The New Irish Poets|
by ed. Selina Guinness
The Boy with No Face
by Kevin Higgins
by Conor O'Callaghan
Post Your Opinion
by Chris Jennings
Poetry anthologies thrive on representation and generalization. In particular, they tend to propose that some broad category (nationality, generation, gender, sexuality etc.) reflects and defines the stylistic character of their contents, coaxing accidents of biography into a narrative about a culture's poetics. In turn, each poet's selection supposedly represents the kind of writing he or she does, often serving as a useful sample catalogue of "new" poets you might not otherwise encounter. Choosing representative poems and poets, though, means privileging some qualities over others, and in Selina Guinness's The New Irish Poets, even her persuasive introduction cannot quite dispel the tint of her editorial lens. With its preference for traditional forms- "the rich shapes that poetry gifts to language" Guinness calls them-the anthology seems to promote rather than to reflect a particular image of new Irish poetry.
In Canada, an anthology like this would inevitably call a counterweight publication into being (some say new poets breathe fire, some that they piss ice) to contest the impression of a representative, new-formalist majority. In this case, a competing text might illuminate the way Guinness's concentration of formal poets in TNIP conditions our expectations and influences how the less-traditional poets are read. In five to ten poems, a freer poetics simply doesn't have the space to establish its own logic and music, as it so often needs to do. It's also hard to know if Guinness's "new formalists" (including Vona Groarke, SinTad Morrissey, John McAuliffe, Conor O'Callaghan, Catrfona O'Reilly, Justin Quinn, and David Wheatley) are best described by an association with tradition or by a shared and remarkable awareness of the subtle tensions between line and syntax, vocal cadence and musical interval.
The distinction I'm making may be a question of too-faint praise. There's a vast disparity between accomplished formal exercises and the fit of subject and form that makes a villanelle or sestina an excellent poem. Morrissey's "Genetics", for example, associates the genetic double helix with the villanelle's overlapping rhyme and repetition and mirrors it thematically in the way a child's body twines the genetics of the parents: "With nothing left of their togetherness but friends / who quarry for their image by a river, / at least I know their marriage by my hands." Tom French's "Pity the Bastards" generates a ritualistic energy from an expansive syntax in which every sentence begins anaphorically with the title's imperative clause. The poem memorializes a vanishing, rural, itinerant labouring life in a form that's iterative, cyclical and constantly kinetic. Groarke's poems look like they have formal models because they work stanzaically; she often closes off each stanza to emphasise it as a compositional unit. Syntax and idiom then naturalise the form. The logic of its progression flows from a spontaneous speaker rather than a deliberate writer, even when she incorporates telling lyric schemes. This is the first stanza of "The Way It Goes":
Choose one version. Turn it. Let it go. See how it spins,
what it fastens, what it sheds. You could call it a thread
that leads you or a tie that binds, but this is a land-
wasted by the fervour of clean lines. You were one for
happenstance and the story that belied its ordained
And where in all that tangle of fresh starts and dead
could I find a place where I might rightfully begin?
Flexible line length creates variable intervals when Groarke works in rhymes. Internal rhyme in line two offers "sheds" and "thread" within five syllables; "binds" in line three then picks up "lines" fifteen syllables later; and "end" echoes in "begin" almost thirty syllables later. Each set of rhymes pairs words that are valuable to the poem's sense of creative selection, developing the outward spiral of storytelling rather than merely ornamenting the poem's argument. This subtlety is typical of Groarke's work (I highly recommend her third book Flight, published by Gallery in 2002).
