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  • “The Reductive Logic of Domination”: Narratives and Counter-Narratives in Irish Poetry Anthologies
  • Kenneth Keating

The falsely homogenizing ideology that underpins the dominant criticism of Irish literature, and more specifically of Irish poetry, originated in the postcolonial Cultural Revival movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This ideology has had a profound and lasting effect on anthologies and criticism of poetry from the island of Ireland. Familiar declarations include Douglas Hyde’s infamous call in 1892 to “build up an Irish nation on Irish lines.”1 Forty years later, Daniel Corkery offered his well-known prescription for “national literature . . . written primarily for its own people” and “referable to their life.”2 Such assertions stand as archetypal examples of what Frantz Fanon identifies as the postcolonial shift from writing for the oppressor to “the native writer progressively taking on the habit of addressing his own people.”3 As Stan Smith correctly observes, such overly essentialized sentiments have “continued to haunt Irish poetry throughout the twentieth century.”4

Nowhere is this haunting more evident than in the production of various nation-centered anthologies of poetry from Ireland and the debates surrounding their publication. These anthologies have given rise to arguments concerning such diverse issues as what constitutes a truly “native” literature; whether there is a distinction to be made between work from Northern Ireland and that produced in the Republic; the exclusion of marginalized voices from the canon; and how to eliminate patriarchal standards to be more naturally inclusive of this previously marginalized work. Notably, such anthologies and their surrounding debates have always already accepted the requirement for and the presence of an identifiable singular canon of Irish poetry. The arguments share a logic that, in accepting such a principle, merely debates the content of such a canon; as such, [End Page 104] they fail to truly interrogate the nature of the relationship between the micro-and the macro-, and stand guilty of subsuming the micro-poems and poets to various macro-arguments.

No issue has generated greater debate among modern Irish poets, critics, and the general reading public than canon formation. The role played by popular anthologies of Irish poetry in these discussions must not be underestimated. Anthologies have become representative texts; popular and commercially successful entry points for the interested native and international reader, a first point of contact for undergraduate students, and a mark of achievement for the poets themselves who have been elected to take their place alongside their canonical peers and predecessors. These texts are far from being passive, marginal writings read by few and of importance to even fewer. Anthologies have a higher profile than most if not all individual volumes of poetry. They are institutive, actively participating in the formation of the canon; and their influence is deep and long-lasting. What interrogation of the editorial selections of individual high-profile anthologies and the supporting and condemning sides of the debates surrounding their publication reveals is, ultimately, a shared ideology and set of practices underpinned by the continued insistence on the identification of a hierarchical canon of poets and poetic texts—which, in turn implicitly excludes and rejects work not deemed to have met the requisite standards and expectations of the editors to merit inclusion and elevation.

An early example of an anthology manifesting the macro-centered narrative of Irish poetry in order to present a singular, totalizing, hierarchical, and ideologically charged map of poetry from Ireland may be identified in the work of W. B. Yeats, whom Edna Longley has called the “Big Bang in whose explosion Irish literature still lives.”5 Yeats edited A Book of Irish Verse, originally published in 1895, in which he charged himself with the task of separating “what has literary value from what has only patriotic and political value, no matter how sacred it has become to us.”6 The emphasis on identifying the strongest Irish poetry—as separate and distinct from that produced by English peers and predecessors— would be repeated in later anthologies with a similar drive to construct a clear division between Irish and English poetry. Robert Farren’s 1947 The Course of Irish Verse in English makes explicit his editorial policy to...


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