Irish poetesses rediscovered: poetic readings from the 18th to the 20th century
Ed. Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie
Cork University Press
Field Day’s infamous omission of Irish poets from his 1990 anthology is often cited as emblematic of a still male-dominated Irish poetic culture. Now a new collection of essays aims to shed light on the neglected Irish poets of the late modern period. Each essay takes a poet as its subject, closely analyzing an excerpt from his work and exploring what is known about the life of its author.
Such an undertaking is not entirely without problems, as the introduction to the collection notes. Does the creation of “women’s poetry” as a distinct category provide a necessary alternative to a stubbornly male canon, or do such efforts further limit already marginalized literature?
The illuminating readings offered here make up for any simplistic reduction. We meet a diverse mix of individuals, each with their own unique style, background and concerns. Some, like Lola Ridge and Angela Greene, were popular during their lifetime but overlooked by later readers; others set up private presses when they failed through conventional publishing routes (Blanaid Salkeld founded the Gayfield Press in 1937); still others were never published during their lifetime, such as Dorothea Herbert, whose work has been preserved in private notebooks.
What is often most interesting is to understand why such obviously talented writers have been erased from the archives. We learn how Ridge’s leftism and experimentalism ensured its decline into the 21st century; how figures such as Lynda Moran suffered from a male-dominated press industry that is largely unchanged today.
And though these poets are diverse, common themes emerge. Domestic work and its impediment to poetry preoccupied many, as did politics: Dora Sigerson Shorter’s untimely death was attributed by many to grief over the events of the Easter Rising, while Charlotte Grace O’ Brien for Poor Irish Emigrants prompted a formal review. by the British government.
Many of these poets produced highly allusive literary works and maintained fruitful working relationships with their male contemporaries, even though they are now remembered as mere correspondents or muses.
Above all, this collection carries the knowledge of its experts lightly, so that its fruits are accessible to any interested reader. It provides an in-depth survey of writers who are interesting and important in their own right; whose time, as Seán Hewitt writes of Emily Lawless, “is with us”.