“I like myself poems that are gentle rather than arrogant intellectually. Where language fades into cries or whispers.” — Irish poet Medbh McGuckian

“Hate those two words together, they are so unwomanly and unpoetic together they cancel each other out. ‘Poet’ I don’t like or ‘woman’ or ‘man’ none of these words although I have had to use them. ‘Female’ not much better. ‘Poetess’ actually I like the sound.” — Medbh McGuckian on being called a “woman poet”.

Born in Belfast on this day in 1950, Medbh McGuckian studied with Seamus Heaney at Queen’s College, and met other Northern Irish poets like Paul Muldoon (post on him here) and Ciarán Carson (post on him here) while there. She had already decided to be a poet during her time in a convent school, and she began to publish things here and there in the mid- to late 70s. A harsh time in Belfast. Her poems do not directly address the violence of Northern Ireland. Her concerns are personal. As the quote above from her expresses, she felt she was in a no-win situation from birth: a typical response to being born Catholic in Belfast, but there is the added level of womanhood. She is eloquent on the role of Irish women in Irish society, and the society of literature, where they are often ignored or, in a way worse, put on a pedestal.

Her voice is an important antidote. She writes about families and love and childbirth and mothers and daughters. These are not “women’s concerns”. Does not Seamus Heaney write about his father? His childhood? Does not James Joyce write about his wife in every damn thing he ever wrote? Why is it different when he does it? The fact of the matter is it is NOT different, but it seems different, “lesser”, when a woman does it – at least to men looking on. Medbh McGuckian, standing in a very male tradition, writes from the center of that tension. She is highly aware of the “other”-ness of female experience, specifically Irish female experience. She feels that womanhood itself has been pathologized in Ireland. The only safe role for women historically has been “beasts of burden”. If the Irish woman shows some spunk or intelligence, or even a desire for love, if she is in any way unruly, she is feared and scorned or thrown into a Magdalene Laundry. These fears are real.

“I know being a woman for me for a long time was being less, being excluded, being somehow cheap, being inferior, being sub. I associated being a woman with being a Catholic and being Irish with being from the North, and all of these things being not what you wanted to be. If you were a woman, it would have been better to be a man; if you were Catholic, it would have been a lot easier to be Protestant; if you were from the North, it was much easier to be from the South; if you were Irish, it was much easier to be English. So it was like everything that I was was wrong; everything that I was was hard, difficult, and a punishment.”

Eavan Boland opened the space for other “women poets” (yuk, hate the term). She widened the spectrum of what “could be talked about” in poetry (and she continues to do so). All the “big guys” of Northern Ireland (Muldoon, Heaney, Carson) recognized McGuckian’s gifts. She lives in Belfast still. She teaches there. She has four children, and a busy life.

Her first poetry collection came out in 1982. She has won many prizes and awards.

On Ballycastle Beach is the name of her 1995 collection and I’ll post the title poem today. Her images are startling and disturbing, and you can feel her circling around her own private library of associations, working something out in the verse. She has said she often writes a cluster of poems on one particular topic, and then realizes later only one of them is THE poem.

Calvien Bedient called her “easily the most white-hot Irish poet since Yeats.” Comparisons are unavoidable (especially in Irish literature). Every Irish poet has to deal with the giant of Yeats. I suppose it is better to be compared to Yeats than to NOT be compared to him, but the tension of influence and history is part of what McGuckian’s poems are all about, with the special knowledge that being a woman throws the whole situation off even further.

On Ballycastle Beach

If I found you wandering round the edge
Of a French-born sea, when children
Should be taken in by their parents,
I would read these words to you,
Like a ship coming in to harbour,
As meaningless and full of meaning
As the homeless flow of life
From room to homesick room.

The words and you would fall asleep,
Sheltering just beyond my reach
In a city that has vanished to regain
Its language. My words are traps
Through which you pick your way
From a damp March to an April date,
Or a mid-August misstep; until enough winter
Makes you throw your watch, the heartbeat
Of everyone present, out into the snow.

My forbidden squares and your small circles
Were a book that formed within you
In some pocket, so permanently distended,
That what does not face north, faces east,
Your hand, dark as a cedar lane by nature.
Grows more and more tired of the skidding light,
The hunched-up waves, and all the wet clothing,
Toys and treasures of a late summer house.

Even the Atlantic has begun its breakdown
Like a heavy mask thinned out scene after scene
In a more protected time – like one who has
Gradually, unnoticed, lengthened her pre-wedding
Dress. But, staring at the old escape and release
Of the water’s speech, faithless to the end,
Your voice was the longest I heard in my mind,
Although I had forgotten there could be such light.

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2 Responses to “I like myself poems that are gentle rather than arrogant intellectually. Where language fades into cries or whispers.” — Irish poet Medbh McGuckian

  1. Brian James Leeson says:

    Adore Medbh McGuckian and would love to meet her one day and show her my own efforts of poetry on Ballycastle shore.

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