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This review is taken from PN Review 106, Volume 22 Number 2, November - December 1995.

MARGINS Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, edited by Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (Cork University Press)

The Irish modernist poets of the 1930s have probably been 'revived' more often than they've been actually read, J.C.C. Mays ruefully admits at one point in this book. Having made their fleeting mark in the 1930s, the Irish modernists - Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and more tangentially, George Reavey and the Beckett of Echo's bones - quickly drifted out of view, where they remained for almost thirty years. To Michael Smith however, founding editor of New Writers' Press in 1967, they were Ireland's 'lost' poetic generation, and the patrons elect of a new avant garde he busily set about championing. In the end though it was not to be, and almost thirty more years later Modernism and Ireland is forced to ask itself the big question: What went wrong? Numerous reasons can be suggested, as they are in fine essays by Terence Brown and W.J. McCormack. None of the poets though, to be fair, seemed anything other than happy with life on the margins: Devlin and Coffey ruminated through long silences; MacGreevy, in Richard Aldington's damning phrase, had 'all the gifts of a writer, except the urge to write'; Reavey and Beckett simply moved on. The uncertainty of the achievement, as a result, is occasionally reflected in an over-reverential tone in some of these essays, while the description of today's 'regnant vision' as 'either verbal high jinks or Nabokovian dandyism' (J.C.C. Mays again) seems a little uncalled-for. As a final essay, Trevor Joyce contributes a useful history ...


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