In response to:
The Luck of the Irish from the February 26, 1987 issue
To the Editors:
The publisher has sent me a copy of Denis Donoghue’s review of the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse [NYR, February 26].
The anthology has had the usual range of responses. A number of these would agree with Donoghue that I should have used translations other than my own; always Frank O’Connor, sometimes James Stephens—sometimes even James Simmons. But it is Frank O’Connor’s Edwardian tone, “Tennysonian” as Donoghue describes it—either way an offense to the tone of the original—that makes his versions unuseable, despite the great help he had from the Irish scholar David Greene. Stephens selects unevenly, and frequently misses the point. Simmons is not good enough.
The matter of translation could make a useful debate. I would certainly differ with Donoghue on the propriety of using unsatisfactory translations, where they exist, so as to illustrate the period of pioneer translation between 1850 and 1930. Also on most of his detail: on the pace of An Cuimhin Leat an Oíche Úd; on the diagnosis of “murmuring” in the early invocation to the Virgin Mary; and on his remarkable statement that “even a reader who lacks Irish” might judge on the issue of “murmuring” between different versions.
But it is on two other points that Donoghue’s article needs comment.
He is careful to show his familiarity with the Irish language. And the recognition that this can help with an appreciation of the Irish tradition is new, and welcome. But he might have been equally careful in playing with the Joycean gesture “that the Celts contributed to Europe nothing but a whine.” It would have been difficult, in the Irish experience, to record the extermination of a society without some negative feeling. But Donoghue ignores the rest of it: even in the closing generation, the positive rage of O Bruadair or Haicéad or O Rathaille; and the parody of political complaint, and of everything else, in The Midnight Court. And before that, a millennium of major literature: narrative poems in Old and Middle Irish, the early religious and love poetry, the poetry of the bardic tradition, a great folk poetry (with Mac Giolla Gunna’s “Bonnan Bui,” which Donoghue lists among the poems of loss, and finds heartbreaking—a poem of self-mockery in the mouth of a drunk). All of this is illustrated in the New Oxford Book, in translations as faithful in content and rhythm as possible. It is not really open to dismissal in a facile gesture.
Secondly, on my comment in the Introduction on the political past in Northern Ireland: that (unlike the current “Northern Renaissance” in poetry) it is not a merely journalistic entity. Donoghue comments that “It is, I am afraid….” Either he has missed—precisely—what I wrote or he is saying that the political and social stresses in Northern Ireland since 1607 have no existence outside the newspapers.
The understanding and presentation of Irish literature in the context of a dual tradition is at a formative and important stage. It needs real contributions, rather than the repetition of some established but shaky opinions. The long-awaited edition of Yeats’s letters, from Donoghue himself, could help in this.
Denis Donoghue replies:
Last things first. I am not, and have never been, an editor of Yeats’s letters. I have nothing to do with the superb edition for which John Kelly is responsible.
It is clear that I misread one of Thomas Kinsella’s sentences in his introduction to The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and took him as saying precisely the opposite of what he now clarifies. “The past, in Northern Ireland, is not.” I took that as denying the historical weight and momentousness of the events since 1607 to which I had alluded. He and I are in full agreement, it has happily emerged, on this matter.
I don’t know what point Kinsella is making by describing “An Bonnan Bui” as “a poem of self-mockery in the mouth of a drunk.” Even if it were that, I would still find it heart-breaking. But in any case Kinsella was fairer to the poet, Cathal Bui, and the poem when he said, in An Duanaire, that “of the handful of poems attributed to him, most are marked by a rare humanity, but none of them can match ‘An Bonnan Bui’ with its finely judged blend of pathos and humour.” Surely I don’t have to instruct Kinsella, of all poets, in the considerations that break one’s heart.
The main point of my remarks about Kinsella’s decision to print no translations (with one exception) but his own was that it suppressed the only provenance the Irish poems had, during a crucially formative period, roughly 1850 to 1930. It is important for readers of modern Anglo-Irish literature to know upon what forms and examples the general sense of the old Irish poetry was based during that period. The character of the translations is what matters, not their adequacy from Kinsella’s point of view, or from mine. My point about Kinsella’s own translations is that even if they were superb in every other respect, they convert a multitude of styles into the common style of his own poems. He makes all the poems sound as if he had written them. This is unsatisfactory in an anthology designed to show the history of Irish poetry from the sixth to the twentieth century; that is, to give some indication of minds, styles, forms, predicaments, and emotions not his own.
September 24, 1987