A Traveling Tradition


LBJ Visit Day, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Anthony Catalano

by Daniel Tobin

The apartment building where I grew up in Brooklyn during the Sixties and Seventies had strangely much in common with the kind of close-knit Irish townland from which my grandmother emigrated in 1913. Tucked just beyond the entry on the first floor landing, her small one bedroom flat was the first stop for virtually everyone coming home from work, as well as family and friends from nearby neighborhoods—many of them also immigrants from townlands outside Balinrobe or Claremorris. Over the years, her kitchen had become a New World hearth, and my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, my brother and I, and the crowd of neighbors, gathered there daily for talk and tea or a quiet drink. Sometimes a man named John Gibbons, an accordion propped on his wooden leg, would play and sing. Little wonder I identified as Irish, though born in the United States, the same way my friends in the schoolyard also born in America identified as Syrian or Lebanese or Italian, our nationalities bandied like favorite sports teams in the school yard.

Yet all that past carried surprisingly little charge during my years in academic life, until a colleague recommended I write the entry on Irish American poetry for an encyclopedia. The thought that there might be something distinctive in the appellation “Irish American Poetry” had never occurred to me, though by then I had written poems for my first book,Where the World is Made, that drew from my background, and I had nearly completed my study of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Passage to the Center. Beginning the research for this relatively brief entry was very like dipping my toe into the ocean and discovering the ledge underneath was much steeper than expected. I couldn’t wade out, and the waters were teeming with life. Soon I found my self swept up into the current, swimming out, and what was to be something of an aside turned into a fifteen-year project culminating first in The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, then Light in Hand: The Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge and finally Awake in America.

The reason for taking on what some called the impossible task of editing an anthology covering three hundred years of Irish American Poetry conceived of from multiple angles, for recovering the work of a largely forgotten Irish-emigrant Leftist poet of the early twentieth century, and finally for shaping a comprehensive study of Irish American Poetry in Awake in America is simply to render visible a varied world of writing that had been obscured by its presence within the confluences of larger traditions, both Irish and American. On the one hand, a forgotten literary star like John Boyle O’Reilly, whose work was celebrated alongside Whittier and Longfellow and who still has monuments dedicated to his memory on three continents, falls from favor, and perhaps rightly so. His is the fate of being insufficiently modern, a cast he shares with others in his company (including James Jeffrey Roche and Louise Imogen Guiney, Irish American poets both); though it can also be said that he carries forward onto American soil certain aspects of the bardic tradition of Irish poetry. O’Reilly’s significance and even his failure remains a watermark for serious poetry written by the Irish in America—about America, about Irishness, about race relations, and not merely nostalgic ditties tendered by emigrants and exiles about the old country and how good it would be to be back there. Lola Ridge falls into O’Reilly’s category as well, though her work bristles with modernity and the immigrant life of Lower Manhattan, long before Galway Kinnell imagined “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World,” or Philip Levine evoked the factories of Detroit. Her poems constitute an alternative modernist enterprise, one counter to that of Eliot and Pound and Williams. Hers is a left-wing modernist aesthetic, at once artful and populist, though an aesthetic that likewise refuses to succumb to wholesale materialism. She is the forgotten Dorothy Day of American poetry who anticipates the likes of Thomas McGrath, that other radical of the American imagination who embraces his Irish as well as his communist heritage. Together, Ridge and McGrath stand as principal figures within a covert vector of Irish American poetry that focuses vitally on work and the worker, and one that offers a challenging critique of one aspect of America’s democratic vista–its fraught song of empire.

