Poetry, Modern

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Poetry, Modern

In modern Irish poetry certain important themes recur and are explored, defined, and refined throughout the twentieth century. Irish poets have continued to focus on their relation to place, politics, history, the private world, and those points where the public and the private collide. The early agenda was set by William Butler Yeats, whose figure and achievement continue to cast a large shadow. The principal themes in Yeats's work are Irish mythology; the revolutionary and postrevolutionary periods in Ireland, with their attendant heroes and villains; and love, mortality, and the poet's search for immortality through mysticism and art. Although he produced compelling work throughout his career, his greatest achievements are found in the second half, in such landmark poems as "Easter 1916," his poem about the Easter Rising; "The Wild Swans at Coole," a vision of rural paradise; and "Sailing to Byzantium," a profound meditation on aging and the quest for immortality. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.

The middle period of twentieth-century Irish poetry is dominated by Austin Clarke, Louis MacNeice, and Patrick Kavanagh. Clarke is best known for his long poems Mnemosyne Lay in Dust and Tiresias, and for the short, often pointed, lyrics which comprise the major part of his Selected Poems. In the early part of his career much of the material of his poetry was derived from Irish mythology and concerned with faith and loss of faith. His best work explores, with a satiric eye, the political, cultural, and sexual inadequacies of Irish life between the 1950s and 1970s. Louis MacNeice was born in Belfast, educated in England, and spent much of his adult life in London as a contemporary of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and the British poets of the 1930s. He has written many memorable Irish poems, the most famous being "Carrickfergus," an autobiographical account of his Ulster upbringing. Patrick Kavanagh, born and raised on a farm in County Monaghan, is the most important poet of this period, whose work has had an enormous influence on many poets who were to follow, Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland in particular. In his long poems The Great Hunger and Lough Derg, Kavanagh shows that the romantic version of rural life presented by Yeats does not match reality. The rural world, in Kavanagh's view, is dominated by social, intellectual, sexual, and economic hungers. Toward the end of his life, after successful cancer surgery, Kavanagh produced his great lyric poems: "Canal Bank Walk," "Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin . . . ," and "The Hospital." Other notable poets of the period include the trio of modernists Denis Devlin, Thomas MacGreevy, and Brian Coffey; and Máirtín Ó Direáin and Seán Ó Ríordáin, the most prominent Irish-language poets.

In the 1950s a new generation finally brought Irish poetry out from under the shadow of Yeats and provided it with a new agenda: exploring and defining the new, more prosperous, and more outgoing Ireland that replaced the isolated post-independence nation. In The Rough Field John Montague provides the first extended poetic meditation on the role of history and place in the developing "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and in The Dead Kingdom he explores the lives of those Irish who were lost in America as part of the Irish Diaspora. Thomas Kinsella, a more hermetic poet than Montague, has explored the loss of language and of one's place in the world in work that takes daring risks with poetic form, becoming more avant-garde as his career has progressed. James Liddy is the most exuberant poet of this generation. His work is influenced primarily by the American Beat poets; it is through his work that the Beat influence is introduced into Irish poetry. Kinsella's and Liddy's best works are gathered in their respective volumes of Collected Poems. Richard Murphy is a poet associated primarily with the west of Ireland, County Galway in particular, and is known for his exploration of the natural world and of the lives of men who make their living as fishermen. With the publication of Murphy's High Island, an Irish literature of the environment begins to emerge. Another notable poet of this generation is Pearse Hutchinson, whose poetry, written in both English and Irish, is concerned with the vanishing language and vanishing culture of rural, Gaelic Ireland. Also associated with the writers of this generation is Anthony Cronin, whose New and Selected Poems is a significant volume that explores the Irish social and political conscience.

