthologies of Irish poetry between the death of Yeats in 1939 and the 1970s probably derives from the comparative absence of Irish poets from international prominence across those decades, and therefore from the sense of a comparatively low marketability for Irish writing, from the perspective of international publishers. Robert Greacen and Valentin Iremonger's Contemporary Irish Poetry (1949) from London's Faber and Faber publishers (amongst whose editors at the time was T. S. Eliot), is representative of the few such books which did appear in this extended period. Following a brief Preface which simply explains that the book presents selections from poets who have come to notice since Yeats's death, but which does nothing to locate or characterize the work of this recent generation, the anthology gives a few pages of work by thirty-four poets. These include already established and known writers such as MacNeice, Cecil Day Lewis, and Austin Clarke, as well as a couple of poems each by Padraic Fallon and Denis Devlin. There are also selections from early work by John Hewitt and Pearse Hutchinson. Yet the majority of the poets included in the book are now unknown.

The alphabetical arrangement of the poets in the anthology, and the paucity of work offered, presents a picture of the post-Yeats generation as one adrift, in the absence of the difficult master. Whatever the worth of the individual poems included, there is little attempt to build a coherent sense of what the emerging generation of Irish poets might amount to, how they might situate themselves once the Yeatsian presence has disappeared. These are largely decorous poems in standard English with little flavour, even ten years after MacNeice's Autumn Journal, of the range or ambition of a potentially different scope of Irish writing (the MacNeice selection in this anthology ranges from ‘Dublin’, ‘The Sunlight on the Garden’, to conclude with ‘Turf-stacks’ from 1932).9 Most notable, from the perspective of Irish writing later in the twentieth century, is the absence of Patrick Kavanagh, whose The Great Hunger (1942) had epically established the consciousness of deprived and inevitably embittered Catholic Ireland as powerful material for poetic meditation.

Once the ‘newsworthiness’ of Irish history and politics became tragically established again, with the new outbreak of the so-called ‘Troubles’ in the later 1960s, and a different (p. 539) generation of writers largely based in the North began to come to international notice, the anthologies of poetry edited by Irish poets began to flow again. To an extent, these anthologies represent an intriguing ‘catching up’ with a generation of Irish poets’ work from the 1940s through the 1960s, and an introduction of it to a broader English-speaking audience. The anthologies began to be gathered, therefore, by a mixture of poets from that mid-century generation, and by the new poets, largely writing at that time out of Belfast, who were coming to international notice. What emerges from both perspectives is a ready concern to treat of Gaelic poetry in more considered (if often also in polemical) ways than had Yeats, and a determined editorial openness, at the height of the recent events in the North, to both Protestant and Catholic traditions of Irish poetry in English. Given their temporal distance now, these anthologies are also characterized by a determination to renegotiate the Yeatsian territory and his importance in the light of more recent poetic, political, economic, religious, and cultural shifts across the island of Ireland.

Derek Mahon's The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry (1972) is typical of many of these movements forward, in consideration of the twentieth-century inheritance. Mahon's lucid introduction to the anthology begins by looking back to the effective suppression of Gaelic poetry in the late eighteenth century, and seeing a ‘difficult period’ as having prevailed in what he calls ‘Irish poetry’ between that and ‘the beginnings of the Literary Revival’ in the late nineteenth century. ‘Modern’, in the anthology's title, really begins for Mahon with Yeats (a ‘genius’), ten of whose poems open the selection. But, in an interesting, but now negative, reprise of Yeats's own separation of aesthetics and politics, Mahon shows discomfort with his non-poetic cultural and spiritual ‘activities’, where ‘the problems begin’. Mahon finds ready praise for Clarke and Kavanagh as ‘demystifiers’ and ‘secularizers’ of Yeats's poetic (but also of his nationalist) pieties, seeing these two poets as seeking to redefine the ‘national psyche’ in other terms. To this end, Mahon further decentres the Yeatsian inheritance by entering praise for the European focus of the diplomat and modernist poet Denis Devlin—before again finding an unease with such earlier work, this time with the typically ‘hieratic’ and ‘involuted’ nature of much of Devlin's output.

