Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sarah Bennett’s Article on the Irish Avant-Garde

A proto-avant-garde Irish poet
Sarah Bennett has published an interesting article on contemporary Irish avant-garde poetry in the online journal Wave Composition.  Titled “Love, Sorrow and Joy: Aubade for the Irish Poetry Avant-Garde,” the article traces the development of Irish experimental/avant/non-mainstream Irish poetry from MacGreevy though Devlin and Coffey, through the Sixties (The Lace Curtain journal and New Writers’ Press), through to the turn of the century and Wild Honey Press, up to the present.  I’m glad to see this, and it reminds me of the kind of work I have engaged in myself, with The Burning Bush and in an essay I wrote a number of years ago now (“The Ancients Have Returned Among Us: Polaroids of 21st C. Irish Poetry”) in the Louis Armand-edited Avant-Post anthology, that is similar to Bennett’s (I don’t imagine she’s seen it, though, so not to suggest she is in any way influenced by it).  Bennett references me in her article as “Poet, blogger and critic Michael Begnal, committed to the promotion of experimental writing in Ireland. . .”, and I am flattered.

It’s also nice to be kept up to date — I was not aware of Graham Gillespie’s collection Love, Sorrow and Joy (which is grandiosely subtitled “A New Voice in Irish Avant-Garde Poetry” and, strangely for a first collection, includes an interview with the author himself) (this book being the source of Bennett’s ironic title).  Bennett criticizes it as conservative and notes that “It’s difficult to conceive of an avant-garde — Irish or otherwise — in which Gillespie could rightly be accommodated.”  I can’t comment on this, as I’ve yet to read the book, but I’ve always been a fan of such critical jousting, and it will be interesting to see for myself.

Bennett rightly attacks Fintan O’Toole’s assertion that the work of Paul Durcan represents “an instance of the Irish avant-garde breaking into the mainstream.”  Durcan has never been an avant-garde poet, and personally I find his alternately jokey/cranky speaker persona to be merely irritating.  But, that is just my opinion.  Bennett, in any case, is percipient in observing the difficulty, due to socio-historic circumstances, in even approaching the mainstream v. avant-garde debate in Irish literature.

Debates on the definition of “avant-garde”/“experimental” writing rage continually.  Bennett briefly delineates a number of other critics’ positions, seeming to gravitate toward Alex Davis’s.  Still, I always wonder if a more specific critical context is necessary in a piece such as this — might she venture her own definition of the Irish avant-garde?  But then, arguing for this definition over that could be an article unto itself, perhaps a book, and so in this case I like that Bennett just gets on with it, knowing that we get her drift, and engages with the work in a way that reminds us why we ought to read and keep reading it.

Wave Composition as a whole, by the way, looks to be a worthwhile journal.

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