I set myself a reading challenge this year, to read three anthologies, of Irish poetry, American women poets and Chinese Rivers and Mountains poetry. And to back this up, I’ve chosen three individual poets, Neruda, Cavafy and Basho – partlybecause I like them so much, partly because their poetry is very different from mine. I needed to shake things up a little.
I’ve just finished the first book, and here it is.
This is a big book – family Bible sized at least, and in my house I’m not sure that it isn’t going to get chained to something, as Bibles sometimes were, to make sure it stays where I can get it. It’s a tremendous resource, covering in great depth about fifteen centuries of Irish poetry both in Irish and in English. There was stuff here I knew and loved – and sometimes in new translations that wake me up to things I hadn’t seen before, stuff I knew about but hadn’t been able to track down, and a lot of stuff, particularly the later medieval poetry and the poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that I didn’t know existed. Real treasures.
It revised a lot of things I thought I knew about Ireland, both wiser, more light-hearted, more cosmopolitan than the stereotype, but also sometimes darker and more cruel. Patrick McDonagh’s O Come to the Land captures the ambivalence of the whole collection as he balances a an overt expression of kindliness hospitatlity and culture, with a hidden experience of poverty, repression and callousness. Religion is a repository of wisdom, security and compassion but also sometimes an instrument of torment. Women are sometimes powerful, hard-working, outspoken, frankly sexual, sometimes aloof passive dream-figures, sometimes treated with contempt. They get more of a showing in this volume throught the ages than they would in a similar collection of English verse.
Best of all, Patrick Crotty includes songs and ballads alongside the poems, so we get Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road and Christy Moore’s Lisdoonvarna as well as Yeats’ predictable Salley Gardens. (and McBreen’s Heifer and Slathery’s Mounted Fut by Percy French which were part of my childhood. I don’t really see much of a gap between poetry and song myself, and I think the closeness and connection is a big strength of Scottish poetry as well as Irish. It certainly brings a lot to this book.