Lucy Collins

The development of the Irish poetry scene since the 1960s has been remarkable in its scope and intensity. Its dynamic nature at once sustains and is sustained by a series of aesthetic and political tensions which are mediated, to a large degree, through the changing relationship between the text and its readership. It is clear that while new poetry from Irish presses is plentiful and receives the attention of reviewers, it is not widely read, nor is it submitted to rigorous investigation by critics. While this is in many ways unsurprising, it suggests that the desire to hear a multiplicity of voices has already had far-reaching effects on the cultural climate in Ireland and in particular on the perceived relationship between centre and margin. This shifting relationship can be explored in terms of language, of form, of gender, politics or geography, and exposes the changing shape of power in contemporary Irish writing. The arrangement of this essay around a series of tensions within Irish poetry today is not intended to highlight (or produce) antagonisms, but rather to explore the ways in which such tensions have influenced both the criticism of poetry and the production of the work itself. If the focus on issues of national identity is beginning to shift at last, there remains a continuing interrogation of cultural influences which are now explored in more flexible and searching ways than ever before.

The issue of tradition lies at the heart of this essay and it is one which is fraught with difficulty, since it suggests a kind of cohesion which is contrary to literary production. As the vexed question of the poetry anthology proves beyond doubt, there are as many readings of collective identity as there are editors to provide them. If tradition may be judged to be a manipulated pattern serving cultural or political ends, then its failure to offer some of its members adequate room to explore their private identity necessitates the formation of a separate space from which to write. Some contemporary Irish poets perceive the mainstream as an inherently limited place and their construction of an alternative position is both determined by their work and exerts an important shaping force upon it. One experimental poet, Catherine Walsh, explained: 'You need to be incorporated into the tradition to be an Irish writer, and you exist as an Irish writer on those terms or you might as well not exist' (Goodby, 1998, p. 46). The burden of tradition implies the continuing importance of the past for contemporary writers, and the poets I have chosen to examine here deal with the crucial nexus of personal and public in ways which often involve a complex rendering of history. This mediation between past and present highlights the extraordinary pace of change in Ireland since the mid-1960s. Though two of the older poets were in print before this time, their most significant and considered work dates from subsequent decades. All of those who feature have registered the difficult choices between tradition and innovation, between centre and margin, in challenging and imaginative ways.

Two poets who bear a particularly interesting relation to the perceived centre of Irish poetic tradition are Thomas Kinsella (b. 1928) and John Montague (b. 1929). Kinsella's career cannot be touched upon without reference to its stark and difficult changes. His transition from lyric poet to opaque modernist was followed by the decision in 1972 to begin publishing his work in pamphlets from his own Peppercanis-ter Press, which contributed to his increasing obscurity and signalled a changed attitude towards the position of his work in Irish culture. Together with his contemporaries John Montague and Richard Murphy, Kinsella sought to create a poetic that was at once Irish and modern, but he has arguably displayed the most complex approach of the three to these issues. Kinsella questions the concept of a singular tradition: 'every writer in the modern world ... is the inheritor of a gapped, discontinuous, polyglot tradition' (Kinsella, 1970, p. 66). The idea of a mutilated past is one which clearly shapes much of Kinsella's own poetry, making his treatment of history ambiguous in its depth and complexity. This perhaps accounts for what Eavan Boland sees as the poetry's simultaneous desire for and suspicion of order. Certainly the search for order is not a straightforward one for Kinsella, whose poetry is often suspended between the desire for organic unity and the acceptance of inevitable fragmentation, as this image of the newly laid egg falling through the 1973 poem 'Hen Woman' aptly demonstrates:

Through what seemed a whole year it fell

— as it still falls, for me, solid and light, the red gold beating in its silvery womb, alive as the yolk and white of my eye; as it will continue to fall, probably, until I die, through the vast indifferent spaces with which I am empty.