Poetry from Northern Ireland

The 1960s saw the resumption of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland and the emergence of an important group of poets who have dominated Irish poetry since their first work began to appear. The best known of these poets is Seamus Heaney, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995. Heaney, who was born in Mossbawn, about thirty miles northwest of Belfast, has produced a remarkable body of varied work. The political turmoil of Northern Ireland has an important place in his poetry, but it does not overwhelm it. Heaney also examines the natural world and its points of intersection with the world of men and women. He is a poet of bogs, hills, and fields, and of the people who interact with this world and violate it with violence. In Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966–1996, one is struck both by the remarkable quality of Heaney's lyric poems, in which he extols the quiet virtues of ordinary people. In contrast, Derek Mahon's complex work, influenced by Samuel Beckett and the French existentialist writers, takes note of the loss of order in the contemporary world. It is elegant and highly structured. His best-known poem is "A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford," which is found in his Collected Poems. Michael Longley's poetry is classical in tone and influence. In looking at Belfast, he gazes through the prism of classical literature and philosophy to help define the city, its people, and their predicaments. Longley's Poems, 1963–1983 also reveals a deep attachment to the natural world of the west of Ireland. In Poems, 1956–1986, James Simmons mixes the lyric and the comic as he seeks to describe the tangled personal and public realities of Northern Ireland.

In the 1980s a second wave of poets from the North emerged; the most prominent figures in this group are Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Tom Paulin, and Frank Ormsby. Muldoon's work is set both in Ireland, where he grew up and was raised, and in the United States, where he now lives, and it ranges widely in themes, forms, and attitudes. Muldoon provides his readers with an ironic and postmodern view of the Irish experience in such collections as Meeting the British andMadoc. Ciaran Carson's best-known book is Belfast Confetti, a volume of narrative verse that reveals the vital essences present in contemporary Belfast. Medbh McGuckian's work is sometimes considered inscrutable by readers. In her luminous poetry, she reveals the interiors of experience. It is as if everything is reversed: instead of describing the world as we see it, McGuckian presents a deep-rooted vision of how the exterior world is recreated by the female psyche and body. Frank Ormsby's most prominent work is found in A Northern Spring. Fivemiletown is Tom Paulin's best-known work.

Women Poets and the Contemporary Scene

Until recently, many women poets have felt excluded and marginalized in the Irish literary world, but a brilliant generation of women poets appeared in the 1980s. To date, the most important figure, as writer and influence, is Eavan Boland. Raised in Dublin, London, and New York, Boland articulated the struggles she faced as a young woman, mother, and poet in her prose memoir Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Her Time. She has also published many volumes of poetry, including The Journey, A Woman in a Time of Violence, and The Lost Land. Throughout the 1980s, she conducted workshops for women in rural Ireland that encouraged them to write and publish. Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill has published a number of important volumes, the best known being Pharaoh's Daughter and The Astrakhan Cloak, in which Irish mythology is wedded to an original feminist outlook to produce a new Irish poetic vision. Ní Dhomhnaill writes in Irish, and her success has encouraged other Irish-language poets (including her male contemporaries Michael Davitt and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, both of whom have published distinguished work). Mary O'Malley, in such volumes as The Knife in the Wave and Asylum Road, has also introduced mythology into her work. In addition, her explorations of the west of Ireland are the first sustained feminist interpretation of the western landscape. Paula Meehan has written many fine love poems and poems of family, and poems in which ordinary Dubliners are given voice; her book The Man Who Was Marked by Winter has had wide influence in Ireland. Other women who have produced important poetry in recent years include Mary O'Donnell, Rita Ann Higgins, Sara Berkeley, and Moya Cannon. The poetic vision of these women has been influenced by poets from the United States, particularly Adrienne Rich. With the exception of Medbh McGuckian, all of these women are from the Republic, from where most of the most significant new writers have come.

The following distinguished collections by men were published in the 1990s: Theo Dorgan's Rosa Mundi, Tony Curtis's Three Songs of Home, Greg Delanty's The Hell Box, Philip Casey's The Year of the Knife, Sean Lysaght's The Clare Island Survey, Gerard Donovan's The Lighthouse, Dennis O'Driscoll's Weather Permitting, Michael Coady's All Souls, and Pat Boran's The Shape of Water. These works are often united by a common desire to escape what we understand to be the traditional themes of Irish poetry—they are more likely to be concerned with social issues than with historical though, overall, the world they depict is more private than public. It is poetry inspired by Kavanagh that also shows the influences of European and American poets. Contemporary Irish poets, male and female, have produced work that is both exciting and unpredictable, that steps out from under the great canopies of the past.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Drama, Modern; Fiction, Modern; Heaney, Seamus; Literature: Twentieth-Century Women Writers; Yeats, W. B.; Primary Documents: "Easter 1916" (1916); "An Irishman in Coventry" (1960); "Punishment" (1975)


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Eamonn Wall