Barra Ó Séaghdha, review of In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from the North of Ireland, ed. John Brown,
in Magill (July 2002)

Details: Barra Ó Séaghdha, ‘Ask Me Another One’, review of In the Chair: Interviews with Poets from the North of Ireland, ed. John Brown, in Magill (July 2002), p.20-21.

One of the less admirable aspects of literary culture in the Republic in the 1980s and 90s was the resentment, no always expressed openly, at the level of media attention and prestige bestowed on writers, and on poets in particular, from Northern Ireland. As the political conflict was acted out in scorching detail in the lives and deaths of so many individuals, people were inevitably going to look to those writers whose lives were touched by violence to interpret the drama. A sympathetic attempt to understand the political and cultural forces, and the human pressures, at work in the North would have helped to keep the literary politics in perspective. And for writers not engaging directly with the Troubles, there was the positive option of building up the quality of literary culture in the Republic.

The publication by Salmon of In the Chair, containing interviews with 22 poets is an opportunity to look at the whole phenomenon of the Northern poet. Robert Greacen, born in 1920, was 50 years old when Colette Bryce, the youngest interviewee, was born, and 80 when her first book was published. The book is timely in a sense probably not intended by its compiler, John Brown: if it is time to look back, it may be because we are looking at something that is coming to an end, the fading of a once-powerful surge of literary energy

What emerges from the interviews with the veterans, Greacen and Roy McFadden, is how inhospitable to poetry Belfast was in the 1940s and 50s. Greacen left for Dublin, then London. John Hewitt worked hard to make the ground more fertile and manage to sustain his own talent to the end of his life. However, there was an unresolved tension between the internationalist, critical pull of his Marxist politics and the unionist inflection of his regionalism. A memo quoted in the Northern Ireland chapter of Lionel Pilkington’s recent and scandalously unreviewed and almost unfindable Theatre and the State in Twentieth Century Ireland indicates how culture was envisioned by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in the 40s and 50s:

The question of control is of paramount importance ... and I do not see any difficulty in arriving at a formula whereby it can be assured that control will always be invested in what may be termed “the right hands”.

In the context of such official thinking, and with Northern Ireland itself only 20 years old, to defer analysis of the relationship between cultural region (Ulster or Northern Ireland) and political unit (Northern Ireland) was ultimately to give comfort to Stormont notions of culture: the kind that insisted that the British national anthem should be played at the beginning rather than at the end of cultural events, for example. It would be difficult for Hewitt to galvanise the cultural energies of both political communities around tactically blurred principles. Roy McFadden, one of the few active poets who remained in Belfast, was initially drawn to Hewitt’s regionalism:

There was common ground there, but I feel that Hewitt made a dogma of regionalism to the point of dishing up minor poets for consideration on the basis of their birth in Ahoghill, or their qualifications in lint pulling.

Hewitt’s move to Coventry, after one battle too many with official pettiness, seemed to signal the failure of a generation’s hopes.

Though John Montague was later to be assimilated to the Northern poet phenomenon, his 60s lyrics were not read primarily in a regionalist light. It was the emergence, more or less at the same time, of Heaney, Mahon, Longley, Simmons and Deane that focused interest on the specifically Northern thrust of the new poetry. If there are problems with Hewitt’s regionalism, it does not follow at all that there is no specifically Northern Irish experience. The religious, cultural and political make-up of Northern Ireland society created its own realities, as did the fact that the state education system presented a British view of history and of the world. Another striking cultural difference that emerges from these interviews is the role of the Second World War in shaping both social and family history, and in accentuating the North/South divide.

As no one can accurately predict the emergence of particular talents, it is as well to be cautious about explaining them retrospectively as well. Both North and South, relatively enclosed societies began to open up economically, politically and culturally in the 1960s. There was an international as well as an internal dimension to the process. The relatively homogeneous nature of society in the post-Partition South meant that the process of change was manageable; the freezing in place of unresolved conflict in the post-Partition North meant that even minor change unleashed 50 years of suppressed energies. The initial period of opening up - with growing confidence and, at last, a sense of a future - followed so soon by the tearing-apart of a whole society, asked difficult questions of everybody, including the poets of course.

The idea that conflict in society is good for creativity is naive and even dangerous. There is nothing to suggest that those young writers whose lives have coincide with the Troubles are operating on a level with the first wave of writers to emerge the 60s and 70s. A gift like Heaney’s, rooted in trust, was severely tested both by hist and by the role of cultural spokesman for a community forced upon him. The pressures can be read in the still-creative uncertainty of the outstanding Fieldwork collection, but may have damaged the voice in the volumes that followed. Has the long process of negotiating and overcoming damage produced work surpassing that the 70s? (Heaney’s comments here on his own background and earlier work are modest, illuminating and gently self-critical.) With all due respect to the talents that have emerged since, it may be that, whe all the talking is done, the 70s (a long 70s perhaps, stretching a little into the 80s) emerge as the decade of real poetic achievement - witnessing the finest work of Montague, Heaney and Mahon, to name but three. Michael Longley’s work has followed a different pattern; his interview one of the few to display a detailed low the individual voice of other poets, pasi and present; he is frank, and sometime: amusing, about the traditional poetic values by which he operates.

