Poetry Ireland Review Issue 116 Editorial

Issue 116

Poetry Ireland Review Issue 116 :
A WB Yeats Special Issue

Edited by Vona Groarke

This essential Yeats anniversary publication is edited by Vona Groarke and includes responses to Yeats’s legacy and readings of his poems from public figures as diverse as Bill Whelan, Neil Jordan, Colm Tóibín, Frank McGuinness, Mary Costello and John Banville, along with new poems responding to Yeats’s work by Irish and international poets such as Margaret Atwood, Sharon Olds, Philip Schultz, Sinéad Morrissey and Harry Clifton. The issue also includes Yeats’s poetry collections, reviewed by leading poets as if just published. Now also available in hardback.  

"superb special edition" John Boland, Irish Independent

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Editorial

‘Incorrigibly plural’, writes Louis MacNeice in ‘Snow’. He wasn’t writing about Yeats, (I think), but Yeats is so incorrigibly plural that if he’d not had an ‘s’ at the end of his name, we might have to add it anyway. Pick a Yeats, any Yeats, from his dramatis personae: Fin de siècle, Victorian dandy. Republican firebrand. Thwarted lover. Myth-maker. Figurehead. Senator. Enthusiast. Campaigner. Busy-body. Visionary. Delusionary. Fantasist. Family man.Not to mention, dramatist and essayist. Not to mention, poet. Not to mention, National Poet.

We grow up with Yeats. From the pretty soundtrack of his youth, all harmony and sweet enthusiasms, to the more involved reflections of his middle years, to the barely restrained rage of his extraordinary late poems, there is a Yeats for every phase of our lives. He matured from somewhat gormless hawker of pretty sounds to the asker of more complex, often searing questions, not for the faint-hearted or the fey. We grow old with him, if we dare withstand the lack of comfort he offers us in his (best?) most fearful poems.

The State also grew up with Yeats, more literally: his publishing life stretched from the earnest whimsy of the Celtic Twilight 1890s, to WWII, through the Rising, the establishment of the Free State and its attendant wars, through the anxieties and identity crises of a new state establishing its ground. ‘The poet’, Yeats famously wrote, is ‘… reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’. Might the same not be said of a new State, forging a plausible and serviceable self out of origins typically messy and incoherent? Yeats was integral to that state, for all his quarrel with it. ‘He invented a country’, wrote Denis Donoghue, ‘calling it Ireland’. It seems fitting that the final act in the forging, the Republic of Ireland Act, was signed into law on 21 December, 1948, just three months after his reburial at Drumcliffe.

Perhaps it’s his public persona that has made him our National Poet? Perhaps his is the version that comes closest, historically, to what we think Irishness might mean and sound like? Or perhaps we like his distinctive music that carries even the trickiest poems so beautifully along. Or perhaps we love the work for its occasional difficulty, for the fact that some poems puzzle but still stay with us. Or for the fact that his are poems of deep feeling, not only of piercing love and desire, but also of grief, anguish, outrage, and fear. Or for his international recognition, including a Nobel Prize. Or for how quotable he is, how instantly resonant.

So many reasons to value the work. So many possible Yeats.‘National Poet’: it’s the kind of designation that can seal up the pleasure to be had from the poems, like a mausoleum. In undertaking to edit this special Yeats commemorative issue of Poetry Ireland Review, I wanted to get underneath what I termed in my letter of invitation to contributors, ‘the crust of monumentalism that has accrued around Yeats’. I was hoping we could honour the poems, while throwing, perhaps, the odd and gentle water balloon at the figure of National Poet. And I was hoping to put together a lively, in earnest but entertaining issue, with nothing po-faced or stuffy about it. This was always going to involve a balancing act of respect and irreverence. Academics have filled umpteen pages with considerations of his work. Politicians have reduced him to sound bites. I wondered if there might be space between the two.

The reviews of his thirteen collections by contemporary writers were originally intended to be written from a standpoint of innocence, as if the author were reading the collection for the first time, close to its publication. I applaud those reviewers who pulled off this trick, and their essays make for what I think are forensically illuminating and fresh takes. But I also understand why not all reviewers chose to follow this approach: there is so much to be said about Yeats, he is a poet of such visceral excitement, that these reviewers wanted to engage with the collections without apparent strategy.

The new poems were commissioned with the idea of seeing where contemporary poets might walk the first line of a Yeats poem (or, in a small number of cases, a subsequent line), where it might end up. The twenty-two new poems here are by a range of Irish and (mostly) international poets: his foothold in Irish poetry is surely secure, but I also wanted to hear how his voice would sound in other accents and cadences, thrown (as it were) from other rooms.

The twenty-three essays featured offer readings and personal respons-es to his heritage and his poems, indicating – with humour and candour and critical insight – ways in which Yeats has influenced both the Ireland we live in, and the Ireland we read.

Thanks are due to many people, not least to our seventy contributors – the artists, writers and poets here – who have, between them, put together what I think is a response to Yeats that will matter, this year and beyond. To Laura Swift of the University of Manchester who unearthed the originals of the Yeats reviews included here. To Elizabeth Mohen, who stood guardian to the issue over her summer internship at Poetry Ireland and, as ever, to Paul Lenehan who makes of notions and proposals what we hope (as Yeats wrote in ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’), ‘to have published all to be a world’s delight’.

– Vona Groarke

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