Edna Longley on The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets


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Edna Longley on The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets

This blog post features a speech from Edna Longley who was guest speaker at a recent launch for The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, held at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast.


I can’t remember the last time a collection of academic essays about poetry caused public controversy. I wish it would happen more often. If you have kept up with social media, or if you read Gerry Dawe’s article in Saturday’s Irish Times (24 February) you will understand why I hesitated when he asked me to launch the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets. I thought he was planning to use me as a human shield – or a female shield. But I wanted to play a part this evening. I wanted to celebrate the latest contribution of someone, a poet himself, who has done so much to promote ‘Irish poets’ and poetry in general. There was Gerry’s long editorship of Krino. There was his impressive tenure as Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre at Trinity College Dublin. There are his fine critical essays. There is Earth Voices Whispering: his pioneering anthology of Irish war poetry. And poetry has something to do with the last book of Gerry’s launched in No Alibis bookshop: the hugely evocative In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast.

What are the special qualities of the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets? This Companion accompanies us, poet by poet, crucially highlighting the range of individual and socio-cultural contexts to which an ‘Irish poet’ might belong. For instance, the complex way in which Irish-language poets are represented here is a rebuke to politicians on either side of the Stormont stand-off. Again, the Companion is fresh in bringing the same kind of close focus to poets with briefer careers, or less intensively analysed, like Francis Ledwidge, as to poets like Yeats or Heaney. A bold aspect is the opening set of historical chapters. This preface to the modern features Swift, O’Rathaille, Goldsmith, Moore, Mangan, and even ‘Spenser’s Island’. I also like the way in which poets and critics have been sometimes unexpectedly paired. And I very much like the editorial principles on which the book is based. To quote Gerry in the Irish Times: ‘The invitation to prepare a Companion was clearly predicated on poetic value – excellence and influence … the choice was made to close the historical circle at the turn of the millennium with those poets who had already established international recognition with the bulk of substantial work behind them, and literary reputations critically acknowledged as such with scholarship.’ Gerry also points out that if poets younger than Nuala ní Dhomhnaill had been included, on the same terms, the number of women poets would be higher.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this gender-gap. But I want to dwell for a moment on Gerry’s word ‘value’, and on his phrase ‘critically acknowledged’. Literary canons don’t just happen. Nor are they set in concrete. Nor are they wholly created by political interests, whether these involve nationality, gender, ethnicity, religion or class. Keats wasn’t always on A-level. In fact, he probably isn’t any longer. But it all began with a few people liking his poems. It all begins with a few people liking poems – and then persuading other people to like them. That’s where criticism comes in. You can’t really persuade many people over the years to like crap. Of course, any critic who seeks to identify ‘value’ must eliminate as much bias as she or he humanly can. And that’s a constant task, a constant argument: an argument both with oneself and with others. It’s not so long since some poets, discussed in the Companion, would not have been received as unproblematically ‘Irish’. As regards all poets, not only women poets, the goal should always be to establish a level playing-field. Then there comes a point where positive discrimination ends, and critical discrimination begins. I notice that the verb ‘discriminate’ is now chiefly used in the negative sense, ‘discriminate against’, rather than in its positive sense of estimating value. But ‘discriminate’ shares an Indo-European root with the title of Gerry’s former journal: Krino: to judge, to read critically. Another related word is ‘discernment’. No genuine writer wants to benefit from special pleading. Poetry is not the Alice in Wonderland Caucus race. Equally, it may be the critic’s job to question received opinion on every front. There’s a fair bit of lively questioning in the Cambridge Companion.

The Cambridge Companion is an excellent guide to the revelatory world of Irish Poets.

As I’ve implied, the making or unmaking of canons takes time and effort. I’ve spent much of my own critical lifetime arguing on behalf of poets whom I thought underrated – Edward Thomas and Louis MacNeice. I might not always agree with Gerry, or members of his critical team, about the merits of particular poets. But I accept that they are presenting a view, according to their judgment, and that it’s up to me to respond. Now, I may seem to be giving criticism far too much importance. Indeed, ten years ago Ronan McDonald published a book called The Death of the Critic – the critic’s death, that is, in the general media revolution (not to mention the earlier ‘theory’ revolution). And perhaps the poetry critic is an especially endangered species – as the poet may be too. But new poetry begets new criticism. And this has certainly been so with Irish poetry in recent years. I note that a third of the contributors to the Companion are poet-critics. Seamus Heaney was himself a brilliant poet-critic, and that’s why the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, which is sponsoring this event, embraces poetry criticism, as well as creativity in poetry and prose. The Cambridge Companion marks how criticism derived from Irish poetry, like Irish criticism in general, has come of age, and is influencing criticism elsewhere.

There has been a different, but related, public controversy in England which concerns poetry. Rebecca Watts recently caused a stir in PN Review by asking: ‘Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form?’ She was referring to the vogue of poets like Hollie McNish, for whom performance is central, and who tend to base their work very directly on autobiography. Now, poetry has always been enlivened by its porous boundaries with other media: with dramatic monologue, song, music, the visual arts, prose: as by the rise of the poetry reading itself. Witness Paul Durcan, about whom Alan Gillis writes wonderfully in the Cambridge Companion. At the same time there’s a distinction – a useful distinction, which we seem to have lost – between ‘poetry’ and ‘verse’. Or is that ‘elitist’? I am old enough to remember the 1960s moment of the Liverpool poets and, I think, to recognise what survives of it. In those days they were much better known than ‘the Belfast poets’. One problem today is that, by a fallacy which stems from misreading the Romantics, a poem has come to be more closely identified with its author than is a play or novel. Thus, to dislike a poem, or fail to rate a poet, seems like disrespecting their gender or ethnicity rather than making a point about ‘art’, about ‘value’. A judge of one poetry prize recently complained that the judges of another prize had produced a shortlist that didn’t ‘reflect the diversity of poetry in Britain’. That judge was not saying that marvellously diverse poems were being written. It was a comment about authors. Perhaps there is now a phenomenon that might be termed ‘the selfie poem’.

 To return to our trusty Companion: I’ll end with a few quotations as a taster. We find Tom Walker starting from the apparent paradox that critics have found ‘Patrick Kavanagh’s poems … quite difficult to read’. We find Guy Woodward proposing: ‘Often remembered as an earnest regionalist, John Hewitt’s poetry and prose are most fruitfully understood in the light of tensions and contradictions between his local and international preoccupations.’ We find Maria Johnston saying, in a particularly subtle essay: ‘Medbh McGuckian’s very methods suggest an anxious reading of the world for signs.’ Peter Sirr writes that Michael Hartnett’s poetic country is ‘partly a recognisable rural Ireland … but also a private terrain of loss, a temporal zone somewhere between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, haunted by the ghost of Irish, by the sense of a culture drained of what had made it vital and meaningful’. Richard Pine relates Brendan Kennelly’s poetry to his career in Gaelic football: ‘as a winger … he played on the outside, a position … allowing him a freedom in which he displayed his capacity to behave with an élan and cunning which the mid-fielder cannot know’. And Gillis ends his Durcan chapter by calling Durcan ‘the Irish Neruda’ and saying: ‘He teaches that poetry is everywhere, that nothing is not extraordinary’. The Cambridge Companion is an excellent guide to the revelatory world of Irish Poets.

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