Ir­ish po­ets reload­ing the clas­si­cal canon

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Ir­ish po­ets, nov­el­ists and play­wrights are turn­ing more and more to the Greek clas­sics as our writ­ers adopt a more global out­look

Most readers will have no­ticed the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of new ver­sions of Greek tragedy on the Ir­ish stage in the past few decades. Most will have heard of Sea­mus Heaney’s line “And hope and his­tory rhyme”, which is from The

Cure at Troy, his ver­sion of Sopho­cles’s Philoctetes, be­ing used by politi­cians such as Bill Clin­ton, Mary Robin­son and Gerry Adams to pro­mote the peace process in North­ern Ire­land. Many will have also seen or read about pro­duc­tions, such as Brendan Ken­nelly’s

Antigone, Medea and The Tro­jan Women ,of Ma­rina Carr’s ac­claimed By the Bog of Cats ,on one of its many runs at the Abbey Theatre since 1998, of her more re­cent He­cuba ,orof Frank McGuin­ness’s Elec­tra, He­cuba and Oedi­pus.

The re­vival of Greek tragedy in con­tem­po­rary Ire­land, of which those plays are but a few ex­am­ples, is well known and well doc­u­mented, but it is also only one as­pect of a much more com­plex, di­verse and, ar­guably, fas­ci­nat­ing devel­op­ment in Ir­ish writ­ing in the past 30 years.

Nov­el­ists, and cer­tainly po­ets, too, have en­gaged over and over with clas­si­cal sources, and con­tinue to do so. Last year alone saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, his retelling of Aeschy­lus’s Oresteia, and of Alan McMona­gle’s de­but novel, Ithaca, loosely in­spired, as its ti­tle sug­gests, by the Odyssey. As for poetry, 2017 also saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Peter Fal­lon’s Deeds and Their Days: Af­ter

He­siod and of Me­ta­mor­phic: 21st Cen­tury Po­ets Re­spond to Ovid, a new an­thol­ogy edited by Nessa O’Ma­hony and Paul Mun­den that in­cludes many Ir­ish po­ets among its 100 con­trib­u­tors, and, this com­ing week, of Theo Dor­gan’s Or­pheus.


Among the many po­ets in Ire­land who have en­gaged with the clas­sics over the years, most have reap­pro­pri­ated canon­i­cal writ­ers such as Ovid, Vir­gil, Homer and Sopho­cles, although some have also tack­led less pop­u­lar sources, whether He­siod, Sap­pho, Mar­tial, Latin love elegists or Greek lyric po­ets – and all have done so in many forms. Those clas­si­cal po­ems and ver­sions touch on is­sues as var­ied as vi­o­lence and con­flict, grief, sex­u­al­ity, ex­ile and home, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, do­mes­tic­ity and art.

Why, in the scope of three decades, have the clas­sics be­come such a steady and en­dur­ing source of po­etic in­spi­ra­tion? There is no one an­swer, and sim­i­lar trends can be ob­served in other pre­dom­i­nantly an­glo­phone cul­tures. But the re­cent Ir­ish clas­si­cal re­vival seems to be­gin roughly in the 1970s and 1980s, north of the Bor­der, in the re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the Trou­bles within the frame­work of Sopho­cles’s Antigone by Conor Cruise O’Brien and, later, Tom Paulin, and all over the is­land on stage. Greek tragedy was a use­ful tool to dis­cuss vi­o­lence and de­bate con­flict­ing par­a­digms. The pop­u­lar­ity of the ma­te­rial also meant that soon it would also di­ver­sify and ex­pand into other gen­res, most no­tably poetry.

To some ex­tent the re­vival can be seen as a vogue among po­ets, a fash­ion fu­elled by the pop­u­lar­ity and vis­i­bil­ity of Heaney and Michael Lon­g­ley, two of its main pro­po­nents. In the late 1980s and early 1990s both were in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing the clas­si­cal re­vival from the Ir­ish stage into poetry, when they con­trib­uted, re­spec­tively, The Cure at Troy and ver­sions from the Iliad (in­clud­ing the fa­mous Cease­fire) to the lit­er­a­ture of the Trou­bles and of the peace process. In those years both also re­dis­cov­ered the clas­si­cal au­thors they had loved at school, and be­gan per­sonal ex­plo­rations of Latin and Greek lit­er­a­tures that have since shaped their work.

