Poetry Ireland Review Issue 123 Editorial
Poetry Ireland Review Issue 123 :
Among the poets offering new work in the final Poetry Ireland Review of 2017 are Orla Martin, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Harry Clifton, Erin Halliday, Alan Titley, and Nan Cohen, while the Featured Poet is Belfast sensation Stephen Sexton. The books reviewed in this issue include new titles from Michael O'Loughlin, the late John Montague, Biddy Jenkinson, Aifric Mac Aodha, Mark Roper, and Colette Bryce's Selected Poems. Also included is editor Eavan Boland's examination of the life and work of the late John Ashbery, and the reasons for his pre-eminence among American poets of his century; and an evocative tribute to the late Gerard Fanning from his friend Gerard Smyth. The artwork for PIR 123 comes from the SO Fine Art Editions gallery, and the issue concludes with nine intriguing questions for Michael Longley, posed by fellow Belfast poets Stephen Connolly and Stephen Sexton – followed, of course, by nine intriguing answers.
Some years ago I was teaching poetry to a large group. At the front of my class was a profoundly deaf student who attended with two women who signed the class for her. This student was always present, always engaged. I made sure to be in her clear line of sight so her signers could bring the class to her as quickly as possible.
Quite often students brought in their own favourite poems. One day she asked if she could bring in a sign language poem. The following week she did. The poem she chose was printed on a page which was copied and handed out. Then she presented that same poem through sign language – a beautiful choreography of voice – through her signers – and hand gestures. It was intensely moving.
The students were galvanized – drawn in as I was by the courage and composure through which limitation had become an unlimited aesthetic. But more than that. They were also struck to be watching a collaboration between two languages: the auditory reading of the poem and the visual language which was signed – the two translating each other to further texture and depth, a collaboration as old as poetry, reaching back into its associations with music and magic.
Collaboration is not a word that is associated with poetry as readily as it is with music, drama, or the visual arts. Certainly when I was young it was strongly suggested that the best, if not the only collaborative project, was the encounter between poet and page. Which of course remains central. But it seems to me that something is lost if past and present collectives and collaborations are not brought back to be part of the conversation.
For example, there was the 1930 Surrealist experiment known as Ralentir Travaux (Slow Down Men Working, in English) – a series of poems written over five days by André Breton, Paul Éluard, and René Char. The three men met in Avignon, and worked in the Rich Tavern. They drove together around the Vaucluse, talking, arguing, composing. And the title of the project came from a road signal they glimpsed on the way to Caumontsur-Durance – a reminder of just how improvisational collaboration can be.
In pre-modern Japan there was the Renga, with its chain linking and multiple authors, from whose first stanza, the hokku, today’s haiku emerged. Or in the contemporary moment, American poets like Matthew Rohrer and Joshua Beckman, whose 2002 volume Nice Hat was a mutual writing project. Their comments remain relevant: ‘We’ve always been interested in collaboration and the idea that being an artist or a writer in a community becomes a form of collaboration – not just working in dialogue with people, but actually writing with them. We also thought of our audiences as collaborators.’
In Ireland, editing Poetry Ireland Review, I’m often struck by separate energies that don’t quite intersect, but yet are clearly present and seem to promise good things to one another if they only could engage. On the one hand there is the page: the values of the hermetic poem are at the centre of all poetry. Page poetry will always rightly shelter the private poet who seeks a reach and distance in their work that keeps it at angles to public statement, or the expectations of an audience.
On the other hand, the vivid forays into the public poem represented both in the US and Ireland – and many other places – by collectives such as Spoken Word have energized and given power to new definitions of the poem and the poet. New relations with the audience have emerged from this, which are in fact contemporary revisions of the old relations, where the poet spoke with and for that audience.
Yet despite these excellent energies, there remains almost everywhere – in the US, Ireland, the UK – some tension, some suspicion, between the poets of the page and those of performance or the public poem. They are not divided by acrimony but by custom and tradition: deeply layered choices and commitments that not only change the poem but also the identity of the poet.
In the US, even on a campus, I can hear these suspicions expressed on both sides. The performance poet, whose connections with an audience are deep and sustaining, can feel that the contemporary moment is theirs in a unique way, that they should be allowed to refresh outdated curricula, revise subject matter, and challenge the academy. The page poet can feel – and sometimes say openly – that the public poet is exempt from the challenges and nuances of private work, of words and forms whose life on the page has a more testing and more timeless relation with the reader.
Both make important points. But it seems to me at times that their mutual suspicion might stand in the way of something valuable: a meeting point where these historic formations in poetry might actually find one another and share their energies. That certainly would be a worthwhile and exciting collaboration.