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date: 24 January 2021

“Beyond the Lines of Poetry”: Ethnic Traditions and Imaginative Interventions in Irish-American Poetics

Abstract and Keywords

This article aims to provide a brief recent history of Irish-American literary studies, then focuses on how Irish-American poetics might be employed as an evaluative critical lens through which to regard Irish, American, and transnational exchange. It discusses whether Irish-American poetics can be used as a critical framework for reading poetry that might not traditionally be labeled “Irish-American,” at least in terms of more obvious ethnic claims or cultural affiliations. This in turn might allow asking larger questions about how, when, and why transnational cultural encounters are assessed and described, and what this might reveal about the ways in which critics, readers, and writers respond to imaginative resources.

Keywords: poetry, poetics, transatlantic poetics, Irish-American literature, literature, ethnicity, culture, Irish literature, American literature, literary criticism

The Hyphen as Minus Sign? Hyphenated America and Irish-American Poetics

Werner Sollors noted in 1988 that “the defining of what is an American form can be accomplished by a defining of something that is perceived as its antithesis, as un-American” (238)—thereby underlining and critiquing the tendency to describe automatically the works of immigrant writers as “un-American” by virtue of their hyphenated Americanness.1 Of course in a country such as the United States, a nation of immigrants, definitions become more muddied still. It becomes a question of choice whether such writers wish to stress their hyphenated identity within their works or instead declare themselves wholly “American” writers, apparently freeing themselves from the shackles of their immigrant past.

This is an issue that faces all writers of hyphenated American ethnicity. Writing about Asian-Americans in particular, David Palumbo-Liu notes how “the persistent deferral of the status of ‘American’ to ‘hyphenated’ Americans … begs the question of the precise constitution of the totality presumed to inhere beneath the signifier ‘American’” (1999, 1). This statement leads us to question whether we should uphold such a notion of totality at all, not least because it might not actually exist. But it might be dangerous, too, as the word “totality” itself implies. Palumbo-Liu instead advocates working toward a redefinition of “hyphenated” Americanness wherein the “legitimacy” of “multiculturalism” is upheld and toward a society in which “cultural hybridity rehabilitates the stigma of racial hybridity” (211, 76). Through embracing hyphenated identity, hybridity and multiculturalism become valorized.

While this article is less concerned with the racial status of Irish-American immigrant groups, a subject that has been treated extensively elsewhere by Noel Ignatiev (2009) and others, it is still helpful to consider Irish-American poetics against a backdrop of a hyphenated culture that has tended to create and maintain stereotypes of what might constitute the two sides of the hyphen (“American” and “Irish”). For example, discussing the relative popularity in the United States of Seamus Heaney’s poetry over that of his “equally gifted peers, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley,” Justin Quinn notes the importance of aesthetic assumptions and expectations in the labeling of writers as “Irish” when viewed through an American lens. “Choices of this kind,” he notes, “always and necessarily involve historical and ethnic factors—otherwise aesthetic taste, conceived so purely, would be a bloodless and boring thing” (2015, 187). Thus in Quinn’s mind, at least, “aesthetic taste” needs to be “bloody,” to incorporate tension, in order to be interesting. Indeed, Quinn goes so far as to say that Heaney benefits from the “historical and ethnic factors” that inform responses to his poetry, for once it “surpasses the boundaries of the small island of Ireland” and is read and received against the transnational context of (Irish) America, the poetry becomes “animated” by this very tension between “local knowledge and worldly scope” (183).

As if to echo Sollors’s arguments, which connect the expression of minority ethnicities with assumptions and expectations of what form such expressions should take, both literarily and culturally, Quinn contends that “choices are involved in poetic form that encompass the world beyond the lines of poetry” (2015, 194). Nothing, in other words, can be purely about the poetry. But what Quinn and Sollors both assert is a more playful, inquisitive attitude toward hyphenated Americanness, which reflects writers’ own attitudes toward the same apparent boundary. Indeed, Sollors goes so far as to ask what would happen if we reframed the hyphen as, “far from being considered a minus sign,” a positive site of creative possibility (1988, 243). This might lead, according to Sollors, to the acknowledgment of a “double consciousness” within ethnic writing, which “far from stifling American ethnic authors, alerts them to the possibilities of playfulness in establishing their voice.” For “not only the assault on ethnic boundaries but also ethnic boundary construction itself may generate innovation and modernization” (252, 244). In this article I offer a survey of Irish-American poetry and criticism that rather plays with than assaults both ethnic and cultural boundaries and “goes beyond the lines of poetry” to offer an imaginative intervention into the literary, cultural, and ethnic contexts of Irish-American poetics.

