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This article is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

Ulsterectomy Andrew Waterman

WITH TWO Ulstermen among these poets, I can begin with some salutary comment on the much-publicized Ulster literary scene from my rare perspective of an Englishman living mostly in Northern Ireland since 1968. Recent Ulster poetry, hitched to the genuinely impressive star of Seamus Heaney and cashing in on sympathy and interest excited by the 'troubles', has secured an indulgent press from commentators in England unaware of something Ulstermen themselves won't acknowledge, the chauvinistic parochialism and complacency afflicting literary life within the province itself. The root cause is that which produces comparable symptoms in every area and aspect of the province's life: with a population and incidence of talent similar to greater Manchester, Ulster is saddled by history with a need to affect cultural 'nationhood'. Moreover, a writer born here, as elsewhere in Ireland, suffers the further constraint of being expected to define exactly where he stands in relation to some or other concept of nationalism and cultural allegiance; a constraint Englishmen, however sensitive to personal roots, are fortunate to be free from in this form, for it is ultimately narrowing and exclusive. The Ulster/Irish poet is in a plight comparable to the Antipodean or Canadian, with the signal difference that where their obsession with national identity reflects lack of history, his is a deformation inflicted by the harsh coordinates of too much savage history. Only transcendent genius can wring universal verities from Europe's roughest field: Yeats, who as George Barker put it 'apotheosized a backyard'; Joyce finding perspective ...


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