Originally published in RÍ- Rá, the entertainment supplement of The Irish Post, Saturday 28th September, 2013.
There was a sunlit absence.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Mossbawn: 1. Sunlight’
WHEN Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney passed on, some weeks ago, Cork poet Theo Dorgan remarked that “A great oak has fallen.” In the aftermath of the Nobel committee’s decision to award Heaney the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, the Derry poet cast a huge shadow over Irish poetry with many Irish poets struggling to emerge from the shade. True, Heaney can never truly be succeeded, though in the aftermath of the great man’s passing, I look at five Irish contemporary Irish poets who are likely, now, to shine in the sunlight.
Born in 1951, New Jersey- based, Armagh poet Paul Muldoon, a natural successor and protégé to Seamus Heaney, can now be considered the foremost Irish poet of the current era.
Muldoon first met Heaney at a reading in Armagh in 1967 when Muldoon was just 16 years of age and, at the time, writing furiously. A poet blessed with a gift for strong images and lucid endings, Muldoon has been described as a “postmodern master” who has subverted lyric poetry with pop culture references and a formal playfulness that have come to define his style. Muldoon’s poetry is witty, entertaining and full of lyric tenderness.
Having co- written ‘My Ride’s Here’ with Warren Zevon (which, Bruce Springsteen has covered, live) and published two volumes of song lyrics, written his band Wayside Shrines (formerly Rackett), Muldoon has gained a younger readership through his associations with rock music. Muldoon’s stock with music fans has also been boosted by his friendship with Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, to whom he dedicated ‘Word on the Street’, his latest volume of song lyrics.
Signature poem: ‘Quoof’, the title poem from Muldoon’s 1983 collection of poems, is an example of the poet’s formal playfulness, his keen ear for language and his subtle rhetoric.
Where to start: Selected Poems 1968 – 1983 gives an accurate portrait of a prolific, precocious and prodigiously gifted poet.
What he says: “Form is a straightjacket in the way that a straightjacket was a straightjacket for Houdini”
What they say: “Possibly the biggest influence on all original British and Irish poets who began writing after the mid- seventies.” Ruth Padel, The Guardian
Ciaran Carson is, in many senses, the ultimate Belfast poet. Born in 1948 into an Irish- speaking family in Belfast, where the poet still lives, Carson has unparalleled access to the Irish language, to Irish myth and to Irish folklore. Indeed, Carson’s translation of The Táin may very well be the most definitive version of the Irish- language epic that we have in the English language.
Heavily inspired by Louis MacNiece, Carson has an ear for the flow and music of poetry that would easily be the envy of many poets with weightier reputations. Like MacNeice, Carson’s lines are, generally, quite long and Carson sustains the line length with a virtuoso use of punctuation and sound patterns. Through the Irish vernacular and a rare gift for story- telling, Carson’s most memorable poems offer a kaleidoscopic view of the chaos and solace often found in Belfast during the Troubles.
Signature poem: ‘Belfast Confetti’, from 1987’s The Irish for No, is pure Carson: MacNeice’s influence shines through in this postmodern take on urban chaos during the Troubles. It also contains unforgettable opening lines: Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car keys. A fount of broken type.
Where to start: The Ballad of HMS Belfast: A Compendium of Belfast Poems.
What he says: “I write in English, but the ghost of Irish hovers behind it; and English itself is full of ghostly presences,” (‘The Other’)
What they say: “Carson is one of the most original poets now at work in this country…He is the master of the long line; these poems are manic, frightening and funny, and somehow manage to catch the tone of life in modern Belfast.” John Banville, author
Dublin poet Paula Meehan has been writing some of most beautiful, elegiac and spiritual lyric poems in Irish poetry in recent decades. Born in 1955 and raised into two characteristically working class areas of Dublin (Gardiner Street and Finglas) and expelled from St. Michael’s Holy Faith Covent school in Finglas for leading a protest against the school’s regime, Meehan’s best poems, like those of Paul Durcan, convey the secular attitudes that become prevalent among her generation of Irish people.
But while Meehan might well describe herself as an agnostic, her poems are steeped in spirituality. In ‘Seed’, a poem from ‘Mysteries of the Home’, Meehan writes I am suddenly grateful and would / offer a prayer if I believed in God. / But not believing, I bless the power of seed, / its casual, useful persistence, / and bless the power of sun. Meehan, however, has written poems that, like Heaney’s most memorable poems, ground themselves in nature and, oftentimes, convey unimaginable sadness. In ‘Elegy for a Child’, Meehan shows her ability to craft poems of elegiac weight, opening her poem with It is not that the spring brings / you back. Birds riotous about / the house, fledglings learn to fly.