Imaginative Interventions and Trajectories of Desire: Irish-American Literary Studies

To use the phrase “Irish-American literature” is to intervene, as a recent reviewer put it, “not just into the fields of American and Irish literature, but also into the study of transnational cultural encounters.” Irish-American literary studies might also go so far as to scrutinize “more philosophically, the responsibilities (and legitimate responsibilities) of the imagination” (Runchman 2015, 195). When we add the term “poetics” into the mix, the interventions become even more complicated; the p(l)ot thickens. For if a consideration of poetics requires an Aristotelian scrutiny of the nature of art itself, then how does it hinge onto the rather overused label “Irish-American,” which until recently has been a catch-all for all poets interested in asserting their apparent Irish-American credentials? How do we reconcile, within itself, a discipline that seems at once frustratingly narrow and unfathomably broad, one described by Neil Corcoran as reflecting “the wide narrowness of the Atlantic Ocean” (2002, 234)?

This article aims to provide a brief, recent history of Irish-American literary studies, before focusing on how Irish-American poetics might be employed as an evaluative critical lens through which to regard Irish, American, and transnational exchange. In so doing it discusses whether Irish-American poetics can be used as a critical framework for reading poetry that might not traditionally be labeled Irish-American, at least in terms of more obvious ethnic claims or cultural affiliations. This in turn might allow us to ask larger questions about how, when, and why we assess and describe transnational cultural encounters, and what this might tell us about the ways in which we, as critics, readers, and writers, respond to our imaginative resources. But this will require embracing the “wide narrowness” of the field of study and being content with a viewpoint that converges as it diverges, closing down at the moment that it appears to open again.

The field of Irish-American literary study is in some areas untidily overgrown, in others neglected and sparse. A survey of some of the main journals focusing on the topic—including Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations (1997–present), the Irish Journal of American Studies (2011–present), and MELUS: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (1974–present)—reveals a surge in interest in Irish-American literature around the turn of the present century, following on from and bolstering the work of Charles Fanning and Ron Ebest. The first large-scale publication in the field is usually considered to be Charles Fanning’s The Irish Voice in America (1990), which he followed up in 2000 with his edited collection New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora. Ron Ebest’s more focused, but detailed, study Private Histories: The Writing of Irish Americans, 1900–1935 (2005) followed a few years later.

But until relatively recently, and with the exception of some critics working largely on Irish poets in conversation with America, the vast majority of the critical work carried out on Irish-American literature has focused on fiction.2 Although the special issue of MELUS on Irish-American literature in spring 1993 did contain an essay by Patricia Monaghan on Irish-American women’s poetry, it reflected the trend of the time by championing such poetry without scrutinizing its literary value or asking what questions it might raise. This tendency to celebrate rather than censure often becomes associated with making a case for an individualized Irish-American poetry. This leaves little wiggle room for, say, an Irish poet in conversation with America or an American poet with an occasional interest in Ireland.

As far back as 1993, Patricia Monaghan’s essay raised questions about what an Irish-American “tradition” might look like and what this might mean for critical study:

A canon is forming in Irish-American literary studies. Who is to be taught in surveys of Irish America, who included in bibliographies? To whom are dissertations to be devoted, to whose work should journals pay mind? … How many writers does it take to make a tradition? (1993 83–84)

Although she raises valid questions, Monaghan does not try to define what (or who) “Irish America” might be, and neither does she evaluate the literature under discussion; instead its value seems to inhere in its very existence, and its existence becomes in turn its reason for being. The question she doesn’t ask is, “How many good writers does it take to make a tradition?” or perhaps more accurately, “How much good writing does it take to determine that there is a tradition worth our effort to demarcate?”