Af­ter See­ing Things, which ap­peared in 1991, Heaney re­turned to Vir­gil, and of­ten to Book Six of the Aeneid, again and again up to his un­timely death, in 2013, when he was still putting the fi­nal touches to his ver­sion of the lat­ter, pub­lished posthu­mously in 2016. As for Lon­g­ley, Homer’s epics, and cer­tainly the Iliad, have be­come re­cur­ring pres­ences in his col­lec­tions, resur­fac­ing in his po­etic re­flec­tions on war­fare, both the Trou­bles and the two World Wars, and more re­cently in The Stair­well, as pow­er­ful nar­ra­tives to evoke his lost brother.

The two po­ets have been joined by younger col­leagues in their sus­tained ex­plo­ration of clas­si­cal sources, among them Peter Fal­lon, au­thor no­tably of the ac­claimed Ge­or­gics of Vir­gil, from 2004, in ad­di­tion to his ver­sion, last year, of He­siod, and Peter McDon­ald, whose clas­si­cal work in­cludes ver­sions of some of the most canon­i­cal writ­ers, such as Vir­gil, in Pas­torals, and Homer, in Torch­light, as well as less pop­u­lar ones, such as Pin­dar, in The House of Clay and The Homeric Hymns.

Many more have rewrit­ten clas­sics more spo­rad­i­cally, thereby adding to a grow­ing con­ver­sa­tion about the cre­ative uses of clas­si­cal sources on the is­land. This con­ver­sa­tion, in part fu­elled by com­mis­sions (such as Michael Hoff­man and James Las­dun’s Af­ter Ovid: New Me­ta­mor­phoses), is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of the clas­si­cal re­vival: po­ems re­spond to each other, either in sym­pa­thy or in con­trast, and form an in­tri­cate net­work of cor­re­spon­dences and dif­fer­ences, en­rich­ing our read­ing of con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish poetry.

Derek Ma­hon’s Homeric po­ems of the new mil­len­nium, for ex­am­ple, in which Odysseus ex­plores his re­la­tion­ship with home, owe some­thing to Lon­g­ley’s rewrit­ings of sim­i­lar ma­te­rial 10 years be­fore, in Gorse Fires. Ea­van Boland’s The Jour­ney al­lows us to read Heaney’s many rewrit­ings of Vir­gil’s Aeneid VI – those evok­ing his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther in par­tic­u­lar – in a new light. Ma­hon also quotes her poem in Sap­pho in ‘Ju­dith’s Room’, which touches on the clas­sics and fem­i­nism. Boland’s mul­ti­ple ver­sions of the myth of Ceres and Perse­phone in the 1990s, in­clud­ing the well-known Pome­gran­ate, form a coun­ter­part to Lon­g­ley’s own take on the Me­ta­mor­phoses in The Ghost Orchid, which mainly fo­cuses on eroti­cism and sex­u­alised fe­male bod­ies.


Fash­ions tend to die down, how­ever, and emerg­ing po­ets seem less in­ter­ested in tak­ing part in this rewrit­ing of clas­si­cal sources. Me­ta­mor­phic, O’Ma­hony and Mun­den’s new an­thol­ogy, might spark new vo­ca­tions; it is too soon to tell. But whether or not its hey­day is be­hind us, the clas­si­cal re­vival re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment in Ir­ish poetry in the past 30 years. As well as re­veal­ing a new net­work of con­nec­tions be­tween po­ets, it has ac­com­pa­nied a tran­si­tion in Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture from a post­colo­nial to a Euro­pean and in­creas­ingly global out­look.

The clas­si­cal re­vival has stressed the ex­is­tence of a shared cul­tural and lit­er­ary her­itage with Bri­tain as well as other (non-an­glo­phone) na­tions and, cru­cially, en­cour­aged the prac­tice of trans­la­tion among po­ets, many of whom have since pub­lished ver­sions of mostly Euro­pean work. Whether or not young po­ets di­rectly fol­low in the foot­steps of Heaney and Lon­g­ley’s gen­er­a­tion, they will have gained an open­ness to what is for­eign and other, which can only con­trib­ute to the vi­tal­ity of the genre in our global world.

The re­cent Ir­ish clas­si­cal re­vival seems to be­gin roughly in the 1970s and 1980s, north of the Bor­der, in the re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the Trou­bles within the frame­work of Sopho­cles’s Antigone by Conor Cruise O’Brien and, later, Tom Paulin, and all over the is­land on stage

DrFlorenceIm­pen­sisaLev­er­hul­meearly ca­reer­fel­lowattheUniver­si­ty­ofManch­esterand

au­thor of Clas­si­cal Pres­ences in Ir­ish Poetry af­ter 1960:TheAn­swer­ingVoice(Pal­grave Macmil­lan)


Holly Hunter (right) with Bríd Bren­nan in Ma­rina Carr’s play By the Bog of Cats in Lon­don, 2004.

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