Feature Articles

SELECTED HARMON by Seamus Cashman

(Poetry Ireland News, May/ June 2008)

When I was asked to respond to Maurice Harmon’s lecture on Richard Murphy delivered last year to the National Library of Ireland Society, I began to think about his Maurice Harmoncontribution to Irish literary studies. I had a connection with the subject since among several works of his I published Harmon’s Richard Murphy: Poet of Two Traditions (1978), and also Murphy’s collection The Mirror Wall (1989).

For many years Maurice has been an influential teacher-cum-scholar at UCD, where he was a key contributor in the development of Irish studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level, able to define and refine his ideas in the MA in Anglo-Irish literature and the MPhil in Irish Studies.

As part of that work he founded and edited for almost two decades the Irish University Review. Under his guidance it became the outstanding journal in its field. It also reflected his strong belief in the importance of bibliography, publishing an annual listing of primary and secondary publications.

But I know him best as a critic and writer. When I published The Poetry of Thomas Kinsella (1974) very little had been written on Kinsella; this first critical study was a welcome introduction. I was impressed with the forensic skill of the criticism. This was followed by a study of Austin Clarke which combined scholarly rigour with a text-centred critical engagement. Hitherto, no one had taken the trouble – and it did require an immense amount of research – to track down the extensive sources and to annotate the poetry line-by-line, allusion-by-allusion.

Harmon’s Select Bibliography for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature and its Backgrounds (1977) was unique. Such guides were available for English and American studies but no one had undertaken the task for Irish studies. A core reference work, it rests on the premise that literature has to be studied in its contexts, whatever they might be, and it is firmly based on the principle that Anglo- Irish literature is all of a piece. Harmon has always believed that it was not enough to study major authors and ignore the rest. The History of Anglo-Irish Literature (1982), which he wrote with Roger McHugh, is all-inclusive.

That outlook is reflected in his books and essays which focus on general issues but also on writers, such as Sean O’Faolain, Benedict Kiely, Patrick Kavanagh, Mary Lavin, and contemporary poets. His Sean O’Faolain: A Life (1994) grew out of years of study and research. O’Faolain serves as a model, polemically engaged with political and social issues and matching intellectual analysis, including historical biography, with creative work.

A measure of his influence – both in Ireland and internationally – may also be detected in his anthology Irish Poetry after Yeats (1979), which was not only a commercial publishing success but which opened the whole idea of there being a poetic tradition that had developed through the second half of the twentieth century. The book, published on both sides of the Atlantic, made people realise that there was indeed poetry after Yeats, two generations of significant poets.

Harmon’s No Author Better Served (1998), the lauded edition of Samuel Beckett’s letters to his American director Alan Schneider, who pioneered productions of Beckett’s plays in the States, is still the only edition of the dramatist’s letters. They contain detailed instructions on how he wanted the plays to be produced and are invaluable to students or producers of the plays. The
book is ‘a scrupulously edited volume’ reflecting a strong sense of responsibility and Harmon’s keen scholarly intelligence.

As the Wolfhound Press publisher I owe a debt to Maurice Harmon. For the first fifteen years or so I benefitted from his advice on new directions the Press might take and on what books I might commission or publish. Since many of these were in Irish Studies they represent another aspect of his influence.

Professor Maurice Harmon is one of the world’s leading scholars in Irish and Anglo-Irish literature. He has served our academic, our literary, and particularly our poetry communities exceptionally well, and continues to contribute to the very highest standards – but always, with a genuine humility, a modesty and honesty that belie the importance of the work he has done. Irish scholarship and the international Irish studies world have been significantly enriched and advanced by his contributions.

As a poet he has published three poetry chapbooks and two substantial collections The Last Regatta (2000) and The Doll with Two Backs (2004). Another collection The Mischievous Boy is due from Salmon next year. His editorship of Poetry Ireland Review was notable because of the direct way he engaged with the contributing poets and for his ‘Advice to a Poet’, which has become a classic of its kind. Another offshoot of that time was his humorous poem ‘Dear Editor’
which struck a chord with me as I remembered letters from would-be authors. Both are available in Maurice Harmon: Selected Essays, edited by Barbara Brown, published in 2006 by Irish Academic Press.

Seamus Cashman established Wolfhound Press in 1974 as a literary and cultural publishing house and was its publisher for 27 years. His collection That Morning Will Come: New and Selected Poems was published by Salmon Poetry in 2007.

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