While there’s little doubt that some of the finest English-language poetry, especially in the 20th century, has been by Irish poets, it must also be stated that some countries receive privileged attention and, consequently, an exaggerated bestowing of honours on their writers for reasons unconnected with literary art.
It’s more to do with the nation’s political afflictions suffered by its people either at the hands of its own government — as happened in Russia under the Soviet Union — or invading imperial neighbours — as with Poland and Northern Ireland.
W.B. Yeats was Ireland’s voice in the early 20th century, dominating English poetry even after the Americans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound brought modernism to London. Their numbers diminished by the two world wars, English poets reduced to the mediocrity of poets such as Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings appealing to English provincialism by turning their backs on American and European modernism.
Excellence among English poets would be restored later. First, rather sensationally, as a phenomenon sustained by personal gossip, by the emergence of Ted Hughes, and then more lastingly and at greater intellectual depth by Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Middleton.
After Yeats’s death in 1939, the engaging new English poetry was the work of his Irish successors, notably Patrick Kavanagh and Thomas Kinsella — certainly, Kavanagh’s book Come Dance with Kitty Stobling had a natural musicality that was missing from Larkin’s followers. And then there were Seamus Heaney and John Montague, two Irish youngsters whose voices had London’s literary scene in the 1960s listening with fresh delight.
Then came the time of the Irish Troubles, with their Protestant-Catholic killings and the British invading the country to keep it split. Both Heaney and Montague’s poetic responses to the Troubles drew general praise. Heaney championed the common people’s cause during the Troubles, with poems showing ordinary farmers going about their humble work while quarrelling religious and imperialist factions bloodied their land. But, as often happens when their socio-political subjects win them immediate universal attention, writers produce more variations on the same theme and their work becomes formulaic.
Take, for example, ‘The Toome Road’, from Heaney’s 1979 book Field Work. It starts: “One morning early I met armoured cars/ In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres”, with “headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets.” He then suggests how the farmland country is peacefully asleep, its people, from the beginning of time, “Sowers of seeds, erectors of headstones” — creators of life and commemorators of death. Yet here are the barbarian invaders who think they can tear down that eternal order.
Fair enough. We get the idea. But we also remember W.H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ [Museum of Fine Arts] with its unforgettable image of the ploughman carrying on working though Icarus has just fallen from the sky, and recall the explosive time-bomb effect that good poetry has on our imagination. More unfortunately, in 1979, we also remember seeing the same armoured cars on the evening television news and have a clearer image of them in our minds than the cliché the poet gives us.
Of course, the human condition never changes and, whether it’s a foreign tyrant or a popularly elected leader promoting national divisiveness for his own corrupt ends, the farmer still needs to observe the seasons’ dictate to sow seeds and harvest crops. But if you’re compelled to write a poem about it, then it had better be more than the familiar raising of the flag.
And, be more precise. What on earth do “powerful” tyres look like? Again, we get the idea, but it’s a generalisation, not a precise image. In some later poems, carelessness with language has Heaney slipping into such clichés as “bald as a coot” and “hard as nails.”
Much in Heaney’s work is charmingly appealing and makes for a pleasantly distracting hour or two’s reading, but there isn’t that sudden presence which springs into the reader’s imagination as ‘poetry’ that we experience when reading Yeats.
It is there in some of Montague’s poems. Take ‘The Trout’. The boy narrator lies flat on the river bank with his hands in the water. He tilts them “slowly downstream” to where the trout lay “light as a leaf,/ In his fluid sensual dream.” Even the quick following statement — “Bodiless lord of creation/ I hung briefly above him” — casts a cinematic projection as the boy’s curving hands swing under the trout and sense it feel the pleasure of the water flowing around it. Then, “The two palms crossed in a cage/ Under the lightly pulsing gills”, he grips the trout and adds, “To this day I can/ Taste his terror on my hands.”
The poem does little other than describe a human trapping a small fish. In the minute or two it takes to read it, all we see is two hands in a flowing stream being manoeuvred to catch a trout, but the arresting phrasing makes us feel the sensation experienced by the fish. Its terror before extinction is a sudden physical jolt that we experience like an inaudible shriek that gets increasingly louder long after we’ve read the poem, which then expands in our imagination to become a metaphor for our own existence.
Montague’s many poems about the Irish Troubles, and exploitation by the British of ordinary Irish people as labourers and soldiers for their wars, have a cumulative effect of suggesting a universal human condition, of an inescapable oppression — an important level that is missing in Heaney.
Language has a transcendental element even in Montague’s simple poems that use a familiar autobiographical subject matter: born in Brooklyn and taken to Northern Ireland as a child, some of his late poems are a recollection of that time, as in the ones about being a boy in a Catholic boarding school.
That transcendence of language into unspoken, but deeply heard, meaning in some of Montague’s best poems — for instance, ‘The Cave of Night’, in which the human is “Condemned to/ that treadmill of helplessness” — infuses them with the bloodstream of poetry that leaves readers silently sunk in admiration.
In the end, it’s not the country and its troubles, and the honours bestowed upon its artists by the world as a national consolation, behind the emergence of great poets. It’s the other way around: it is the individual whose genius brings honour and renown to a country.
The columnist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas, a literary critic and fiction author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 12th, 2021