'The Well-Known, Old, but Still Unbeaten Track': Women Poets and Irish Periodical Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

While neglected Irish male poets of the mid century have seen some recuperation in recent decades, the work of Irish women poets still languishes in obscurity. A growing body of scholarship has identified the need to bring critical attention to bear on this substantial body of work. In this essay I explore the positioning of Irish women poets in mid-century periodical culture, to flesh out the ways in which the terms of this 'forgetting' are already established within the overwhelmingly masculinist homosocial suppositions and idioms that characterized contemporary debates about the proper lineage and aesthetic norms for the national literary culture that was then under construction. Within the terms set by those debates, the woman writer was caught in the double bind that afflicted any woman wishing to engage in a public, politicized forum in post-revolutionary Ireland. While women poets engage in sporadic or oblique terms with such literary and cultural debates, more often their voices are absent from these dominant discourses--the logic of this absence has continued in the occlusion of these women poets from the national poetic canon.

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   See how, chameleon-like, she imitates
   the sombre colour of our present thoughts,
   so alien and so difficult to grasp,
   and how she makes the sunlight on her walls
   appear remote and cold, as though she were
   the dwelling-place of fear since time began. (2)

Incapable of attaining to true originality, constitutionally fated to the role of Echo, a mere imitation of a masculine ideal form, ever-changing, quixotic, a mystery elusive of resolution, the seat of uncanny dread and fear, symbolically inscribed as womb and tomb as Simone de Beauvoir contemporaneously laid bare: Sam Harrison's poem, published in 1947, gives succinct expression to these long-standing typologies of 'Woman' that became more, rather than less, pronounced in the literary culture of post-revolutionary Ireland. As several scholars have by now noted, while the work of the so-called 'lost generation' of male Irish poets who first published in the nineteen thirties and forties was long neglected, women poets of the period have suffered a yet more profound and enduring occlusion. Widely published and often well-regarded in their day, the work of poets such as Rhoda Coghill, Mary Devenport O'Neill, Temple Lane, Freda Laughton, K. Arnold Price, Blanaid Salkeld, and Sheila Wingfield has fallen victim to the particular political investments involved in the construction of an Irish national culture.

An exploration of the interchange between women poets and Irish periodical culture at mid century sheds some light on these processes of forgetting. As becomes evident on examination of the major Irish outlets for literary work at this time--The Dublin Magazine, The Bell, Irish Writing, and Poetry Ireland--the conditions for this amnesia are already determined by the way in which the woman poet is discursively situated within her literary and cultural milieu. Ongoing conflicts over the constitution of a national literary culture can be traced within the intersecting frames of political, economic, and cultural isolationism, expressed through trade restrictions, censorship legislation, Irish neutrality during the Second World War, and the State's policy of 'Gaelicization'. At stake is the relationship between the socio-political realities of the post-revolutionary Free State and early Republic, and the proper medium for the creative expression of these realities. In relation to poetry, these concerns are expressed most vocally in debates about the relative 'Irishness' or 'modernism' of contemporary poetry, and in an increasingly embittered male homosocial intra- and inter-generational conflict over the future of Irish poetry itself. These debates are waged with aggressive force in Irish periodical culture of the time. What is of most relevance for this essay is how overwhelmingly absent women poets are from these debates, either as vocal participants in the public discourse or as recognized artists within the parameters of a national literary culture. …