Friday 26 April 2019

Book worm: Jargon amid the oeuvres for our laureate

Seamus Heaney, described as the best Irish poet
Seamus Heaney, described as the best Irish poet "by a country mile"

John Boland

Seamus Heaney was Ireland's "best poet, by a country mile", says Vona Groarke in her preface to the latest edition of Poetry Ireland Review, the entire issue of which is devoted to the late Nobel laureate.

By a country mile? I'm not quite sure what distance that covers, though clearly it's of sufficient length to leave such poetic sloggers as Yeats, Kavanagh, MacNeice, Montague and Muldoon lagging far behind.

Indeed, she continues, since Heaney's death last year, "nothing about Irish poetry is, or can be, the same" (whatever that means), and to acknowledge his irreplaceable qualities she asked 50 poets from Ireland, the UK and the US to write a short essay "on a single poem that mattered to them".

The results, it must be said, are of very variable quality. Pretentious gobbledegook used to be mainly the province of visual artists and art critics, but some of the essays here show that poets can be just as adept at proving Jonathan Swift right about "learned commentators" who "view in Homer more than Homer knew".

The American contributors are the worst offenders, employing the kind of obfuscating jargon that's become integral to the academic teaching of literature (and with much use of that awful word "oeuvre"), though just as impenetrable to me were the essays by David Wheatley, Ciaran Berry, Tom French, Don Paterson and some other poets from these little islands.

Such pieces contrive to make the reading of poetry seem a humourless duty rather than a happy pleasure, though there are fine essays here, too - I especially liked Billy Ramsell's thoughts on 'The Journey Back', Peter Sirr's on 'The Guttural Muse', Enda Wyley's on 'The Skunk' and Kevin Higgins's on that underrated pearl 'Limbo'.

And I was struck, too, by Jamie McKendrick's opening paragraph, which asked: "Is 'Oysters' Seamus Heaney's hymn to cunnilingus?" I hadn't really thought about it in those terms, Jamie, but now that you mention it. . .

And, indeed, if this issue of Poetry Ireland Review sends you back to the poems themselves, that's all to the good.

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