At a time when the very notion of “tradition” seems increasingly démodé when pitted against such terms as “transnational” and “global,” it might appear passé to be arguing for the importance of a tradition at all. In fact, Charles Fanning’s introductory statements to the special issue of MELUS in which Monaghan’s article appears seem to be showing their age. “Irish-American literature,” he contends, “is one of the oldest and largest bodies of ethnic writing produced by members and descendants of a single American immigrant group,” and “has much to teach us about ethnic otherness in American literature” (Fanning 1993, 1). However, the claim that a “single American immigrant group” might produce “Irish-American literature,” and that this group might represent “ethnic otherness,” might now be seen as narrow and generalizing, not least because it is based on an assumption that there is a norm against which these “ethnic others” might operate.

Of course deconstructionist arguments preclude the very obvious fact that contemporary writers often wish to declare themselves part of a tradition. In her recent study The Banshees: A Literary History of Irish American Women Writers, Sally Barr Ebest contends as much, stating that in an increasingly globalized world, “Irish-American identity might emerge in part as an expression of desire” (2013, 11). In using this phrase, Barr Ebest is alluding consciously to Ron Ebest’s earlier claim that asserting an Irish-American identification is linked to the twin poles of “desire” and “choice,” positing nevertheless that literature has to assert itself as essentially Irish-American in order to embrace Irish-American themes. At the same time, Ebest claims that “not anyone, after all, can be Irish”—but neither, this implies, can they or their writings be “Irish-American” 2005, 7).

In an essay entitled “We Irish,” Colin Graham notes the “identity-driven criticism of today” (2007, 87), which similarly—and often without questioning—places the “desire” for Irish affiliation at the center of Irish criticism and poetry:

Irish critical voices never simply speak as critical voices which happen, by chance, to be from or of Ireland—it is their Irishness, or their unending quest for Irishness, which gives them their very reason to speak, their authority, their object of study. Irishness, not just Ireland, has calcified to become the stone in the midst of all Irish criticism. (78)

Although Graham’s “never” might be something of an overstatement—there are certainly several contemporary poets who don’t follow this path blindly (Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson among them)—he does convey effectively the notion that “Irishness” appears above suspicion within certain critical circles. And therefore it is unsurprising that “Irish-American” poets and critics, often seen as the poor relation, might have tended to follow this trajectory of desire. This seems to be in opposition to the boundary-dismantling direction of transnational studies. Nevertheless, Graham’s allusion to Yeats’s “Easter 1916,” with its metaphor of the “stone” of the single-minded nationalism of the Irish rebels, tells us much about what he perceives to be the dangers of pursuing an “unending quest for Irishness.”3

Such discussions seep inevitably into what Graham terms the “individual or minority right” of writers who represent the “pluralities” of Irish identity (2007, 80). Barr Ebest’s study The Banshees (2013) engages with a much-needed discussion of the place of women’s writing within Irish and Irish-American studies, described by Fanning as far back as 1993 as “neglected critical terrain” (2)—and tackled in Ireland itself with the publication of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Women’s Writing in 2001. Yet this groundbreaking collection was still, as Graham puts it, “in thrall to the idea of ‘Irish writing’” as determined by the “high court of Irish criticism” (2007, 80). Citing the preface of the Field Day anthology, Graham notes:

[It] makes the claim that “nothing was excluded [from the anthology] as being insufficiently Irish,” a telling phrase, which dances around a double negative; before this we are told of the selections … that “it is almost always clear why a text is considered as Irish.” The unquestionable power of “Irish” as gold standard could hardly be better illustrated, given that the anthology’s rigorous intellectual roots in a renewing, feminist, canon-forming power remain in thrall to the idea of “Irish writing.” (2007, 79–80)4

Barr Ebest (2013) prevaricates similarly between staking a claim for the place of Irish-American women’s writing as a “minority group” and kneeling at the altar of “Irishness.” Therefore, while she asserts the need to mark out a critical terrain for Irish-American women’s writing, she also appears to be swayed by a desire to portray this writing in a certain way, not only by excluding poetry from her study but also by depicting all Irish-American women writers as feminists and agitators. By portraying these writers playfully but problematically as modern “banshees”—an Irish cliché—Barr Ebest narrows the perspective of her apparently wide-sweeping study and offers a stereotyping viewpoint. In establishing and making her claim for a specific “tradition,” then, she risks narrowing our readings of those writers (and writings) who are included and overlooking those others whose thoughts and ideas might not match up.

