The primary OED definition of “handbook” is “a small book or treatise, such as may conveniently be held in the hand.” At over seven hundred large-format pages and weighing in excess of three pounds, this Oxford Handbook is neither small nor handy to hold. The next definition sounds more like it: “A compendious book or treatise for guidance in any art, occupation or study.” Certainly, with forty chapters by specialist scholars on different aspects of modern Irish poetry from the emergence of Yeats in the late nineteenth century to the current generation in the first decades of the twenty-first, the book is compendious enough.
This handbook, like the others in the Oxford series, is intended as a reference book, with its individual chapters eventually to be made available for download online. No one but the dutiful reviewer, it is likely, will set out to read the book from end to end. But its great strength is in fact the way the editors have re-mapped the territory of Irish poetry by their organization of the volume. Chronological sections like “Poetry and the Revival” or “Mid-Century Irish Poetry” alternate with thematically focused sections like “The Poetry of War” or “Poetry and the Arts.” The generous allocation of chapters, each of a substantial eight thousand words, allows for the inclusion of senior scholars such as Edna Longley, Warwick Gould, and Dillon Johnston, of a much younger generation of critics such as Tom Walker, Maria Johnston, and Gail McConnell, and of a number of poet practitioners such as Justin Quinn, Leontia Flynn, David Wheatley, and Alan Gillis, all of whom figure in the book both as contributors and authors discussed.
Not all the poetry in the book is treated reverentially. There is a judicious evaluation by Kit Fryatt of the “potentialities” of Patrick Kavanagh and his failure fully to realize them, and there are some stern judgments by John Redmond on Brendan Kennelly and Paul Durcan’s engagement with the public sphere in their poetry. But for the most part, the contributors write in patient and informed appreciation of the work they analyze. The scale of the volume makes possible specialist chapters such as Damien Keane’s “Poetry, Music, and Reproduced Sound”—which discusses a range of Irish poets—or Paul Simpson’s stylistic analysis of modern Irish poetry. The book is primarily limited to English language poetry, but there is a chapter by Aodán Mac Póilin on translations from Irish and a fine discussion by Eric Falci of the collaborations between Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paul Muldoon.
Inevitably, Yeats looms large throughout. Even apart from the dedicated essay by Warwick Gould on his relationship with symbolism and Edna Longley’s wonderfully perceptive essay on Yeats and violence, he is an inescapable presence, compared with Austin Clarke in his relationship with English (Michael O’Neill), used as the starting point for Neil Corcoran’s exemplary overview of modern Irish poetry and the visual arts, and presented as the figure that subsequent Irish poets have had to imitate, resist, or try hard to ignore. But the range of later writers is well represented in the volume also, with two chapters devoted to Louis MacNeice (Tom Walker, Jonathan Allison), an excellent essay by John McAuliffe on Clarke and Thomas Kinsella (which very usefully focuses on the presses that published their poetry), and an extended treatment of the [End Page 597] wealth of Irish poetry published in the last fifty years, when Yeats has been a less insistent ghost.
Modernity came late to Ireland, and some might argue that modernism never got here at all. One section of this book is devoted to “modernism and traditionalism,” starting with Edward Larrissy’s intriguing exploration of congruences between the ideas of tradition of Yeats and Eliot. More representative, perhaps, is the view of the Northern Irish poet W. R. Rodgers, quoted by John Goodby: “The Irish have never been bitten by the T.S.E. fly” (606). Goodby is trying to account for the...