Kinsella's work dwells on the relationship between the individual and the universe, which is often expressed in the image of a solitary figure and in the motif of the journey with a doubtful starting point and destination. The family also provides an important connection to the past, but the level of intimacy which this scheme suggests is rarely realized in Kinsella's poetry. That intimate relationships should prove illusory may be typical of a poet who gravitates towards difficult philosophical questions. Yet Kinsella remains deeply engaged with the realities of a changing Ireland and uses the medium of poetry to interrogate the political in a manner which has proved disconcerting to some critics.

Montague's progress has been of an altogether different order. His poetry lacks Kinsella's challenging obscurity and his linking of modernism and romanticism clearly has implications for his own writing. Like Kinsella he cites a range of American and European poets as key influences and in doing so breaks the insular notion of identity which was a recurring feature of Irish poetry earlier this century. Yet his work also makes ample use of such personifications as the cailleach and of the speirb-hean of the aisling tradition and does so in a way which suggests acceptance of these culturally marked forms. In this sense, then, the need to deconstruct certain traditional elements has clearly proved less pressing for Montague than for Kinsella. His poems vary from those which assume orthodox styles and those which use a conversational register, an alliance of the speech act with that of writing which Montague sees as vital to the creative process. He is attracted to the lyric and his use of the poetic sequence (The Great Cloak, 1978, is an example) owes much to the desire to combine lengthier exploration with a lyric precision.

The relationship between private and public in his work is highlighted in the proliferation of love poetry and while the influential The Rough Field (1972) drew explicitly on historical and political material — and The Dead Kingdom (1984) by Montague's own acknowledgement takes many of these political assessments a stage further — there is a tendency for the enduring life of the individual to remain prominent in his work. From early in his career Montague has been aware of the need to forge an original poetry and has commented on the lack of useful precursors for him as a young writer. Keen to position himself as a poet striking out in new directions, he has called himself 'the missing link of Ulster poetry' (O'Driscoll, 1989, p. 60). His relationship to the growing body of so-called 'Northern' poets is ambiguous, however. He shares with Heaney a concern for the specificity of place and the Garvaghey of his youth is vividly evoked in his work. The kinds of change which Montague registers make the reclamation of childhood places more than simple reconstruction of the past and he is deeply unhappy about the destruction of the natural environment. Landscape also has a role to play in the erotic poems, where the land becomes a lover's body or shapes a journey which is also an exploration of desire. The recurrence of journeys in his work is a feature which he shares with Thomas Kinsella, though Kinsella's topography is resolutely urban, while for Montague the route is often between regions and draws attention to the North—South divide and its implications.

Northern Ireland is the site of the most striking achievements in recent Irish poetry. Seamus Heaney's (b. 1939) Nobel Prize confirms the international recognition not only of his own work but also that of his peers. Heaney's pre-eminence can scarcely be denied — or ignored — and his keen ear and extraordinary technical skill as a young poet have developed into an assured exploration of sophisticated and intellectually challenging areas. In this way, it seems, Heaney is a poet who embodies the modern need to explore national mythologies in an international poetic context. His preoccupation with his origins remains strong and his use of rural tradition at once evokes the sensual immediacy of childhood and probes the implications of literary tradition itself. The combination of consummate craftsmanship and intuitive handling of subtle emotional territories links Heaney's poetic process with his key themes; this suggestive interweaving is accompanied by a range of poetic influences from Dante to Robert Lowell. Heaney's attention to the Gaelic heritage also suggests the necessity of mediating between traditions. While at times a poet such as Tom Paulin shares with Heaney a tendency towards densely physical language and a sharp critical intelligence, there is an entirely different sensibility — and not one easily submitted to the clichés of cultural division — at work in his writings.