However, more recent studies in Irish-American literary criticism have employed a more subtle approach, which allows for the complicated toing and froing of Irish-American cultural interaction. The collection in which Graham’s essay “We Irish” is included, Brian Caraher and Robert Mahony’s Ireland and Transatlantic Poetics, was one of the first to scrutinize and dissemble the assumptions that had built up around Irish-American literary culture, describing “transatlantic poetics” as both “a principle [sic] theme and the constructive burden of these essays” (2007, blurb). However, its open-endedness—leaving it “to our readers to judge what sort of minor correction or major shift in scholarly assumptions has been accomplished or still needs to be accomplished in the wake of our literary and critical efforts” (2007, 19)—feels insubstantial and apologetic. Throughout the collection, too, there is a sense that the editors and contributors know more clearly what transatlantic poetics isn’t than what it is; very little is offered to the reader by way of definition.

More recently, in Northern Irish Poetry: The American Connection (2014), Elmer Kennedy-Andrews has discussed the “webs of connection” between Northern Irish poets and American culture, unraveling a metaphor that can also be applied, helpfully, to the increasingly interconnected critical material that occupies the space between Ireland and America (17). Entangled within these webs, too, are terms such as “transatlantic” and “transnational” which are on the one hand satisfyingly simple (if taken literally to mean “crossing” the Atlantic Ocean or the “nation” in question), and on the other potentially obfuscating. Critical writing on the topic of Irish-American literature therefore reveals overlaps and points of divergence. For some critics, a transatlantic or transnational background is merely a backdrop, a framework for discussion that is accepted but not sufficiently scrutinized; for others, the challenge of defining an Irish-American poetics leads to a simplifying or closing down of critical space; and for still others, such as Kennedy-Andrews himself, the very definitions of “Irish-American,” “transnational” and “transatlantic” pose their own challenges and therefore form the framework of most of the discussion. Yet Kennedy-Andrews’s own study is relatively limited in its thematic coverage, dedicating a chapter each to male Northern Irish poets John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, and Ciaran Carson, and in the conclusion, entitled “A Widening Circle,” only gesturing toward further possibilities for discussion (including women poets such as Medbh McGuckian and Edna Longley). Kennedy-Andrews offers these poets’ names as an instance of “the pervasiveness of the transatlantic influence in Northern Irish poetry,” but unfortunately does not go much further than this (2014, 252–257).

Criticism on the subject must then answer the following question: Is Irish-American writing a genre of literature, or is it merely the case that we apply an Irish-American critical framework to better understand writing that is engendered by this hyphenated way of thinking about literature and culture? If it is the former, then we must try somehow to include (or encompass) in our discussions the whole range of the literature that exists, both “good” and “bad,” including men and women, as well as people who don’t quite fit within the genealogical definition of “Irish-American”; if it is the latter, then approaches such as Kennedy-Andrews’s might be used as acceptable models (however apparently limited) for “intervening” in larger questions about the ways in which the critical and imaginative minds interact both within and without boundaries. But neither approach, as we have already seen, is sufficient on its own.

“The Local and the Global”: Kavanagh, Whitman, and Irish-American Poetics

I wish to offer—as something of a third way—an approach to the present discussion that aims to show how Irish-American poetics might be employed as an evaluative critical lens through which to regard Irish, American, and transnational exchange. In doing so I take up the mantle from Caraher, who posits:

Transatlantic poetics may seek to criticize and correct conceptual insularities of Irish studies and conceptual arrogances of postcolonial studies by posing an alternative model for relating the local and the global; but its errors, commissions, and omissions may constitute a scene of instruction as important as its contextualizations, assertions, and strong readings regarding modern and contemporary literary texts. (2007, 18)

Such an approach, made more specific in this article by focusing on Irish-American poetics as an example, precludes neither cultural inclusivity nor aesthetic exclusivity. But my approach also attempts to deal more even-handedly with some of the issues raised by Caraher—such as “conceptual insularities and arrogances” or “errors, commissions, and omissions”—in order to understand rather than censure the trajectories of desire that lead readers, critics, and poets to respond to texts in a certain way. Rather than asking what might constitute a tradition, I ask instead to what extent Irish-American poetics might elucidate the poetry under discussion and what larger benefits this framework might offer us as readers, critics, and thinkers.

