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New Hibernia Review 9.4 (2005) 113-128
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Austin Clarke and the Consolations of Irish Catholicism
Allegiance to a religion often identifies the writer who chooses to display outwardly that religion's influence not only on the written word, but also on upbringing, morals, and ethical behavior. On recently discovering Joyce Kilmer's An Anthology of Catholic Poets, I wondered what it took to be included in such an anthology. Did a writer have to write about being a Catholic or compose poems that have a prayerful or soulful theme to them? Do the poems in this anthology help in understanding the otherworldly desires of Catholics? Could a writer be included in this anthology who was no longer a Catholic? I looked to the introduction for guidance. Kilmer writes,
There are in this book poems religious in theme; there are also love-songs and war-songs. But I think that it may be called a book of Catholic poems. For a Catholic is not a Catholic only when he prays; he is a Catholic in all the thoughts and actions of his life. And when a Catholic attempts to reflect in words some of the Beauty of which as a poet he is conscious, he cannot be far from prayer and adoration.1
Essentially, Kilmer is saying that writing itself is a prayerful art that uses adoration, solemnity, and joy as a source for its inspiration. Whatever is being written about is held in certain esteem and the poets included here are not only Catholic, but more accurately, view poetry as a sort of religious expression. The word "Catholic" might mean a great many things to those who label themselves such, but Kilmer seems only to be concerned with bringing together poems that happen to be written by Catholics. His definition of what a Catholic is seems to be open, considering that he includes a few poems that were written before their writers even converted to Catholicism. He wants to show writers who see the word "Catholic" from opposite or slightly askew sides. The poems that are contained in this anthology are filled with adoration and interrogation, creation and representation. In looking for a definition of "Catholic Writing," Kilmer admits that the book is filled with images shaped by the aid of memory. [End Page 113] Whether or not these authors believe in every facet of the Catholic religion, Kilmer feels that the poetry chosen for this anthology is always dictated by "the strange memory of men living in faith."2 For Kilmer, the words "faith" and "Catholic" become interchangeable: to profess one's faith through art is a reflection of one's spirit. That faith can come in many forms, but Kilmer is mainly concerned with those writers who have chosen Catholicism, or who happen to have been raised Catholic.
Not so accidental is the fact that a great majority of the poets included in this anthology are Irish—from Joseph Campbell to Oscar Wilde, from Padraic Colum and Oliver St. John Gogarty to Thomas MacDonagh and Seamus MacManus, and of course, to Austin Clarke. While such writers as Colum and MacDonagh—two of Clarke's clear rivals at the time—often write about the joys of religion. Colum's "Christ the Comrade" MacDonagh's "Wishes For My Son: Born on St. Cecilia's Day, 1912," Clarke's "Celibacy"questions the staunch rules of Catholicism, specifically those that involve sexuality and marriage. Kilmer's choices reveal his desire to present poets who revel in their faith alongside those who question religion and the rules that govern the believers. Clarke, Colum, and MacDonagh are differently Catholic, but still fall within Kilmer's parameters for inclusion in his Anthology of Catholic Poets.
Many poets and writers have struggled with the conflict between reason and faith, and these Irish writers are no exception. James Joyce, after all, abandoned the practice of Catholicism, but it still remained a source for his autobiographical narrative because he knew that it had helped to shape his views of Ireland, of himself, and...