Signature poem: ‘Child Burial’ is a perfect of example of Meehan’s ability to convey unimaginable sorrow. In its descriptions of private grieving, it is not a million miles away from Seamus Heaney’ ‘Mid-Term Break’
Where to start: Mysteries of the Home
What she says: “The great thing about poetry is that it’s the human voice, the one human voice breaking the silence. And how you make that voice powerful, trustworthy, capable of communicating, capable of changing other people’s energy, I think at the root of that is the manipulation of breath.”
What they say: “She has a keen awareness of how the human and natural worlds interact.” Richard Tillinghast, poet
Born 1968, Conor O’Callaghan has been writing some of the wittiest, formally challenging and enjoyable work to emerge from Ireland since Paul Muldoon’s arrival in the world of poetry.
Now living in Manchester, O’Callaghan is a native of Dundalk, Co. Louth, the town of which he wrote in Seatown his seminal 1999 collection. O’Callaghan belongs to a generation of Irish poets, which includes Vona Groarke, Paula Meehan, Peter Sirr, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman, David Wheatley, Justin Quinn and Joseph Woods, who freshened up the Irish lyric poem by bringing in influences from outside of Ireland; from British and American poetry to Japanese and eastern European verse.
There’s a sense of unsettlement in many of O’Callaghan’s poems. A theme that arises again an again in the poet’s work is that of drifting; be it in ‘The Swimming Pool’, ‘Seatown’, ‘Ships’, ‘The Ocean’ or ‘River at Night’. Like Muldoon, O’Callaghan’s more formally challenging and inventive work contrasts with poems that shine with a common touch that likens his work to that of Philip Larkin. Once described by the Irish Times as Simon Armitage’s Irish counterpart- with whom he read as part of the Poetry Now festival some years ago- O’Callaghan makes use of his access to Irish vernacular. O’Callaghan’s common touch, however, is also formal; ‘The Pearl Works’, the final poem in ‘The Sun King’, first appeared on Twitter, whereby O’Callaghan wrote a couplet of approximately 140 characters, every week, over the course of a calendar year.
Poems from O’Callaghan’s most recent collection, The Sun King, such as ‘Swell’ and ‘Tiger Redux’, the latter described by the poet as a “partly tongue- in- cheek elegy to the Celtic Tiger”, demonstrate that the poet’s ability to craft unlabored poems that delight with successive readings shows no sign of slowing down.
Signature poem: From 1999’s Seatown, ‘East’ is one of the finest poems written by an Irish poet in the last 25 years. It’s also a wonderful example of O’Callaghan’s seemingly effortless control of line and his ability to convey a sense of Irish identity in Ireland and Irish identity outside of Ireland. Masterful stuff.
Where to start: Seatown
What he says: “I do write about feeling marooned between cultures. You leave and never fully reach the other side, and there is really no way back…[Leaving Ireland] has made my poems much freer and my line much longer. I think the experience of living abroad has made my poems a fraction more experimental. I honestly believe it’s a question of geography.”
What they say: “One of Ireland’s finest younger poets.” John McAuliffe, poet.
Born in Waterford in 1960 and moving to Dublin with his family as a child, Peter Sirr is one of the most complete and naturally gifted poets of his generation. Like Derek Mahon before him, Sirr is something of a jack-of-all-trades within poetry: he is, like Mahon, a noted poet, but also a noted translator and critic. Sirr, however- like O’Callaghan and many other post- Muldoon poets- is most heavily influenced by European poetry.
Winning the Patrick Kavanagh award at just 22 years of age, Sirr is very much a city poet in the European tradition, which isn’t all that surprising given that he has lived, for various spells of time, in Italy and Holland, before eventually settling in Dublin, where he now lives with his wife, poet Enda Wyley. Returning to Ireland after his travels gave Sirr, perhaps, a tourist’s eye for how we now live and may have informed his wry, witty observations on Irish life. ‘PPS’, a poem that he wrote after the arrival via post of his young daughter’s social security number is Sirr at his most wry.
Signature poem: Taken from 2000’s Bring Everything , ‘Legacies’ feels like a uniquely Dublin poem and is, in a sense, a pre- millennial celebration of tradition. Sirr’s language is simple and direct, though the spirit of the poem is through the rhythms and the non- intrusive punctuation, allowing the poem to flow as smoothly as pint in a glass.
Where to start: Selected Poems
What he says: “Those who assume the exceptionality of Irish poetry will witter on about the lines of influence from Yeats to Heaney to Muldoon and ignore the fact that Montale, Pessoa, Celan, Bonnefoy and a host of other unacknowledged legislators have long since gate- crashed the party.”
What they say: “Everyone who takes poetry seriously should read him attentively.” Bernard O’Donoghue, poet
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Derek Mahon, Macdara Woods, Michael Longley, Pat Boran, Patrick Chapman, Sinéad Morrissey, Greg Delanty, Thomas McCarthy, John Ennis, David Wheatley, Leontia Flynn, Justin Quinn, Vona Groarke, Joseph Woods, Andrew Jamison, Eleanor Hooker, Leeane O’Sullivan.