This approach enables a response to poetry that might contain Irish-American elements, while not being entirely or declaredly Irish-American, one that is evaluative and reflective rather than claiming that the value of the poetry under discussion inheres in its very existence. But it also offers a way of reading all types of poetry that ask interesting questions about Irish-American cultural, political, and literary exchange—whether these poems are written by men, women, Americans, Irish, or others. Of course this approach could be used to read more obviously or declaredly Irish-American poetry, but in using less obvious examples we are able to test its limits. It aims in turn to consider more fully “the responsibilities (and legitimate responsibilities) of the imagination” (Runchman 2015, 195) and therefore to think carefully about our responsibilities as critics who make “interventions” into imaginative and creative work.

In offering as a comparative example a twentieth-century Irish poet who famously mistrusted the idea of a “national” poetics and a nineteenth-century American poet who is upheld (equally famously) as a founding father of American poetry, I wish to discover what we can gain from reading these poets, both separately and together, in the context of Irish-American poetics. Both poets complicate the idea of what “national” poets might be or mean, and when we read them together their work renders even more tantalizingly complex terms such as “Irish,” “American” and “Irish-American.” Placing the two poets side by side also enables us to see whether Irish-American poetics might indeed, as Caraher (2007) claims, offer readers and critics “an alternative model for relating the local and the global” within Irish and American poetry.

Much has been made of Patrick Kavanagh’s “refreshingly irreverent reaction to Æ’s ‘solemn enthusiasm’ for Walt Whitman” (Wynn Thomas 1995, 18). This is particularly striking because Æ (George Russell), as editor of the prominent journal The Irish Statesman, was upheld as something of an arbiter of cultural taste. Yet Kavanagh always felt like an outsider; as he recounts in his autobiographical work The Green Fool: “I was a peasant and a peasant is a narrow surveyor of generous hearts…. I didn’t like Whitman and said so. I always thought him a writer who tried to bully his way to prophecy” (1971, 301).

However, this apparent dismissal is more complicated than critics sometimes allow. Here Kavanagh is simultaneously acknowledging his own “narrow” response to the generous-hearted Whitman and dismissing Whitman’s grandstanding role as prophet-poet. In a similar fashion, although Kavanagh’s now notorious sonnet “Epic” appears to riff on the kind of self-aggrandizement that he discovers in epic poems such as The Iliad or, in more recent memory, Whitman’s Song of Myself, this same poem claims for itself an “epic” status that belies its fourteen lines (Kavanagh 2005, 184). Commenting beautifully on the question of proportion—using that most proportioned of forms, the sonnet, to reflect in turn upon the difference between global and local concerns—“Epic” concludes that if Homer can “make the Iliad from such / A local row,” then so might Kavanagh (lines 13–14). By invoking Homer as both antagonist and muse, Kavanagh discovers a poetic lineage that focuses on such “local rows” in which “Gods make their own importance” (line 14). An “epic” poem (and poet), then, might be reconfigured as a record(er) of “local rows.”

Importantly, too, Irish poets have often read Kavanagh’s “Epic” as a call to writing their own poetry of “local rows,” lending Kavanagh’s poem its own cultural afterlife. Eavan Boland, for example, has credited “Epic” with spearheading her love of the sonnet form, pulling it away from something that had traditionally “bent to empires and loitered in courts.” As an Irish poet who “wanted to belong to Irish poetry” and who “wanted Irish poetry to belong to me,” Boland had mistrusted the sonnet form as too mannered for Irish themes (2008, 43–44). But Kavanagh’s reshaping both of the definition of “epic” and the use of the sonnet form allowed her to reconsider what poetry might do and what an “important” subject matter or form might look like.

Kavanagh uses Whitman more directly in his late sonnet, “Leaves of Grass,” which displays knowledge of, and a certain appreciation for, Whitman’s poetry (2005, 217). Here the poetic “I” prevaricates between ridiculing his grandiose forebear—“We nearly made Whitman a poet” (line 12)—and considering the possibilities that such poets offered to him as a young boy discovering the powers of poetry for the first time: “An army of grass blades were at his call, million on million” (line 11). The young Kavanagh is both suspicious and envious of the self-belief that engenders such poetry, and such lines as Whitman forms in “Song of Myself”: “I leaf and loafe at my ease of observing a spear of summer grass” (Whitman 1891–1892, sec. 1, 29).

