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date: 15 September 2019

(p. ix) Preface

(p. ix) Preface

Irish poetry has travelled some distance in terms of its critical profile over the last hundred years. It was once subsumed by critics into English poetry (although with an Arnoldian tolerance of its Celtic ‘otherness’); later, Yeats and Joyce were the exemplars of international modernism. By the 1960s, studies of ‘Anglo-Irish Poetry’ in its own right began to emerge; by the 1980s, as Irish Studies became increasingly institutionalized in the academy, and as the rise to fame of Heaney and a generation of poets from the North of Ireland brought Irish poetry to international audiences in a way not seen since Yeats, ‘Irish poetry’ became a subject of academic study on an extraordinary scale. The 1980s, for instance, saw the publication of studies by Robert Garratt (Modern Irish Poetry, 1986), Dillon Johnston (Irish Poetry After Joyce, 1985), and Edna Longley (Poetry in the Wars, 1986), a critical interest that has only increased in the decades that have followed. Irish writing has become, almost, a ‘centre’ against which other anglophone writings define themselves.

‘Poetry’ and ‘Ireland’ have also developed, in recent decades, an extraordinary critical, cultural, and touristic synonymity. Poetry itself is obviously implicated in the development of nationalism in Ireland and with the ‘Irish story’; poetry (even, in the case of Heaney, the poet) can become a national symbol—one of Ireland's major exports. At the same time, writers who exhibit a healthy scepticism towards the idea of an ‘Irish tradition’ and a willingness to bite the hand that feeds (the very marketability of ‘Irish identity’) have, ironically, continually served to reinvigorate an Irish poetic tradition in part through their felt unease with the label of ‘Irish poet’.

In one sense, to tell the history of poetry in Ireland over the last 130 years is also, chronologically, to tell some of the complex history of the island of Ireland, and part of the aim here is to situate the poetry in its sociopolitical contexts. Yet whatever ‘Irish poetry’ is, it has never, at its best, been merely the product of history. The dialogues between poets and poems, other cultures, other art forms, the two-way workings of influence, all serve to complicate the story of Irish poetry. The premise of this handbook, therefore, is neither wholly thematic nor straightforwardly literary-historical. While the broad structure moves from Yeats to the present day, within that narrative are sections unconfined to historical period or event.

One of the ways in which discussions of ‘Irish poetry’ can prove misleading is the extent to which ‘Irish’ becomes a non-permeable category. In reality, to draw a circle around Irish poetry is, if not an artificial, then certainly a necessarily limiting enterprise. Whatever we mean by Irish poetry, it cannot be understood without reference to its broader context in the anglophone poetry world, nor without reference to a lively Irish (p. x) language poetic tradition. For practical reasons not every dialogue, nor every cultural exchange, can be pursued here, but the essays point towards key intersections in and beyond these islands in ways paradigmatic of a network of contexts and influences reaching far beyond the scope of this book.

Ironically, perhaps, poetry itself is not the major achievement of the Irish Literary Revival (Yeats's contribution aside), which lay more obviously in the theatre, although some coverage is given here to the work of relatively minor poets in the years of the Revival. The First World War is a period in which quarrels emerge that colour debates about Irish poetry not only through the 1920s, but into the present day. The ‘Easter 1916’ poets bring to the fore debates about poetry and nation; Yeats's formalism is in dialogue with exponents of modernist experimentation in both Britain and Ireland—MacGreevy and Devlin among them; and if exile is most obviously identified with Joyce and Beckett as novelist and playwright respectively, the contribution of these writers to the development of Irish poetry should not be underestimated either. The broadly chronological areas that follow in this book, from the 1930s to the 1990s, allow scope for in-depth coverage of the century's key poetic voices, from the refashioning of Yeats's Ireland on the part of poets such as MacNeice, Kavanagh, and Clarke, through to the controversially titled ‘Northern Renaissance’.

By far the most critical attention in Irish poetry criticism to date, aside of that given to Yeats, has been devoted to the work of the ‘Northern generation’ (or generations) of Heaney, Longley, Mahon, Muldoon, McGuckian, and Carson, and to a predominantly lyric mode. Whilst acknowledging ways in which the emergence of this generation is not separable from Ireland's own ‘troubled’ history, there is also a recognition that this forms only part of a more complex poetic landscape in Ireland as a whole. The thematic sections interspersed throughout the book—chapters on women's poetry, religion, translation, painting, music, romanticism—allow for comparative studies of poets north and south across the century. Central to the guiding spirit of this project is discussion of poetic form, and an exploration of the generic diversity of poetry in Ireland—its various manipulations, reinventions, and sometimes repudiations of tradition.

To bring a project like this through to the present day is to flirt dangerously with Bloomian predictions. At the beginning of a new century, however, there is a case for suggesting, not that Irish poetry is once again undergoing something of a revival, but that it remains, as it has always been, a vibrant, provocative, and influential presence in and beyond these islands.

FB and AG

Belfast and Edinburgh, December 2011