Austin Clarke is not well-known in America; few Irish poets after William Butler Yeats are. Perhaps Yeats casts too long a shadow in Irish verse, or perhaps the peculiarly local characteristics of much Irish poetry create too much distance between most American readers and the poets. At least in the case of Austin Clarke, this may be a major reason for relative anonymity in this country. Thomas Kinsella observes in his introduction to Clarke’s Selected Poems, “it is as though Clarke courted obscurity. For a considerable part of his publishing life, it was his custom to issue tiny pamphlet editions of his work from a private press, making no attempt to distribute them beyond a few book shops in Dublin.” Definitely Clarke’s range of interests is narrow, which implies a sense of limited audience. Consequently, even his best poems are likely to prove unappealing to many readers, who might find the work antique in places. But Clarke’s poems vividly present a sense of modern Ireland, with a detailed locality far more realistic on the whole than the romantic image depicted by Yeats. For this reason, if for no other, Clarke deserves greater attention from a wider reading public.
Liam Miller, at the Dolman press in Dublin, has sought to gain that wider audience for Clarke, publishing the poet’s work through an extended program. Shortly after Clarke’s death in 1974, his Collected Poems appeared, a book of close to six-hundred pages, subsequently printed in three paperback volumes. Now, with the Selected Poems, a more manageable grouping of the poet’s better poems may receive attention, especially from readers interested in the Irish poetic tradition as it emerges after Yeats.
At times one is delighted with this book. When a wealth of details sheathes keen and lucid satire or reveals a ribald narrative, it is with pleasure that readers will follow Clarke’s rambling lines of thought. At other times, however, details and ramblings are distractions leading to frustration, a sense that something is missing or, worse, that too much has been included. While this volume is an attempt to present Clarke’s work at its best, even the best must be judged as uneven, with flawed poems alongside strong and entertaining poems. When Clarke becomes the satirist, he is penetrating. When he investigates sexuality, his poems are dynamic, full of vigorous humor that transport the reader to mythopoetic realms where humanity is measured by its passionate embrace of carnal love. These are not constant traits in his poetry, however, and his development to poetic power is slow in coming.
Certainly the early Clarke was mired in tradition and the Irish locale. Poems from Pilgrimage and Other Poems (1929) have historical and legendary bases. Irish place names are abundant, and references to particular events give the reader cause to refer to notes, both Clarke’s and Kinsella’s. As with the early Yeats, Clarke shrouds his early poems in romantic mystery and the mist of old Ireland, being driven by indomitable urges to recapture what twentieth century Ireland sees slipping away. Characteristic of these poems is “The Young Woman of Beare” which creates a legendary figure, though Clarke tells us in a note that “the episodes of this allegory are fanciful.” She is the wanton temptress, the woman disdained by decent Irish folk:
I am the dark temptationMen know—and shining ordersOf clergy have condemned me.I fear, alone, that lordsOf diocese are copedWith gold, their staven handsUpraised again to saveAll those I have corrupted:I fear, lost and too lateThe prelates of the church.
Strikingly sensual passages evoke the image of a woman envied by others as she enjoys sexual pleasure and reaps monetary reward from the likes of a “big booted captain.” She can enjoy “what is allowed in Marriage,” but hear the murmurs of men and women as they return from devotions. Ever-present piety remains a dim backdrop that colors her speculation. Clarke’s juxtaposition of sexual liberty and righteous behavior is not unique to this poem.
Throughout his early work there is frequent reference to the dominance Catholicism exerts in Ireland; conflict between strict dicta and libertine urges frequently pushes the voices in these poems to rebellion....
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