But beyond pointing out possible allusions to, or commentaries upon, Whitman’s poetry, what value might there be in reading these two late poems of Kavanagh—“Epic” and “Leaves of Grass”—as informed by reading Whitman, or further, by reading Kavanagh’s works as examples of Irish-American poetic exchange? Is to do so to get us closer to the poems themselves, or is it to take us further away from them? To begin to unravel this question, I now turn to a poem by Whitman that has enjoyed a recent revival of interest thanks to its being re-read as an “Irish-American” poem. Walt Whitman’s “Old Ireland,” first published in 1861 and collected in Leaves of Grass, was discussed by the self-professed Irish-American poet and critic Daniel Tobin in a 1999 essay, “Irish-American Poetry and the Question of Tradition,” and was also included in Tobin’s anthology The Book of Irish American Poetry (2007, 35). Tobin notes how in “Old Ireland” “the iconography of the Irish emigrant experience becomes assimilated into the cosmos of Whitman’s America” (1999, 145), but in so doing, he suggests that Whitman has inhabited, rather than simply imagined, the experience of Irish emigration—despite the fact that Whitman was of English and Dutch ancestry.5 In one way, then, reading “Old Ireland” as an Irish-American poem is to miss some of the complexities of both its origins and its purpose.

In establishing a kind of geographical shorthand for “old” Ireland in contrast to the young, exciting America, “Old Ireland” both offers a near-iconographic reading of transatlantic emigration during the Famine years and sidesteps the Irish-American immigrant narratives that critics such as Tobin often seek in Irish-American poems. Of course on a basic level the poem doesn’t really discuss emigration; it does not discuss leaving but being left behind. What we learn about in this poem is not the coming together of Ireland and America, but the ways in which they view each other—as places necessarily far apart—with fanciful or clichéd impressions of one another.

The poem itself imagines “Old Ireland” as an aging, grey woman, “[f]ar hence amid an isle of wondrous beauty” (line 1), crouching by a grave and mourning the loss of her son. But the poetic voice, from America, consoles the old woman:

  • The Lord is not dead, he is risen again young and strong in another country,
  • Even while you wept there by your fallen harp by the grave,
  • What you wept for was translated, pass’d from the grave,
  • The winds favor’d and the sea sail’d it,
  • And now with rosy and new blood,
  • Moves to-day in a new country.

(Whitman, 1891–1892, 284, lines 13–18)

Here, then, Ireland is at once an “isle of wondrous beauty,” necessarily “far” away; a place of mournful harps and more mournful graves; and a land of winds and water from which the son is blown westward to the “new country” of America. “What you wept for was translated,” Whitman notes, as if he is conscious of the extent of his transatlantic translation of old for new—and young. But Whitman uses “translated” in the biblical sense, meaning “to carry or convey to heaven without death,” as well as in the original sense of “to bear, convey, or remove from one person, place or condition to another; to transfer, transport,” so that the loss to Old Ireland of the young “Lord” is reimagined not as a death, nor even as a resurrection, but instead as an ecstatic journey to an alternative “heaven.”6 Here the son is translated across the Atlantic through his actual journey to America, which the “winds favor’d and the seas sail’d,” while as a “Lord” he reaches the new “heaven” across the sea by virtue of a spiritual, symbolic translation.7

To read Whitman’s poem in terms of Irish-American poetics is to select, as I have done above, the metaphors that describe the process of movement from one place (Ireland) to another (America) and to consider their implications. Rather than assimilate the “iconography of the emigrant experience” into “the cosmos of Whitman’s America,” as Tobin suggests we might do, I have tried to isolate the specific story of the poem, in which Old Ireland, represented by an aging mother mourning her son’s apparent death through emigration, is comforted by the fact that her son’s experience has been translated into something “rosy” and “new.” This enables us to study more closely the implications of the scene and its attendant metaphors. In order to do so we have to hold the two poles—of “old” Ireland and “new” America—apart, in order to consider the importance of the very act of crossing that is marked out by translation. This can connote moving from one place to another, from one nation to another, from one culture to another, and from one experience to another.

