The toughest part of any anthology is choosing what to leave out, but for Patrick Crotty, the riches of modern Irish poetry were a particularly tough challenge, he tells Rosita Boland
PATRICK CROTTY has spent the best part of a decade editing The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry . It is a gigantic anthology, 1,032 pages long, so in some way it seems appropriate that when asked how he came to edit it, his reply runs for an impressive seven non-stop minutes.
Distilled, Crotty’s answer as to how he was appointed editor of the flagship anthology is: “One has the vulgarity to make a proposal.”
Currently a professor in Irish and Scottish Literature at the University of Aberdeen, Crotty sent a proposal to Penguin in 2001 for a new anthology of Irish poetry.
“I wanted to bring more of the Irish language into English,” he explains. “It was a revelation to me that there was so much Gaelic literature that hadn’t been absorbed into the general literary imagination of Ireland. [There are 59 of Crotty’s own translations in the anthology.] It occurred to me maybe it was time for a new Penguin Book of Irish Verse.”
Crotty describes his work as an editor as “building on” three previous landmark anthologies: the Penguin Book of Irish Verse , edited by Brendan Kennelly (1970); the Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974), edited by John Montague; and the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1986), edited by Thomas Kinsella.
“It’s the first general anthology since Thomas Kinsella’s book. I think I’ve broadened things out. For example, the Ulster Presbyterian tradition is much better represented. There are two song sections. I think the most important word in the title of the book is ‘poetry’. It’s not the Penguin Book of Irish Verse – it’s the Penguin Book of Irish Poetry .”
The original proposal was for 450 pages, but like the original delivery date, this over-ran. “The book was due long before 2010, let’s put it that way,” he says ruefully.
So what differentiates his anthology from others? “There needed to be some principle of organisation that would make it different from other anthologies. I wanted to have separate chronological sections and make them totally free-standing; to show you could tell a historical narrative though the poetry.”
The anthology is divided into eight sections: 1200 and previous; 1201-1660; 1601-1800; song to 1800; 1801-1880; 1881-1921; 1922-1970; and 1970-2009. The final piece in the anthology is Christy Moore’s classic ballad Lisdoonvarna .
Anthologies are perhaps most associated with browsing, where a reader dips in and out at random. Is there thus a danger that Crotty’s intention – of weaving a historical narrative thread through the poetry – gets lost? “Well, there are also conversations that the poems are having with each other within sections,” he replies.
Every anthology invariably invites interest about who’s in it and who’s not. “Any anthologist perhaps spends more time on their exclusions than their inclusions,” Crotty admits. “I think the contemporary period in any anthology runs into trouble. I’m old enough to remember Brendan Kenneally getting criticism for putting too many people in, and for John Montague and Thomas Kinsella being criticised for leaving too many people out. There is, I think in the Irish context, a particular difficulty with the contemporary period for a historical anthology such as this.
“For the sake of the book, the contemporary section should be done broadly according to the same editorial principles as the other sections. The 1970 section to the present is 180 pages in length whereas the entire period from 1601 to 1800, which is the second-longest section, is only 160 pages in length, so 180 pages for 40 years is fairly generous. People interpret exclusion as rejection, which is not really what’s at stake here, but one can understand that that is the case. So this has been distressing to the editor, and I think to the preface writer.”
Crotty, now suddenly switching to speaking in the third person, is referring to himself as being distressed (the author of the preface is Seamus Heaney).
What was his selection criteria for the contemporary section? “I was looking for poems where there’s something bracing and energising in the encounter for the reader. I was looking in the main for poems which had a little electricity and gave the readers some reward.”
THE CONTEMPORARY SECTION, from 1970 to 2009, was, he says, “too long. So even after Seamus had written his preface, I had to cut it down by six poets. It would be invidious to say who they are. There was a lot of agonising, but I would hope that people would bear in mind that broadly speaking, the contemporary section had to be done more or less under the same priorities as the earlier ones. In other words, it had to be eclectic.
“There is the added consideration that this has been a very rich period in Irish poetry. We’ve got Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Thomas Kinsella and Heaney and Longley and Muldoon and so forth. So not everybody could be represented, but I tried to represent as many types of poetry as I could. For instance, there’s a certain socially aware, colloquially expressed constituency, if you like, in contemporary Irish poetry which has produced some very good work.
“I thought Rita Ann Higgins’s Black Dog in My Docs Day was a very moving and a very strong example of that sort of poetry. And then there’s the kind of experimental ‘innovative’ kind of poetry – I thought the poems of Maurice Scully represent that very well, and he’s not usually in anthologies. I was thinking of it not in terms of poets, but in terms of poetry.”
But isn’t it an obvious question – who writes poetry except poets? Is one not the creation of the other? As Yeats wrote: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
“I didn’t think of anything beyond poems,” Crotty answers opaquely. “Having identified the different kinds of poetry, I then went for what seemed to me to be the most verbally alert, the most linguistically energetic samples.” He sighs. “Needless to say, this is the section that I agonised most about and lost most sleep about, because people’s sense of identity is tied up with their work.”
If he had to briefly explain what his anthology offered, what would he say? “I’m trying to make the pleasures of Irish poetry, in its many forms, available to a general poetry readership. So the stress is very much on the aesthetic, in trying to please the reader by making available stimulating and interesting verbal artefacts.”
The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry , edited by Patrick Crotty, is £40
FONTE: Irish Times