The question of politics looms large for all writers who have grown up in — or spoken from — Ulster, and as Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has remarked, readers often approach these poets as though they already know what they will say. Heaney has been variously castigated for saying too much and for not saying enough about the Northern conflict; certainly his treatment of it has resisted the kind of highly charged response which might be repented at leisure. The kind of individualism which another northerner, James Simmons, both demonstrates in his poetry and comments upon in his criticism suggests that personal vision may be an important way of re-examining traditional sectarian allegiances. Derek Mahon (b. 1941) and Michael Long ley (b. 1939) are two of the most noteworthy of Heaney's contemporaries and they too have felt the pressures of writing out of the northern situation. Mahon claims Louis MacNeice as an important precursor and in doing so asserts his own ambiguous position in relation to his native Belfast. The limitations of a commitment which poetry may inevitably invite are felt by both Heaney and Mahon but handled differently by each. Mahon's poetry began with, and continues to assert, a strong sense of modernism's intellectual territories; indeed the notion of territory itself is both personalized and politicized in his work. Mahon's speakers are constantly on the move, seeking to explore new spaces and continually questioning their relationship to the centre, whether geographical or poetic.

The hidden life is important to Mahon and secrecy is both thematic and formal in his poetry. If Longley's work is attentive to such diverse matters as botany and the classical world, it is with a view to illuminating them through minute observation and a finely tuned lyrical gift. Mahon, by contrast, tends towards the intellectually oblique. The absent self complicates the perspective of a number of his poems and of course suggests that the self is somehow present elsewhere. Unlike Longley, who remained resident in Belfast for the duration of the troubles, Mahon left the province while still a young man and has questioned this decision, though typically in a manner which does not truly invite an answer, as in the poem 'Afterlives': 'Perhaps if I'd stayed behind / And lived it bomb by bomb / I might have grown up at last / And learnt what is meant by home'. This evasiveness is in keeping with the difficulty the reader faces in interpreting the poems. Mahon's tight linguistic control, his intellectual vigour and latterly his sophisticated intertextuality present a taut and accomplished style, but one which is at odds with his often apocalyptic vision. At the borders of his poetry the ungovernable violence of Irish history everywhere threatens the aesthetic order. While Longley seeks to restore links with the past in his work and to use a detailed natural world to evoke potential wholeness, Mahon questions the possibility of such meaningful connections and resists the easy appropriation of history. Although he has said at least twice that he is 'through with history' he is attuned to the different levels at which the story of the past may be told.

The next generation of northern writers reflects the trends of postmodern variety and play. The texture of this work is radically different to that of the older poets and takes an entirely new stance in relation to the intersection of poetic practice and context. The two most interesting of this generation are Paul Muldoon (b. 1951) and Ciaran Carson (b. 1948). Both of these poets revel in the unexpected and use traditional form reflexively, to question its own purposes and meanings. Both also incorporate a diverse range of cultural influences into their work. Muldoon has chosen widely different forms to express his talent: short lyrics, long narrative poems, a libretto. Within the poems themselves, perspective shifts suddenly and in disconcerting ways, suggesting endless alternatives for interpretation. Muldoon's ludic sensibility draws attention to the multiple definitions within language and to the rich possibilities of the act of writing itself, as the poem 'Lunch with Pancho Villa' suggests:

I rang the bell, and knocked hard On what I remembered as his front door, That opened then, as such doors do, Directly on to a back yard. Not any back yard, I'm bound to say, And not a thousand miles away From here. No one's taken in, I'm sure, By such a mild invention.

Yet the need to make such play suggests that the reader may indeed be taken in. Though the voice remains a strong feature of Muldoon's work, little sense of the personal is to be found there and autobiographical detail appears in such profusion that it actually obscures rather than clarifies the contexts of the poems. Helen Vendler finds in his poetry 'a hole in the middle where the feeling should be' (Wills, 1998, p. 15) and though Muldoon has achieved considerable international recognition, his sophistication has drawn fire from other critics such as John Carey, who has described the poems as standing around 'smugly, knowing that academic annotators will come running' (O'Driscoll, 1995, p. 98).

Ciaran Carson's attention to language is somewhat different. Shaped by the urban environment of his native Belfast and equally by the rhythms and patterns of Irish traditional music, Carson makes repeated use of two particular forms: the long narrative poem and the sonnet. His mastery of the long line owes much to the work of the American C. K. Williams, but is strongly influenced too by his musical background. Perhaps more than any Irish poet now writing he concerns himself with the poetic possibilities of story, especially of the labyrinthine nature of narrative form, of tales glimpsed and inconclusively told. In this sense the oral tradition marks Carson's work in memorable ways, making him a truly modern practitioner of an ancient and traditional art.

