REVIEW by Adam Hanna

NWR Issue 102

Poetry and Privacy

by John Redmond

In an autobiographical anecdote in the introduction to this book of essays by the poet and critic John Redmond, its author tells a thought-provoking tale of two offices. Both were in the English Department of University College, Dublin, in the second half of the 1980s. In one worked the administrators of the ‘Modern MA’, a course that specialised in literary theory; in the other those of the ‘MA in Anglo-Irish Literature’, a course devoted to novelists, playwrights and poets. Nowadays, when seven or eight university departments can be labelled a ‘School’ and crammed into a single administrative office, recalling the times when each MA course had its own facilities and administrators has a certain nostalgic appeal. However, the division that the wall between these offices symbolises is still with us, metaphorically separating literary criticism into different compartments. From one of these UCD offices, writes Redmond, ran a course that celebrated ‘the critic as hero’; from the other, one which held up ‘the author as hero’. Anyone with an interest in literary criticism will know the different vocabularies for which these offices stood as sponsoring presences: one with watchwords like ‘unmasking’, ‘subverting’ and ‘radical’; the other with favoured terms such as ‘irony’, ‘ambiguity’ and ‘paradox’. The tension between these two ways of thinking about literature, I think, is the tension out of which this fine book of criticism was written.

Each of the essays in Poetry and Privacy; Questioning Public Interpretations of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry focuses on one or two authors, and is tied together by a strong line of argument, often on the theme of under-acknowledged inwardness or misdiagnosed introversion. Their subjects include Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Robert Minhinnick, Glyn Maxwell, John Burnside, Vona Groarke, David Jones and WS Graham. The big idea that runs through the book is that readings which yoke poems to issues which command broad public interest (like ecology, feminism and consumerism) can run the risk of ignoring the poems that they purport to elucidate. Redmond does convincing work on this theme, successfully querying the placement of many poetic square pegs in the critical round holes that they have come to occupy.

Of course, there are certain risks involved in seeking to separate poems from publicly relevant readings, the most important of which is caused by the difficulty of distinguishing the public from the private. Seamus Heaney wrote that writers ‘live precisely at the intersection of the public and the private’, and their work often seems to do the same. In a convincing essay that queries the coupling of a poem by Vona Groarke with ideas of transgressive sexuality, Redmond links her work to another public context: the greed and property-mania that coincided with the Irish boom. Redmond admits in the book’s opening pages that the distinction between public and private is a notoriously slippery one, and a book whose project is to argue for the private rather than public significances of poems almost invites the reader to identify signs of their social and public contexts.

This is more a book written in protest at the idea of the poet as good-guy ‒ a responsible citizen whose work, properly interpreted, reveals an intention that matches the critic’s own idea of the right attitudes towards subjects that are more important than poetry. Redmond shows the ways in which Gordian knots can be cut and discussions cut down, and identifies a widespread pattern in which critics aim for closure in the identification of a poem with the quashing of an inhibiting cultural norm, the championing of a disadvantaged group, or the espousal of a responsible opinion.

Most people who read poetry criticism also have an interest in writing it. Therefore one of the strongest points of Poetry and Privacy is that it is a model of style. It is the sort of writing that can hold your attention anywhere, as I discovered in the week I carried it about with me. If the vitality of the ideas in a work of criticism can be gauged from the language in which it is expressed, then this book, with its pithy, wry, sidelong style, more than passes the test. It is one of those very rare critical works that yields something worth quoting almost every time it is opened at random. This is why it is likely to be of interest not only to people interested in the poets who are discussed in it, but also to anyone who is interested in thoughtful, readable criticism.

By engaging with ideas from a wide range of literary critics, Redmond shows how the divergent trends in literary criticism can be brought into productive conversation with each other. In doing this, he also does a considerable service for the poets whose work he discusses.

Adam Hanna is a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen. He is writing a book about domestic spaces in the work of poets from Northern Ireland.

Buy this book at gwales.com



       


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