Ireland could begin producing a torrent of world-class chemists, shot putters, pet doctors or dentists, but it will be a long while before it escapes its reputation as the place where people can do three things better than anywhere else in the world: sing, drink and spout poetry.
Say what you will about the bludgeoning simplicity of those first two assumptions; the third has some empirical evidence behind it. This is, after all, a nation the size of Indiana which has given us William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney—and that’s just in the last century.
Poetry seems to be in Irish blood, but the question remains—has that blood begun to thin? It’s too soon to tell, but this fall two of Ireland’s most revered poets have published volumes which suggest not, even though they live on American soil now.
Paul Muldoon teaches at Princeton University. Horse Latitudes is his first collection since winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 volume Moy Sand & Gravel, a book which poked fun at the outrages of American language, while calling upon the vocabulary of home. He returns here to mine the baser vein of American speech again, sublimating what he dredges up, molding it into a giggle-making poetic alloy that is unquestionably all his own.
The book begins with the title poem, which takes its inspiration from the degrees north and south of the poles where ships tend to get stalled. Muldoon then moves into more familiar territory: riffs on the mother country (Ireland), language (homonyms), alliterative jibberish (“jinkle-jink” and “spur-spin”) and hilarious doggerel. “90 Instant Messages to Tom Moore” contains these honkers: “A horse drank the dregs / of the barrel of black rum / and found its sea legs.” And: “In the petri dish / of itself the oyster, shucks, / seems quite standoffish.”
Muldoon wields rhyme like a comic does a punch line. Language is his yo-yo. Not surprisingly, he's not a big blunderbuss of seriousness. This attitude gives these poems a light feeling, but he always keeps things interesting. Indeed, here is a poet who will pen an appreciation to Warren Zevon before he bows down before Thomas Hardy, who will slip a hee-haw into a poem and dare you to sniff at it.
To Muldoon, there is a wee bit more wiggle room in how to mean what we say—and the nice thing is he trusts the reader enough to let him prove it through negative example. “I traced the age-old traduction / of a stream through a thorn thicket / as a gush from a farthingale,” Muldoon exclaims in one explosion of faux-Irish lushness. In other words, a river runs through it.
Thomas Kinsella was a longtime professor at Temple University who lives in Philadelphia. While Muldoon captures the rhythms of Irish speech by mangling words into alliterative shapes and sizes, Kinsella is a quieter poet. He hails from the silent Ireland—the dark green, woolen, sunless place—and you can feel a hush falling down the moment you crack his Collected Poems, which brings together five decades of his work. “Silent rapt surfaces / assemble glittering / among themselves,” he writes in “Worker in Mirror, at his Bench.” “What to call it ... / Bright Assembly? / Foundations for a Tower?” You can almost picture Kinsella himself placing himself in this grim still-life. This is a fellow who distrusts flash.
Although Kinsella’s earliest poems were strangled by formal tradition, humorlessly besotted with the edifice of Poetry, he shucked off some of his anxieties of influence over the past five decades. Collected Poems allows a reader to watch the years gum away at his monumental reserve, revealing at last an artist with singular gifts for poise, mood and control.
In his best moments, there is a starkness to Kinsella's work as beautiful as a winter field under snow. One poem remarks on the “green flesh of a wave,” another notes the “sea bed’s briny chambers of decay.” Cheerful he is not, but to his credit he seems to know that, and the finest poems here work to his strengths, turning a lugubrious sentiment into something sterner, harsher, almost confessional (he is often compared to Robert Lowell).
I have struggled, hand
in the savage dance
I have lain inert, the flesh in nightmare
eating and eaten,
with eyes wide open.
And I have sat solitary
outside, on the low window-sill,
a brutal nail nagging out of nowhere.
It’s not the sort of work that’ll have people jumping on Ryan Air flights over to Dublin, but there is a truth to these lines that makes a whole lot of sense as the dusk falls, and the reader can appreciate how little else needs to be said.