It is striking, in fact, how conservative literary taste predominates among the writers interviewed. (Not for the first time, Padraic Fiacc is an interesting and awkward presence here, a kind of ghost at the feast.) The literary repatriation to Northern Ireland of Louis MacNeice, his urban cosmopolitanism a useful balance to Hewitt more grounded vision, has been successful to judge from the number of reference to him here. Though the critic Edna Longley prefers to present herself as an old-fashioned, non-political literary critic who [hap]pens to be annoyed with (usually nationalist) cant, she is the principal intellectual force behind the revamping of Hewitt’s regionalism for modern times. Her gift for close reading and her taste for non-modernist English writing of the 20th century have been transmitted to many of her students at Queen’s and have fed into the broader literary culture of Northern Ireland.

Quite a number of interviewees refer to Larkin or Hughes, but English writers like Roy Fisher or Ken Smith - not to mention the self-consciously modernist school of Prynne - are off the map. Most American references are to the long-dead, with Robert Frost as likely to figure as Eliot. Does the almost-total indifference to contemporary European writing evidenced here suggest that there is a certain thinness, to put it mildly, to the European dimension of Longleyite regionalism? Or are we to accept that an interest in a political European ideal need have no cultural dimension?

With John Montague based in the Cork area for decades now, his long-standing interest in contemporary American and French writing does not seem to have rubbed off on younger writers in the North. The self-contained perfection of Derek Mahon’s finest work inspires more admiration than imitation; his geographical and personal detachment - and his avoidance of any leadership role - may also have curtailed the potential influence of his interest in translation. Heaney’s translations have largely been a conversation with literary forebears, often ancient. Ciaran Carson has worked on 19th-century French poetry rather than on his contemporaries. It is arguable that there was a greater knowledge of European culture and languages among Irish writers of the pre-cappuccino era than among today’s young writers. In any case, it is worth asking just what our alleged Europeanness amounts to.

It is almost parodically characteristic of Paul Muldoon that he should appear here in the guise of a 1981 interview, while all other interviews are either recent or are updated versions of older ones. Twenty years of his life and twenty years of literary invention have disappeared. It is unlikely that this is because the compiler and interviewer in chief believes that those years have added little to Muldoon’s overall achievement (though the case could be argued). With no up-to-date Muldoon interview available, for whatever reason, the proper Muldoonite thing to have done would have been for John Brown to list his questions and to leave the space for answers blank. Like 14 of the other 22 interviews here, this hypothetical interview would have begun with the words “You were born in ...’

Muldoon has always had the knack of inspiring awe among his peers and his elders. Ciaran Carson testifies to having written very little between 1976 and 1985: ‘Paul Muldoon was doing the thing so well, so why bother?’ It is extraordinary that someone with Carson’s already proven gifts should have felt this, and fortunate that he was able to re-invent himself in collections like The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti. If anything, he is now in danger of over-inventing himself - not unlike Muldoon. In each case, the Houdini element - watch me get out of this set of chains! - is becoming an end in itself.

As it stands, In the Chair is an entertaining and very useful compendium of material on an important aspect of modern Irish literary history, but it is not without faults. John Brown’s devotion to the chronological approach becomes monotonous in the long run. Would it not have been possible to work from the present backwards in some cases? A little lateral thinking might have triggered less predictable responses in certain cases. It is also not clear whether the interviews were all recorded live. The failure in many cases to follow up on an interesting comment or statement suggests either an inflexible determination to stick to a fixed set of questions or that the interview was carried out in written or email format - without a second round of clarification and supplementaries.

Why is there no reaction to Seamus Deane’s opinions about his contemporaries and the prevailing literary ideology, and to similar frankness on the part of Martin Mooney? Why no reaction to Ciaran Carson’s comment on Irish-language writers who take themselves too seriously? Why is Tom Paulin, who knows an opinion when he sees one, allowed to wander off the point, to evade political questions and to contradict himself at will? Brown can hardly have felt intimidated, as Paulin offscreen is a mild-mannered and cooperative individual. When James Simmons presents himself as a non-unionist, non-nationalist liberal whose primary interest is in class politics, why is he not asked, for example, about the extraordinary, near-racist stereotyping of Northern Catholics in the original version of “Sex, Rectitude, and Loneliness” (‘My old flame always hated loneliness, / morality. Her people cling to groups, they cherish/ shared angers and excitements only./ They can’t feel anything alone but lonely … ). Canadian poet David Manicom’s assessment of the Selected Poems has never been taken on by Simmons’s many admirers.

Finally, there is the matter of female representation. There were no recognised female poetic voices before Medbli McCuckian, so it is to be expected that the anthology should be largely male. In an attempt to compensate perhaps, four of the last seven interviewees are female. When asked about female personifications of Ireland, Cherry Smyth says: ‘I hope you asked the male poets the same question!’ In fact, the questioning in this interesting and contentious area is quite feeble. Sinyth herself is very politicised, in contrast with Moyra Donaldson, but in neither case are fundamental questions pursued by the interviewer. it would also have been interesting, as Sinyth suggests, to ask the younger male interviewees about male/female issues and the rather macho literary culture that seems to prevail in Northern Ireland.

John Brown’s commitment to his subject, and the depth of research that lies behind it, is undeniable. In the Chair provides a wealth of information and opinion. if there are questions to be asked about the questions that he asks, there is no doubting the validity and usefulness of the whole project.

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