Instead of a Shrine: The Ireland Chair of Poetry Lectures by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

  • Instead of a Shrine is the title of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin's Ireland Chair of Poetry lectures, published by University College Dublin Press. The following is the text of Edna Longley's speech at the launch on 19 December at the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson Street.

It’s an honour to speak at the launch of the lectures given by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin as Ireland Professor of Poetry: lectures at once conceptually rigorous and seductively accessible, at once playful and profound. An annual public lecture is, rightly, a key element in the job-description of the Ireland Professor. This is because the lectures form a permanent record. They crystallise the distinctive vision that each poet brings to the professorship. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin has done admirable work with students at UCD, TCD and Queen’s University. She has given readings of her poems. She has enhanced poetry’s public currency in multiple ways. But for me, her lectures have a special place. They crystallise a particularly capacious vision: what poetry means to her and should mean to us.

I want to say a word now about the ‘poet-critic’. Poet-critics may be even more important today, when the criticism of poetry has become less prominent in universities: absorbed into ‘cultural studies’ or devalued by identity politics or hidden in creative-writing workshops. I notice that more and more poets are writing books about poetry, as if somehow driven to defend it. In her second lecture, Ní Chuilleanáin herself asks: ‘Who are the readers of poetry?’ Part of this lecture amusingly surveys unattractive stereotypes of the poet in popular fiction. But how disinterested are poet-critics? I’m going to quote what W. H. Auden said on that issue in his first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry: ‘Making, Knowing and Judging’. Here I should give a trigger-warning, as regards gender. Auden said of the poet-critic: ‘As objective statements his definitions are never accurate, never complete and always one-sided ... In unkind moments one is almost tempted to think that all they are really saying is: Read me. Don’t read the other fellows.’ I suppose that was Auden’s own brand of trigger-warning. And, of course, women poets, unlike their male counterparts, would never harbour such motives, even unconsciously. But Auden had a point, if in negative terms: a point we can reframe positively. It’s a question of singular sensibility rather than vested interest. Criticism written by poet-critics has a unique flavour, insight and authority precisely because it is, indeed, inseparable from their creativity. Their aesthetic thinking may also (as with Ní Chuilleanáin) be reflexively present in their poems. I would add that poets’ criticism can take many forms: from extraordinary nuggets in the letters of poets killed in war to the interminable prose of T.S. Eliot.

The hyphen in ‘poet-critic’ is a delicate bridge between different parts of the brain. The best poet-critics are aware that the analytical demands of criticism – in whatever form – may make them unduly self-conscious. Here Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin wisely seems both aware and wary. She has indicated in the past that she doesn’t want to explain or mediate her work as some other poets do. For instance, she has often refused to give lectures lest she might ‘disappear down’ the ‘academic black hole’ she associates with the study of Irish literature in English. So we must be delighted that she has relented: the rarity-value of these lectures renders them all the more precious and significant. But the academy can more generally be a black hole for the poets it employs, even if they don’t specialise in modern or contemporary literature. As a distinguished scholar of Renaissance literature, perhaps Ní Chuilleanáin has solved this problem by making her expertise an inspiration as well as a discipline. She has written: ‘In the early modern period, languages keep their sharp edges, their strangeness to one another’. Her own acute sense of linguistic difference and strangeness pervades Instead of a Shrine. This is so not only when the first lecture pays tribute to the polylingual poetic odyssey of Pearse Hutchinson. Thus the third lecture, which explores the cross-overs between poetry and religion, and which gives the book its title, begins wonderfully in the seventeenth century by evoking Henry King’s glorious ‘Exequy’ for his dead wife: ‘Accept thou shrine of my dead saint/ Instead of Dirges this complaint’.

In oblique and inventive ways, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin opens up three central questions about poetry: the question of tradition, the question of audience, the question of poetry’s cultural roots and reverberations. These questions intertwine in what Robert Graves calls the ‘cool web of language’; Ní Chuilleanáin, ‘a maze of languages’. The lecture on Pearse Hutchinson suggests how tradition, the transmission of trade-craft and much else, works on a micro and macro level. Ní Chuilleanáin writes about Hutchinson’s complex linguistic world, and about his equally complex influence on her own work, in ways that prepare for her discussion of audience in the second lecture. Here she represents the mysterious poet-reader relationship as ultimately established by the ‘immediate intimacy’ whereby a poem makes the reader ‘part of the poet’s network’. Her third lecture widens and deepens that network, in considering poetry as a substitute for ritual or as itself ritual. Ní Chuilleanáin defines ritual as ‘distinguished by the importance it allows to presence and to difference’ – which applies to her own criticism as to her poetry. She also honours poetic ritual by giving due space and attention to particular poems in Irish or English or to polyglot mazes.

The criticism written by poet-critics usually has an autobiographical dimension. Autobiography, sometimes overt, sometimes concealed, is a further pleasure of Instead of a Shrine. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin lays a trail that leads from her youthful reading, writing and self-discovery in Dublin to the Ireland Chair of Poetry, and to these fine lectures.

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