Medbh McGuckian McGuckian, Medbh (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Medbh McGuckian 1950–

Irish poet.

In her imaginative verse, Medbh McGuckian explores themes related to femininity while infusing her language with dense rhythms and erotic images. She often juxtaposes the concrete, everyday experiences of domestic life with evocative, dream-like imagery to create esoteric, sensual, and highly symbolic poetry. Her work has been compared to that of Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Biographical Information

McGuckian was born into a large Catholic family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She attended school at a Dominican convent from 1961 to 1968, and before enrolling at Queen's University, Belfast, to study English. As a student, she was influenced by her instructor Seamus Heaney, a widely recognized poet. Her classmates at Queen's University included such promising young poets Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby. After graduation, McGuckian's verse was published in several local periodicals and newspapers. In 1979, she won the National Poetry Competition award for her poem "The Flitting," and the next year published her first chapbooks, Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems, and Portrait of Joanna. She continues to live and work in Belfast.

Major Works

Thematically McGuckian's poetry often concerns domestic matters such as the cultivation of gardens; everyday family activity; the simple beauty of furniture, windows, and doors; and the complex relations between mothers and daughters. An early poem, "The Flitting," chronicles her complicated feelings on moving to a new house. Her early chapbooks, Single Ladies and Portrait of Joanna, were praised for utilizing inventive figures of speech and sensual evocations. The accolades were tempered, however, by reservations that McGuckian's reliance on tropes often results in obscurity. In The Flower Master and Venus and the Rain, she employs the dramatic monologues of an indeterminate persona to focus on love, sex, and the relationship between females of different generations. On Ballycastle Beach draws not only from themes such as domesticity, fertility, and eroticism, but also on Irish legend and mythology. She explores separation and loss in Captain Lavender, including several elegies for her father. Some reviewers assert that verses in this collection that focus on personal relationships can be viewed as metaphors for the political and historical situations in Northern Ireland.

Critical Reception

Some critics link McGuckian with Paul Muldoon, Frank Ormsby, and other poets she met while attending Queen's University in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although these poets do not rigidly adhere to particular topics or styles, their work displays painstaking craftsmanship in rendering a distinct poetic consciousness. Many commentators assert that McGuckian purposely avoids themes related to the political troubles in Ireland, instead transforming elements of everyday experience into metaphoric representations of the female psyche. Critical commentary focuses on the imaginative and lyrical qualities of her poetry; however, several critics consider the hermetic nature of her language as problematic for many readers.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Portrait of Joanna 1980

Single Ladies: Sixteen Poems 1980

The Flower Master 1982

The Greenhouse 1983

Venus and the Rain 1984

On Ballycastle Beach 1988

Two Women, Two Shores [with Nuala Archer] 1989

Marconi's Cottage 1991

Captain Lavender 1995

Selected Poems, 1978-1994 1997

Shelmalier 1998

Christopher Benfey (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE "A Venusian Sends a Postcard Home," in Par nassus Poetry in Review, Vol 12, No 2 & Vol 13, No 1, Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter, 1985, pp 500-12

[In the following excerpt, Benfey surveys the major themes of McGuckian 's verse]

Venus is speaking in the title poem of Medbh McGuckian's new book "I am the sun's toy—"Venus says in an other poem, "because I go against / The grain I feel the brush of my authority " With such oddly precise astronomical observations—Venus' orbit is the reverse of the orbits of the other planets—McGuckian creates her metaphorical atmosphere Her poems are as lush and com fortable with astral themes as Elizabethan poetry If...

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Ingrid Melander (essay date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Poems by Medbh McGuckian: Symbol and Interpretation," in Ango-lrish and Irish Literature: Aspects of Language and Culture, Vol. 2, Fall, 1988, pp. 237-41.

[In the following essay, Melander analyzes the symbolism in two of McGuckian poems, "The Seed-Picture" and "Tulips. "]

Medbh McGuckian has published two full-length collections of poems, The Flower Master (1982) and Venus and the Rain (1984). Her poetry has also appeared in various periodicals, in pamphlets and anthologies. In 1979 she won the annual Poetry Society competition for a poem called "The Flitting" later included in The Flower Master. She has received several other...

(The entire section is 1530 words.)

Stephen Yenser (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of On Ballycastle Beach, in Poetry, Summer 1991, pp. 228-33.

[In the following review, Yenser provides a laudatory assessment of the poems comprising On Ballycastle Beach.]

Devastating as the impact of her language is on the familsiar and the quotidian, Medbh McGuckian's new poems are distinctly homely in their settings and their details, from their bowls to their china, their vases to their afternoon visits, their fireplaces to their fabrics. Houses appear explicitly in a remarkable number of the poems, and everywhere there is a compelling carefulness, a feeling for fragile things that we might connect with Elizabeth Spires's work if not...

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Susan Shaw Seller with Medbh McGuckian (interview date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Medbh McGuckian," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter, 1993, pp. 111-27.

[In the following interview, McGuckian discusses the influence of Tess Gallagher on her work, autobiographical aspects of her poetry, and her philosophy of language.]

Born in Belfast and having lived there all her life, Medbh McGuckian speaks of herself as a poet "from the North." Now forty-six, she has accomplished a great deal. In addition to several early chapbooks, she has brought out three collections of poems, all published by Oxford University Press. Her first, The Flower Master, won the Rooney Prize and Alice Hunt Barlett Award in 1982. Venus and the...

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Cecile Gray (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Medbh McGuckian: Imagery Wrought to Its Uttermost," in Learning the Trade: Essays on W.B. Yeats and Contemporary Poetry, 1993, pp. 165-77.

[In the following essay, Gray explores the hermetic and obscure nature of McGuckian's verse.]

On November 6 and 7, 1991, the Poetry Society of America and the Program in Hellenic Studies at Columbia University presented a program called "At the Edges of Europe: A Festival of Contemporary Greek and Irish Women's Poetry." It featured Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian and Katerina Angelaki-Rooke. During a panel discussion, Boland expressed her frustration with critics whose writing is so highly codified that the poets cannot...

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Works Cited

(Poetry Criticism)

McGuckian, Medbh. On Ballycastle Beach, Oxford UP, 1988.

——. Venus and the Rain. Oxford UP, 1984.

Steven Matthews (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Flower Master and Other Poems, in TLS, April 15, 1994, p. 26.

[In the following review, praises the revised poems comprising this edition of McGuckian's The Flower Master.]

Medbh McGuckian's poetry studiously and notoriously resists paraphrase. It is protective towards its influences and origins, being concerned to present the essence of experience rather than its surface events. This is poetry full of the weather, flowers, the...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)

Bedient, Calvin. "The Crabbed Genius of Belfast." Parnassus 16, No. 1 (January 1990): 195-216.

A laudatory review of On Ballycastle Beach.

Docherty, Thomas. "Initiations, Tempers, Seductions: Postmodern McGuckian." In The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, edited by Neil Corcoran, pp. 189-210. Chester Springs, Penn.: Dufour, 1992.

Examines the major themes of McGuckian's verse and views her as a postmodern poet.

McDiarmid, Lucy. "Ritual Encounters." New York Times Book Review (14 April 1996): 11.


(The entire section is 224 words.)