from Post-Ireland? Essays on Contemporary Irish Poetry, edited by Jefferson Holdridge and Brian Ó Conchubhair
With certain members of the younger generation of Irish poets, there is what may be termed a post-national, trans-historical urge, which often but not always has an inward and/or metropolitan focus. Justin Quinn titles the last chapter of his 2008 The Cambridge Introduction to Modem Irish Poetry, 1800-2000, "The Disappearance of Ireland." He ends with these words on such a disappearance: "Poets such as Heaney and Hartnett, even though they have invested much of their imaginative life in matters of 'Ireland,' clearly also relish the prospect of getting rid of it. These more recent poets do not move in concert with a larger nationalist objective, as the poets of a century before did. Rather they bear witness to the multitudes the island contains, and have extended its borders to include a fair piece of the known world. Clearly these words are meant as a statement of his own poetic as much as anyone else's. In a likeminded vein, Conar O'Callaghan explains how such a sensibility works in his introduction to the third volume of The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry (2013), when after detailing the social forces of the 1990s in Ireland, he writes: "It is equally difficult to find direct correlations between such social forces and the poems included here, and foolish even to attempt that. Poetry continues to happen, as it should, in silence and solitude. That remains as true of the work of the poets of this post-Troubles, Celtic Tiger generation as it ever was." Yet he adds this important rider: "However, those events and changes are often visible and audible as background."
The title of this collection of essays, Post-Ireland?, acknowledges the question of the disappearance of a certain version of Ireland, that the old definitions may no longer apply, and implies with the question mark that perhaps Ireland can never be left behind because, as a colonial entity, the formulation of its identity has always been linked to its possible dissolution or absorption. Once, the larger threat was England, the United Kingdom, then America, now it is the European Union or globalization. Unlike Quinn's declaration of the disappearance of Ireland, but very similar to the phrase "after Ireland," Post-Ireland? is balanced on the tension between opposites. The phrase "after Ireland" has been used at least twice as a byword for the end of Ireland as it is known: Declan Kiberd uses it interrogatively in a 2009 article for The Irish Times that surveys the ruins of the economy and its influence on Irish culture. It was also used by Harry Clifton as a title of a poem included in his selected works, The Holding Centre (2014). Both writers play on the notion of an Ireland that is lost and an Ireland that survives to be sought. Both writers seem to think that the Irish landscape provides a sustaining sense of place. Kiberd, however, laments the loss of a strong sense of nation, believing, unlike Justin Quinn who sees the disappearance as liberating, that the loss is corrosive and leaves only commerce in its wake. Kiberd writes: "That is the background to the tragedy of many contemporary artists and intellectuals. They have declared their embarrassment in the face of simple-minded notions of nation, faith and fatherland; and have helped to erode these forces. But in the collapse of all other 'isms,' the market itself becomes the sole remaining ideology—and its idea of a Croatian or an Irish identity is Disneyesque in its naivety." As a returning ex-patriot and cosmopolitan writer, Clifton is often considered to be a bridge between younger and older Irish poets, between Ireland and post-Ireland. He is prized as a deracinated émigré by some of the next generation and is sometimes critiqued by others for this same trait. Yet his position is more nuanced than a mere lack of a sense of place can explain. As recent poems have shown, his sense of place is always being redefined by his migrations, and in this respect he is an important exemplar by neither rejecting nor embracing essential identities. Rather he writes with a mysterious migratory sense of crossing the borders between the local and the universal, of recognizing the cultural desecration of the deforested place left behind and yet dreaming of its forested, primeval origins:
[ ... ] Sloe-berries
In autumn, whiskey
In winter, deer returning
To dark re-forested hills.
Without God. A solitude,
Feeding, not on roots,
But the dream of roots.
For though the definitions of "Ireland" and the "Irish" no longer apply as they once did, for some writers and artists they remain relevant, even for those who would turn or have turned away. The relative stability or instability of identity has long been debated in Ireland as in other postcolonial societies.
Such concerns go back to Yeats himself who thought that though the parlance of English journalism had corrupted nineteenth-century English poetry, it hadn't tarnished the peasant speech of Ireland of his day and wouldn't the poetry. This belief buttressed his hope for a new national literary movement. Similarly no careful reader can dispute the premise that twentieth-century Irish poetry attained distinctiveness through its struggle to confront the debilitating elements of Catholicism or Protestantism, as well as to explore the religious insights of these traditions, much as it did through its concomitant struggle with the traumatic after-effects of British colonialism and the assertion of an independent identity. Nor may we demure from the conclusion, however much we might want to, that as Ireland becomes as thoroughly post-Catholic as it is postcolonial, its poetry will have lost another one of the few remaining cultural influences and inflections differentiating it from its anglophone counterparts across the globe. In this regard, Irish Catholicism mirrors the Irish language. Without religion's persistent influences on secular society and the rise of vernacular, often Americanized English in Ireland, will Irish literature and culture maintain a distinctive character? Again, many of the younger generation seek to question the necessity of such themes in identifying Irish poetry, in poetry in English as well as the Irish language. In his preface to the forthcoming fourth volume of The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, David Wheatley writes, "Even as I disavow any common front among my writers [chosen for his selection], however, another part of my intention is to suggest an alternative perspective on the business of Irish canon-formation, and the ways in which non-dominant strands such as experimental writing have been unfairly overlooked; how the Irish language is treated; and how (or whether) younger poets can ever escape what Beckett termed the 'accredited themes' of the past—the shibboleths of belonging, identity, and nation that still form the horizon of expectation for so much Irish poetry."
