Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Epic” has talismanic importance to older Irish poets who took from the following lines license to write about the minutiae of their own locales:
I inclinedTo lose my faith in Ballyrush and GortinTill Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.He said: I made the Iliad from suchA local row. Gods make their own importance.
To be from a small country and to write intimately about your own affairs is to risk making your poetry impenetrable, irrelevant, or both, even when writing in a global language like English. And yet to exclude your own affairs, to eliminate the parochial from your “epic” entirely risks self-censorship or a denial of one’s own truth.
An American poet can mention the film Predator, Henry Kissinger, or the town of Ferguson and an informed and cultured Irish person will know the references. Conversely, if an Irish poet chose to write about Wanderly Wagon, Pádraig Flynn, or the town of Granard even a cultured American reader, unless a specialist in Irish Studies, would be lost.
These thoughts came to me not in the context of contemplating Irish poetry but while considering the obstacles poets of minority languages, such as Estonian and Macedonian, encounter in seeking to have their poetry translated into English with the hope of reaching a global audience. As a poet living in Europe, I translate and am often translated. I have noted how certain poems lend themselves better to translation and reach alien readers with more appeal. As poets our capacity to communicate our concerns is limited not just by language but by the unrelenting, mostly one-way flow of information and cultural dissemination from large, powerful nations to smaller ones. The British know more about America than Americans know about Britain. The Irish know more about Britain than the British know about Ireland, and Irish speakers in Ireland know more about the world of their monoglot Anglophone compatriots than the latter do about the discourse taking place in the minority Irish-speaking networks and communities.
Artistic compromises are frequent for small cultures reaching out to larger, more dominant ones. Such considerations have shaped my selection for this issue. I say all the above as a caveat to a North American reader of this special issue of Poetry, the second in its century-long history and the first in twenty years. Here you will find work representative of Irish poets, but not the whole story. I am hoping this selection will provoke many to seek out more Irish poetry in bookstores and online through excellent resources such as poetryinternationalweb.net.
There are so many excellent poets writing in Ireland that it would be impossible to adequately represent contemporary Irish poetry in its totality. So, taking Don Share’s prompt to focus on new poets, I have chosen a snapshot of a generation, those born after 1969 — the generation of poets who have lived all their lives in a world of international poetry dominated by Irish names such as Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon; while the selection is not exhaustive it does contain many of the young poets worth watching. Certain poets are not included because they were (ironically?) included in the special UK issue of Poetry last year (reaped from the pages of The Poetry Review, edited in London by my Cork compatriot Maurice Riordan). Others didn’t have new work available. I would like to have included more Irish-language poets but there were either no translations available of new work or, in other cases, the available English translations failed to convince me.
Most of the attention paid to Irish poetry in America has been within the walls of Irish Studies departments. The speciality of Irish Studies carries dangers for the Irish poet. In the 1995 special Irish issue of Poetry the late Dennis O’Driscoll wrote:
A modest international reputation may prove possible if the poet comes to the attention of those students and academics [of] Irish Studies.... As a result, the unexamined poem may seem not worth writing and the approbation of American academics is feverishly sought.
O’Driscoll went on to describe this process as “ventriloquial manipulation by Irish poets of their own reputations.”
Many of the poets in this selection reject such “ventriloquial manipulation.” The world of Irish landscape, urban life, engagement with new technologies, and the intimate concerns of interpersonal relations dominate this selection. Here you will find little of the sociopolitical, historical-centered themes which dominate the focus of American and British Irish Studies departments and arguably push aside the essence of poetry during the forensic examination of a poem. This issue presents a vision of contemporary Irish thought that may disappoint those with prejudices or inadequately formed and informed expectations of what Irishness means today. Many of the poets included here live in Britain and North America as well as Ireland, and their first allegiance as poets is necessarily to the language in which they write.
One notable difference between this issue and the Contemporary Irish Poetry issue of 1995 is how evenly women are represented. In 1995, out of forty poets and translators presented, only six were women. I had to make no conscious effort to achieve gender balance in this selection.
LGBT themes have been explored by a handful of poets of an older generation such as Padraig Rooney, Mary Dorcey, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, and Sarah Clancy. As to the representation of racial diversity in Irish writing — that must await the next generation. Walking the streets of Cork I take great pleasure in hearing local accents emit from Filipino, Nigerian, and Chinese teenagers. I look forward to reading them in a special Irish issue of Poetry in the future.
Patrick Cotter was born in Cork, Ireland, and studied at University College Cork. For over a decade he has served as artistic director of the Munster Literature Centre, where he curates literary festivals presenting some of the world’s greatest contemporary poets and novelists. He’s the author of Making Music (Three...