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A Sense of History with a Twist: the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain A Sense of History with a Twist: the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain

The contemporary poets of Ireland share their medieval predecessors love of nature and contemplation. The medieval poets sought to record history, while the contemporary poets are content to simply observe the world around them, without becoming too mired down in the politics and culture of the society. These contemporary poets are moving away from the political poetry of the 17th century and medieval contemplation, yet continue the tradition of delving into the past for content, adding modernist aesthetic strategies. Irish poets, Medbh McGuckian and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain in both write with a sense of their history but their aesthetics are very different.

While the contemporary poets utilize the myths of the past in their works, they often use a universal past, rather than a strictly Irish past. The poet, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain in is one such poet who writes concretely about the past, but it is a universal past. In The Second Voyage, she writes of Odysseus of Greek mythology, “Odysseus rested on his oar and saw / The ruffled foreheads of the waves,” and of the biblical Adam, “And we could name them as Adam named the beasts, / Saluting a new one dismay, or a notorious one” (Murphy 396). She also includes the Irish past intermixed with worldwide past, in Waterfall, “Bricks of the cistern where Vercingetorix / Died in Rome, the dark earth of London / Where blood fell from O’Rourke betrayed” (Murphy 397-398).

Chuillean in has been praised for her “sense of history,...quality of imagination,...clarity of image...and her precise diction” (Murphy 396). In contrast to McGluckian’s poetry, which is fraught with tangled syntax and often difficult to grasp meanings, Chuilleanain’s poetry is clear and concise. In a review of her works, James Hudson remarks, “Her voice and technique...contain deep echoes of older poetry, as Irish verse tends to do. But there is a bracing coldness to her voice...No dreamy wistfulness and Celtic mist here” (Hudson).

Conversely, Medbh McGuckian writes with an ear towards aesthetics versus form. She says of her poetry, “My words are traps/through which you pick your way” (FEN). Her poetry is a vast wonderland of words that one can become easily lost in. In her poem, Chopping, McGuckian writes of the simple chore of chopping an onion, yet she manages to make this simple task into a deep and moving action.

Close your eyes
Unwinding the bitter onion–
Its layers of uncertainty are limited,
Under brown paper its sealed heart sings
To the tune of a hundred lemons.

Today I am feeling up to it:
I bend my throat aside–
There is no pain, only the soft entrances
Again, again, the vegetable's
Finely numbered bones.

In his essay, Initiations, Tempers, Seductions, Postmodern McGuckian, Thomas Docherty describes McGuckian’s poetry with precise eloquence. “Her sentences meander from étrangeté to bizarrerie, dislocating metaphor and being “easily carried away“ in this language which is dictated by no consciousness, and leaving a reader stranded in flight from multivalent realities” (Docherty 209). McGuckian’s poetry is pure observation of the life around her, about nature, sexuality, and motherhood.

In addition, McGuckian writes of the problem of being Irish and writing in the English language, a language that she does not feel is her own. “I think when I write poetry I solve the problem, I develop a specialized language of my own, fairly private, which is not English, less than, more than English which subverts, deconstructs, kills it, makes it the dream language I have lost. At least, this is the motivation” (UOU). This is a common problem for those writing in a language which is not their native tongue. McGuckian manages to convey incredible meaning despite writing in English.

McGuckian and Chuillean in both write with a sense of their Irish poetry but with a modern twist. McGuckian uses complicated syntax and “specialized language”to convey not only her Irish heritage but also the present world around her. Chuilleanain writes with a longing and sensible language for a past heritage that is not only Irish but universal. Both poets join their peers as accomplished and hauntingly beautiful poets, traditional (yet modern) Irish bards.

Works Cited

Doan, James. Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. - Irish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Docherty, Thomas. “Initiations, Tempers, Seductions, Postmodern McGuckian.” Neil Corcoran, ed. The Chosen Ground:Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland. Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992. 191-210

FEN. "Medbh McGuckian." 2002 Family Education Network. 22 Apr. 2003

Hudson, Robert. “The Second Voyage by Eilean Ni Chuilleanain.” Working POET. Reviews March 2001. Accessed 25 April 2003. Working POET

Murphy, Maureen O’ROURKE and MacKillop, James. Irish Literature: A Reader. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987

UOU. “Medbh McGuckian: A Life.” University of Ulster. Accessed 22 April 2003. University of Ulster


K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006

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