'A Scheme of Echoes': Trevor Joyce, Poetry and Publishing in Ireland in the 1960s

By Edwards, Marcella | Critical Survey, January 2003 | Go to article overview

'A Scheme of Echoes': Trevor Joyce, Poetry and Publishing in Ireland in the 1960s


Edwards, Marcella, Critical Survey


For some time a consensus has existed in critical circles concerning developments in poetry and publishing in Ireland in the 1960s. This decade has been seen as a period of expansion in the volume of new writing, in the range of subject matter and in the formal properties of poetic writing, activities which represented an unprecedented change in poetic expression. This has been frequently claimed but seldom analysed. While history testifies to the beginning of a modernizing process in Ireland in the 1960s in terms of industry, economics and social policy changes, contrary to the glib pronouncements that to date neatly package the poetic activities of this period, it was, in fact, a complex period of cultural adjustment involving many players whose thinking and whose written pronouncements often harboured antithetical perspectives. This is most obvious in the editorial policies and pronouncements within Irish poetry journals, which, contrary to the above impression, harboured traditionalist and often nationalist and or essentialist affinities.

While there is evidence that the 1960s heralded an outward looking political ethos it remains to be recognized that this did not involve the total abandonment of the ideologies of the preceding six decades, for, as Raymond Williams has demonstrated, societies undergoing change will retain a 'residual' strain of previous social and cultural tendencies. (1) Williams's 'active manifestation' of Ireland's 'residual' appeared as a cultural nationalism overlaid by the veneer of modernization. Cairns and Richards have identified an ideological lineage passed down from De Valera and alive in Lemass whose 'new ideas' merely formed a veneer over this. (2) The cultural parallel of this is best understood in terms where Lemass's economic policies have their correlative in the marked change of attitude towards the Irish writer that we witness at this time. In the drive for expansion the Irish writer was now viewed less as a potentially subversive influence but more as an aid to, and to some degree, a guarantor of Ireland's cultural diversity and autonomy. The assumptions of a renaissance in Irish writing, of a new, expansive climate, totally abandoning the restrictions of the past, like Lamass' politics, can, on closer examination, be seen to be equally deceiving.

Evidence of this situation is available through an examination of the debates on Irish writing enacted in a series of literary publications at that time. The arguments conducted in the journals and the literary press of the 1960s and in much of the actual writing being produced, testify to the endurance of certain nationalistic and essentialist tendencies and give the lie to the easy assumption of a modernizing, let alone a modernist ethos within Irish poetry of the 1960s.

Trevor Joyce's involvement as a poet, publisher and critic of the Irish literary scene of the 1960s stands as an incidence of resistance to both ideological and racial pressures as well as to the aesthetic pretensions of the alleged renaissance therein. His writing, both critical and creative, engages with the debates of that time, sometimes directly challenging a particular writer or editor, while his poetry articulates his often, oppositional position in relation to the status quo that prevailed and to a lesser degree continues today. Having identified the covert nationalism at the heart of many of the highly influential contemporary doctrines, not to mention his distaste for the often openly avowed essentialism of much of the contemporary debate, Joyce's own writing argues for the adoption of a truly speculative modernist poetics free from such limitations. His distance from his contemporaries highlights the paucity of their position visa visa modernist perspective and illustrates, in many cases, what amounts to a regressive poetics notwithstanding the ample rhetoric of modernization and the claims to modernist credentials of Irish poetry of this and subsequent decades.

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