In a rapid sleight of argument, Mahon shifts from this latter unease into forwarding a plea for a ‘group of poets whose ambiguous ethnic and cultural situation extenuates in their work the Anglocentricity Devlin disliked’. This, of course, is Mahon's own Protestant generation from the North, wedded to MacNeice rather than to Kavanagh (‘whatever we mean by “the Irish situation,” the shipyards of Belfast are no less a part of it than a county town in the Gaeltacht’). What Mahon felt to be emerging from this recent generation of poets, North and South, is a new ‘experimental’ but liberated work, free from ‘the parochial self-content’ of previous Irish poetry and of its critics.10 What emerges, then, from Mahon's advocacy, is interest in work which, like his own (with his (p. 540) translations from the French poet Philippe Jacottet and from numerous other European figures), looks to the poetic traditions of Europe, whilst also being attentive to the significance of all historical inflections upon the home ground.

Mahon claims that he has tried to be ‘objective’ in his selections for the book; to reflect what has been ‘going on’. His anthology is indeed notable amongst those produced from the 1970s onwards for its eclecticism. It includes seemingly unlikely poets and poems from the modernist generations so important for his own poetry (Yeats, Synge, Joyce, MacGreevy, Beckett, Francis Stuart, Devlin), alongside generous selections from Clarke, Kavanagh, and MacNeice. This is also the first anthology edited by an (at the time recently prominent) Irish poet to begin to sketch in the history of Irish poetry from the 1950s, to the later 1960s (Hewitt, Rodgers, Montague, Kinsella), whilst also recognizing the emergent strengths of his own generation North and South (Simmons, Kennelly, Heaney, Longley, Hartnett, Mahon himself, Boland). The selection ends with a poem by Paul Muldoon, ‘The Indians at Alcatraz’, a prescient intuition by Mahon of what would be ‘going on’ next in Irish (and British) writing.

The renewed international prominence of Irish poetry allowed, also, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, for something of a revision of the history of that work from its origins, by two poets who had themselves responded both to the wave of translations of Gaelic which had begun in the 1930s and to the arrival of international modernist influences in the 1950s, John Montague and Thomas Kinsella. Montague's The Faber Book of Irish Verse led the way in 1974, categorizing its historical or Gaelic materials under ready subsections (‘A Way of Life’, ‘A Monastic Church’, ‘Women and Love’, amongst others), before adopting a chronological listing of poets according to dates of birth, from Thomas Moore onwards. Montague, partly unconsciously but also consciously, presumably, opens his introductory essay ‘In the Irish Grain’, by sounding as if he were an updated Yeats. He writes of the need to ‘spring clean’ Irish literature, the same metaphor used by Yeats in his private letter to Bigger. And, like the earlier poet, he berates the critical tradition in his country, with its ‘tendency to applaud work for its local or international interest which has hampered any consistent attempt to apply poetic standards’.11

Montague accommodates, as did Yeats, Goldsmith and Jonathan Swift to an Irish lineage, mainly for their significance, however, to Joyce and Kavanagh, rather than to Yeats himself. More pertinently, Montague, thinking through the issues behind his own poems like ‘A Grafted Tongue’, which is included in his selection, describes the suppression of the Irish language by the British as a ‘mutilation’—a mutilation from which the national poetry did not recover until the advent of Yeats. In a provocative move, Montague echoes earlier opinion on Yeats, including MacNeice's, that Yeats's work was ‘saved from the aestheticism of his English contemporaries’ by his Irish nationalist interests.12 In this, Yeats is tacitly credited by Montague for opening the way to subsequent (p. 541) Irish poetry, offering a model of professionalism ‘whose primary concern is the human imagination in all its complexity’.13