Carson's use of the sonnet is even more remarkable. His recent versions of the French testify to an attentiveness to the spaces between languages, already familiar in his return to Irish poetic history. Such a reworking of this tight and crafted form had precursors in the Belfast sonnets prominent in two collections from Carson's most formative period — The Irish for No (1988) and Belfast Confetti (1989). In order to render the destructive yet enduring nature of that city's violence, Carson produced mutilated versions of this most musical of poetic forms. Language is a casualty of the political situation, implicitly in the entire dynamic of North and South as it is shaped and acknowledged by poets and critics alike, and explicitly here in the breaking of form and the intertwining of verbal and political mechanics: 'Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type' ('Belfast Confetti'). The poem becomes an object to be manipulated and reshaped according to its context; thus Carson finds a way of establishing witty and meaningful links between form and theme.

Another northern poet, Medbh McGuckian (b. 1950), exhibits the postmodern play of intertextuality especially characteristic of Muldoon. McGuckian's abstract and challenging work has drawn a range of devotees and detractors, all anxious to locate what is most liberating — or most damaging — about contemporary poetry in English. She has been variously described as 'fluid' and 'mannered', as 'forward-looking' and 'non-visionary'. McGuckian's language describes and dwells in an inner world, and in doing so becomes arguably more important than public speech, more articulate in its exploration of a multiplicity of identities, more flexible in its connections between real and imaginative worlds. Her poetry has been described as womanly but the poet's own views on the shaping power of gender are ambiguous; she exhibits a desire to subvert the linear in poetry, yet she does so in order to push language to the limits of its potential.

This kind of movement continues to cause readers problems, however, and there is a sense of wilful obscurity in much of her work which raises issues about the kind of meaning she wishes to uncover. She has said that she never writes 'blindly' but instead sits down with a collection of words, referring here to an actual accumulation of noted phrases often gleaned from her current reading and assembled and reshaped to form a poem. Such an overt use of intertextuality is apparently at odds with the drifting rhythms and dissociated images of the poetry and there is a problem of significance too, since it is difficult for us to keep up with this literary recycling unless we are explicitly alerted to it. This is a rich process, though, and gives the work a textured and handled quality.

Such unreliability of language may denote a willingness, indeed a determination, by some of the most exciting women poets working in Ireland today to overturn expectations — not only those imposed by the largely male establishment but by women themselves. As Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin (b. 1942) said in a recent discussion, 'there has to be a way in which you can disappoint the expectations of your audience' and this desire to disappoint means an assertion of an individual identity and creative trajectory, not one which follows an explicitly political agenda. Her own poems exhibit a tantalizing ability to withhold knowledge from us; they are full of inexplicable gaps, spaces where meaning is lost or slips away. In The Brazen Serpent the keeping of secrets constitutes both subject and form. By disrupting our expectations of what a poem will yield, Ní Chuilleanáin eases us towards the kind of attentive reading which poetry so badly needs. It is of special concern to critics of contemporary Irish women writers that the establishment of a voice, rather than attention to what that voice is saying, remains a damaging focus for many readers and consequently for writers themselves. The sheer range and originality of poetry written by Irish women — from the observant Mary O'Malley to the humorous Rita Ann Higgins, from Paula Meehan's subversive voice to Biddy Jenkinson's resistant one — promises an enduring body of poems. It is surely a feature of a movement from margin to centre that a more stringent criticism can and must be applied to this work.

Eavan Boland (b. 1944) has outlined the key transition from object to subject made by women. Her response to the Irish tradition in both its linguistic forms is a guarded one, since she sees women's role there as iconic or metaphorical and argues that this may remove the obligation to interrogate the real conditions of women's lives. As the title of her 1990 collection Outside History suggests, Boland is preoccupied with the need to write women back into a national history from which she feels they have been excluded: 'as far as history goes / we were never / on the scene of the crime' ('It's a Woman's World'). She also registers the lack of woman's literary history acutely, though there are other critics who contest this view. Anne Stevenson objects to Boland's claim to be disadvantaged by her national past, citing a medieval Irish tradition of women poets which could provide vibrant and educative models for the modern writer. In spite of the truth of this suggestion the marked lack of continuity evident when considering Irish poetic foremothers has proved disruptive for the contemporary writer.