Those who lament the prominence of prosy, free-verse lyricism in Canadian poetry-its emblem the zebra mussel nested in a field of larkspur-will find equal measures of anecdotal free verse from Ireland handled with equal skill. That is, sometimes excellently. Kerry Hardie's "She Goes with Her Brother to the Place of Her Forebears" and "The Avatar" filter faith and family history through anecdotes in which the speaker's perspective shifts under the influence of another's faith. Gear=id Mac Lochlainn writes in Irish, but even in translation "Rite of Passage" creates exactly the kind of universal-in-the-particular immediacy most lyrics want. The nanve glee of an adolescent Irish boy randomly interrogated by British soldiers ("I was...a swaggering Jack the Lad!") melts when he gets some sense of the real implications of the moment: "The play is different / when you go to the wall. // A little kick on the heels / splayed my legs. / I felt a thumb or a gun / muzzle my back." Like Hardie's poems, it stands out for narrative immediacy rather than technical skill. They overshadow many satisfying-but-less-ambitious poems here. Anthologies are more cutthroat competitions than most overt contests.
Kevin Higgins might be glad to have published his first book, The Boy With No Face, in 2005. Otherwise, his dense list of international publishing credits might have qualified him for inclusion in The New Irish Poets, and, as good as he is at what he does, his style would be an odd fit in Guinness's anthology. It's loose, conversational, idiomatic, and mordant-qualities that, when judged by the standards of TNIP, might produce responses like the one the speaker of Higgins's "In the Cold Light of Day" receives: "Your work could be much more technically crisp."
Technique is not Higgins's mTtier. He is more sharp than crisp and more successful satirically than lyrically. "Knives" offers a fairly concise insight into Higgins's poetic persona: "I come from a long line of men, / who saw words not as decorations / but weapons, knives with which to cut / others down to size." Many poems, especially early in the book, address an unidentified "you" ("you seem to have found yourself"; "[y]our girlfriend will dump you"; "[w]hen you examine the scum in your favorite mug"). When "I" appears, it's often in caricatured imitation: "I am Frank McCourt's next book / and, even worse, I'm his brother." It's the privilege of the satirist to point out others' flaws, and the unspecified second person bridges the gap between an individual and a particular flawed type. Many of Higgins's short sketches therefore skewer their subject in a representative moment. "The Libertine" reduces its portrait to a couplet: "Plagued with infections, vice has its price, / he just passes them on, like good advice." Several poems draw on the mirror as trope: "Look in the mirror! / The smirk has slipped, Sunny Jim. / The face on the floor is definitely yours." This borders on self-reflexive satire, as though "you" were a thin reflection of "I". Linked together by common vices, the early poems seem to scrutinize fragmentary facets of a larger self.
Higgins has a history as a successful performer of his work, but the politics and humour of slam or performance poetry often flatten on the page. The page only conveys something of the full impact Higgins's poems might have toward the book's end. The narrative of "The Boy with No Face"-abandoned, burned while saving a friend, turning to inhalants at eleven-succeeds because Higgins's tempo and repetition convey anger better than sympathy: "I'm the boy with no face. / I wander at night, stand around the fires that blaze in the dead zones / at the stopped heart of this city. Casual acquaintances. / Sniff glue and petrol, learn to shoot up." "Blackhole" seeds anaphoric subordinate clauses within anaphoric sentences:
This is the place where council estates come
with built in big dogs and gunshots,
where dull sun bakes the furnace air
as tower-block windows give that careless look
that only tranquilised eyes can throw
The poem has a venom to its urban vision that conjures a bitter, articulate speaker. There's very little in Guinness's anthology that explores this style, and it's the standard by which Higgins's work should be measured, particularly as he moves forward from a first book that often feels like a first book.
Fiction is Conor O'Callaghan's third book of poems. Like Higgins, he has an impressive list of credits. Unlike Higgins, the list includes a rather prominent place in The New Irish Poetry, where he is accorded the most space and is compared to Don Patterson and Simon Armitage. Still, Fiction proves that, even when an anthology slants in your favour, generalised selections provide an inadequate view of a poet's abilities. The anthologised poems certainly demonstrate O'Callaghan's formal skills, particularly his sense of alternatives to stanziac intervals and full rhyme, as well as his wit and inventiveness in "Fall" and the poems from "Loose Change". Fiction, though, shows how purposeful those inventions actually are. The anthology selection also muffles the consistency with which O'Callaghan develops complex themes over several poems.