Montague's argument segues, in other words, between emphasis upon the salving nationalism figured in Irish poetry, and a continuing emphasis upon the fastness of a Romantic aesthetic, in which the Irish poet is cast in a uniquely ‘ambiguous’ position, feeling pressure from an ‘incompletely discovered past’, which includes the Gaelic poetry he has selected for the anthology, and from ‘the whole modern world around’.14 This is the same bifurcation which had particularly riven the conclusion of Yeats's introductory essay on ‘Modern Irish Poetry’, over seventy-five years earlier. Montague's historical approach, ironically perhaps, most benefits his selection when it comes to the twentieth century, offering a couple of poems from each of sixty-four poets (although actually few translated from Gaelic) in a notably comprehensive sweep. These include the modernist generation marked out in Mahon (but including Brian Coffey), down to Muldoon once more, whose work is now set alongside that of Ciaran Carson and Gregory O’Donoghue.

The renewed violence on the ground in the North, however, was at this point (and aided by the emergence of publishing houses committed to locally produced poetry, most notably the Blackstaff Press in Belfast) manifesting itself in anthologies dedicated to the review of the poetry related to these events. Padraic Fiacc's The Wearing of the Black: An Anthology of Contemporary Ulster Poetry (1974) is the first such selection. Fiacc's introduction provides a model for similar later books, in its acknowledgement of the potential for anthologies of this nature to seem ‘cynical exploitation’ of the ‘hopefully transient situation’, a situation which was, by now, prominent in the world's media. Fiacc proclaims the immediacy of his anthology, produced ‘at a certain time … in a certain place’, yet claims that it makes no ‘final statement’ on such matters ‘as how deeply contemporary violence can enter a poet's inner being, or how far it should’. He sees the book, rather, as ‘pos[ing] the question’. But he seems to mitigate the implications of the ‘question’ by pointing out also that the current violence ‘disfigur[ing] the face of Ireland’ has deep historical ‘roots’, and that his anthology's first section seeks to trace something of that history (the section begins with poems about the Bog People, the subject of Seamus Heaney's poems contemporary to the anthology, and includes work whose content runs through to the Second World War and the North).15

In line with this seemingly documentary ambition, Fiacc's anthology includes the work of the by now familiar preceding generation (Hewitt, Montague), alongside writing by nearly fifty local poets about particular recent incidents which is often nearer to reportage. An interesting tension is established, however, between such urgency and (p. 542) immediacy, and the aesthetic involved in the deployment by Fiacc of his anthologized poems. These, he notes, are arranged ‘symphonically’, in four movements, with the historical opening followed by two sections founded on place (Derry, and the ‘climactic’ Belfast), and a quieter last section, containing reflections on the ‘bitterness’ resulting from the recent violence. A work, in other words, which began with seemingly to-the-moment energies, and which allowed a more communal reach of poetry through its connection to its particular subject, seems, like later work of this nature, to be (as much as Yeats's anthology was) aimed at some sense of catharsis. Fiacc implies that the anthology presents some ability, simply through moving across the reported history and recent experiences in poetry, to reach beyond the ‘certain time’ and place of its setting. In this, of course, Fiacc's book mirrors the tropological movement of many of the contemporary poems it contains, and particularly those from the internationally recognized recent poets from the North, with their aspiration that poetry might provide a space whereby the disfigurements of the situation on the ground might be reconciled or moved beyond.

If, by the mid-1970s, it was the case that Seamus Heaney was established in British and American minds as the most eminent of those recent poets, it was also becoming clearer that he was (and is) an adherent of the Yeatsian belief in the primary power of the creative imagination, as manifested in the single lyric poem. Heaney's first collaboration on an anthology—one made with the English poet Ted Hughes—The Rattle Bag, exemplifies those virtues in striking ways. The very brief Introduction to the book defends its Auden-like adherence to arranging its poems in alphabetical order according to their title by dismissing others’ thematic approaches (which ‘would have made it feel too much like a textbook’), or the traditional chronological approach to ordering anthologies: ‘botched historical survey’. What their approach prizes, Heaney and Hughes argue, is ‘unexpectedness … each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big, voluble world’.16 One gain from the approach is that it enables Heaney and Hughes to put forward an unpredictable range of the radical vernacular energies of English-language poetry, from folk songs, to versions of Anglo-Saxon done by Heaney, to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, John Clare, Hopkins, Lawrence, Yeats, and translations from the contemporary poets from Eastern Europe favoured by Hughes and by Heaney in his turn. Amidst this onrush, only a couple of lyrics by Joyce, and a larger selection from Kavanagh, make for the Irish representation. Heaney and Hughes firmly root their sense of the varied enjoyments of the art within a wide-ranging English-language resource. But the emphasis upon the single poem, providing delight in relation to its position in this anthology rather than to its original contexts, stands out here.

