by Bill Coyle
A review of An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry by Wes Davis
Ireland is associated in the popular imagination, or at least in that dwindling portion of the popular imagination that concerns itself with literary matters, with poetry. Seamus Heaney (“Seamus Famous,” as Clive James once dubbed him) is one of the best known writers of our time, while W. B. Yeats has only a few serious competitors—Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot chief among them—for the title of best English-language poet of the modern period. Heaney’s contemporaries, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Eavan Boland are, if not household names, major figures in contemporary poetry. All this despite the fact that Ireland, as Wes Davis points out in his introduction to An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry, “has roughly the population of Tennessee in a land area the size of South Carolina.” That’s a helpful reminder, given the enormous quantity and high quality of literature produced, in two languages, by this nation—or nations—during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
At first glance you might think Davis has chosen to include all of it. Including the notes and index, the anthology is a whopping 976 pages. Granted, there are advantages to this sort of editorial generosity. We get all of Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger,” and Anthony Cronin’s “r.m.s. Titanic,” and healthy selections of Richard Murphy’s “The Battle of Aughrim.” In the case of the younger poets here who haven’t yet published a “selected,” this is also a welcome opportunity to get an overview of their work. Still, it’s not the sort of book you’d want to take with you on the plane while flying to the old sod, or in your backpack while cycling around it. Portability isn’t the only test of a good anthology, of course, but it’s all too easy to imagine this one suffering the same fate as, say, The Riverside Shakespeare, purchased when required for a college course, sold or left to gather dust thereafter.