Medbh McGuckian 1950-
Northern Irish poet and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of McGuckian's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 48.
One of the few female Irish poets to attract both critical and popular attention, McGuckian writes poetry that infuses the traditionally masculine realm of Irish poetry with her own distinct brand of femininity. Throughout her career, she has simultaneously illumined and blurred patriarchal definitions of womanhood in collections ranging from the critically acclaimed The Flower Master (1982; revised, 1993) to The Soldiers of Year II (2002). Primarily writing on such themes as female sexuality, sex, and identity as well as marriage, fertility, pregnancy, and birthing, McGuckian has challenged the Irish literary canon which traditionally devalues woman writers. In addition, she has asserted a female Irish perspective on European poetry while honoring precursors of both genders in that tradition. McGuckian's themes are intimately linked with her literary style, which is not only densely literate and allusive but also deliberately oblique, deconstructing both logocentric thought and conventional grammar and syntax.
McGuckian was born on August 12, 1950, the third of six children, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her family lived in the Newington District in North Belfast, a small area populated by Roman Catholics that forms an interface with the Protestant Tiger's Bay area and was therefore fraught with sectarian tension throughout McGuckian's childhood. Her father was a teacher, the vice principal of the local Holy Family Primary School, which McGuckian attended before completing her secondary education at the Dominican convent in Fort William. From 1968 to 1974, McGuckian studied English literature under the renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney at Queen's College in Belfast, earning both her B.A. and M.A. degrees. During her tenure at Queen's College, McGuckian interacted with a number of noted Irish poets, such as Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby, and Ciaran Carson. While working on her graduate degree, McGuckian began writing and publishing in local newspapers and magazines. In 1974 she started teaching English at her old convent school in Fort William and later accepted a position at St. Patrick's Boys' College in East Belfast. She married John McGuckian, a teacher of geography, in 1977, with whom she has four children. In 1979 McGuckian won first place in the National Poetry Competition, a well-publicized media event in Britain, for her poem “The Flitting.” She subsequently released two brief pamphlet editions of her poetry in 1980—Single Ladies and Portrait of Joanna—followed in 1982 by the publication of her first major volume of verse, The Flower Master, which she later significantly revised in 1993. During the 1980s, McGuckian issued two collections of poems, Venus and the Rain (1984; revised, 1994) and On Ballycastle Beach (1988). In 1986 she became the first woman poet-in-residence at Queen's University. She has also served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, from 1994 to 1997. In the 1990s McGuckian published three poetry collections—Marconi's Cottage (1991), Captain Lavender (1994), and Shelmalier (1998). She has won numerous literary awards, including the Rooney Prize in Ireland, the Cheltenham Award, the Bass Ireland Award for Literature, and the American Ireland Fund Literary Award. In 1993 she facilitated a controversial series of poetry workshops for both loyalist and Republican prisoners of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. In the late 1990s, McGuckian joined Aosdána, a highly selective association of Irish artists representing literature, music, and the visual arts. In 2002 she was awarded the Tolman Cunard Prize for best single poem for “She Is in the Past, She Has This Grace.”
A palpable eroticism suffuses most of McGuckian's poetry, articulating concerns about ambiguous marginal states traditionally represented by the feminine in patriarchal literature. Such bodily experiences as pregnancy, birth, and death often focus these themes, particularly in her early poems. For instance, The Flower Master, McGuckian's most critically acclaimed and best known work, is thematically centered around childbearing and dying, engaging floral imagery as both a generating idea and a metaphorical resource. In such poems as “Gladiolus” and “Spring,” the language of flowers is used to describe the manner and method of poetry, highlighting the female poet's movement from adolescent potential to maturity through subliminal, oblique narration. McGuckian's second collection, Venus and the Rain, develops similar themes and techniques, delving into growth and womanhood in terms of fertility and pregnancy. In addition to dealing with female responsibilities for childrearing and relationships, On Ballycastle Beach engages the realm of modern European lyric poetry, exploring that poetic tradition through the symbolism of flags and national languages while pondering the political possibilities for Ireland beyond its historic association with England. Similarly, Marconi's Cottage stresses the importance of Ireland's links to European poetry and considers the nature and value of poetry itself, pitting the chaos of nature against the order of art. Incorporating the symbolism of marine and domestic imagery, the volume also contains numerous poems specifically addressed to women that reflect the possibility of dreams and female intuition. Divided into three parts, Marconi's Cottage opens with a sequence that focuses on the conflict between motherhood and artistic creativity, followed by a section that celebrates the birth of a daughter. The collection concludes with a series that asserts the fertility of both types of creation and affirms the mutual relationship between the poetic and the ordinary. The title of Shelmalier (1998) alludes to the ancient name of a clan in County Wexford, Ireland, who successfully rebelled against the English but were eventually exterminated. The title also recalls a term later used by the United Irishmen in Ulster, Northern Ireland, during their insurrection in 1789. In relation to these historical events, the volume explores the continuing links between the Irish and the English, southern and Northern Ireland, the historic past and the present “troubles,” and Catholics and Protestants. Presented as an act of both remembrance and reconciliation, Shelmalier offers a contemporary perspective not only on the 1790s but also on the 1890s, recasting the heroic visions of that era's poets in terms of an injured, feminized masculinity. One of McGuckian's more accessible works, the collection experiments with the possibilities of such traditional poetic forms and devices as sonnets and rhyming couplets. During 2002—in addition to releasing the short collection The Face of the Earth—McGuckian published The Soldiers of Year II, a selection of poems that focuses on the overlap between public and private lives. In poems such as “Ballerinas” and “The Colony Room,” McGuckian uses rich imagery and unconventional associations to portray the personal and emotional impact of major events in Irish history from the Great Potato Famine to the present.
Eliciting a great deal of critical interest since the publication of The Flower Master, McGuckian's poetry has prompted a variety of responses from readers and academics alike. While some reviewers have hailed her work as visionary, artistic, and perfectly suited to her material, others have regarded her verse as discursive, oblique, and virtually incomprehensible. Many commentators have praised the striking quality and associative nature of her poetic imagery, asserting that her poems skillfully examine contemporary cultural notions of “womanliness.” However, McGuckian's difficult syntax, densely allusive style, and intimate tone has continued to alternately delight and confound readers. Her supporters have praised the degree of control, assuredness, and intellectual courage her poetry exhibits, while her detractors have pointed to the unwarranted obscurity of her poetry, noting that it notoriously resists paraphrase. Although many critics have been exasperated by the excess verbiage in McGuckian's verse, some scholars have aligned her dense poetics with feminist literary theory, interpreting its apparent obliqueness as a sign of écriture feminine, or “female writing.” According to such feminists as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva, women have traditionally articulated language in a decentered, irrational, and nonlinear manner, unlike the logocentric, hierarchical expression of patriarchy. Nonetheless, critics have generally acknowledged McGuckian as the first woman to rank among the Ulster poets who came to prominence in the 1970s who are often referred to as “The Northern Voices.”