Mc Cormack, a professor of literary history at the University of London, has woven together a fascinating and problematic anthology. The subtitle, tailored to the American edition, is something of a non sequitur, since the selection includes only one poet before Swift, but 28 after Yeats. “Interpretive” refers to Mc Cormack’s goal, as he states it in the introduction, of demonstrating “how Irish literature can be read, not just as a national history, but also as a less orderly and more unexpected series of assaults, dialogues, embraces, exchanges, and propositions.” The selections are often avowedly sectarian and provocative, but the virtual absence of biographical information or critical notes—crucial for any American edition of such a politically oriented book—obscures the poems’ sometimes surprising relationships. Also confusing is the anthology’s inconsistent approach to its treatment of poems in Gaelic, some presented in English with the original Gaelic, others exclusively in English, and one just in Gaelic. One may always complain too about omissions—Paul Muldoon and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill spring to mind—but, as a whole, Mc Cormack’s painstaking selection does justice to the panoply of Irish poets, from the bardic pronouncements of Aodhagán Ó Rathaille to the slyly conventional sonnets of Lady Gregory to poems by moderns like Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, and Derek Mahon. The inclusions from Yeats and Joyce highlight a political engagement that frequently goes unnoticed in selections of their work. Perhaps most satisfying is the generous sampling of marvelous long poems like Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court (translated by Frank O’Connor), Austin Clarke’s Orphide, and Patrick Kavanagh’s Great Hunger—alongside Oscar Wilde’s more famous Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The poems in this volume do indeed reflect a national history, messy and complex, strident and joyful in the most tragic of circumstances.