The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
Edited by Patrick Crotty (with a preface by Seamus Heaney)
Penguin Classics; €50
EDITING an anthology of Irish poetry is a thankless task. It is a naïve politician who’d want to judge a beautiful baby competition; and the editor of an Irish anthology is sure to be followed by a mob of angry, disappointed parents.
But anthologies of Irish poetry continue to appear and this tells us something about the perennial love of Irish poems in the world book trade.
Patrick Crotty, Fermoy-born and St Colman’s-educated scholar, has assembled a mighty tome here, a book to rival the 1970s Faber Book of Irish Verse edited by his old teacher at UCC, the poet John Montague. That anthology, with its historical texts and wide translations, created a new standard in this genre. Crotty has been faithful to the master, so that the present Penguin behemoth of 1,000 pages stretches the possibilities of the Irish poetic voice even further.
I take issue with several of the editor’s decisions, but I’ll deal with them later. For now let us look at the wonderful achievements herein. This is really a compendium of nine mini-anthologies, all packed with “verbal engines designed to give pleasure”, to quote the editor in his scholarly introduction.
The first part covers Irish poetry written from the earliest times to 1200 AD. Thus we have Kuno Meyer’s glorious:
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me ...
Or Frank O’Connor’s
How good to hear your voice again,
Old love, no longer young, but true,
As when in Ulster I grew up
And we were bedmates, I and you.’
Here, also, is Colm Cille’s Exile, in James Kearney’s illuminated words:
I ever long for the land of Ireland where I had power..’
Part Two is called ‘There is no land on earth its Peer: 1201-1600’ and it contains a great feast of voices, from Muireadach Albanach O Dálaigh to Garret FitzGerald, Baron Offalie, and Laoiseach Mac An Bhaird, whose words are translated here by Austin Clarke:
You who opt for English ways
And crop your curls, your crowning glory,
You, my handsome specimen,
Are no true son of Donncha’s.
After 1601 the certainties break down, in Irish poetry as well as politics. Thus, the great voices of the Gael, Seathrún Céitinn, Eoghan Rua O Súilleabháin and Donnchadh Rua Mac Con Mara, must share the poetic hearth with upstarts like the Earl of Orrery and Nahum Tate – though Tate could give as good as any Gael:
’The Tongue is gone, but yet each Joint
Reads Lectures, and can speak to th’ Point.
When all your Moralists are read,
You’ll find no Tutors like the Dead.’
The long centuries to 1800 are given two mini-anthologies. Here all is happy confusion in Irish writing, as sublime talents like Jonathan Swift and Oliver Goldsmith share the stage with the likes of ‘The Night before Larry was Stretched,’ ‘The Shan Van Vocht,’ ‘Slievenamon’ and ‘The Boyne Water.’
Part V contains the poetry of the 19th century; as far as 1880, that is, or until the Celtic Twilight hauled the Irish mind out of the 1800s into the paradigms of WB Yeats. This section opens, not with the towering figure of James Clarence Mangan, but with James Orr, the Ulster weaver poet, the Bard of Ballycarry, who belongs to 1798 rather than to the complex Catholic labyrinth of Mangan’s mind. Orr’s
Some fastin’ yet, now strave to eat
The piece, that butter yellow’d;
An’ some, in flocks, drank out cream crocks,
That wives but little valu’d’
could never quite rise to the glory of Mangan’s A Lament for Kilcash:
No more on a Summer-day sunny
Shall I hear the thrush sing from his lair,
No more see the bee bearing honey
At noon through the odorous air.
Hushed now in the thicket so shady,
The dove hath forgotten her call.
And mute in the grave lies the Lady
Whose voice was the sweetest of all.’
The sweet music of the Irish ballad is revisited in the final section; a section that seems like an afterthought. The section contains the masters of recitation, poets like Moore, Davis, JJ Callanan, Father Prout (or ‘Frank Mahony’ as Dickens and Browning knew him), Dominic Behan, Percy French and Christy Moore with his famous Lisdoonvarna.
In this section the editor might have reserved space for others like John Spillane, Jimmy McCarthy or Ger Wolfe – let us hope the light of another anthology will find them all out sometime soon.
Between the 19th century and the ballad sections here, we unearth that part of every Irish anthology that creates the most controversy and grief.
This is the editor’s effort to select the present moment in literary life; that twilight zone where the past is never quite closed and where each text is often quite open to contemporary special pleading. What had been Crotty’s sturdy coracle now enters the cataracts of personal opinion and disputed talent. It is difficult to sort our contemporaries. Most of us would avoid the invitation to adjudicate, but Patrick Crotty is made of stern St Colman’s stuff.
He has given us Yeats. We must have him; and Beckett and Clarke. There’s Kavanagh and MacNeice, Kinsella and Montague, Heaney and Mahon.
There are 15 pages of Paul Muldoon and Paul Durcan (but no Hat Factory), but only six pages for Montague in the canonical section and – wait for it – only one page and a half for Eavan Boland. Admittedly, she gets nearly another page with an orphaned poem on a work by Chardin. There’s no Devlin or Coffey, but the editor has cleverly reinserted modernism into the contemporary canon by publishing the excellent contemporary modernists, Trevor Joyce and Maurice Scully.
Astonishingly, there’s no Patrick Galvin. I have no doubt that lovers of poetry will be reciting Galvin’s poems long after all of us are forgotten.
When you come to this late section of any Irish anthology it’s nearly all about the politics of names. An obsession with anthologies has an entirely deleterious effect on our poetic practice, but artists do worry about ‘who’s in, who’s out’ and the press release for this anthology claims it “redefines Irish verse”. There are excellent new voices here like Sinead Morrissey or Peter McDonald and Nick Laird. But there are hocking omissions: where are the best poets of our generation, Matthew Sweeney and Harry Clifton; and where is the Dublin genius, the unforgettable and indispensable Paula Meehan? Where are the powerful Louis De Paor and the intellectual Liam O Muirthile?
An irate editor might say: reviewer, go and compile an anthology of your own. But there are few Penguins and Fabers to work with. Ultimately, every editor has to trust his ear, but these omissions, and the paltry space allowed to Eavan Boland, will disappoint many devoted followers of Irish poetry.
That said, Patrick Crotty has created a rich Celtic realm for a worldwide audience; and he has offered the book trade a mighty stocking-filler for the lovers of poets and poems.
Picture: Editor of The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, Patrick Crotty
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