Boland is the most vocal of Irish women poets on the issue of tradition and her own poetic career testifies to these continuing preoccupations. Beginning with orthodox forms, her most sudden technical manoeuvre occurred around 1980 with the publication of In Her Own Image. This collection witnessed a dramatic shift towards an outspoken and subversive position and inaugurated a radical remaking of the female, both through new forms of poetic representation and the evocation of an interior world which had hitherto remained hidden in the poetry. A number of Boland's poems deal with a kind of history which is autobiographical yet manages to retain a broader sig nificance: she herself demonstrates Ireland's duality in her own person — raised in England, the sense of being divorced from her own place, her geography and history, is strong:

let the world I knew become the space between the words that I had by heart and all the other speech that always was becoming the language of the country that I came to in nineteen-fifty-one: barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old, overdressed and sick on the plane when all of England to an Irish child was nothing more than what you'd lost and how ('An Irish Childhood in England: 1951')

Tensions between margin and centre assert themselves even more vigorously in the debate on the role of the Irish language in contemporary Irish letters. Ireland's dual tradition, which involves a subtle mediation between English and Gaelic literary forms, not only reflects the complex diversity of these two cultural positions but often explicitly examines the movement between them, making this transition itself the focus of language. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's (b. 1952) energetic work not only places her poems among the most important in the Irish language this century but spills over into her comments on writing in that tradition. She recognizes that the decision to write in Irish is often a difficult and emotive one for poets. Michael Hartnett (b. 1941), raised in his grandmother's Irish-speaking household, at first found this his natural language for poetry. His work combines a fresh originality with an attentive-ness to the great poets of the Gaelic tradition, while younger poets such as Cathal O Searcaigh use the language to expose themes of individualism and isolation. Irish is not always an exclusive medium for these poets, however; both Hartnett and the versatile Micheal O Siadhail have returned to the English language to explore its creative potential further.

Ni Dhomhnaill's 1990 collection Pharaoh's Daughter features translations by many of the most distinguished of contemporary Irish poets, including Medbh McGuckian, Derek Mahon and Paul Muldoon. The stylistic shifts which this kind of project records provide a fascinating insight into the process of translation itself, yet it can also have disturbing consequences for the objectification of the female, as Ni Dhomhnaill herself recounts:

A few years ago a number of poets, mostly as it happens male, collaborated in a book of translation of my work. . . . Immediately the critics hailed me in terms of being a kind of Muse. Now let us get one thing quite clear. I was not their Muse: they were my translators. (Dorgan, 1996, p. 115)

While the difficulties in creating and maintaining a subject position in poetry are exposed clearly here, there is a strong sense in this collection of the way in which a translator is involved in re-creating the work, rather than simply transposing it from one language to another. The final poem from Pharaoh's Daughter, 'Ceist na Teangan' / 'The Language Issue' is translated by Paul Muldoon and in keeping with the concerns of both writer and translator, language as a means of communication, as itself the vehicle for personal and cultural hopes, is highlighted from the opening line: 'I place my hope on the water / in this little boat / of the language'. Ironically, the reception of the poem, which in fact constitutes its meaning, is absent from the text entirely.

There are other poets too for whom a readership has a vital role; those who have achieved a considerable popular following both through the immediacy of their themes and the power of their public performance. Such popularity keeps poetry squarely in the public arena yet limits the subtlety of its linguistic play. Here cultural context plays a heightened role in both the reception and creation of the poem; if the subject matter addresses contemporary issues in the raw, the form combines the traditional and the experimental in at times surprising ways. Brendan Kennelly (b. 1936) has always had a sharp eye for social ills and the lyrical voice of his early work has given way since the 1980s to the exuberant and near-uncontrollable perspective of the long sequence. The most successful of these to date has been Cromwell (1983), which centres on the notorious figure whose political power had such bloody consequences for Ireland. This poem uses jokes, profanities and grotesque depictions to subvert not only the familiar structures but the accepted expression of history.