But what if we took this further and re-read this poem in light of Patrick Kavanagh’s responses to Whitman and his poetry—as reflecting personal experiences and, to recall Kavanagh’s “Epic,” “local rows” (2005, 184)? If this poem, collected within Whitman’s great American collection Leaves of Grass, could be read as a story in which a mother tries to understand the loss of her son to emigration at the same time that it is read as a poem that contrasts Old Ireland with “new” America, then it could help elucidate Caraher’s theory that Irish-American poetics might “pose an alternative model for relating the local and the global” (2007, 18)—and so disrupt the attendant assumptions that these two terms carry. This might lead, in turn, to a reconsideration of other poems by Whitman, as musing similarly on the confluence between the local and the global. Terence Diggory has aligned Whitman with that more obviously “national” of Irish poets, W. B. Yeats, through the fact that “America or Ireland existed for each poet more as an ideal than as a reality, for each created his nationality out of himself” (1983, 22). But what might it mean to align someone like Kavanagh with Whitman instead: as a poet who distrusted the kind of posturing that brings the nation into the self and who wrote one of his final published poems to Yeats, in an excoriating dismissal of a “sixty year-old public protected / Man sheltered by the dim Victorian muses” (lines15–16; Kavanagh 2005, 259–260)?

I want to suggest that in “Old Ireland” emigration is viewed both as a local and as a global concern—and that the first is no less important than the second. In turn, the “row” of the mother in “Old Ireland” becomes both with the son who has left her behind and with the country he has left her for. This of course requires a reimagining of Ireland according to Whitman’s own subjective sensibilities. Michael Malouf has noted, in an essay on Anglophone Caribbean poetry and Ireland, that in recent decades there has been a “shift in emphasis … toward considerations of how the Irish diaspora consists not only of people, but also of ideas and institutional structures as well.” He adds: “This involves recognizing Irish culture as it is re-presented to the world: as another emerald isle, rather than the only one” (Malouf 2007, 192). Although in his particular context the “other” emerald isle that Malouf references is Jamaica, it is possible to see this sense of an “other” Ireland as being one that exists in the individual poetic imagination. This “other” Ireland is imagined not only by the Irish diaspora but also by others—such as Whitman himself—who do not have direct genealogical links to Ireland but nevertheless bring their own “ideas and institutional structures” to their depictions of Ireland.

To probe further the notion that Whitman’s (1891–1892) poem might incorporate the local and the global in its depictions of Ireland, and that this translation of imagery from one place to another has been occasioned by “travel,” it is helpful to consider the rather somber opening lines of “Old Ireland” (1ines 1–6):

  • Far hence amid an isle of wondrous beauty,
  • Crouching over a grave an ancient sorrowful mother,
  • Her old white hair drooping dishevel’d round her shoulders,
  • At her feet fallen an unused royal harp,
  • Long silent, she too long silent, mourning her shrouded hope and heir,
  • Of all the earth her heart most full of sorrow because most full of love.

In a peculiar way, Whitman presents at least two “Irelands” here: the first is the literal “isle of wondrous beauty” (line 1), and the second is the old woman herself. But the descriptions of these two “Irelands” lead us to question which one is the “real” Ireland. The country itself is depicted idealistically as a beautiful and magical place; meanwhilealthough the old lady experiences “real”, human, feelings of sorrow, anguish, and old age, she is in turn symbolic of a different version of Ireland. This parallelism of place and persona is underscored by the sounding of “old white hair” (line 3) in “her shrouded hope and heir” (line 5)—so that the imagined lineage of Old Ireland is both private and public. At the same time, the cliché of the Irish harp, and its attendant implications of music and magic, is disrupted by its silence, depicting Famine-era Ireland as emptying out of youthfulness, song, and art as well as people.

