Edited by Niall MacMonagle, Penguin, £20
The Irish poetic tradition stretches back to the first fili, a class of elite poets that existed until the Irish caste system was demolished by the English in the Renaissance. Top-ranking fili were known as ollams – the first Chief Ollam of Ireland was Amergin Glúingel, whose status was equal to the High King of Ireland.
Windharp: Poems of Ireland Since 1916 begins with the Easter Rising. Fifteen Irish nationalists were executed after a British court martial, among them James Connolly, commandant of the Dublin Brigade. He was so badly wounded that he was brought to face the firing squad on a stretcher. He was tied to a chair and shot sitting on it.
In a sense, the editor of Windharp has created a very political book: a large proportion of the poems deal with the Troubles or the problems of religion within Irish society. From a British perspective, the question can be asked: could a similar book of poetry, which binds together all the values of what it is to be British – a united struggle, a united poetic vision – be envisaged? No, because our complex mesh of immigration issues, together with the free market capitalism of London, make a uniting book of national poetry impossible.
Editor Niall MacMonagle begins with early modernists. Denis Devlin’s Boy Bathing emulates an Edward Hopper painting:
On the edge of the springboard
A boy poses, columned light
Through the gold glass of sunshine.
Some of the finest poems come not from Seamus Heaney – who can seem a little whimsical, especially in a highly political book about the nature of Irishness – but from Paul Muldoon, whose muscular yet mischievously gleaming poetry fills the reader with an assurance and vim that some of the 1970s poets (Patrick Kavanagh et al) do not have. Muldoon’s Anseo is the standout poem of the collection.
One sad omission is Faber poet Declan Ryan. But then he might seem too detached from political Ireland for this book, burdened as it is by the bullet-lead of the Troubles.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.