A Breath of Fresh Air

Poetry Ireland News November/December 2010

Forty years ago Soundings appeared like a breath of fresh air on the Irish educational scene and blew away traditional, conservative approaches to the reading and appreciation of poetry. Its recent reappearance has created a wave of nostalgia among those who had used it in secondary school. Based on the idea that the text was central, Soundings focused not so much on what the poem said as on how it said it, the means not the message. Significantly, the Glossary was placed at the end of the book, before the brief biographical notes. Here historical figures and events encountered in the poems were identified and strange or difficult words explained, but the aim was to get these identifications and explanations out of the way so as not to interfere with the main business of the book which was the reading of poems.

The Explorations which came at the end of each poem took on this critical task with enthusiasm, choosing to ask questions rather than to provide answers. The questions challenged the student to look closely at particular lines, to consider possible meanings, to examine images, to read backwards as well as forwards, to discover connections and associations within the poem, to listen for tone, to imagine the kind of persona who is speaking, and sometimes to relate the poem to others in the anthology. This was vastly different from what had gone on in the past where students were required to learn a set number of lines by heart and were given a general sense of the poem’s meaning. In the new approach, the interaction between student and text was ongoing, varied and engaged. When it succeeded, it enabled the student to acquire a personal sense of how a poem worked and the ways in which language could be used. Behind its emphases lay the work of New Critics like I A Richards, William Empson, and Cleanth Brooks, whose approaches had influenced the teaching of literature at University College Dublin where Augustine Martin was a member of staff.

What stands out is the reliance on chronological order. The anthology moved from the homely realism of Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ to the humane considerations of fifteen of  Shakespeare’s sonnets, to the powerful interrogations of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and to several poems by the Metaphysicals – George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell – whom the New Critics had brought back into vogue. John Milton is suitably represented with ‘Lycidas’, Book 1 of Paradise Lost, the sonnet on his blindness and a couple of poems, but there is a gap between Alexander Pope and the Romantics. The latter, however, are represented with Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Surprised by Joy’, and a couple of lyrics, Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, two of Keats’s Odes, and other lyrics by both poets.

Strangely, William Blake is missing.  His ‘Songs of Innocence’ would surely have been attractive to young readers. Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also absent which is a pity given his importance in the history of English literature. The melodious Tennyson is included but the more robust Browning is excluded, and this choice too makes one wonder about the rationale and the taste behind the decisions which were made. Hopkins and Hardy are well represented with Eliot and Dylan Thomas concluding this section. The inclusion of the latter and the exclusion of W H Auden and Louis MacNeice are unfortunate.

The Irish section was always disappointingly limited. It has a good selection from W B Yeats and  Patrick Kavanagh, although there is nothing from ‘The Great Hunger’. Austin Clarke is not well represented by ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’. While these poems are attractive on their own, they give a false impression of his work, since the anthology ignores his religious, satirical, and more realistic achievements. The presence of Thomas Kinsella merely signals the emergence of a new generation of poets; his early work is represented in ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’. The anthology ends with him and ignores all that has happened in Irish poetry since the 1950s.

Nevertheless students got a sense of the development of English literature from the Middle Ages to the early part of the Twentieth Century, and were exposed to different kinds of poetry, and to different uses of language. The absence of women poets with the exception of  Emily Dickinson would not have encouraged women students to write poetry. Because of its omissions the anthology has always been flawed as an educational work. Now the publisher has not taken the opportunity to make the book more comprehensive and contemporary nor has any attempt been made to make it visually more attractive. 

Unfortunately, in recent years the sense of chronology has been taken away with the result that students enter university with little sense of literary periods. Given a choice of several individual poets, they focus on a small number with a view to getting a maximum number of points in the Leaving Certificate Examination. This wretched approach is at odds with the expectations which were present in Soundings.

Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin and with a new introduction by Joseph O’Connor, is published by Gill and Macmillan

Maurice Harmon is a poet and critic. His collection When Love Is Not Enough: New and Selected Poems was published in 2010 by Salmon Poetry.

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