Poetry Ireland Review Issue 122 Editorial
Poetry Ireland Review Issue 122 :
Fifty years after his passing the poet Patrick Kavanagh is remembered in Poetry Ireland Review 122, in a perceptive essay by Eavan Boland which invokes Chinua Achebe and Anthony Cronin, among others, to position Kavanagh in a pre-eminent place among the poets of his time, and ours. Richard Murphy is also celebrated in a fascinating interview ranging over all of his ninety years, in which he discusses a number of his poems – reproduced in the issue – framed by their social and political contexts. There are new poems from John O'Donnell, Mary Montague, Julie Morrissy, Colm Breathnach, and Moya Cannon, among many others, Alvy Carragher is our Featured Poet, and titles subjected to critical scrutiny include recent work from Paddy Bushe, Jacob Polley, Paula Meehan, Rachael Boast, and Matthew Sweeney. Liam Harrison provides a perceptive essay on Derek Mahon's connections with artist Edvard Munch, while the images in this issue are provided by artists from the Olivier Cornet Gallery, a neighbour to Poetry Ireland on Parnell Square.
THE CONSCRIPTED POET
In his 1974 volume called Out of My Time, John Hewitt included a memorable poem called ‘The Scar’. It’s just sixteen lines long and has the slight look of a sonnet that outgrew its living quarters. Nevertheless, short as it is, it records a powerful drama.
The poem’s narrative notes the death of Hewitt’s great-grandmother who went to the window during the 1847 famine intending to help a famine victim. Instead, she caught a fever from him and died. Hewitt summarizes the effect of this history on his own identity in two beautiful lines:
... that chance meeting, that brief confrontation,
conscribed me of the Irishry for ever.
That word ‘conscribed’ – arcane and complicated though it may be – is compelling, both in and beyond the poem. It has caught my attention again while editing Poetry Ireland Review. The idea of the conscripted poet is always a controversial one, but never irrelevant. It remains central to the idea of a poet’s role. But not always comfortably so, as a small, painful anecdote shows. It involves WH Auden, who went to the front in the Spanish Civil War. He then published a chapbook called Spain – really an extended poem just twelve pages long – in the key year of 1937. The last lines of the poem extend the Marxist conversation of that moment:
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
Two years later Auden left Britain for the US. He went to say goodbye to his friend Stephen Spender. In Spender’s account, Auden, catching sight of the chapbook on Spender’s mantelpiece, went over and opened it to the last page. He then took out his pen, struck out the final lines and wrote in the margin: This is a lie.
This seems to me now both an act of honesty and a cautionary tale. It shows the fear a conscripted poet might have – conscripted that is by external forces – that their art might eventually be compromised in the cause of morality.
What the poet owes or doesn’t owe to the world around him or her is a familiar subject. Conscription adds another layer: conscribing a poet to a cause, or an event, or an occasion, or an ideology, may sound coercive.
But the fact remains that many poets of worth and reach have been taken out of their comfort zone by an occasion or commitment and have documented that transit with powerful work. Yet today, so much has changed – so many new voices, so many different tonal registers – that the idea of the conscripted poet has had to change as well.
Today’s conscripted poet still exists of course – and in the old version of the concept: poets of colour, environmentalist poets, political activists and others are still everywhere called to large questions and to make powerful, unsettling poems in the light of them. But in a new context, the poet we see today may also be conscribed differently: less by history or an external cause than by the subterranean conversation within poetry itself.
Patrick Kavanagh’s comments on the Irish Revival – resisting it at every point – which I quote in a tribute in this issue, can be seen in this light as a form of counter-conscription. Alvy Carragher’s bold persona poem – she is the featured poet in this issue – gestures towards a partly hidden poetic conversation, where definitions of the page and the performance vie with each other for clarification. Richard Murphy’s rich and thoughtful interview in this issue describes the inward power of migration, geographical and imaginative. And there are many other poems in this issue where the poet is plainly and eloquently struggling to balance lyric poise with large ideas. It makes for exciting reading.
Does this mean that the idea of the conscripted poet is no longer of use? I don’t think so. Looking at this issue of PIR is a reminder that the definition of the conscripted poet doesn’t need to be abandoned, just broadened. In that sense the demands on the poet, the tensions within the poem, remain similar if not exactly the same. What is the same is the need for poetic rigour and thoughtfulness. No poet, after all, wants to accuse their words of falsehood in the margin of their own poem.
– Eavan Boland