THE RECENT Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets has been criticised on the grounds that the gender balance is skewed in favour of those in permanent possession of a penis.
This is important because books such as this, with their important sounding titles, will be used to confer gravitas on certain poets. That 80 per cent of academics contributing essays to the book are male compounds the faux pas. Of course some of the criticism is the vinegar of the justifiably overlooked. And there are poets who are feminists of the Leni Riefenstahl or Ayn Rand variety; for whom it’s all about themselves and only themselves.
However, this does not undo the general critique of gender and class biases in the assessment of poetry. Such issues will not be resolved by allowing a few jaded (mostly male ) arts administrators, many minor poets themselves, to anoint a couple of suitably middle class, politically safe, young women poets as the next Sinead Morrissey.
One problem is that said literary gatekeepers tend to confuse the words young and new. Nicki Griffin is a new poet. Her first collection was published in 2013; her follow up, Crossing Lines, is just out from Salmon Poetry. Like many women who have begun publishing this past decade – such as Eleanor Hooker, Lorna Shaughnessy, Mary Madec, Aideen Henry, Breda Wall Ryan – Griffin had a busy life before she began writing.
An issue is that few women review poetry books. This is something Griffin, a true feminist and a bit of a socialist as well, if her quietly savage anti-welfare cuts poem ‘Tory Story’ is anything to go by, has done her bit to put right as a co-editor of Skylight 47, perhaps the only Irish poetry publication to regularly have the majority of reviews and critical articles written by women.
In the title poem, ‘Crossing Places’, there is a mix of beauty and melancholy which calls to mind the work of Edward Thomas: “And there beside the laden bridge/ a child is skimming stones/everything in the world still to know.”
The final stanza of ‘Derelict Pottery, Stoke-on-Trent’ perfectly elucidates, in just 15 words, why so many Labour voting towns in the north of England voted for Brexit: “No witnesses as worm-holed timbers/crumble to dust, roof slates tumble./Skills all slipping away.” This verse should be force-fed to Bob Geldof, perhaps in the form of a suppository.
When Griffin is political, it is never in the raucous Brechtian manner; and her poems are rarely overcrowded with people. In ‘Look What Happens When The People Go’ she brings her English melancholic sensibility to a now unpopulated island off the Scottish coast where the cattle have gone feral. In ‘Her Hat’ Griffin talks about a time someone said that, in a particular hat, she “looked like Countess Markievicz”, of whom she had never heard.
The not-exactly-belonging of being English in Ireland is a feature of Griffin’s poetry. When she subsequently read about Markievicz, Griffin was somewhat overawed. However, by the last line of the poem, “in that hat I could almost imagine myself/one of her tribe.” It is safe to say Nicki Griffin is a poet of whom the insurrectionary countess would have approved.