Kennelly's play with language has its limitations, however, and Edna Longley's approving assessment that his words 'are means to an end: the instruments of fact, fiction and fantasy' (Longley, 1994, p. 198) is really an admission of an ultimately unadventurous approach to the possibilities of language. He chooses the sonnet as the structural unit of the sequence, but the containment this particular form seems to represent is quickly rebuked by Kennelly: 'Trouble is', as Ed Spenser says in 'Master', 'sonnets are genetic epics. / Something in them wants to grow out of bounds', which is exactly what they do in this poem. It is a problem which has also dogged Kennelly's later projects, the lengthier sequences The Book of Judas (1991) and Poetry My Arse (1995). Lack of discipline is now a core poetic statement for Kennelly and it proves increasingly unwieldy for the reader. This has not lessened the tremendous popularity of his work, though, which is seen as debunking the self-regarding cleverness of more sophisticated poets.

Paul Durcan (b. 1944) shares with Kennelly an ability to mesmerize audiences with his public performances and a similarly acute social awareness. His observant verse partakes of its particular context in different ways, however, in that it addresses its shaping forces more directly and it uses the language and forms — in particular those associated with Catholic ritual — of the very institutions which Durcan seeks to expose. The titles of his poems alone are often revealing: 'Archbishop of Kerry to have

Abortion'; 'The Haulier's Wife Meets Jesus on the Road Near Moone'; 'Wife Who Smashed Television Gets Jail' and there is an amusing sharpness in Durcan's observations, as the latter poem demonstrates:

Justice O'Bradaigh said wives who preferred bar-billiards to family television Were a threat to the family which was the basic unit of society As indeed the television itself could be said to be the basic unit of the family And when as in this case wives expressed their preference in forms of violence Jail was the only place for them. Leave to appeal was refused.

The broader cultural context is vital for the appreciation of this kind of work, not merely to explicate some of the references to contemporary events but because for such a poem to rise above the banal, it must display yet transcend the limitations of its society. Poets like Durcan and Kennelly are important because they often succeed in doing just that.

From poets at the centre of Ireland's cultural development we move to those at its periphery, to several poets no longer resident in Ireland who mix a sensibility attuned to Irish culture with influences and images from elsewhere. There are many reasons why this apparently marginal position crucially informs the centre, not least because of the persistent importance of the figure of the emigrant (both forced and voluntary) in Irish culture. Eamon Grennan (b. 1941) has mediated between America, where he now lives, and Ireland, which he considers his real home, by using the natural world. His attention to detail captures the sensory realism of this world and affirms his debt to Kavanagh which is acknowledged and considerable. It also suspends the reader between the particular and the universal in an uncanny way. Matthew Sweeney (b. 1952) displays a similar attention to detail but with a tendency towards a sinister and often inexplicable world. Morbidity is combined with humour and the ways in which the familiar can become strange seem central here, though this in itself does not account for the destabilizing force of Sweeney's best work.

The contemporary can by definition never be static and thus the shape of the Irish poetry scene is constantly changing and constantly requiring redefinition. A number of the younger poets have already achieved considerable attention, both at home and abroad, and bring these levels of confidence and of cultural diversity directly into their poetry. Gallery Press, as well as publishing many established poets, supports the work of newer talents such as Vona Groarke, Conor O'Callaghan and David Wheatley, whose finely crafted and whimsical poems have already earned him a Rooney Prize. Justin Quinn, now living in Prague, has recently published a second collection with Carcanet, confirming the considerable promise of his earliest work. While a vibrant poetry scene will not always foster real achievement, it may encourage productive debate. The future of Irish poetry depends upon this kind of dialectic, upon rigour as well as inclusiveness and upon a receptive reading of cultures other than our own.


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