- The Life and Work of Thomas MacGreevy: A Critical Reappraisaledited by Susan Schreibman
The author of a single slim volume, Poems(1934), Thomas MacGreevy (1893–1967) is better known as the friend of poets than as a poet in his own right. Readers of the Wallace Stevens Journalwill be familiar with MacGreevy from the correspondence he initiated with Stevens in 1948, and from the poem prompted by that correspondence, “Our stars Come from Ireland”: the young Tom M[a]cGreevy appears in the poem’s first part, imaginatively relocated from his birthplace in Tarbert, County Kerry to Stevens’ native Pennsylvania. “Our stars Come from Ireland,” which ghosts lines from MacGreevy’s poem “Homage to Hieronymus Bosch,” is Stevens’ homage to the man he would call (in an unpublished letter) “the best of all my correspondents,” and to the haunting and fractured lyricism of MacGreevy’s own verse.
MacGreevy’s oeuvre, modest as it was, instantiated an Irish mode of poetic modernism that one of its practitioners, Samuel Beckett, defined in contradistinction to the lingering Celtic Twilight antiquarianism of Irish poetry after Yeats. The publication in 1994 of Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis’ important Modernism and Irelanddid much to redress what has been the longstanding scholarly neglect of this Other Tradition in Irish poetry. Susan Schreibman, who contributed to the Coughlan and Davis collection, has for more than two decades acted as the keeper of MacGreevy’s particular flame. The creator of the digital Thomas MacGreevy Archiveand the editor of an annotated Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy(1991), Schreibman is presently writing MacGreevy’s biography. Her aim, as the editor of The Life and Work of Thomas MacGreevy: A Critical Reappraisal, is to recuperate MacGreevy from “the margins of modernist literary and art history” (xxv). [End Page 107]
Notwithstanding a number of excellent individual chapters, however, the collection as a whole is uneven in its critical quality and in its coverage. The remit of the Bloomsbury Historicizing Modernismseries in which The Life and Work of Thomas MacGreevyappears may be responsible for the book’s major flaw, the disproportionate attention to the life at the expense of the work. Of the chapters that do engage with the work, or which imbricate the life with the work in generative ways, too many concern MacGreevy’s art criticism, too few his poetry and his literary criticism. Only three chapters out of twenty-one are exclusively devoted to MacGreevy’s verse, and curiously, given that MacGreevy was by no means a prolific poet, the lion’s share of critical attention is restricted to just a handful of the poems: “De Civitate Hominum,” “Homage to Hieronymus Bosch,” and “Aodh ruadh Ó Domhnaill.” Although several of the contributors allude to the decades of MacGreevy’s post- Poemssilence, only Michael Smith, in the short piece with which the book concludes, mentions the late lyrical resurgence of “Moments Musicaux” and “Breton Oracles,” a diptych published in Poetrymagazine in 1961. MacGreevy’s achievement as a poet (and translator) thus appears more attenuated than was actually the case, a state of affairs exacerbated by the fact that neither Schreibman’s Collected Poemsnor Thomas Dillon Redshaw’s earlier New Writers’ Press edition of his poetry is presently in print (the poems are not part of the online MacGreevy Archive).
MacGreevy’s reputation at home has nonetheless risen in recent years, due to Ireland’s belated reconciliation with the nearly 200,000 Irishmen, MacGreevy among them, who enlisted in the British armed forces during World War One. Although he was an Irish nationalist and an out-and-out Anglophobe, MacGreevy joined up in 1916. Serving with the Field Artillery, he was wounded at Ypres salient, and again at the Somme. Gerald Dawe’s landmark anthology of Irish First and Second World War poetry, Earth Voices Whispering(2008), takes its title from MacGreevy’s “Nocturne”:
I labour in a barren place, Alone, self-conscious, frightened, blundering; Far away, stars wheeling in space, About my feet, earth voices whispering.(MacGreevy, Collected Poems1)
Compact and cosmic...