Monday, December 15, 2008
What is a Minor Poet?
What is a minor poet? I did an edition of James Clarence Mangan a few years ago, a poet I love, but a minor poet, undeniably so. I bring this up because Moynagh Sullivan’s contribution to Irish Poetry After Feminism dwells extensively on Patrick Crotty’s treatment of minor women poets of the post-Revival period in his long essay in the Cambridge History of Irish Literature. Ethna Carbery and Alice Milligan, to Crotty, are ‘predictable propagandists’, and Nora Hopper Chesson is ‘something of an historical oddity’, and so on. There are plenty of dud male poets from the period too, but for Sullivan ‘although often found “anaemic”, “vatic” and “lifeless” they still manage to become “memorable” in some way because of a biographical detail, anomalous subject matter, some striking lines, or because they anticipate somebody better.’ One example of this is Crotty’s treatment of Brian Coffey, whom he fairly slaughters, but whom Sullivan sees him as treating in some small way better than those women I mentioned above, since at least he anticipates the more interesting work of his friend Beckett. Whereas by contrast the ‘quite wonderful’ (Sullivan’s words) Winifred Letts is totally dismissed.
Here’s a sample Letts poem for your consideration, and mine too, since I’d never read her before coming across her name in this essay. It’s a jaunty piece of doggerel called ‘The Connaught Rangers’:
I saw the Connaught Rangers when they were passing by,
On a spring day, a good day, with gold rifts in the sky.
Themselves were marching steadily along the Liffey quay
An' I see the young proud look of them as if it were to-day!
The bright lads, the right lads, I have them in my mind,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind.
A last look at old Ireland, a last good-bye maybe,
Then the gray sea, the wide sea, my grief upon the sea!
And when will they come home, says I, when will they see once more
The dear blue hills of Wicklow and Wexford's dim gray shore?
The brave lads of Ireland, no better lads you'll find,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind!
Three years have passed since that spring day, sad years for them and me.
Green graves there are in Serbia and in Gallipoli.
And many who went by that day along the muddy street
Will never hear the roadway ring to their triumphant feet.
But when they march before Him, God's welcome will be kind,
And the green flags on their bayonets will flutter in the wind.
It is so important, I think, to be aware of how those scare-quoted ‘standards’ (see last post) are indeed not timeless entities, but historical constructs, which have of course carried their unfair share of gender-specific ballast. It is so important to be aware of all that and not be spooked out of continuing to believe in standards (no scare-quotes), and to be able to do simple justice to the words on the page, if we still care about that, which I assume we all do. As Dennis O’Driscoll (that man again) once told someone in response to an inquiry as to what his ‘aesthetic’ was, there are good poems and there are bad poems, and he believes it is possible to tell the difference. So here goes. If we award Yeats one standard unit of major poetdom, Mangan comes in somewhere 0.1 of a poet in comparison, I would suggest, and Winifred Letts, on this evidence, somewhere under 0.01. Yeats is ten times the poet Mangan is and at least a hundred times the poet Letts is. That’s why Mangan is a significant minor poet and Letts, in comparison, is not. She is a very minor poet, the case for whom I would be as interested as anyone else to see argued, since I’m evidently very ignorant of her work. But I can only tell it as I see it, as that’s how it looks to me.