At this time, however, in Ireland itself, there was a growing effort to establish the parameters of the recent upsurge of effective poetry in relation to events on the ground, from both North and South. From the Blackstaff Press in Belfast, Frank Ormsby's Poets from the North of Ireland (1979) was quickly succeeded by Gerald (p. 543) Dawe's The Younger Irish Poets (1982). Both Ormsby and Dawe notably, at this time, strike a new note in their introductory remarks, by displaying their even-handedness with regard to the background of the work they have chosen to anthologize, and by pointing to the fraught tensions playing upon Irish writers North and South at this point. Ormsby begins his introductory remarks with a brief history lesson, from the Flight of the Earls through the Ulster Literary Theatre, to Yeats and the Literary Renaissance. He then offers a short biography and critical comments, for each of the twenty poets, born after 1900 in the North, that he has included. He concludes by giving some flavour of the pressures upon these writers, particularly those relating to the decision whether to ‘speak out’ or to ‘say nothing’, with regard to ‘the realities’ of recent Irish history:

It has been said that their imaginative lives have, to an extent, been ‘limited by the horizons defined by the colonial predicament’ of the North, and, on another level, that too many of them are ‘insulated in some university shelter-belt’.17

Perhaps wisely, given the potential for poetic achievement which has lain in this very dilemma for many Irish writers, Ormsby hands the responsibility for judgement here over to the reader, who must ‘decide’ what she or he thinks on the basis of the poems included.18

Gerald Dawe, in The Younger Irish Poets, outlines a similar sense of the dilemma of how to read this recent work. ‘Younger’ means, for Dawe, poets born from the end of the Second World War onwards, and he seeks to consider this group as a new, post-Hewitt, post-Kinsella, and post-Montague ‘generation’. He also feels that the work of significant writers from the South has been obscured by the newsworthiness of that which had recently emerged from the North. His selections begin with work by Paul Durcan, and his ‘Editor's Note’ makes much of the mix included of Protestant and Catholic, rural and urban, writing from South and North. When confronting the issue of the relation of this recent work to the eruption of violence on the ground, though, Dawe inevitably turns to the poets from the North, and sees their response as the standard for much that happens elsewhere on the island. What he envisages is, however, a new sense of ‘self-awareness’ in all of this poetry against the pressure of events, a being thrown back upon their own resources which is in itself liberating:

… the poets presented here are finding ways to liberate themselves, their art, and, by implication alone, their readers, from the literary conventions and the literal expectations that have been handed down from the past. Present, I feel, in their best work (p. 544) is a need to unburden themselves of the past through whatever means, traditional or experimental, that sustains their own imaginative responsibilities.19

Dawe's decision to designate all of his poets, from whatever geographical location or religious tradition, ‘Irish’, becomes somewhat subsumed in this recourse to a belated version of the familiar Romantic tropes of the free (if responsible) imagination, which operates in a paradoxical ‘flight’ from the past, but which is yet a discovery of ‘what matters in this day and age’. What is notable is that this ‘flight’, as encapsulated within the covers of the anthology itself, is posited by Dawe as being liberating not just for the poets, but also for the readers—a continuation of that quality we noted from Yeats onwards, through which the anthology is made to serve a broader cultural, and ultimately political, purpose, in these circumstances.

