Penguin Classics, £40, 1032pp. £36 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, Edited by Patrick Crotty

This is a magnificent anthology. Its size alone (over 1000 pages) would make it outstanding, but more to the point is its scope and adventurousness. It achieves what might seem nearly impossible, a balanced view of Irish poetry from the earliest times to the present. It does a great job of sorting out the unsurpassable from the merely passable. It's undaunted by the magnitude of the undertaking. Of course, like all editors of anthologies, Patrick Crotty isn't without a quirk or two, or an idee fixe of his own. These are most apparent, perhaps, when it comes to contemporary poetry and the vexed question of who's in and who isn't. As Crotty acknowledges in his sterling introduction, it's inevitable that "eyebrows will be raised" over this or that choice. I would have dropped some and added others; but every reader, naturally, will have his or her own opinion.

So what do we have? All the formidable poetic virtues, elegance, precision, intricacy, integrity, find an outlet here, from the sixth-century "Lament for Colum Cille" to Derek Mahon's "Courtyards in Delft". We have passages from William Allingham's "Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland" ("The Hamlet clustering on its hill is seen, A score of petty homesteads, dark and mean"), and many gems of the present, including Seamus Heaney's "A Sofa in the Forties".

Some Ulster Scots poems get in - "Donegore Hill", for example, by James Orr - along with those in Irish (translated) and standard English. The Nun of Beare, poems of the Fianna, O Bruadair, Jonathan Swift, O Rathaille, Peadar O Doirnin, Goldsmith, Yeats, Joyce, Louis MacNeice, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, Paul Muldoon...

Although the national story, the historical narrative, is adumbrated through complementary or contradictory verses, and all the plights and obsessions peculiar to the Irish get a showing, the book avoids an unduly nationalist, or any other kind of, bias. It simply keeps in mind the fact that Irish poets have always had something to react to, or inveigh against, whether new ways taking over from the old, an imposed asceticism in the place of abundance, or the terrible consequences of misgovernment.

You should read this book as an extension of, and not a riposte to, good poetry anthologies of the recent past. Crotty pays tribute to a few of these, Thomas Kinsella's and John Montague's among them. He doesn't mention the Penguin Book's most obvious predecessor, Kathleen Hoagland's 1000 Years of Irish Poetry (1947), with which there is, unavoidably, quite a bit of overlap.

Both rely quite heavily on translation, since a good deal of their chosen material was written in Irish. Like Hoagland, Crotty has included all the great 19th- and early 20th-century translators: Samuel Ferguson, James Clarence Mangan, Kuno Meyer, Whitley Stokes. He has a tremendous advantage, in that new versions of old poems have recently become available in all their amazing variety.

It was (for example) an inspired choice on the part of the present editor to have four translations of Brian Merriman's "The Midnight Court" (c.1780) running in tandem: Ciaran Carson's, Seamus Heaney's, Thomas Kinsella's and Frank O'Connor's, all, in their different ways, as vivid and invigorating as the original ("How dare this old dirt-bird discuss womankind,/When a proof of his manhood no woman can find!").

As well as the more formal poetry that exemplifies the trends of successive eras - the high-mindedly Hibernian, austerely Augustan, rumbustiously rural, or whatever - there are sections devoted to songs and ballads of the type that used to be popular in the street or fair. Some have named authors such as WB Yeats, Thomas Davis or Patrick Kavanagh, but most are anonymous ("The Cow Ate the Piper"; "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You").

I am pleased Crotty found space for that epitome of Belfast aplomb, "The Ballad of William Bloat" ("In a mean abode on the Shankill Road,/ Lived a man named William Bloat"). However, I have to point out that this particular contribution is not anonymous (though it reads as if it ought to be). Raymond Calvert wrote it in the early part of the 20th century. Moreover, his words don't entirely correspond to those transcribed by Crotty.

Some other small errors or peculiarities have crept in here and there. For example, Crotty oddly gives the impression he thinks Padraig Colum's "The Poor Girl's Meditation" is an original poem, when it's a word-for-word translation of the Irish, "Ta me 'mo shuidhe o d'eirigh an ghealach areir". Francis Ledwidge's "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh" horrendously changes "But" to "And" in the final quatrain, thereby undermining the whole point of the poem.

One could go on with this kind of nit-picking. But, viewed as a whole, The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is so rich in its inclusions, so superbly organised, showing such breadth of scholarship and (in general) felicity of judgement that complaint soon dies away, and applause for a great achievement prevails.

Patricia Craig's memoir, 'Asking for Trouble', is published by Blackstaff

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