Friday, December 03, 2010
The fallout from Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry has rumbled on since its publication, with an aggrieved Michael O’Loughlin accusing it in an Irish Times opinion piece of being a ‘curio’ and of omitting a whole generation of Southern Irish poets. (O’Loughlin’s piece here and Crotty’s reply here). All this was put in perspective for me the other day when I stumbled on a copy of Devin A. Garrity’s Mentor Book of Irish Poetry. I say ‘stumbled’ because yes, I do like to leave books lying round the place in ways conducive to amusing domestic accidents (the pile of Dickens novels I’m perched atop as I type this is feeling none too safe, I must say). But I digress (‘digression assured’, as a small ad in The Hull Daily Mail promised recently). O’Loughlin’s choice of ‘curio’ is curious. If an anthology can never be merely right, in everyone’s eyes, the challenge is to provoke in a way that goes beyond the foibles and follies of the editor or the age. What is Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse if not a ‘curio’ these days? It also remains one of the most eye-opening and influential books of its time. That’s good-curio, then, versus Yeats’s bad-curio in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which still gets my vote as the single barmiest assemblage ever to grace or disgrace that fine imprint.
But to turn to Garrity’s anthology. ‘The Genius of the Irish’, it screams at us from behind its bile-green cover harp. Irish Studies loves to look back with wry understanding on a time when Ireland, its history and literature, weren’t just subjects but sagas, designed to quicken the pulse with the throb of racial music, but even without getting all gloaty-revisionist on Garrity’s ass, it’s painful to see the alacrity with which he bin-dips his way through some of the mouldiest dross of the Irish Literary Revival. There was some discussion on here a while back of Winifred Letts, with a commentator or two taking Patrick Crotty (of all people) to task for his summary dismissal of her. Having finally had the chance to read her in the Mentor Book I can now confirm that, boy, that woman sucked. Her twee little ditties would bring out the inner Ezra Pound in any Ireland’s Own poetry editor, and I hope they did, too. Execrable stuff.
Crotty omitted Oliver St John Gogarty’s ebullient versifying, and while Garrity stretches to seven poems, including the long (overlong) ‘Leda and the Swan’, I think of them as being stored in these pages in the same way that old suitcases are stored in my attic – I know they’re there but don’t necessarily want to see them. In this sense, anthologies often set a formal seal on an author’s unread status: why should I go to the effort of reading so-and-so anymore? He’s in the anthology, isn’t he? Reading through the rest of the book I find a veritable litany of the lost. Eminent Victorian unreadables: Lord Dunsany, John Todhunter, Aubrey de Vere, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Their tweedy offspring: the Earl of Longford. Palgravian rejectamentum: Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Modernist anomaly: Thomas MacGreevy (I mean anomaly by Garrity’s standards, though MacGreevy had enough indomitable Irishry in his make-up to compensate in Garrity’s eyes for his little eccentricities, I’m assuming). Member of my extended family: Sigerson Clifford (he is my niece Caoimhe’s great-grandfather). Up-and-coming young men: Francis Stuart, Bruce Williamson (?!). Someone or other with keen interest in uninhabited blip of rock off north Donegal coast: D.J. O’Sullivan (‘Dawn in Inishtrahull’, ‘Nightfall in Inishtrahull’). I thought she was a composer and didn’t know she wrote poems: Rhoda Coghill. No, wait this is quite good: Blanaid Salkeld.
But in case you think I’m scoffing here, Garrity also includes – and I think this is more or less his last anthology appearance before the brief term of his fame expired – the Larne-born poet Lyle Donaghy (1902-1949). I spent an enjoyable day recently in the National Library, in Dublin, re-reading all of this writer’s work (that would be At Dawn Above Aherlow (1926), Primordia Caeca (1927), Ad Perennis Vitae Fontem (1928), The Flute Over the Valley (1931), The Blackbird (1933), Into the Light (1934), Selected Poems (1939), Wilderness Sings (1942), and Wild Sun and Moon (1949)). There are plenty of reasons why Donaghy’s name has fallen into disrepair, but they are not the ones suggested above for the unfortunate Winifred Letts. He is praised in Beckett’s ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, published in Eliot’s Criterion and Poetry (Chicago) in his day, and is also one of the great secret poets of Co. Wicklow (cf. Beckett’s letters for more on Donaghy and Wicklow), giving as the place of publication for Wild Sun and Moon a mountain near Glendalough, Brockagh. He is a minor poet then, not in the Winifred Letts sense of pursuing a downward arc towards utter extinction, but of someone we don’t know much about, since he hasn’t been in print now for over sixty years, and who deserves better from us. Here is Donaghy’s ‘The Heron’. Even copying out this poem I’m failing to do him justice, since for the life of me I still can’t work out how to indent lines in blogger:
At night, when the black water-hen
Roosts by the first star,
The heron stands, a lonely king,
Where his possessions are;
The level flag-torn mere,
The oozy yellow lands,
The shells that thicken on the rocks
And blacken on the sands.
His shadow’s length away from him –
Shadowed in the moon rays –
Is she whom the subtle unknown love
Brought to his lonely ways.
Sometimes, askance, he sees the bright
Slow cones and arrows from her body;
But long ago the note
Of triumph went from him and still
When life exults and sings,
A broken water-sound pursues
His trailing feet and wings.
I knew the heron in his nest,
His voice not yet a cry,
When he lay on the flat spare twigs
And watched the sun in the sky.
There are more fine poems where that came from. I would hope to return to this subject.
Photo shows Sam the cat cavorting in the sneugh, seeking where he might make water, copious warm water.