Conversely, several well-known figures in the canon of American poetry, among them Edward Arlington Robinson, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan and John Berryman, all claim Irish roots. A close reading of their work also reveals how Irish routes to America have informed American poetry in complex and subtle ways. Robinson’s fictional Tilbury Town, for example, may be read as the imaginative construction of an American locale that resonates strongly with Partrick Kavanagh’s conception of the parish as locus of the universal. Marianne Moore’s application of modernist methods includes evocations of the fabulous in creatures—“The Fish,” “The Jeraboa”—that could find their places in an illuminated manuscript. It also includes in “Spenser’s Ireland” a declaration of Irish identity that may be read as a gloss on diaspora—“Spenser’s Ireland / / has not altered / a place as kind as it is green / the greenest place I’ve never seen.” Moore’s line inscribes at once a self-identification and the ownership of loss and forgetting, the assertion of a myth of place and its simultaneous deconstruction. Jeffers’ majestic conjuring of the tumultuous coastline near Carmel owes everything to his connection genealogically, imaginatively, and ontologically to the coast of Antrim. His Tor House at the edge of the American continent should be understood as a translation of the impetus behind Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee into the farther West at the edge of the Pacific. Louse Bogan is a crucial figure in American Women’s poetry, a resolutely formal writer who likewise wrestled with the shade of Yeats, as did John Berryman, the final third of whose epic psychomachia, The Dream Song, takes place in Ireland. In Berryman’s work we find the confounding parallel histories of Irish America and African America fiercely and disturbingly engaged in the raw and ironic exchanges between Berryman’s doppelganger, Henry, and his minstrel alter ego, Mr. Bones. Berryman is not the sole Irish American poet to confront the difficult issue of race in his poems, but his is the most sustained and complex engagement.

John Montague

In addition to such well-established American poets, poets typically branded “Irish” find important places in the necessary confluence that is Irish American poetry. John Montague’s most representative early work is infused with his young life growing up in Brooklyn, as is the poetry’s pervasive sense of exile and alienation. James Liddy, also born in America before growing up in Wexford then transplanting himself back into the “free-love” America of the Sixties, wrote poems that crossed Ginsburg’s visionary eroticism with late Kavanagh’s diurnal immediacy. The New Irish Poets Greg Delanty and Eamonn Wall carry forward this tradition that blurs sharp distinctions between Ireland and America in Irish American poetry, as do younger poets like Aidan Rooney and Mary O’Donoghue. To take such confluences further, poets born in America like Chris Agee and Julie O’Callaghan have made significant lives in the art in Ireland, just as had the late Michael Donaghy in England, a poet whose work legitimately ranges over three brilliantly inwoven senses of place—England, Ireland, and the Bronx. One can add to this eclectic mix the “Irish poems” of Wallace Stevens, “Our Stars come From Ireland” and “The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” both deeply influenced by Irish poet Thomas McGreevy; and should add, also, Jewish American poet Alan Shapiro’s “After the Digging,” a long epistolary sequence on the Irish Potato Famine—the most sustained treatment of the subject on either side of the Atlantic.

Then there are the growing number of Irish American poets, second and third generation, who like Brendan Galvin claim direct ancestry and a profound and exemplary allegiance to Ireland in their work. Such poets, and there are many, have begun to make starkly visible what was largely invisible: a broader understanding of Irishness than any parsing attachment to the island can adequately hold. One might say, then, and indeed I ague as much in Awake in America, that what has become the standard notion of the dual tradition of Irish writing is too limiting when it comes to the reality of Irish American poetry, existing as it does in currents of influence, in the ongoing confluence of its own wider outlet. What we have in the case of Irish American Poetry is a traveling tradition, to adapt Paul Gilroy’s phrase “traveling cultures” from his excellent study, The Black Atlantic. The evidence of such an understanding of tradition—an idea of tradition that at once conserves the past and is adaptable to new admixtures, and is therefore more fluid and more inclusive—is everywhere present in the rich but insufficiently studied contributions of Irish American poetry. Given a twenty-first century global nexus shaped so pervasively by social, cultural, and economic interfusion, all would do well to keep mindful of how vital traditions evolve by acknowledging and assimilating what once might have been inadmissible. The like is true for Ireland, America, and Irish America.

About the Author:

Daniel Tobin is the author of five books of poems, Where the World is Made (University Press of New England, 1999), Double Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), The Narrows (Four Way Books, 2005), Second Things (Four Way Books, 2008), and Belated Heavens (Four Way Books, 2010). His poems have appeared nationally and internationally in such journals as The Nation, The New Republic, The Harvard Review, Poetry, The American Scholar, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Image, The Times Literary Supplement (England), Stand (England), Agenda (England), Descant (Canada), and Poetry Ireland Review. He has also published numerous essays on modern and contemporary poetry in the United States and abroad. He is Interim Dean of the School of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston.