'Altering the Past': Northern Irish Poetry and Modern Canons

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This essay is a slightly edited version of an address given at a conference--'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960: The Resilient Voice'--in the Institute of English Studies, University of London (February 2003). The fact that 'Voice' seemed to be a collective noun prompted me to raise two related questions. First, to what extent does criticism, or should criticism, deal with a collectivity of poets from Northern Ireland? Second, if critics were to lay greater stress on a collective poetic phenomenon, what meaning might this have for readings of 'modern poetry'? Would it exceed the impact of what poets have separately achieved? In other words, this essay is about 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' or about tradition and a coincidence of talent. Eliot famously proposed: 'The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted. [...] Whoever has approved this idea of order [...] will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.' (1)

I am not grandly concerned with 'the whole existing order' of European literature but with how canons of modern English-language poetry have been ordered by the academy, and with how the aesthetics of modern poetry are read to justify those canonical orderings: 'relations, proportions, values'. In this sense, has 'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960' altered the past? For some poets and critics, of course, tradition, canons, and aesthetics are now beside the decentred point. Surely poetry, itself once a collective noun, has been virtuously Balkanized into 'poetries'? But the politics of poetics look much the same even if terminologies change. 'Poetries' is itself political. At a 'Language Poetry' conference in London the organizer gave the show away by shouting: 'We are the mainstream.' Further, as Eliot says, 'criticism is as inevitable as breathing'. Criticism has long lurked in the vicinity of 'Northern Irish Poetry since 1960'. Paul Muldoon, through whose poetry runs a steely literary-critical thread, says of the early 1970s: 'There was no sloppiness [...] everyone was quite outspoken.' (2) There is a long-standing joke about the 'Belfast School of Criticism' with its finely nuanced discriminations: 'shite, dog-shite, mad-dog shite'. More politely, a Frank O'Hara poem says of a friend: 'I suspect he is making a distinction | well, who isn't?' (3)

Even if Eliot's 'tradition' can sound like an exclusive gentlemen's club, he leaves matters creatively open by implying that tradition can be read only from the vantage-point of the new work: work that occupies 'the present moment of the past'. But this poses two questions which beg the question of criticism: how do we recognize that elusive temporal whereabouts 'the present moment of the past'? And which contemporary poems have 'altered the past'? It is relevant that Northern Irish poets are themselves critically interested in tradition (see below); but the nature of that interest requires a preliminary comparison between Eliot and W. B. Yeats.

'Tradition and the Individual Talent' conceals debts to, and dialogues with, Yeats. Eliot's readings or misreadings of Yeats (and vice versa) underline the inter-national dynamics that engendered 'modern poetry'. Eliot's simplest definition of tradition, that 'no poet has his complete meaning alone', applies not only to critical retrospect but to creative exchange in 'the present moment of the past'. When he was incubating 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', Eliot reviewed Gregory Smith's Scottish Literature and Yeats's The Cutting of an Agate, putting down both in an anti-Celtic double whammy. Thus, in a review headed 'A Foreign Mind', he judged Yeats's world so different from 'ours' as to make its foreignness not just 'national' but 'physiological'. …

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