On Sunday 28th November at 6 pm on RTÉ lyric fm, Claire Cunningham presents Sublimer Wishes, the first of three programmes in an occasional series which tells the stories of poets whose work has been recently rediscovered - listen to Sublimer Wishes above.
All the poets in the series are anthologized in a recent book Irish Women Poets Rediscovered (Cork University Press). Below, the editors of that volume, Maria Johnston and Conor Linnie, map out the terrain covered by their book.
In one of the few surviving verses written by a woman living and working in eighteenth-century Ulster, poet Olivia Elder wryly reflected on the challenge of following in the footsteps of the literary men before her amid the daily responsibilities of house and farm, writing ‘I oft forsake both Pope and Swift / The House to sweep, and Pots to lift’. The daughter of a New Light Presbyterian minister from Aghadowey near Coleraine, Elder never married and consequently spent her days helping her father with the small farm he ran to supplement his income. This left scant time for verse making, as she described in a letter in 1769:
Oft from my Hand the Pen I whisk out,
And in its place take up the Dishclout;
For spite of all sublimer wishes,
I needs must sometimes wash the Dishes.
Yet Elder’s passion for poetry permeated the dull routine of daily life, finding an outlet in the lively verse-letters she exchanged with her female friends, which showed the natural ease of her craft in animating mundane requests for flower roots, invitations to visit and snippets of local news. Elder moved adventurously through a variety of poetic forms, but her sharp wit was most uniquely attuned to satire, and the single notebook of her handwritten verse that has survived reveals a fearless poet unafraid to call out the vices of local Presbyterian ministers and Church of Ireland clergymen.
Elder’s remarkable story is brought to attention in the new collection of essays Irish Women Poets Rediscovered: Readings in poetry from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. The collection recovers the vital, vibrant and subversive voices of seventeen extraordinary Irish women poets, with Elder joining a fierce company including Emily Lawless, Dora Sigerson Shorter, Blanaid Salkeld, Ethna MacCarthy, Lola Ridge, Lynda Moran, and Cathleen O’Neill. The impetus for the book originated in the one-day seminar Missing Voices: Irish women poets of the 18th–20th centuries, hosted by Poetry Ireland in October 2018. As editors, we wanted to capture something of the live energy of the event and its vitalising mix of presented papers, readings and performances. Irish Women Poets Rediscovered brings together the diverse perspectives of emerging and established scholars and practicing poets, contributing a series of engaging essays that rediscover familiar voices and reclaim those that have suffered marginalisation or neglect.
Each essay in the collection is prefaced with a stand-alone poem or poem-extract written by its subject, so presenting the poet first to the reader in their own words. The poem launches an engaging and informative essay response, thereby illuminating the details of the poet’s life and work through a combination of close reading and broader contextualisation. In this way, the essays move from the particular to the general, introducing the selected poet to the reader before situating her within a wider view of Irish culture from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Irish Women Poets Rediscovered invites the reader to delight in the newly found poem, but also to consider why many of its represented poets have struggled for visibility. The essays collected here reflect on the conditions and contexts by which Irish women poets have been historically denied their readers. They raise significant questions about class and inequality through the individual stories of eighteenth-century servants and labourers to those struggling with unemployment and marginalisation in modern-day Dublin. They chart the political beliefs and activism of women poets amid the social upheaval and revolutionary fervour of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
New insights into the field of Irish literary production reveal the myriad difficulties faced by women in a male-dominated publishing sphere, and how they contested their predicament through the cultivation of independent publishing contexts and social networks. The essays highlight the liberating social space of the local writing group, of epistolary correspondence, and the varying opportunities afforded in Irish periodical culture and the private press tradition. The collection speaks of the constant and varied impediments faced by women poets, but also of how they navigated these challenges to find their way into print.
Maria Johnston is a freelance poetry critic and Conor Linnie is a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin.
Sublimer Wishes is presented by Claire Cunningham on The Lyric Feature, Sunday at 6 pm on November 28th. The first programme in the series features Olivia Elder, Cathleen O’Neill (who wrote about the experience of working class women in Dublin in the late 20th Century) and the poet and performer Madge Herron. Listen to more from The Lyric Feature here.