- Northern Ireland's Poetic Renaissance
From time to time in literary history, it seems that one place or another—Concord, London, Harlem—is blessed with a surfeit of literary talent, and when that talent flourishes we call the resulting productivity a "renaissance," hearkening back to the paradigm-setting confluence of genius in and around the court of Elizabeth in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Often, the renaissance phenomenon is discussed as if it were both natural and accidental; it just happens that a handful of great writers (Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, and company; Hurston, Hughes, Larsen, and friends) occupy the same point on the space-time continuum. In just such a way we might, and many do, interpret the flowering of brilliant poetry in Belfast during the 1960s and 1970s. The city, in such an account, was just fortunate that it housed at the same time the likes of Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and Medbh McGuckian. In The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast, 1962–1972, Heather Clark rightly revises this naive way of representing renaissances. She argues instead that a cultural high-water mark like Belfast's late sixties and early seventies results not from naturally occurring tides but from the intersection of personalities, institutions, influences, and material practices under specific historical conditions. "I hope," she writes early on, "to prove that the cooperative and collaborative processes that Heaney, Longley, Mahon, [James] Simmons, and Muldoon engaged in during [End Page 141]the sixties and early seventies were essential to their autonomous development, and to demonstrate that it is reductive to consider the Belfast Group—both the workshop [founded and initially led by Philip Hobsbaum] and the coterie—as, in Longley's words, a 'coincidence of talent'" (7). With its supporting data drawn from the poets' letters and reminiscences, from manifestos, magazines, festival programs, and reading-tour schedules, and from evidence in the poets' poems themselves, the book makes good on this claim. We come away from The Ulster Renaissancewith a clearer understanding of how this particular efflorescence of poetic genius took shape, but also with a clearer understanding of how other similar moments in literary history must have occurred.
Akey component of the Ulster Renaissance, Clark argues, was the Belfast Group, a writing workshop organized by Philip Hobsbaum, who had organized similar groups in Cambridge and London. While Longley and Mahon had known each other for years before the Group began meeting in Hobsbaum's flat, and while they had read each other's work and published in some of the same magazines, and while they, among others, have long since disavowed both the Group and the label "Ulster Poet," Clark makes clear that the intense scrutiny provided by Group members helped these poets (and others, including—perhaps especially—Heaney) not only to polish but also to publish their early work (Hobsbaum had and used connections with editors and publishers in London). More than this, Hobsbaum's theories of language, which supported a commitment to plainspokenness, concrete specificity, and syntactic clarity, provided a kernel around which a shared poetic style could coalesce. Clark is careful, though, to avoid overstating the importance of the Group. Just as necessary to these poets' development, she argues, was the dynamic of friendship and competition among subsets of the Belfast poetic population. She sets the Group against the horizon of Mahon's and Longley's relationship at "Inst" (the Royal Belfast Academical Institution), at Dublin's Trinity College, and through the mail, as Longley returned to Belfast and Mahon traveled to France, Canada, and the United States. Clark more briefly describes a similar relationship between Heaney and Seamus Deane, who were students together first at Saint Columb's, a Derry preparatory school, and then at Queen's in Belfast. [End Page 142]
While these friendships and workshop experiences contributed to each poet's development and to the formation of a sense of community among Belfast's young writers, Clark demonstrates that other, quite concrete, factors were necessary for the emergence of...