MYTH AS SOURCE IN IRISH POETRY: BY MARIA ISAKOVA BENNETT
First Published in Orbis 169
147pp, Salmon Poetry, Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland
Adam Wyeth’s book, The Hidden World of Poetry, comprising sixteen accessible but detailed essays, aims to showcase Ireland’s leading contemporary poetry, serve as a primer to analyse poems in depth, and to explore Celtic mythology’s exciting and popular heroes, gods and folktales.
The basic structure of each chapter is consistent: the poem under consideration is set opposite an ink painting by Miriam Logan with a quotation relating to myth from a range of writers as diverse as William Blake and Björk. Each quotation in itself is worthy of reflection. A brief biography of the poet, and a close analysis of the poem follows.
Each of the essays vary slightly in length with those on Borders by Eiléan Ni Chuillenáin, and Paul Muldoon’s A Mayfly comprising a longer analysis suggesting many alternative interpretations of some sections of the poem. For instance, Borders as a definition is considered as, ‘… the border of driving across the republic to Northern Ireland… the metaphysical border of life and death, … the crossing from one world to another…’ (p.117), and later, ‘… border is suggested in the image of the speaker becoming ‘the witch’, … historically, independent women living on the borders of society were often portrayed as witches.’ Some interpretations, although providing detailed analysis, seem a little tenuous, ‘borders of a page… bordered with stanzas, line-breaks and end-rhyme.’; ‘…borders also form a decorative ‘band’ around the edge of something – as rhyme does.’ (p.119).
I enjoyed in particular the tight analysis of form and content, and the references to musicality and sound in the essays generally. Discussing Mary O’Malley’s poem Bean Sidhe, Wyeth comments, “The sound-echoes sensuality is deepened through the physical end-rhymes that move down the poem, such as, ‘lips/hips’, ‘oh/grow’, ‘dry/eyes’.” Enlightening.
It was interesting to see recurring concerns in Irish poetry over time. Westering Home, by Bernard O’Donoghue, Paul Durcan’s, The Mayo Accent, and The Old Ways by Desmond O’Grady, focused on an ongoing quest for Ireland as home; while goddesses, women, sex and fertility were major concerns in: Badb by Maurice O’Riordan which references the Irish shape-shifting goddess who appears as a crow or raven; Leanne O’Sullivan’s Promise exploring the mythology surrounding the Hag of Beara, and ideas of metamorphosis focusing on the transformative power of love; Paula Meehan’s Well at which ‘… a sex spell / cast by the spirit who guards the source’ occurs; and the aptly entitled, Making of an Irish Goddess by Eavan Boland in which the female body becomes the embodiment of Ireland.
Wyeth’s ability to produce each short essay brim full of analysis and packed with information about Irish myth and legend is inspiring. I can’t fault the book save to wonder whether the biographies of each poet should occur at the end of the book rather than interrupting the flow from poem to analysis, although Wyeth does address this point, ‘Putting the poet into context also helps unravel some of its hidden world.’ (p. 116)
I am left then with only admiration and one suggestion for the reader that you see this book not as one to read cover to cover but as an appetizer for further study.