Welcome to Irish poetry - December 2005



The oldest vernacular literature written in Europe was in the Irish language. It was a literature which owed its origins, like many literatures, to an oral tradition at whose centre was verse or poetry.

In Gaelic society the qualified poet (after twelve years of study) held a position of high status. A person’s status in this society could be gauged by how close to the King’s bed a person slept. Frequently the court poet or file was reputedly allowed to sleep in the same bed as the King and Queen. The poet had the responsibility of recording in verse the history and genealogy of the king’s family, he also had the responsibility and power to compose curse poems and cruel satires of the king’s enemies. There could be no greater disgrace than to be the subject of such a poem. Poets constituted a distinct class in Irish society and the office of poet and the skill of poetry composition were often handed down from generation to generation within certain families.

Gaelic society was too turbulent to encourage the growth of architecture and fine painting as art forms. Instead, the portable art forms of poetry and music thrived.

After the defeat of the last great Gaelic chieftain Hugh O’Neill at Kinsale in 1601 this society was swept away with a ferocity and a shockingness resembling the collapse of Communism in our lifetime. Gaelic Lords were obliged by the English to abandon Gaelic modes of dress and government and most especially their poets – because the poets also acted as repositories for Gaelic law which ran counter to the legal system the English wanted to impose.

The loss of this professional status for poets is something many Irish poets have been lamenting ever since the days of Aogán Ó Raithaille (1625-1729), who was the strongest voice in a tradition which portrayed poets as social outcasts.

Parallel to the Gaelic tradition there developed what Thomas Kinsella refers to as the ‘counter tradition’ begun in Norman French and continued in English to this day. The two traditions became partly intertwined in the 19th century, when translation of poetry from Irish to English flourished.

Despite the achievements of poetry in Irish it is the tradition in English which is most celebrated abroad, from Swift to Yeats to Kavanagh to Heaney. Tradition is a word which is integral to Irish literary discourse and for much of the last century tradition imposed expectations as to how an Irish poet could write and what she or he could write about. Yeats warned younger poets against the looseness of modernism and many younger poets took the advice to heart. On the content side Patrick Kavanagh sculpted a rural vision so effectively that it became, for a while, almost unthinkable to base an Irish poetic reputation in an urban setting, in much the same way that it was practically impossible for a post-war German poet not to be politically engaged.

The confluence of great talent which streamed out of Northern Ireland in the late 60’s, all practising what has come to be known as ‘the well-made poem’, dominated not only the Irish poetry scene, but the British one too for the remainder of the century. One third of Morrison and Motion’s anthology of Contemporary British Poetry (Penguin 1982) was composed of Northern Ireland poets, much to the chagrin of many British poets and also Southern Irish poets, who felt that only one side of the Irish poetry story was being successfully exported. Seamus Heaney, central to the anthology, subsequently objected to being described as British.

Although women have featured in the story of Irish poetry from earliest times, (Montague claims in his introduction to the Faber Book of Irish Verse that Irish literature is the only literature in Europe where one finds a succession of women poets) it is only relatively recently that Irish women poets have found it easier to get published. The same tradition of the well-made poem which disowned and frowned upon Modernism also disapproved of the looser poetic forms shaped by the feminine imagination (in the Jungian sense, whether exercised by men or women). A masterful poet such as Eavan Boland had to write within that restrictive tradition to get her first book published. The reputation she thereby gained allowed her to publish subsequent work of apparently looser form, though no less rigorous in intellect. The space she carved out for herself in the process has benefited a whole generation of Irish poets who happen to be women, Paula Meehan, one of the featured poets of our inaugural issue, being a prime example.

More recently the poet Michael O’Loughlin has called into question the whole definition of an ‘Irish’ poet. A contemporary Irish poet is as likely to be influenced by Paul Celan, Sharon Olds, Zbigniew Herbert as much as she or he might be by Yeats, Thomas Kinsella or Seamus Heaney. Thus translation plays a key part in the contemporary Irish poetry scene. Just as we have become less dependent on Britain economically, so too have we loosened the cultural tethers.

Translation by Irish poets, whether from Irish into English or from a multitude of European and Asian languages into Irish and English, (some of whose examples can be read on this site, for example Barbara Korun’s work) is seeding the contemporary poem in Ireland.

We hope to show the fruits of that cross-fertilisation in the coming quarters, presenting in each quarter a key Irish language poet and an English language poet. We will feature senior poets as well as young poets just establishing their reputations. We hope to present a pluralistic representation of contemporary Irish poets with no favour for particular schools or groupings. In short, we hope to present poets and poems of impeccable taste and accomplishment.

© Patrick Cotter  
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