The difficult implications of that political reach are contested once more in the trio of anthologies of Irish and other writing which appeared in 1986, the first two of which became immediately notorious—Tom Paulin's The Faber Book of Political Verse, Paul Muldoon's The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, and Thomas Kinsella's The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Paulin's ‘Introduction’ was the most contentious part of his anthology, assaulting as it does what he sees as an Arnoldian tradition of criticism, a tradition most concertedly applied in the twentieth century by T. S. Eliot, in Paulin's view. This is a critical tradition whereby poetry is said to be independent of political context, intent, or purpose. Paulin's confrontation with the Arnoldian, or ‘Western’, view, that ‘poems exist in a timeless vacuum’, is, as his remarks imply, derived partly from his understanding about the kinds of poetry being written out of the totalitarianism of Eastern Europe. It also speaks out of the radical Protestant heritage of England which so informs Paulin's own poetic and political positions; and from his reading of Irish history, which gets a subsection in the ‘Introduction’, alongside others outlining the political and geographical traditions he sees operating across history in English writing.

In the section on ‘The Irish Tradition’, Seamus Heaney earns a favoured position as one opposing the ‘historic legitimacy’ of the State of Northern Ireland, yet at the same time refusing ‘the simplicities of traditional nationalism’, and so striving ‘to initiate certain imaginative positives and offer a gracious and civil trust’. Heaney's concern to renegotiate the Yeats tradition (Paulin instances his poem ‘Casualty’, which directly speaks back to Yeats's ‘The Fisherman’) presents him as a writer alert to the political implications of his imaginative gestures, yet also alert to the biddings and intransigence of the Irish tradition.20

Paulin's reading of the Heaney stance is emblematic, in various ways, of his introductory essay's concern to root out the political resonance of any one poetic image, and to demonstrate that even the most seemingly apolitical writing has both a political origin in response to its times and also a political implication for its readers, both at the time it is written and subsequently. The ‘Introduction’ demonstrates also Paulin's liberal (p. 545) attentiveness to traditions which might seem antipathetic, yet which reveal poetic strength (this is most notable in his admiring remarks on John Dryden, and inclusion of the whole of ‘Absalom and Achitopel’ in his selections). But such accommodation of course has implications for Paulin's other activities at this stage, his directorship (along with Heaney and others) of the Field Day Theatre Company, with its concurrent sense that an understanding of the complex traditions informing literature offers a potential for a new understanding of the way ahead socially and politically in Ireland.21

Paulin's admirable and combative volubility on these matters was in marked contrast to the way in which Paul Muldoon chose to mediate his selection of Contemporary Irish Poetry to its audience, also in 1986. Rather than offer a personal or narrative introduction to his full selections from ten Irish poets, Muldoon surprisingly chose to reprint as ‘Prologue’ a passage from a radio dialogue of 1939 between F. R. Higgins and Louis MacNeice. Muldoon's editing of the dialogue, which rehearses the old debates between the necessity for poetry to derive from consciousness of a ‘racial’ ‘blood music’ (Higgins), or from a liberated conscience (MacNeice), would seem to judge firmly in the latter's court—the final speech being given to MacNeice, and including:

Compared with you, I take a rather common-sense view of poetry. I think that the poet is a sensitive instrument designed to record anything which interests his mind or affects his emotions.22

Taken in itself, MacNeice's statement might be licensed to underpin the often tumultuous variousness of the clutter and bric-a-brac of the world, which finds itself in the contemporary situations of Muldoon's own poetry. But it also aligns, implicitly, Muldoon's aesthetic against a certain brand of theatrical nationalism (exemplified in the dialogue by Higgins's melodramatic rhetoric). It seems once again to presume that the poetry primarily must take care of itself, whatever political significance it later garners.

