On this night when the Milwaukee Brewers are trying to battle back for the National League pennant, I think of James Liddy. Arlen House has recently published Liddy’s Selected Poems, a new version of which is long overdue. Anyone who’s followed this blog knows that I am a friend of Liddy (now deceased, 2008) and indeed have written much about him, afterwords in a couple of his Arlen House collections, and edited a festschrift to him, and all. I was really happy to see this new book. I love all of James’s work, older and later. The earlier volume A White Thought in a White Shade (1987) was a sort of new and selected poems too, but is long out of print, and his Collected Poems (1994), though more comprehensive, is also really a selected more than a collected. This new Selected, however, is both a great introduction to Liddy’s work for the present day and a worthy retrospect.
For those who may need context, Liddy is a Wexford poet of the late Irish modernist generation who moved to America toward the end of the 60s — well, led a sort of dual existence, going back and forth, but finally based really in Milwaukee, where he taught at UWM until his death. The editor of this volume, John Redmond, makes both a sound selection of his work from the span his career and contributes an insightful introductory essay. Milwaukee poet (and former Liddy student) Tyler Farrell (who is, like me, published with Salmon Poetry) contributes the concluding essay, which is more of a personal view of the poet.
Redmond begins by acknowledging the difficulty of placing Liddy into neat categories — he is perhaps “an early example of the Americanisation of Irish literature,” but, as he points out, “Liddy had an open, multi-angled view of the world,” and so even this transnational lens is limited. What, then, of his form? Redmond notes that “he began in a relatively formal vein and the hard-earned casualness of his later poetry came gradually.” On one occasion, a well-known Irish poet I was in a conversation with suggested to me that Liddy’s poetry was “loose,” so Redmond’s percipience in this regard is well appreciated. Redmond goes further, asserting that the strength of his later work (especially) indeed lies in his “sudden shifts of thought within agreeably unstable forms” and that “in its hybridity and flexibility, its sincere uncertainty and cultivated mystery, Liddy’s writing points toward a possible future for Irish poetry.” I could not agree more.
Farrell, though he takes a different tack (his central theme being an analysis of Liddy’s many self-penned autobiographical notes), largely concurs with Redmond. He quotes a letter that Liddy wrote to him: “There is no final manuscript, only versions of what a poet might become.” He notes that Liddy “constantly evolved” (yes) and puts forward the example of his editorship of a series of literary journals, quoting him: “I have always wanted to exchange new magazines for old, for I know that magazines can alter the shape of a literary landscape.” The true artist must evolve — for me anyway, it is the essential quality of the true artist. Forgive me for sounding pretentious (?), if that’s how it sounds, but so it goes. Liddy embodies this quality of poetic evolution, and both Farrell and Redmond recognize it. I second them and laud Liddy for this.
Taking this idea to its logical extension, both Farrell and Redmond see Liddy’s later work as his best. Redmond claims that “his development was slow,” but although “he did not stop developing…he wrote his best work in his last decade or so…” Farrell asserts that “some of his most realized poetry [was] with Arlen House” (Liddy’s last and maybe most diligent publisher). I really can’t disagree with this. It is true that, for Liddy, an alive writer who never stopped believing in life and poetry, his work was always ascending, moving forward, both becoming “better” (I put quotation marks around this because at the same time I suppose it’s subjective to a degree which part of Liddy’s work is better, partly coming down to personal preferences etc.) and changing. So, as Redmond sets out in his intro, this book is weighted toward the latter half of Liddy’s career. Again, I must concur. I myself as a poet always like my newest writing the best.
As much as I have to agree with Redmond’s choices as editor, this volume still made me miss some of Liddy’s earlier work. For example, I think Corca Bascinn (1977) is one of the greatest long poems ever written, but here we get only two short verses. I also wished for more of A Munster Song of Love and War (1971) — it is hard to find in the original; yet, along with the aforementioned work, it exemplifies a major period in Liddy’s development (the influence of Jack Spicer’s serial poems). And maybe it’s just a subjective thing, again, but since Gold Set Dancing (2000) was some of the first Liddy material I read (besides the poems he sent to me as editor of a literary magazine), I hoped for more of that book than the three poems included. This is quibbling, though, as quibble every reviewer will with a volume of only selected poems. Redmond does an exemplary job as editor, and both he and Farrell scintillate in their essays. This book is both necessary and important, and as necessary as a short selected volume of Liddy is, it provoked in me the further thought, that someday there should be a true Liddy Collected Poems, everything he ever wrote, or at least published, or at least as much as may be possible.