Nationality: Irish. Born: Medbh McCaughan, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 12 August 1950. Education: Dominican Convent, Fortwilliam Park, Belfast, 1961–68; Queen's University, Belfast, 1968–74, B.A. 1972, M.A. in English and Dip.Ed. 1974. Family: Married John McGuckian in 1977; three sons and one daughter. Career: Since 1975 English teacher, St. Patrick's College, Knock, Belfast. Writerin-residence, Queen's University, 1986–88. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1980; Rooney prize, 1982; Arts Council award, 1982; Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1983; Cheltenham prize, 1989. Lives in Belfast. Address: c/o Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, Ireland.
Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems. Budleigh Salterton, Devon, Interim Press, 1980.
Portrait of Joanna. Belfast, Honest Ulsterman Press, 1980.
Trio Poetry, with Damian Gorman and Douglas Marshall. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1981.
The Greenhouse. Oxford, Steane, 1983(?).
On Ballycastle Beach. Oxford, Oxford University Press, and Winston Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1988; revised edition, Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1995.
Two Women, Two Shores, with Nuala Archer. Baltimore, New Poets, 1989.
Marconi's Cottage. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, 1991.
The Flower Master, and Other Poems. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, 1993.
Captain Lavender. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1994.
Selected Poems: 1978–1994. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, and Winston Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1997.
Shelmalier. Oldcastle, Gallery Press, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wake Forest University Press, 1998.
Editor, The Big Striped Golfing Umbrella: Poems by Young People from Northern Ireland. Belfast, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, 1985.
Translator, The Water Horse: Poems in Irish, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Oldcastle, Gallery Books, 1999.*
Critical Studies: "Contemporary Women Poets in Ireland" by Robert H. Henigan, in Concerning Poetry (Bellingham, Washington), 18(1–2), 1985; "Two Poems by Medbh McGuckian: Symbol and Interpretation" by Ingrid Melander, in Anglo-Irish and Irish Literature: Aspects of Language and Culture, edited by Birgit Bramsback and Martin Croghan, Uppsala, Sweden, Uppsala University, 1988; "The Perfect Mother: Authority in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian" by Clair Wills, in Text & Context (Beaconside, Stafford), 3, autumn 1988; "Threaders of Double-Stranded Words: News from the North of Ireland" by John Drexel, in New England Review (Middlebury, Vermont), 12(2), winter 1989; "The 'Imaginative Space' of Medbh McGuckian" by Susan Porter, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Saskatoon, Canada), 15(2), December 1989; "Flower Logic: The Poems of Medbh McGuckian" by Molly Bendall, in The Antioch Review (Yellow Springs, Ohio), 48(3), summer 1990; "Medbh McGuckian's Poetry: Maternal Thinking and a Politics of Peace" by Ann Beer, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (Saskatoon, Canada), 18(1), July 1992; "Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian" by Thomas Docherty, in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, Bridgend, Ireland, Seren, 1992; "Reading Medbh McGuckian: Admiring What We Cannot Understand" by Peggy O'Brien, in Colby Quarterly (Waterville, Maine), 28(4), December 1992; Through the Cracked Looking Glass: The Irish Woman Poet Imagines Subjecthood (dissertation), University of California, Los Angeles, 1993, and "'Rising Out': Medbh McGuckian's Destabilizing Poetics," in Eire-Ireland (St. Paul, Minnesota), 30(4), winter 1996, both by Mary O'Connor; The Celtic Otherworld and Contemporary Irish Poetry (dissertation) by Thomas Royster Howerton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1993; "Medbh McGuckian: Imagery Wrought to Its Uttermost" by Cecile Gray, in Learning the Trade: Essays on W.B. Yeats and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Deborah Fleming, West Cornwall, Connecticut, Locust Hill, 1993; "The Book of Myths in Which Our Names Do Not Appear": A Study of the Struggle of Irish Women Poets with the Tradition of Modern Irish Poetry (dissertation) by Eileen Marie Thompson, University of Oregon, 1994; "'How Things Begin to Happen': Notes on Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Medbh McGuckian" by Peter Sirr, in Southern Review (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 31(3), summer 1995; "Obliquity in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian," in Eire-Ireland (St. Paul, Minnesota), 31(3–4), fall-winter 1996, and "'You Took Away My Biography': The Poetry of Medbh McGuckian," in Irish University Review, 28(1), spring-summer 1998, both by Shane Murphy; Women Creating Women: Contemporary Irish Women Poets edited by Patricia Boyle Haberstroh, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1996; "'The More with Which We Are Connected': The Muse of the Minus in the Poetry of McGuckian and Kinsella" by Guinn Batten, in Gender and Sexuality in Modern Ireland, edited by Maryann Valiulis and Anthony Bradley, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997; "'Some Sweet Disorder'—The Poetry of Subversion: Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin and Medbh McGuckian" by Elmer Andrews, in British Poetry from the 1950s to the 1990s: Politics and Art, edited by Gary Day and Brian Docherty, London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Medbh McGuckian comments:
