Wes Davis’ ‘An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry’: Book Review

anthology_ modern_irish_poetryWhile modern, this anthology’s not only modernist in scope; Davis in helpful prefatory essays brings on about fifty poets and gives each perhaps twenty selections. He frames this with a few unobtrusive (if too scanty for a less-informed readership I assume may be often outside of Ireland) endnotes and a helpful, if truncated general introduction. There, anticipating an audience who may take him to task for not including Yeats, he begins with ‘ancestral figures like [Austin] Clarke, [Patrick] Kavanagh, and [Louis] MacNeice’ to show how they responded to the Celtic Twilight of Yeats and predecessors. Kavanagh demanded to diverge from what he summed up or put down as ‘Poems of Fields, Poems of Rocks, Poems of Bogs; Poems of Bigger Fields, Poems of Harder Rocks, Poems of Deeper Bogs’.

Certainly the familiar roster fills much of the nearly thousand pages of this handsomely produced collection. Politics, the Troubles, love, nature, intolerance: they make many appearances. I hazard it’s only halfway, with the long lines patterned by Kavanagh and enriched by Robert Lowell in the work of John Ennis (born 1944; authors rank by birth) and then a leap eight years to Harry Clifton, that many readers will find a name or two they might not already know. Davis wanted to give space to those still writing, and therefore each poet gains about the same amount of space; this balances in my opinion the recognized titles from the usual pantheon with those meriting attention from the younger ranks, and those who’ve labored long in the shadow of those hoisting awards, occupying tenure and featuring on a syllabus or as a seminar, and jetting around the world.

Therefore, as editor, Davis chooses to direct our attention away from Yeats, not towards him. Any reader can find him and the other famous poets included here elsewhere. What one may not find as easily abroad (published by Harvard this represents this need) might be such as Dennis O’Driscoll, Mary O’Malley, Paula Meehan from the mid-1950s, and those following, to name but a few. Those who grew up studying Yeats and his peers in Ireland later in the century began to explore with greater precision the Irish language traditions, as school in many cases exposed writers to these influences. While the lack of Gaeilge compromises the value of this book somewhat, Michael Davitt, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh in translation arrive to echo its impact, all three anticipated.

After WWII in the North and the South, more poets entered higher education (post-Meehan and O’Driscoll all those listed born after the mid-1950s earned degrees and, increasingly as contemporary times overlap, doctorates). As the present comes closer, the dispersal of those included to other lands, for a while or for good, accelerates. It’s no longer the exile brought on by censorship of state or clerisy, but a choice invited by teaching opportunities or occupations abroad that beckons the post-WWII generations away from Ireland even as, in Sara Berkeley’s line from rural Northern California, she’s ‘always leaving Ireland’. (qtd. 858)

It’s noteworthy that two couples stationed overseas appear: Vona Groarke with Conor O’Callaghan, and Peter Sirr with Enda Wyley. Poems by later writers roam into corners as often as earlier writers such as Pearse Hutchinson or Richard Murphy poked about Continental, American, Asian, ancient, or medieval lore, but one finds globalization among many newer writers. Justin Quinn wanders Prague; Sinéad Morrissey leaves Belfast to teach in Germany, study in Japan, and to fly over the Gobi Desert.

The greatest pleasure here comes when as Davis intends one can dig down into a poet. Padraic Fiacc’s anguish as he returns as a young man from New York City to 1970s Belfast, Meehan’s barbed and prickly re-creation of the tale of Acteon beset by maidens as they enter their synchronised menstrual cycle, or O’Driscoll’s masterful vignette of ‘The Clericals’ as they sum up their faded office status as they turn as outmoded as another era’s technology await, among hundreds of hidden offerings within.

  • Manus Eyry

    I think this is apt in the present climate:

    Mary’s Lament

    The sound of the flute floats in the air,
    The beating of the drum echoes heavy,
    The walls move, I sit, waiting.

    There was a time when we would have left,
    Friends down South, sisters in The Falls,
    But they are gone now. I am alone.
    Tommy passed last year, I miss him.

    Now I remain, to endure the routine,
    Windows still boarded, darkness prevails.
    I am too old, too drained, too weary,
    Frightened of the chaos that this day brings.

    The sea of Orange, of red, white and blue,
    Smashing of bottles, of missiles, and worse.
    I’ll close my eyes now. Ardoyne, I pray for you.