For some very fine poets of the post-Heaney generation these questions and the above critical issues of identity maintain relevance, even if some entertain them at a distance. When one examines what has been written about contemporary poetry in general, but of the younger generation in particular, certain concepts do appear consistent: How to negotiate the history of Ireland, its sectarianism, its provincialism (or parochialism as the case might be), the experience as a colonial subject of the British empire and/or its role as an agent of said empire, its cultural inheritance from folklore and myth or the rejection of that inheritance, its religious inheritance or the contemporary insignificance of that legacy. Then there is the linguistic inheritance, the importance of acquired language and the grammatical influences of the suppressed one, that is, the Irish language. Does contemporary Ireland and the current generation of poets look toward Europe? America? Boston or Belgium? New York or London? These dichotomies of influence have long bedeviled the Irish and Irish poets. In Barry Sheils's book W. B. Yeats and World Literature: The Subject of Poetry, Yeats himself notes how Irish subjectivity was caught "between the influence of America and the influence of England." Yeats concludes that it was "hard to say" which of "the two is denationalising us most rapidly."
As Irish society has changed since independence and through its role the European Union, so also has Irish poetry entered a time of transition. With "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland now fading from younger memories, the next generation of Irish poets may not draw inspiration from the experience of living in a violently divided country. The country will still be divided, however, whatever attitude is taken toward this division. Whatever one can say of future Irish poetry, one can say with confidence that it will be different. In fact, it already is different, as this collection illustrates; poets, especially younger writers, have recently added many new strings to their repertoire, such as reflecting in new ways on global culture and poetic form, and expressing ecological concerns.
The essays that follow suggest various avenues into understanding the trends that Irish poetry has taken from the 1960s until now. Post-Ireland? includes essays covering the work of Colette Bryce, Michael Davitt, Michael Donaghy, Vona Groarke, Seamus Heaney, Aifric Mac Aodha, Pádraig Mac Fhearghusa, Tomás Mac Síomóin, Derek Mahon, Campbell McGrath, Maureen McLane, Dorothy Molloy; Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Caitríona Ní Cléirchin, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Ailbhe Ní Ghearbhuigh, Áine Ní Ghlinn, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Bríd Ní Mhóráin, Conor O'Callaghan, Simon Ó Faoláin, Liam Ó Muirthile, Caitríona O'Reilly, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Séamus Barra Ó Suilleabháin, Derry O'Sullivan, Gabriel Rosenstock, and Eithne Strong. The collection closes in an essay on Irish interminglings with global poets of diverse backgrounds, such as Christopher Okigbo, Derek Walcott, E. A. Markham, Sujata Bhatt, and Daljit Nagra. Though coverage is short of complete, the editors hope that there is a wide enough range of poets to help the reader toward his or her own conception of what post-Ireland might mean, that is, how much and to what extent are "Irish" poets searching for their own national and/or poetic identity and how much are they leaving certain identity politics and paradigms behind. Wake Forest University Press also hopes that these essays will converge with the various anthologies it has published in order to broaden the audience of a greater number of contemporary Irish poets. [. . .]
1. Justin Quinn, "The Disappearance of Ireland," in The Cambridge Introduction to Modem Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), 210.
2. Conor O'Callaghan, preface to The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, Vol. 3 (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest UP, 2013), xiv.
3. Declan Kiberd, "After Ireland?" The Irish Times, Aug. 29, 2009, http://www.irishtimes. com/news/after-ireland-l.728344. After Ireland will be the title of a forthcoming book by Kiberd, published by Head of Zeus and Harvard University Press.
4. Harry Clifton, "After Ireland," The Holding Centre: Selected Poems 1974-2004 (Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, 204),144-45.
5. Kiberd, "After Ireland?"
6. Richard Tillinghast, "The Future of Irish Poetry?" in Finding Ireland (Notre Dame: Notre Dame UP, 2008), 193-217.
7. Clifton, The Holding Centre, 45.
8. David Wheatley, preface to The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, Vol. 4 (Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest UP, forthcoming 2017).
9. Barry Sheils, W. B. Yeats and World Literature: The Subject of Poetry (New York: Ashgate, 2015), 15.
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About the Authors
Jefferson Holdridge is Director of Wake Forest University Press and Professor of English at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. He has written two critical books, entitled Those Mingled Seas: The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, the Beautiful and the Sublime (2000), and The Poetry of Paul Muldoon (2008).
Brian Ó Conchubhair is Associate Professor of Irish Language and Literature at the University of Notre Dame where he serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Languages & Cultures since 2013. He published Fin de Siècle na Gaeilge: Darwin, An Athbheochan agus Smaointeoireacht na hEorpa in 2009. He currently serves as President of the American Conference for Irish Studies.
Post-Ireland? Essays on Contemporary Irish Poetry
Wake Forest University Press