Muldoon's selection seems purposely designed, thereafter, to acknowledge the two traditions in Irish writing, opening as it does with broad extracts from the work of Kavanagh and MacNeice (both dead for around twenty years when this ‘contemporary’ volume was produced). Having established his Catholic and Protestant precursors for the more recent work included, Muldoon then puts forward generous portions from eight writers, with notably only two from the South, Thomas Kinsella and Paul Durcan. His own close contemporaries (notably Boland, Carson) are excluded from inclusion amongst what the backcover blurb describes as ‘the most consistently impressive Irish poets after Yeats’. The generic ‘Irish’, again, stands over the selection without explanation (p. 546) or pleading. Muldoon's anthology, therefore, remains typically enigmatic and puzzling to many of its readers.23

If Muldoon's anthology silently elides its Northern-ness and concurrent silencing of contemporary Gaelic writing, The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited by Thomas Kinsella, predictably and meticulously charts what Kinsella calls, here and elsewhere, ‘the dual tradition’ of Irish poetry, from its origins to twentieth-century work. Expanding upon his input as translator to An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600–1900 (1981), Kinsella's ‘Introduction’ points out the unique opportunities for more recent Irish poets from that ‘tradition’, ‘an area of dual responsibility’, both towards the ‘growing demands of the poetic medium’ and ‘the demands of a particularly insistent and rewarding past’. Kinsella points to the century of ‘retrieval and self-analysis’ which the ‘oldest vernacular tradition in Europe’, the Irish (as he calls it), has now undergone, and to the opportunities which it has opened, therefore, to the generation succeeding Yeats.

It is a generation which he sees as headed by Kavanagh and Clarke; but more insistently, Kinsella points to the knowledge of Irish shared particularly by his own subsequent poetic generation, including Seán Ó Ríodáin, and John Montague. Given this vast historic perspective on the present, and the fracturings which Kinsella sees between the languages of the ‘dual tradition’ (fracturings which have had immediate impact upon his own poetic forms), it is perhaps unsurprising, although still shocking, to see Kinsella's Yeatsian slur here, on recent poetry from the North: ‘The idea of such a [Northern Ireland] renaissance … is largely a journalistic entity. The past, in Northern Ireland, is not.’24 It is a slur from which only Heaney and Mahon are (partially) excepted—but one that reveals the insistent sense which runs through Kinsella's own poetry, that ‘the past’ must underwrite that work's ‘dispossessed’ sense of modernity. It is the sheer yielding before the present of its situation which for Kinsella, as for Yeats with regard to the poets of the First World War, renders such Northern writing merely transient ‘surface’.

If, by the mid-1980s, even as the so-called Troubles continued to run their appalling course, Kinsella's impatience with the Northern phenomenon in poetry is partly understandable, it is a feeling which would seem to have become crystallized by 1990. Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon's ‘Introduction’ to their Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry points to the ‘more than twenty-year-old’ history of that ‘phenomenon’, and follows Gerald Dawe's earlier policy (but this time by harnessing the marketing potency of an international publisher), in order to promote the claims of ‘first-rate’ poets south of the border. The ‘Introduction’, in arguing this case, seeks to unshackle even the poets from the North from their hitherto comfortable position in international criticism as (p. 547) poets of ‘the particular place’, with its violent history: instead, these poets are seen to ‘commute’ between the local place, and highly paid jobs, often in the United States.25 The poets of Ireland, in other words, are presented as part of a modern global community, one for whom new, and equally complex, allegiances have been set in the place of the former atavistic complicities. The era of the necessarily polemical anthology is, therefore, almost superseded, at least from the ironically polemical perspective of Fallon and Mahon's essay introducing a panoply of writers, known and unknown, to international audiences.

That their sanguine intuition was correct—that Irish poetry did not need the media attention it had been receiving in order for its worth to be proven, as conditions on the ground were increasingly alleviated—seems evident from the relaxed celebration in Michael Longley's avowedly personal selection of 20th-Century Irish Poems (2002). Longley points to the new, global, challenges which need to be registered by contemporary poets, from urbanization and from the environment. But he also points to ‘the extraordinary Irish achievement’ across the past century, in which the ‘diversity’ of poetic form demonstrates the many ways in which ‘a poem can be a poem’, a demonstration which confirms, in its turn, the equally many ways ‘of being Irish or, more precisely, having an imaginative relationship with Ireland’.26 Longley's assurance is heartening in its lack of prescriptiveness, and striking in the contrast it makes with the fraught, and sometimes tendentious, attempts at accommodation made by earlier Irish poets when acting as anthologists.


