The Blanket

 

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Three Irish anthologies package our literary past
Seaghan O Murchu
(Part One of Three)

Ferocious Humanism: An Interpretative Anthology from before Swift to Yeats and after. W. J. McCormack, editor (London: J. M. Dent, 2000). U.S. title: Irish Poetry (New York: New York University Press, 2000). xxvi. 355 pages.
The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction. Colm Toibin, editor (London and New York: Viking Penguin, 1999). xxxvi. 1085 pages.
Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Reader. David Pierce, editor (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000). xliv. 1351 pages.

 

Countess Markievicz, pistol by her side: her photo glowers from the dustjacket of W. J. McCormack's collection of Irish poetry. Colm Toibin's volume's wrapper brushes Marion Deutscher's swatches of blood red and deep violet striped over a canvas-muted background. For David Pierce's tome, details of Kathy Prendergast's "Land" reveal an oilclothed sheet dappling ripples of water blue over a desert-gold crinkled terrain of deep rifts and slight elevations. Such depictions signal the intentions of these three anthologies. Arriving to close the last century, each gathers up wheat from the chaff of the past. And each of the three attempts to package the fractured Irish experience within the covers of a book likely to be used by students and teachers as well as the diligent and curious reader who seeks pleasure and instruction from those judged best among the island's past and present prolific scribblers, ranters, and ravers. And the quieter folks, those scattered in the diaspora (in Pierce), na Gaeltachtai (in McCormack), and the mainstream (in Toibin).

Ferocious Humanism certainly aims to provoke. Can culture be reconciled with the cult of the gun? The cover photo confronts us with an image far from the abstractions painted for these other two collections. But an image as posed, as calculated, and as iconic as those on canvas or easel. The studio portrait of Constance, from the Gore-Booth lineage, seeks to rouse us-as her family was from their aristocratic comfort to aid victims of the famine, and as she was to aid the rebels of 1916 and the destitute for decades after. Now belonging to the National Museum, it is an heirloom rather than a call to arms. Canonised, demilitarized, a belonging to history rather than the present. Do poets meet the same fate, once confined within an anthology? (He includes Yeats, but no Countess.)

McCormack's selections likewise investigate the junction where the studied response meets with the sudden reality. The poets he includes all navigate the edge between (dis)engagement with the struggle and (dis)comfort at assuming such a certainty as the physical-force tradition expects of its recruits. From the last of the Gaelic Munster bards, O Rathaille and O Bruadair, through the 18th and 19th century Anglo-Irish intelligentsia, up through last century's variety of native responses, McCormack celebrates the end of what his title presents as an oxymoron for all of us-not merely poets-to ponder: the preference of anger or restraint, revolt or reconciliation, idealism or pragmatism.

Few of McCormack's choices astonished me. All can be found, with perhaps the exceptions of a "party song" or two with which he concludes his volume, in print elsewhere. But is this not precisely an anthologist's purpose? To gather into a bouquet, a arrangement, the scattered flowers and twigs lying neglected in the literary garden except to a few careful observers? (cf. medieval collections-known as Florilegia.) By arranging these 130 individually grown poems into chronologically ordered Irish responses to "outrage," McCormack argues that poets have resisted the rhetorician's appeal and the easy sell-out of the doggerel-spouting "sham shamans" in the pockets of "the Minister for Triviculture or Touraculture." [xiii] (Which surprises me, because I'd list at least two of his own choices as in the pay of just such a post-GFA sinecure.)

McCormack, who as Hugh Maxton engaged himself as a poet within the maelstrom-arriving in Derry to teach just before Bloody Sunday, and who as himself has long written incisively upon the issues of Irish literary resistance and acceptance in the period from Swift and Burke up to the present, offers his personal choice of poets who largely agree with his own stance of contemplative dissent. Viewing this attitude as characteristic of Irish poetry worthy of that noun and adjective, his roll-call serves largely as a compact illustration of his own critical and political position. While this edition suits best those already familiar with the individual poets and their context, it is not as helpful for the beginner. Unless the novice wishes to read poetry unencumbered by introductory or supplementary material, footnotes, or-in the Dies Irae excerpt from Eoghan O Tuairisc's Aifreann na Marbh- lack of translation as Bearla. And the dustjacket's coy arousal of a frisson of vicarous rebelliousness, the excitement felt by a reader plunged into the intellectual's donning of the Fenian's bandolier, the poet taking up the pistol: this is not sustained by a careful inspection of the book's contents. Beneath its assertive title and insouciant packaging, its poets insist that the gun be reholstered, and the uniform replaced by a more fitting, and pacific, choice of attire. The editor tells us that the rebellion is over, and implies such as the Countess might better serve the causes of peace.


Parts 2 & 3 of this series will appear in upcoming issues

 

 

 


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Republicanism in Crisis

The Cracks in the "PNF"

A Journal of Dissent

Under the Foot of the Mountain: Brendan Hughes

Author's Choice: Rogelio Alonso, A Just War?

Interview: Marian Price

Books: Soul Wars

Books: Anthologies Package our Literary Past

Unionism and Decommissioning

Turkish Hunger Strike Report

Taking Sides in the War on Modernity

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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002

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