BOOKS / Same old story, a fight for love and glory: William Scammell admires the rising new wave of poetry coming out of Ireland, both north and south

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IRELAND's most satisfying revenge on England, perhaps, is to take hold of our language and use it better than we do. From Swift to Beckett, Sterne to Joyce, Goldsmith to Friel and Yeats to Heaney, there's a scathing, witty intelligence nurtured on high culture and low expectations; wild humour and formal inventiveness; and a lyric pastoralism which casts a warm eye on the daily round, saying with Patrick Kavanagh that 'importance' lies right here under our feet.

The willingness to take a fresh look at things, myth and history as well as language, is also evident in the revival of Gaelic poetry, once mired in patriotic cliche but now revitalised, we are told, by a new generation of practitioners. Here's Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, for example, on heroic Cathleen, 'who never stops bending your ear/about the good old days of yore':

And I bet old Gummy Granny

has taken none of this on board

because of her uncanny

knack of hearing only what confirms

her own sense of herself, her

honey-nubile form

and the red rose, proud rose or canker

tucked behind her ear, in the

head-band of her blinkers.

This is from The Astrakhan Cloak (Gallery Press pounds 6.95), translated by Paul Muldoon, an excellent introduction to Dhomhnaill's much-praised work. She takes hold of the Headless Horseman and the fairy fort, the Horn of Plenty (a deep-freeze) and the Salmon of Knowledge, and brings them irreverently and happily alongside the modern chaos. In this she resembles such contemporaries as Muldoon and Paul Durcan. There's a delightfully fresh 'First Communion' juxtaposed with a fine elegy, 'The Black Train' (though references to Dachau and Belsen worried me - surely that atrocity stands apart from the general doom?). A 14-part Immram, or voyage-poem, closes the book with great gusto.

Ciaran Carson is part of the general efflorescence north of the border, a barnstorming poet who ransacks all the vocabularies of his 'second language', English, in search of poetic street-cred, or perhaps just a hurricane of words with which to bombard current events. His First Language (Gallery Press pounds 5.95) has the familiar mannerisms, long prosy lines and far-fetched rhymes which owe more to Ogden Nash than to the craftsmanship of any of the modern-Irish masters. 'At the previous Chancellor's Last Supper, he was seized by a sudden triskaidecaphobia / Which took him to the fourteenth floor, where he became immersed in a conference of bankers from the Bank of Wachovia.'

The stream of jokes, puns, anagrams and knowing references to 'bragadoccio and garble' read more like someone revving up in neutral than a writer with a destination to get to: 'The name / Of Names eluded him as yet, but he was working on it and had found the Name of the Game.' The name of this particular game is Muldoon, but without a glimmer of the original's grace, inventiveness and wit.

There are at least two love-affairs going in Carol Rumens' new and selected poems Thinking of Skins (Bloodaxe pounds 8.95): one with Belfast, where she currently lives, and one with a nameless woman - or Woman pure and simple, in various incarnations. 'I'd asked her to bed. And she'd come to bed. End of story', says the mysteriously titled 'Stealing the Genre'. What genre is that, one wonders - the love poem, the seduction poem, the 'fighting her corner in a man's world' poem? The poem's bafflement - desire stays unrequited - is fine and compelling, its 'So we lay in grace' lyricism rather more bookish and fantasy-like.

Rumens' seriousness is admirable, and so is her determination not to divide herself up between the personal and the political, but to see things whole, in all their splendid mess. There are times when she seems on the point of being not merely a good but a major poet. The new work has a provisional air about it, however, which is reflected both in its formal uncertainties and in various gobbets of influence, from MacNeice to McGuckian to Plath. Elsewhere there is a generous selection of accomplished poetry from seven previous volumes.

Two very different first collections deserve a salute: Conor O'Callaghan's The History of Rain (Gallery Press pounds 5.95) and Brendan Cleary's The Irish Card (Bloodaxe pounds 6.95). O'Callaghan's relaxed lyricism engages promisingly with everyday moments of stillness and motion, and with the elements in which he swims, literally and metaphorically, with considerable grace: 'We do this at least once a year./ The midges, the cow parsley, the stagnant air / are signposts to the only deep enough pool / after weeks have dried the current to a trickle' ('River at Night'). Cleary's 'smart-arse' verse nicely bridges the gap between performance poetry and the mainstream. As the title suggests, he is alive to the ironies in his own artless persona. His world-view seldom extends beyond the nearest pub and the last joint, but the neo-Liverpool post-Beatniky charm is laced with a bracingly manic humour.

Derek Mahon is required reading for anyone who cares about modern poetry. His latest adaptation is a version of Euripides' strange play The Bacchae (Gallery Press pounds 5.95), in which the god Dionysus is revenged on the rationalist scoffer Pentheus. It's tough work transporting those choral odes to the late 20th century - 'My name is Dionysus, son of Zeus/ and Semele, Cadmus' eldest daughter. Whoosh] / I was delivered by a lightning flash . . .' - but Mahon has an excellent stab at it, only occasionally teetering on the edge of bathos:

Gods move at their own pace

ignoring earthly hours;

when proud minds race

in search of godly powers

the gods provide correction

to the vain man who tries

to replace faith with action,

tradition with vanities.

Truth as old as the hills,

derived from very nature,

rules the world and rules

the life of every creature . . .

It's still the same old story,

a fight for love and glory,

and every heart admits that this is so.

Comments