Saturday, 28 February 2009

Irish War Poetry

Gerald Dawe's new anthology of Irish War Poetry (Blackstaff) brings together poems from and about the two World Wars, the Easter Rising, and the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars. Katharine Tynan, the first poet in the book, was born in 1861; the last, Van Morrison, in 1945. Dawe doesn't explain why he stops there, but it is a shame: Carson's 'Dresden' and Muldoon's 'Truce' are two of the more notable omissions. Permissions fees may have played a part. When John Hewitt is given more space than Yeats or MacNeice, it is safe to assume that an editor as gifted as Dawe has been obliged to make decisions for reasons other than literary merit.

To his great credit, Dawe manages to turn these restrictions into opportunities. There are generous selections of poets like Ledwidge (an Irish nationalist who died fighting for Britain), Stuart, and Greacen (to whose memory the book is dedicated). Yeats and MacNeice, after all, can take care of themselves; and if their under-representation ensures that the book is unlikely to be adopted as a teaching text, Dawe does an equally important job of challenging received notions of the canon. As he states in his short introduction, 'While Ireland and Northern Ireland's recent Troubles have occupied considerable political, cultural and poetic space, public and private reaction to the wars of the first half of the twentieth century have not been as widely considered, even though the cost in human and political terms was much greater.' Against the argument that the Troubles provided a greater poetic legacy, Dawe's anthology is the best response.

At £16.99 (pbk £9.99), this bulky and handsomely-produced hardback deserves success on both sides of the Irish Sea. Buy it for the poets you haven't heard of, as well as the poets you have. Buy it, too, for the postscript: Samuel Beckett's 'The Capital of the Ruins'. Surveying the wreckage of Saint-Lรด, a town 'bombed out of existence in one night', Beckett has 'a vision and a sense of a time-honoured conception of humanity in ruins, and perhaps even an inkling of the terms in which our condition is to be thought again.' There, in miniature, is the ambition of his post-war writing, an ambition shaped by Beckett's experiences during the Second World War.

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