Yesterday I wrote about my friend Tim Dlugos, the tremendously gifted poet who died of AIDS in 1990. Thinking of Tim calls to mind a makeshift reading tour Tim, Michael Lally, Ed Cox, and I threw together in 1973. We had many adventures on the road—from car break-downs to one-night stands, but what I remember most was discovering a chapbook entitled A Munster Song of Love and War by James Liddy in a bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. Flipping through the book, published in 1971 by White Rabbit, I was immediately taken with Liddy’s poems:
“Irishmen make bad lovers,”
Says Bishop was how
The newspapers had it and we walked
In night’s service of evil to fall in love
again sure love was not
a word but a contagion
Of the English. Being in love casts out love.
How else could any of our fuckings be haunted
as they are and the lips
heard in any poem
How should we go to bed again
This was a far cry from Yeats and company. It was a revelation to me that an Irish poet could be producing work with this kind of edge. I tracked him down somehow, and we began a correspondence. Liddy has lived and taught in Milwaukee since the ’70s, and, although we’ve met only four or five times over the years, we’ve kept in touch (link to more information on Liddy).
James Liddy, like Eamonn Wall, another Irish-born poet who has lived in the States for decades, has re-defined the meaning of “Irish-American” for me (click here for more about Eamonn) . As the child of Irish immigrants to New York, I used to exclude automatically from our hyphenated ranks anyone born in Ireland. But Liddy and Wall, among others, bring a passion for American poetry to their writing that shows up clearly in their own work. In many ways, they are more influenced by writers like Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, and The New York School greats than by the icons of Irish modernism.
Very soon after we became friends, James and I decided that the world urgently needed what was going to be the first anthology of Irish-American literature, which we would co-edit. It would be called Ireland Over Here: An Anthology of 20th-Century Irish-American Poetry and Prose. For at least three or four years, we mailed suggestions back and forth to each other, with samples of the work we liked by prospective writers. For the introduction, James would expand an essay he had written on “The Double Vision of Irish-American Fiction” and I would re-think a review I wrote on the Irish-American context of William Kennedy’s Albany trilogy. We would include all kinds of expected and unexpected candidates—Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Elizabeth Cullinan, Eileen Myles, Robert Creeley! The literary world would be awestruck. Once we collided into the reality of permissions and the fees thereof, however, our noble project ran out of steam. I still have my big, fat “Ireland Over Here” file and fond memories of what might have been.
Fortunately, other, more resourceful people came along to take up the challenge. In fact, over the last thirty or so years, there has been a momentous awakening to the idea of Irish America, the very concept of which used to be greeted by everything from puzzlement to scorn by many. I know about the latter—I’ve gotten into my share of arguments with the scornful on this subject. Scholars like Charlie Fanning and Timothy Meagher, however, have brought immense talent and insight to their analyses of Irish American identity and history. My old friend Bob Callahan, who passed away in January of 2008, brought out The Big Book of Irish American Culture and edited a sui generis journal called Callahan’s Irish Quarterly (link to information on Bob) . There’s even a four-color monthly magazine called Irish America. New York alone supports two weekly Irish newspapers—The Irish Echo and The Irish Voice. A song that I wrote in the 1980s, called “When New York Was Irish,” became an instant hit in the Irish-American world, with the title itself getting recycled for use in scholarly books and conferences (Download when_new_york_was_irish.m4a).
There have even been a few anthologies over the years. But the most impressive omnium gatherum of all came out in 2007. Published by the University of Notre Dame Press and edited by poet/scholar Daniel Tobin, The Book of Irish American Poetry from the 18th Century to the Present (link to information on the book) represents a signal moment in the history of this literary tradition. While I might argue that Tobin’s criteria are sometimes a bit too accommodating, I am delighted to have this book in my life. Some names may surprise some readers—Thoreau, Whitman (him again), Jeffers, Frost, Schuyler, Ammons, et al. Go see for yourself. I had the honor of participating in a reading—along with John Waters, Dan Tobin, Jean Valentine, Greg Delanty, and Joe Lennon—at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House last fall to mark the publication of this 900-page gorilla. It was a historic evening, and no fights broke out, though we did go out for a drink afterwards.