Contemporary Irish women avant-gardeists, by Chris Murray of Poethead

I won’t really be referring to what passes for the new or contemporary Irish poetry being platformed from Ireland and mostly directed to the American market. That rush to nostalgism and canny self-expression can only do so much for a poetry audience that seeks the comfort of the tried and true. I am interested in poets who rend form and rebuild it to create modern poetic expression. The premise of Poethead, apart from the obvious of redressing neglect, is to show poetry as ‘process’. If the writer is uninterested in the creation of books that are viewed as product and wishes to investigate and play with form, then there should be a space for that too. That there is little available in poetry text or audio archive is pretty shameful, but worse is an editorial draw towards safe narrative and product placement.

I am interested in cultural narratives, in how a modern independent state self-created through it’s poetry and literature. Surely there are academic books on the creation of ‘Ireland’ and from them one can divine that serious male writers had to go into exile to explore the avant-garde movements of the early modern era. When they had achieved sufficient acclaim, some bright persons decided to make a fetish out of their work and build their careers on unmasking it for the college student or general reader. Hence, we have days where people get up in knickerbockers and go about declaring the story of a cuckold who loves tenderly and too much. I love the surreality of Ireland, I hate the distrust of women writers that permeates the so called academic avant-garde like a disease.

The world changed in the early modern era to such an extent that the Vatican introduced an ‘oath against modernism’, imagine then turning one’s head against the Pounds, the Steins, the Chagalls and sweet Emily Dickinson? We tolerated the avant-gardists like Beckett and Joyce, but the woman writer was eschewed. I mean, where is the Modern Irish equivalent of a Dickinson or Stein ? Are we to be believe that a country’s literary inheritance was built on the back and the shoulders of the Yeatses and Wildes? Because that is what the country’s universities teach. In an interview with this blog Emma Penney looked at mid-century women poets who troubled the narrative that the modern state was attempting to create. Penney’s interview was picked up by Jacket2 Magazine, but there was no inquisitiveness from the Irish poetry establishment (that is maybe the five editors who are all friends and pursue their own interests).

Poetry is a sensitive area, it involves bringing on a new generation of writers and their constant questioning of form. There is not a lot of that about at all. The irony of an avant garde spooked at its own shadow is superlatively hilarious to me, although I give fair warning here, a brief look at Irish modernism shows a lack in poetry. The lack occurs in experimentalism, and it occurs in the silence of women poets in the created cultural narrative. When one is dealing with posterity in literature, one should be asking how it will be read by future poets and students ? Was there an over reliance on traditional forms ? Did editors bring poetry out to an audience through the creation of spaces for experimentation ? Did Poetry Ireland fund an extensive and searchable text and and audio archive of contemporary poetry? That we still suffer the lack in Irish women’s poetry is evidenced in how many women poets we study academically, the critical reception of women poets in Ireland, and our awareness of the new avant-garde.

That mid-century women poets were neglected in the base building of an Irish poetry narrative is a given, I studied Elizabeth Barrett-Browning (for epic poetry) and not Dorothea Herbert. I found Laughton by chance. There was not an Irish women poets module anywhere in my academic learning. It is as if they did not exist. The authority of the author poet became founded in the male poet and we could not get enough of him at all. I would not advise that we just move on as if this shameful neglect of the woman poet’s voice did not occur. Neglect requires sure reflection. We can move on to the new high visibility of women poets which is truly a recent thing and look at the issue of experimental poetry from there, but the only problem is that the women experimental poets are most decidedly shoved to the side by that very Irish and very distrusting coterie of editors who are riven with nostalgia and intoxicated by the mundane.

I am therefore going to name some women poets who I believe are leading the way in experimentation, Anamaría Crowe Serrano, Kit Fryatt, Kimberly Campanello , and in terms of refusal to imprison myself into the traditional luvvie box of 40-60 line poems, I will name myself. My obsession is with producing epic or book length poems that cannot ever fit into whatever it is a poet editor wants very badly. I am not changing that, though I do worry that work will be cogged and abused as it descends into obscurity !

I wondered who my literary mothers were throughout my college and academic career. I believe that Laughton, Herbert, Eva Gore-Booth, Eithne Strong , Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Eavan Boland are desperately under-valued in the Irish literary intellectual narrative. The act of degrading women’s literary work is criminal, but I reckon it will be a few generation hence before we see the results of traditional editor neglect occurring as ‘narrative gaps’ in the intellectual life of Ireland. That the narrative gaps that we begin to perceive now are so glaring is enough to show a deep historical distrust of women innovators. I believe little has changed, except maybe the young angry establishment of twenty years ago has taken on the safe mantle of its forbears – prove me wrong.

Chris Murray

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