Read an Excerpt
From the Preface by Matthew McGuire
Out of the argument with others we make rhetoric; out of the argument with ourselves we make poetry. So said Ireland's most famous poet, W. B. Yeats. And it is poetry, rather than prose, that is seen as providing the most sustained and meaningful response to Ireland's turbulent history. From the romantic ballad to the rebel song, Irish poetry has been 'involved', to borrow a local euphemism, in mediating and mitigating histories of loyalty and loss. For some Irish writers poetry has been a place of self-reflection and self-doubt, a moment of quietude amid the deafening roar of partisan politics and all its bloody consequences. Argument, altercation, accommodation; the leitmotifs of many of the poems gathered in this volume. Over this aspect of Irish poetry preside the towering figures of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Their most famous work emerged in response to the collapse of Irish society, Yeats during the aftermath of the 1916 Rising and Heaney during the outbreak of the Northern Irish Troubles in 1969. Ironically, if civil war made civil hands unclean, it also unearthed a fertile ground for the poetic imagination. Under the heading of 'Political Matters' this book features attempts by Yeats, Heaney and others to interrogate the past, realize the present, and realign the co-ordinates of Ireland's future.
Dating back over fourteen hundred years, Irish poetry has its roots in two traditions: the devotional verse of the early Christian church and the long lyric poem of the bard, or seanchaidhe, the carrier of communal memory. Religion has always been part of Ireland's historical and cultural makeup, both a blessing and a curse, the pathway to another world and an obstacle on the road to renewal. Under the aegis of 'Religious Matters' this book features a number of attempts, both ancient and modern, to map the landscape of Ireland's theological inheritance.
'Gaelic Matters' turns its attention to that other vital source of Irish poetry, the Irish language. Up until the eighteenth century Irish poetry was primarily a Gaelic affair. The deep well of Gaelic culture, its steady decline and the catastrophic effects of the Irish famine all feature in this volume. There is an extract from Brian Merriman's eighteenth-century epic, The Midnight Court. The high point of modern Gaelic poetry, it is an epic masterpiece, deeply wrought and darkly comic. The book also features the interest in ancient Celtic myth, including the stories of Cuchulain and Deirdre, by various Anglo-Irish writers, not least W. B. Yeats himself.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Irish poetry is on long meditation in a time of civil war. The remaining sections of the book offer a welcome antidote to such mistaken notions. 'Place Matters' includes a diverse set of responses to the experience of the various Irish landscapes, both rural and urban. It explores what it means to come from, and reside in, a particular place. 'Experience Matters' charts the ways in which Irish writers, from the eighteenth century to the present day, deploy the rigours of poetic form to illuminate and transform the everyday world. 'Love Matters' concludes this selection, recording an array of Irish responses to what is the most popular and recurrent theme in the whole of poetry.