Friday, 19 March 2010

Do Poems Carry Passports?

Occasioned by the opinion piece 'Poetry in a Multicultural Ireland' by Celeste Augé, published in the Poetry Ireland newsletter of March-April 2010, I include below extracts from my (unpublished) response to the first of the annual 'Best of Irish Poetry' anthologies (Southword Editions, 2007):


There are several problems with this concept, of course. First and foremost: what defines Irish poetry in the here and now? What is an 'Irish' poem (apart from one written or spoken in the Irish language)? Does it speak in a particular accent? Do poems carry passports? Should the collection of poems that greets the reader have any uniform characteristics? And if so, who decides what those are? Can anybody impose a boundary around the experiences that define Irishness in poetry, or in anything else for that matter? To be fair, in his introduction editor Maurice Riordan acknowledges a certain "cultural cohesion" in his selection, going further to wonder whether this is a good or a bad thing. But could this "cultural cohesion" be a result of his failure as editor, the collective failure of poetry editors in Ireland and the failure of the country's artistic community to produce and publish poetry that does not adhere to a limited set of concepts?

There is also the issue of judging the fifty 'best' poems from a pool of poetry. How could someone possibly do that? Is the writing of poetry, like gymnastics or figure-skating, a competitive endeavour?

The argument may be that one has to simplify things for a general readership. But at the same time we ask our readers to be knowing and alert - and they expect us not to patronise them. Unnecessary explanations or clauses dilute the poem and weaken the experience of its reading. Why not then treat these same readers with the respect they demand and give them something challenging to work with?

One solution might have been to employ a number of editors coming from different poetic backgrounds and modes of practice. That might have given a variety and freshness in the selection, something which I think is lacking in this volume. In following the taste of a single editor (however diligent, respected or experienced) the publishers have produced a (mostly) uniform volume which suffers from "cultural cohesion".


P Nolan said...

Hi Christodoulos. Good to see you again at Poetry Now - hope we get a chance to talk a little longer soon. Been reading back along your blog - good stuff!

The question of what constitutes an 'Irish Poetry' is receiving a fair bit of attention at the moment and it's a question that's not unique to Ireland - see Todd Swift's comments re Bloodaxe's Identity Parade;

Regarding the whole 'Best of' question, I'd guess most readers take these claims with a fair dollop of salt. I know I do. At best, these kind of anthologies are only a part of the iceberg - not necessarily the tip, even. The idea of a number of editors for a title like this could have cons as well as pros though - poetry being one area where selection by committee doesn't necessarily strengthen the reach and diversity of selection? Perhaps even contributing to a less vital, amiable 'design by committee' perspective?

Christodoulos Makris said...

Thanks for the comment, P. I probably ought to clarify that the piece wasn't proposing the selection of poetry 'by committee'. The suggestion was rather for an editorial device - the personal and unvetoed choice of each separate editor/reader - that might encourage a pluralist view.