I do not really feel established enough to be of interest to the general reader. My work is usually regarded as esoteric or exotic, but that is only because its territory is the feminine subconscious, or semiconscious, which many men will or do not recognize and many women will or cannot admit. My poems do not seek to chart real experience but to tap the sensual realms of dream or daydream for their spiritual value, which enhances and makes bearable the real. Through suffering, emotion, illness, people achieve order, art, strength. I believe wholly in the beauty and power of language, the music of words, the intensity of images to shadow paint the inner life of the soul. I believe life is a journey upward, beyond, inward, a ripening process. As the body wearies, the spirit is born. My themes are as old as the hills and out-of-date—love, nature, the seasons, children—but I hope what is new is the voice binding them all, sophisticating itself into something eventually simple.* * *
It quickly became a commonplace to criticize Medbh McGuckian's poetry for obscurity, lack of focus, and a plethora of images. It was ever thus, for the Irish, like the Scots and the Welsh, have long experienced and understood the tyranny of English lucidity, which seeks to control the very ways in which it is permissible to create meaning. McGuckian's poetry recognizes that one mode of resistance is obliquity, the refusal to be bullied into proprietorial, "acceptable" meaning. The same conflict lies behind such diverse works as Robert Graves's "Welsh Incident" and Seamus Heaney's North. Being Irish and female combines to place McGuckian at a double remove from the dominant powers. She responds with a power of her own, one born of awareness, for she has anticipated her English critics when, in Venus and the Rain, she declares that "this oblique trance is my natural /Way of speaking." She also can expose the connections between language and domination in lines like "my longer and longer sentences /Prove me wholly female," where what at first appears to be submissiveness and self-mockery turns out to subvert the reader's hasty assumptions.
McGuckian's poems revel in their imaginative and elaborate qualities. It is not just a matter of dense imagery and difficult metaphor. Meaning is constantly deferred, and sometimes, by a careful twist, the meaning is placed out of reach after the reader thinks it has been grasped. Even her syntax questions the ways of dominance, for her long, accretive sentences deny us the easy passage that can come only when one clause is ruthlessly subordinated to another.
Yet all of this is achieved with elegant wit, for the challenges to the unself-aware custodians of power and meaning are delivered implicitly, even in disguise. Sometimes the disguise is of a person innocent of most things beyond domesticity, certainly eschewing polemic or overtly political language, apparently engaged only in "a little ladylike sewing." But McGuckian's domestic subjects are saved from coziness by placing them near bold images of desire and sexuality. Woven like a sampler, The Flower Master is a deliberately florid book, structured with innumerable flower images. Likewise, Venus and the Rain is conceived as a coherent whole, an attempt to map out a distinctively female mythology and eroticism. There are many other signs of McGuckian's talent, such as her ability to be extravagant and careful, modest and ambitious at the same time or the way in which the "I" enters and leaves even her earliest poems in Single Ladies with complete naturalness and assurance of tone.
These poems call forth from the reader a patient, slow approach, willingly given after one begins to understand McGuckian's aims. The contract between poem and reader is like that between lovers, with the poem rejecting whatever smacks of brusque violation. Secretive, the poems nevertheless yield up a charge of authentic emotion each time. Sexual approach or rejection, indeed, is their paradigm for the approach to meaning:
Yours is the readership
Of the rough places where I make
My sweet refusals of you, your
There is, of course, a risk inherent in subversive obliquity. It is not the risk that a certain readership will be baffled but that the impulse to translate everything into something else can lead to involutions that divert one from one's own purposes, as McGuckian is aware when she writes of "my tenable /Emotions largely playing with themselves." Much of the language of On Ballycastle Beach remains figurative and interior to the point of difficulty ("lightning arranges the logarithms /Of ferns, equates the radius /Of the moon to the number of breaths /We draw in an hour"), but she has also always had another linguistic register of disarming simplicity:
As a child cries, all over, I kept insisting
On robin's egg blue tiles around the fireplace,
Which gives a room a kind of flying-heartedness.
The domestic, the unconscious, and the erotic are still predominant preoccupations, but the later part of the book suggests a widening of scope.
In its blending of the native and the exotic and in its strivings with language, McGuckian's talent sometimes suggests the Yeats of "Crossways" and "The Rose." But her voice is quite distinctively her own. An almost feverish richness of vocabulary and image is set off against a calmness of tone that is generated by the meditative or descriptive statements and the leisurely syntax. At their best her poems leave the reader with the feeling that a new language, exhilarating and mysterious, is being found in which to treat of emotion.