Returning to Kavanagh’s use of Whitman, we might extend this reading further and use Kavanagh to read Whitman by way of Irish-American poetics. Whitman’s concerns for Old Ireland are both global and local, but here the importance of the emigrant experience is first individualized through a grieving mother in order to becoming metonymical of generalized experiences of loss through emigration. Similarly, Whitman’s response to, and depiction of, Ireland resonates between a universalized employment of clichés—harps, magic, beauty, youth—and a more individualized riposte to those clichés (silence, powerlessness, dishevelment, old age). By the time we meet Kavanagh’s idealistic, youthful and bombastic poet, proclaiming that “Gods make their own importance” (line14; Kavanagh 2005, 184), we appear to have come full circle. Thus, he individuals within Whitman’s poem might be reimagined as “Gods”—the queen and “Lord” of Old Ireland—within his poem; then, again through reading Kavanagh, reimagined again as individual people; and then in turn reimagined as “Gods” once again. Kavanagh’s claim makes it possible to align the local and the global within Whitman’s earlier poem, in that the very deification of the mother and son in “Old Ireland” comes by virtue of being included in the poem, of suffering their own “local rows.” What is most interesting, and fruitful, for readers and critics who might place these poems and poets in dialogue with each other, then, is the dialogue that emerges between them—and travels between Kavanagh and Whitman, between then and now (“old” and “new”), and between Ireland and America (“there” and “here”).

Conclusion: Provinces and Parishes

What Boland’s response to Kavanagh’s poetry and Kavanagh’s poetry itself tell us is that a national poet can appear to be anything but. At the same time, it is at the confluence of the local, the national, and the global that Irish-American poetics operates. It is a demarcation that underlines both a straining toward exclusivity and a reach toward openness; it is an expression of “wide narrowness” in its desire both to belong and to encompass all. In a famous essay, Kavanagh expressed his preference for the “parochial” over the “provincial,” whereby “all great civilizations are based on parochialism—Greek, Israelite, English” (2003, 205). This assertion explores and explodes a cliché that is at the heart of his readings of Whitman through “Epic” and “Leaves of Grass.” In Kavanagh’s mind, civilizations are constructed not from global concerns, nor even from national ones, but from the smallest, most local of issues. National cultures, then, are conceived from and built upon “local rows.” When we apply this reading to American poetry, as epitomized by Whitman’s bracketed statement in section 50 of Song of Myself—“I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman 1891–1892, 78)—we can see that though it may indeed “contain multitudes,” it is still, after all, conferred upon the “I.” What we sometimes miss in reading Whitman, and what Kavanagh’s readings remind us, is the highly self-absorbed attitude to nationhood that Whitman’s poetry avowed. Kavanagh’s “Leaves of Grass” stresses how in Whitman’s poetry, “an army of grass blades were at his call, million on million” (line11; Kavanagh 2005, 217). Similarly, where Diggory remarks that in Yeats and Whitman “each created his nationality out of himself” (1983, 22), it is the “himself” that Kavanagh’s readings of Whitman draw us toward.

Through providing as an example a means by which we can apply a comparative framework to reading poetry by two apparently divergent poets, Patrick Kavanagh and Walt Whitman, I have aimed to show that Irish-American poetics, if used carefully as an intervening process, can free us up to read Irish and American poetry, relationally, as simultaneously local, national, and global; exclusive and inclusive; personal and public. It enables us to intervene, to chair an imaginative discussion that takes in past and future, here and there, now and then—and to consider the responsibilities of doing so. Reading poems such as Kavanagh’s “Epic” and “Leaves of Grass” and Whitman’s “Old Ireland” in terms of what they say about Irish-American exchange certainly risks leaving them hanging; it places them outside of traditional national and cultural debates. On the other hand these poems, when viewed through an Irish-American lens, become newly located. They are no longer ensconced within the closed world of a paid-up members’ club, nor do they find themselves drifting aimlessly around as a citizen of the world, but they may be located, tantalizingly, somewhere in between.


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(1) The title quotation, “beyond the lines of poetry,” is taken from Justin Quinn, Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 194.

(3) Here Graham alludes to Yeats’s famous line from “Easter 1916”: “The stone’s in the midst of it all.” (1ine 56; Yeats 1966, 391–394).

(4) Graham cites Angela Bourke et al., eds., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Cork: Cork University Press/Field Day, 2001), 4:xxxiii.

(5) Whitman discusses his English and Dutch ancestry in Specimen Days; see especially “Answer to an Insisting Friend” (Complete Prose Works, 8), and “Genealogy—Van Velsor and Whitman” (Complete Prose Works, 10).

(6) See Oxford English Dictionary online, s.v. “translate,” definitions 1b and 1a.

(7) I discuss these lines from Whitman’s poem in more detail elsewhere; see Stubbs, American Literature and Irish Culture: The Politics of Enchantment (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2013), 112–113.