Poetry in the Irish tradition. A collection of verses that reconcile historic polarities
The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, edited with translations by Thomas Kinsella. New York: Oxford University Press. 423 pp. $18.95. As a reading of ``The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse'' indicates, the partition of Ireland in 1921 made actual and symbolic what had always been the fact. North-South, British-Irish, Protestant-Roman Catholic, pagan-Christian, Gaelic-English, and now Irish-Irish: Ireland is a polarized place.
But as a reading of this book also indicates, the poets have been equal to the polarities. They have synthesized traditions into higher unities, using strict metrical patterns - chiefly those of Celtic verse-craft, song, and Christian hymn - to discover new ways to reconcile diverse traditions. After all, it was Christian monks who preserved the ancient Irish sagas! In his introductory remarks, the editor speaks of ``the tradition'' and a careful reading of this book bears him out: There is an Irish tradition that resists the centrifugal pull of history that would splinter ``the tradition'' into a plurality of ``traditions'' and ``points of view.'' The poems are the evidence.
The editor is Thomas Kinsella, and his book offers the best survey of the Irish achievement in poetry available. As he points out in his preface, it was no part of the purpose of his predecessors, the editors of the earlier ``Oxford Book of Irish Verse,'' to do justice to the poetry composed in the Irish language. In the present volume, his aim is to present, side by side, the two bodies of Irish poetry: that composed in Irish, and that composed in English.
Kinsella himself has translated almost all the Irish poetry, along with poems originally in Latin and Norman French; his earlier translation of the eighth to ninth century Irish saga ``The Tain'' has become a classic. The act of translation is itself an act of reconciliation - for each language has its traditional values - and he does it with the accuracy of the scholar and the tact of a poet.
Indeed, Kinsella is a scholar and a poet in the great Irish tradition that began with the Christian monks in Ireland in the fifth century. Alluding to the medieval scribal tradition of providing ad hoc explanations of difficult passages, sometimes on the margins of the page onto which the text was being transcribed, he has called one of his own best poems ``A Gloss'' (see inset). He has been an educator (the title of the poem points to his tenure at Temple University near Philadelphia) and a civil servant. As a member of the Dublin Department of Finance in the '60s, he helped produce the economic program that opened Ireland up to world trade and economic revival.
Reconciling goes on in almost every poem, whether originally in Irish, Latin, or English. Early, there's the reconciliation of pagan and Christian traditions and the reconciliation of Gaelic and Latin verse forms. ``Not every poet is wise,'' sings a poet from the early 13th century, ``nor every scholar a fount. /Wisdom's surface is smooth, /yet two-thirds is hidden study.''
We can go back farther, to the earliest datable poem in the Irish tradition, ``A Poem in Praise of Colum Cille.'' As Kinsella's terse but adequate note explains, Colum Cille was the earliest of the saintly exiles and became the subject of a later folk literature; he died in 597. The poet sings: ``He saw his course and seized it. /Returning good for evil /the wise one wove the Word, /made clear the commentaries.'' (The last line may refer to the saint's glosses.)
Going back in time can be a temptation; one must also go forward. Kinsella's translations of the Irish poetry of the 17th and 18th centuries are eye-openers. Brian Merriman (1749-1805) worked as a farmer and schoolteacher. The poem Kinsella translates here is his only significant one, and it's a tour de force. It rests on ancient foundations, parodies some old Irish literary and social traditions, and presents a gritty image of Ireland as a helpless woman at the mercy of ``bachelors'' - Irish and British. The image of the defenseless woman goes back to the Dark Ages wherever the Vikings went; and Merriman's directness in matters bodily recalls the epic traditions of ``The Tain.''
Given Merriman's poem and all that it implies about the tradition, one may wish to add male and female to the list of reconcilables that form the warp and woof of Ireland!
To proceed into the 19th century: In his roll call of heroes, W.B. Yeats sometimes included James Clarence Mangan and Samuel Ferguson, who wrote in Irish as well as English. Kinsella gives us generous selections from each. Since audiences may overlap, writing in both languages as they did (Yeats himself never learned Irish) is itself an act of reconciliation.
The last quarter of the book or so is devoted to poets writing in this century. (Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin, who are not included, were perhaps born too late: Every anthologist has to set cutoff dates.)
Austin Clarke (1896-1974) exhibits many of the polarities: He's a poet just waiting for the general reader to discover him. You can do so in this book. And contemporary poets such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon and Richard Murphy have also contributed to the tradition of reconciliation.
One image that recurs century after century is that of the tower or hill or hideout, the cell or green retreat or cliff by the sea, where the poet sits and thinks and composes himself before going back down - back into history, as it were, where the ``diamond absolutes'' discovered there - and sung about by Heaney and others - mean so much.
Reading the verse in this book sharpens one's awareness of the futility of trying to escape history and the situation as it stands. Indeed, through his work as a poet, scholar, translator, and editor, Kinsella has made a unique contribution toward defining ``the tradition'' as a continuous act of reconciliation of conflicting traditions and points of view. ``The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse'' crowns a life work.
It's a noble achievement.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor. Wyncote, Pennsylvania: A Gloss A mocking-bird on a branch outside the window, where I write, gulps down a wet crimson berry, shakes off a few bright drops from his wing, and is gone into a thundery sky. Another storm coming. Under that copper light my papers seem luminous. And over them I will take ever more painstaking care.