Thematically, questions of mediated communication ripple throughout Fiction. The sequence "'Hello'" revolves around the telephone and the considerable stress that disembodied conversations put on greetings; accent and idiom, tone and tenor all become telling signs. The fourth poem in the sequence, "And the Winner Is..." plays with the emptiness of the word "hello" as though with ghosts of its etymology.
as imagination will allow
something as holy
and wholly empty
as any halo,
a halfway house between
a hiccup and a holler,
of the heavy-hearted
Poor Tom howls at the Fool
and an old-fashioned
a domesticated version
of the hallowed Hallelujah,
only secular and ringing hollow.
From "allow", the various echoes of "hello" roll through "holy", "wholly", "halo", "holler", "alloy", "halloo", "hallowed Hallelujah", and "hollow". They are the backbone for other sonic ribs and rhymes, all incorporated in a sentence that rarely varies from a naturalistic syntax. It's the work of a poet marvelously aware of language's potential. A poem composed entirely of titles, "Other Titles in This Series", expands that awareness by gesturing to a love story whose body never materialises. The list of titles begins with "'Creation Myth'" and ranges toward "'Bluegrass Country'" and "'No New Messages'", invoking a familiar narrative arc and suggesting just how complicit audiences are in creating fiction from the smallest hints and signs.
In Fiction, this kind of complicity is vital to even the most intimate forms of meaning-making. The central metaphor of "Out-takes" is that life is a broadcast complete with annoying or embarrassing out-takes that we edit from our self-perception. "Reception" employs a similar trope, concentrating instead on the audience for the broadcast, the "sad sap, / twiddling the tuner while a future dawn was breaking" who might "pick me up in the drumbeats between stations." This faceless, random audience shifts as the speaker appropriates an anecdote "overheard [...] over a glass of ropey Chianti / told by a bloke with a lisp the size of a pup / at a function of the wedding of your cousin." Now the speaker's ability to genuinely communicate depends on an intimate "You" who "suffered" the anecdote "daily / in that hole where we were broke and green as barley," and who is something like a descrambler of the speaker's authentic signs-"Patron saint of sound and vision interference! / Uncrowned queen of tracking and rabbit's ears!" The poem draws out the need for cooperative partners who distinguish blind transmission of a "pre-rehearsed" image of self (a fiction, a lie) and an authentic, engaged self. "Cover Version" brings this focus on communicating truth back to the efficacy of fiction. O'Callaghan toys with the romantic convention of "our song", and-aware of both the romance and the convention-dispenses with the sentimentality by considering the purpose of having an "our song". The prototype is
a remake based on no original
like a cloudless blue that yields a minute's rainfall,
a chorus misremembered until it's not the same,
a string of variations on no particular theme.
It serves only as imprintable sign, with no authentic version to resist the romantic fictions it will be asked to carry.
Resistance also plays a part in the remarkable "Loose Change" poems, the first of which invokes Raymond Carver's short fiction. Like many Carver stories, these poems, each a sonnet cut off at the volta, end with a moment of crisis that stays unresolved. Fiction, however, ends with a complete, self-aware sonnet with a title that points back to the book in your hand, "This". Its octave is a coda of images and fragments, its sestet an image of satisfaction thrown slightly off:
Then the night before last, after a few maudlin drinks,
I gave myself a table of pals dishing out seconds and
and tippling till the cows come home and leaving the dinner things
for armchairs on the porch and a silence without words
that was nothing of the sort, thanks to this and thanks
to the darkness I threw in, littered with mockingbirds.
Fiction is good at producing such darkness-tinged satisfactions. It avoids comparisons not only with other "new" poets, but skews away, except in broad terms, from even the flattering comparisons to Patterson and Armitage. Better still, it escapes both the ring of novelty and those grand, Irish literary spectres who seem to diminish those around them even outside the confines of an anthology.