Hamilton’s Law

Any discussion of Poetry Ireland Review must take into account its former incarnations (four in total) which began in 1948. Poetry Ireland appeared that year under the founding editorship of David Marcus and the journal lasted for a total of 19 issues until 1952. The journal published contemporary poets, among them Samuel Beckett, Anthony Cronin, Padraic Fiacc, Pearse Hutchinson, Thomas Kinsella, Eva Gore-Booth and Barbara Hunter. As well as poems and reviews the journal published special issues, including a translation of The Midnight Court, practically a full collection by Dennis Devlin, and an Easter Rising Memorial edition.

Poetry Ireland after four years, and coupled with various financial woes and a falling off in subscriptions, finally morphed into a supplement to the journal Irish Writing, also edited by David Marcus, and again published in Cork. As a supplement however it had its own integrity, and although only 4–8 pages long, had its own title block and separate numbering. This version lasted for 9 issues from 1953–1955 and among the poets published and translated were Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Seán Ó Ríordáin. When this issue folded in 1955, the first phase of Poetry Ireland was over. 

Seven years later, in 1962, under the editorship of John Jordan, Poetry Ireland appeared again, this time published and printed by Dolmen Press. It lasted for all of eight issues and appeared annually until 1968. This journal had a bigger and brighter feel to it compared with earlier versions, and among the poets it published were Austin Clarke, Lorna Reynolds, Thomas Kinsella, Paul Durcan, Michael Hartnett, Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh, Julie Suk, Macdara Woods and John Montague. It’s been suggested that with Dolmen both printing and publishing (and indeed advertising within its pages) that the journal acted as a house magazine for Dolmen Press. Many of the established poets appearing between its covers had collections published, or would go on to have books published, by Dolmen. 

The continuity between the Poetry Ireland which folded in 1968 and the current Poetry Ireland Review which appeared in 1981 is established not least by the fact that John Jordan edited the entire eight issues of the 1960’s edition and would go on to edit the first eight issues of Poetry Ireland Review. John F Deane established the current Review as the flagship of the recently-founded Poetry Ireland organisation. After John Jordan, a rotating editor would edit the review for an average of four issues.

Ian Hamilton once posited that ten years was the typical life-span of a literary magazine, categorising the various stages from initial euphoria to decline. Given that PIR has been in constant production for the past 29 years and can trace its antecedents back 62 years, we have certainly disproved Hamilton’s Law. The journal has succeeded in part because of the backing, both professional and financial, of Poetry Ireland (which is in turn supported by both Arts Councils), and by the loyalty of its subscribers and contributors. The policy of a rotating editor ensures that no one poetic diktat can be enforced, and refreshes the journal and its outlook. 

There is also the continued reinvention of the Review. In 2003, and after consultation with former editors and interested parties, we decided it was time to completely overhaul the magazine from its overall design and appearance down to its weight of paper, fonts etc., to allow us to present poems and prose more attractively and more readably. As part of this overhaul we ensured that the editor was paid a professional rate as opposed to the previous stipend. We also decided that while a rotating editor militates against stagnancy, four issues may not be enough time or space for some editors to make an impression, so we extended the term from four to eight issues where both parties were happy to continue. We were particularly fortunate in finding as our new editor the poet Peter Sirr, who was also a seasoned critic and editor. Sirr went on to edit 15 issues, just one short of John Jordan’s total. This length of tenure was necessary to re-establish the revamped journal as a disinct brand and to ensure a critical constant during this transitional phase.

The editor is pivotal to the enterprise and commissions reviews and employs a balance between responding to the postbag and commissioning new work. We ensure a policy of publishing new and emerging work alongside more established work and international translations, which is the best way to give new work exposure. We publish poetry in the Irish language, and where an editor might not have sufficient Irish we appoint a consultative Irish Language editor. The editor, if he or she wishes, can respond to a particular school of poetry by publishing a feature issue. This further ensures that the Review is an outward looking and international one. Pivotal also to the enterprise is Publications Officer Paul Lenehan, who has worked with the last eight editors, and thus ensures a continuity of experience between rotating editors and the journal. 

Submissions are the life blood of any journal. Editor Biddy Jenkinson in PIR 65 (2000) noted how out of 1,605 poems received she published sixty. This figure works out at about 3.7% of poems published. Last year, of almost 4,000 poems submitted, 124 were published, which works out at around 3% of submissions, in line with most international journals. It’s also an indication of the extent of our national and international postbag and the quantity of poems each editor is required to read through. 

Last March we proudly published PIR 100, guest edited by Paul Muldoon. A centenary issue is a landmark for any poetry journal, especially one that is often regarded as ‘the journal of record of contemporary poetry’. In the words of Fiona Sampson in PIR 100, while Poetry Ireland Review ‘may be a great, engaging read issue by issue... It’s also an invaluable cultural record: one whose significance will grow, rather than be diminished, by the onward march of…another hundred issues.’

This is an edited extract from a presentation on Poetry Ireland Review given by Joseph Woods at ‘The Poet and the Publisher in 20th Century Ireland’, UCD Print Culture Symposium 4, in March this year.

Joseph Woods is a poet and former Director of Poetry Ireland.

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