Friday, November 12, 2010

Too School For Cool

The recent sales success of Soundings is actually a reminder of its total failure as an educational instrument.

Walk into any bricks & mortar bookshop in the country this close to Christmas and among the tottering piles of volumes ready to collapse on top of you (besides the latest Katey Price biography or Scandanavian schlock crime yarn masquerading as edgy continental literature) is the reprint of Soundings - the 1960s "interim" syllabus anthology which lazily endured for over a quarter of a century ensuring that a couple of generations of Irish school children never heard of Seamus Heaney before he won the Nobel prize or knew that poems were written by Irish women. The anthology's selection ended with two early poems by Thomas Kinsella written in the 1950s. Except for these rather daring (compared with the rest of the book) short lyrics one could be forgiven for thinking modern Ireland was all about stony grey soils and the spraying of potatoes.

In fairness to Gus Martin, it wasn't his fault that the syllabus was not updated over the course of a quarter of a century. Eavan Boland was just getting started as the anthology was published and GM possibly thought he was being revolutionary including one living poet in the entire book.

This year as the publisher of the "Best of Irish Poetry" anthology series I have had to make the painful decision to cease its publication. The anthology had very low sales and received only one review in its four year history despite being the only attempt at establishing an annual publication of record for contemporary Irish poetry. Its American and British equivalents sell in the tens of thousands. This Irish series sold in the tens. Unsupported by the country's library system, never reviewed even in Poetry Ireland's quarterly or even its newsletter, the true interest and support for contemporary poetry in Ireland is rawly exposed.

The low sales figures of Best of Irish Poetry bewray how the frenzy surrounding Soundings has more to do with nostalgia than love of poetry, snapped up as it is by thousands of individuals who have never been motivated to seek out a poem by Eavan Boland or Matthew Sweeney, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain or Thomas McCarthy.

The broadsheets and broadcasters trumpet how the sales triumph of Soundings signals what a cultured poetry-loving mob our middle-brow, middle-class bookshop-frequenting bourgeois are. Actually they're more like the fool who calls himself a cineaste or movie-buff when he refuses to watch anything made after 1967 - that's putting it in language even they should understand.


  1. It is sad that the only two poetry books for sale in the whole of the town where I live are whatever Seamus Heaney's latest is and Soundings. No real poetry, no alternative, no choice, in all honesty probably no demand.I'd never heard of your anthology and that's a pity for the both of us. I would have been interested.

    I sometimes wonder at the sweeping grandiose arrogance of an establishment calling itself 'Poetry Ireland'when it represents such a narrow bandof the countries poetry.

  2. This blog post is like a dagger. Love it, Lory

  3. Yes the lack of women in Soundings is quite mad. I hated the bloody thing in school but I remember so much from it I was almost moved to buy it. Then I saw that the ever present Joseph O'Connor did the back cover blurb and I didn't buy it. Why is JOC trotted out at every hand's turn? Grrr. I do like JOC but why is he EVERYWHERE?!?!

  4. Really interesting post. I read that article by JO'C in the IT praising the hell out of Soundings but I agree with you that the success of that reissue says nothing about an interest in poetry. I find it sad that the last poem many people have read is one that was on their school syllabus.
    Soundings did have some great poems but where were all the great women and indeed American poets? Why were all the Irish poets called Anglo-Irish? The idea that being Irish and writing poetry in English automatically made you Anglo-Irish always confused me.
    In the UK poetry seems to be actively promoted by organizations like the BBC and London Underground and poems are often used in British and American films. In Leiden where I live we have poems on hundreds of walls around the city (website here). Poetry can be modern, relevant and part of every day life but the kind of back clapping about Soundings is not really the point in the same ways as the Irish Songs We Learned at School CD said nothing about people's true commitment to the Irish language.
    It is a pity to hear about the demise of your anthology, it certainly sounds interesting to me. I had never heard of it before but anthologies are always great to give a flavour of many different styles so you would have thought that there was a market.

  5. I had no idea sales of Best of Irish Poetry were so low and that the series was so critically ignored -- a sad comment it is, then. And here I just published a review of the 2010 anthology on Todd Swift's blog Eyewear: