Bernard O’Donoghue, review of Collected Criticism by Gerald Dawe, in The Irish Times (4 Aug. 1007)

Details: Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘A voice of critical importance’, review of Gerald Dawe, The Proper Word - Collected Criticism: Ireland, Poetry, Politics, in The Irish Times (4 Aug. 1007), Weekend.

Sub-heading: Gerald Dawe has been a force for literary good in various parts of Irish university and cultural life since he became a lecturer in English at University College Galway in 1976.

Since 1988 he has been a lecturer in English and drama at Trinity College Dublin, where - with Brendan Kennelly - he has run the hugely successful graduate creative-writing programme at the Oscar Wilde Centre since 1997.

Between 1978 and 2003 he has published six volumes of poetry, the last five with Gallery Press, and he has edited several influential anthologies and journals, including the canonical The Younger Irish Poets in 1982, and Krino with Jonathan Williams from 1986 to 1996.

So there are plenty of places where these two handsome books might have put their emphasis, especially since Dawe grew up in a liberal context in north Belfast and maintains cordial relations with all parties in Northern Ireland since moving south in the mid-1970s.

Much of his writing remains intently centred on the North; but the phrase that echoes through both books is “How’s the Poetry Going?”, the title-essay of a 1991 collection of critical essays by Dawe, and of a wonderful new poem by Seamus Heaney in An Sionnach.

The poem celebrates an old clock in Farringdon Gardens that has survived all Belfast’s changes and disturbances, its key’s winding movement a “butterfly in braille” made a figure for the “use of poetry ... To be counted on as the moon was by Li Po, / Still at the full, not losing face when we do.”

This last line is a fine tribute to Dawe’s reliability, the virtue elsewhere famously celebrated by Heaney as “keeping going”. It is revealing to recall too that the subtitle of the 1991 essay-collection was Literary Politics and Ireland Today. This is Dawe’s field, and what makes him so valuable a presence in Irish literary life, north and south.

There are several good introductions to Dawe here, both in The Proper Word and in the third issue of the excellent new journal An Sionnach, an issue dedicated to his work. Nicholas Allen’s introduction to The Proper Word is particularly enlightening. One of the virtues of the essays collected here is that several of them are a composite of distinct reviews or shorter contributions, so they catch not just a writer’s moment but a dynamic sense of their development. The two chapter-sections on Eavan Boland economically trace a progress from 1967 to 1986 with total conviction. The essay on Tom Paulin is dated 1984-1996, covering the books of poems and criticism from Liberty Tree to Writing to the Moment.

This essay also captures one of Dawe’s most salutary virtues (one very evident in his presence): a generosity that outweighs reservations. He has the rare gift of offering criticism without offence. In a brilliant passing stroke, he mentions Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, the acme of forthrightness, in relation to Paulin; and somehow, by the end of this alertly critical essay, the reader has a better sense of Paulin’s virtues than is given by most paeans.

As Allen says in his introduction, it is interesting to watch Dawe’s own criticism strengthening through his career, gaining confidence and authority. The later writing is more crisp, less dutiful.

A very good example is the 1998 essay on Derek Mahon, which will serve as an exemplary introduction to a poet that everyone agrees is one of the best without always being able to demonstrate it. Dawe introduces Beckett as an influence, with a fine swing at “the old trick of wheeling out Mutt and Jeff, Yeats and Joyce”. It takes a writer at the top of their game to call the two great icons Mutt and Jeff so stylishly.

In the postscript to The Proper Word, as in its subtitle, Dawe says again that the book’s coherence results from the fact that all the essays are “attempts to find a critical understanding of the relationship, in twentieth-century Ireland, between poetry and politics”. This is his subject - what he shows so well is that the essential norms to be avoided are not just the tired old bugbears, nationalism and unionism, but all kinds of other more insidious traps: Kavanagh’s declaration that “the Irish audience I came in contact with tried to draw out of me everything that was loud, journalistic and untrue”, for example. If you read Dawe’s pages on Durcan here, you will see where exactly that poet’s unique distinction is, in an altogether more challenging area than the Father Ted world of Volkswagens and priests’ housekeepers.

Dawe (who is, of course, a fine poet himself: that is another story) says in an interview with the editors of An Sionnach that The Proper Word is a poet’s criticism rather than a critic’s criticism. I don’t agree; this is criticism by a critic characterised by seriousness and integrity of a high order, and Dawe’s friends and contemporaries line up to salute it in the journal. So yes, the poetry is going fine for Dawe, but so is the criticism, and that is at least as valuable a thing in the bodies politic and cultural.

[ Gerald Dawe, The Proper Word. Collected Criticism: Ireland, Poetry, Politics Edited by Nicholas Allen Creighton University Press, 365pp. €20 An Sionnach, vol.3, no.1: A Special Issue Dedicated to the Work of Gerald Dawe, Ed. David Gardiner, assisted by Nicholas Allen Creighton University Press, 201pp. €10 ]

[ close ] [ top ]