(1) The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, vol. II, 1896–1900, ed. Warwick Gould, John Kelly, and Deirdre Toomey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 652–3.

(2) W. B. Yeats, ‘Modern Irish Poetry’, A Book of Irish Verse Selected from Modern Writers, rev. edn. (London: Methuen, 1900), pp. xvii, xx, xxii, xxxi.

(3) W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), p. xi.

(4) Ibid., pp. xiv–xv.

(5) Ibid., p. xxv.

(6) Ibid., p. xxxiv.

(7) Ibid., 1.

(8) Seamus Heaney, ‘Speranza in Reading’, The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (London: Faber, 1995), 83–102; see especially 88–91.

(9) Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Robert Greacen and Valentin Iremonger (London: Faber, 1949); the MacNeice selections appear on 117–25.

(10) Derek Mahon, ‘Introduction’, The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry (London: Sphere, 1972), 11, 13.

(11) John Montague, ‘In the Irish Grain’, The Faber Book of Irish Verse (London: Faber, 1974), 21.

(12) Montague, ‘In the Irish Grain’, 34. See also Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 2nd ed. [1938] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), 44.

(13) Montague, ‘In the Irish Grain’, 34. Montague's arguments in this essay are clearly derived from his own more extended engagement with history and politics in the wake of the renewed violence in the North, as exampled by his book-length sequence The Rough Field (1972)—a sequence from which ‘A Grafted Tongue’ derives.

(14) Ibid., 37.

(15) Padraic Fiacc, ‘Introduction’, The Wearing of the Black: An Anthology of Contemporary Ulster Poetry (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1974), p. vii.

(16) Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, ‘Introduction’, The Rattle Bag (London: Faber, 1982), 19.

(17) Frank Ormsby, ‘Introduction’, Poets from the North of Ireland (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1979), 13.

(18) Frank Ormsby's later anthology, A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1992), displays a similarly concerted even-handedness, bringing together work from the most well-known poets from both communities with some precursor pieces (Hewitt's ‘The Colony’, passages from MacNeice's Autumn Journal). Ormsby recognizes once again the pressure upon poets from various sources to ‘weigh and scrutinize the relationship between art and politics and the nature of artistic responsibility’, but, reviewing the poetry he has been able to include in his selection, sees this situation as ‘enabling’ and as having produced a ‘rich body’ of recent work. See p. xvii.

(19) Gerald Dawe, ‘Editor's Note’, The Younger Irish Poets (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1982), p. xi.

(20) Tom Paulin, ‘Introduction’, The Faber Book of Political Verse (London: Faber, 1986), 17, 42.

(21) Paulin's inherent radicalism is more on display in his companion collection to the political verse anthology, The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse (London: Faber, 1990). Raging again against what he perceives as the ‘Parnassian official order’ of British, American (and presumably Northern Irish) political and cultural life, his book celebrates what Paulin calls in the ‘Introduction’ the ‘springy, irreverent, chanting, quartzy, often tender and intimate, vernacular voice [which] speaks for an alternative community that is mostly powerless and invisible’, p. x. Paulin's arguments (and adjectives) here complement those of his 1983 Field Day pamphlet, A New Look At the Language Question.

(22) See Paul Muldoon, ed., The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (London: Faber, 1986), 18.

(23) Muldoon's later anthology, The Faber Book of Beasts (London: Faber, 1997), revels, like Heaney and Hughes's The Rattle Bag, in the ‘strange’ juxtapositions between poems enforced by his alphabetical arrangement of his selected (poems on) ‘beasts’. But this Faber Book is notable for the introduction's failure to deliver on its promised ‘despotic’ defence of its anthologizing methodology, as Muldoon mounts a sustained lament for all of the poems which, for one reason or another, he has been forced to leave out. See p. xvi.

(24) Thomas Kinsella, ‘Introduction’, The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. xxviii, xxx.

(25) Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon, ‘Introduction’, The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), pp. xx–xxi.

(26) Michael Longley, ‘Preface’, 20th-Century Irish Poems (London: Faber, 2002), p. x.