Contemporary Irish poetry impresses in inventive mode

By John McAuliff

Contemporary Irish poetryNew work by Michelle O’Sullivan, Adam Crothers and Robert Herbert McClean

In January 1916, Thomas MacDonagh finished writing Literature in Modern Ireland, one of Ireland’s most significant works of literary criticism, in which MacDonagh proposed an “Irish mode”. Readers might have expected a vision that was conservative and backward-looking (as Daniel Corkery would later imagine), but MacDonagh’s argument was anything but narrow or prescriptive. Because of the complex developments of the English language in Ireland, he argued, Irish writers could access different traditions and were instinctively open to exploring the possibilities of poetry to create new rhythms and ideas.

MacDonagh’s emphasis on new material and new sounds in poetry sets the bar high for an art that, in Ireland as elsewhere, has always moved between mastering existing forms and making new ones. Michelle O’Sullivan’s second collection The Flower and the Frozen Sea (Gallery, €11.95 pb, €18.50 hb) occupies a landscape with which readers are already familiar: western, sparsely populated, an arena for light and shadow, it could be the setting for a poem by one of MacDonagh’s contemporaries, but O’Sullivan works hard to set this material in motion on her own terms. The first poem’s first lines make clear what is at stake: “Waking, not to you / but the wind making summer / though the trees, pink shadows / gold through the green” (Partial).

Her skill with line and rhythm, her ability to dodge predictable harmonics, is notable in poems like Partial and the trochees and spondees of A Sound Box, “Down, unequal weight on his haunches / and the rain driving his shirt sideways”, begins her character study. “One said he disappeared – as if he fell headlong/into the horizon. Another said it wasn’t a boy, / but a hart. Next to nothing left where Evans / was found, but there was a sound box, / some thing in which his soul made itself felt.”

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A reminder that on July 28 we will continue with our summer tradition of a “free-for-all” with everyone bringing a favourite poem or two. This year we will focus on poetry from, or about, Ireland or Irish poets. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for the list of featured poems.


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