Joan McBreen


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A Generous Book
Niall MacMonagle in Poetry Ireland Review 67, 2000

Some rushed headlong, others stepped cautiously into this new century, but, whichever way forward, the twentieth century, that great contradictory and complex time, will serve as backdrop and source of reference for twenty-first century dwellers. Newspapers, history books, film, television, music have charted that century and, when we look back, serve as grim reminders or inspirational forces. Literature, of course, is an even more immediate and interesting record of an age. Written in private, it becomes a public record; through literature and individual absorbs and responds to a public record; through literature an individual absorbs and responds to the Zeitgeist and writers, Seamus Heaney reminds us, 'live precisely at the intersection of the public and the private'. In The White Page Joan McBreen has gathered together two hundred and thirteen Irish women poets, Irish in this instance meaning 'by birth, descent or adoption', whose life and work are the jigsaw pieces in a larger picture.

In her Introduction, McBreen wisely avoids the easy and dangerous. There is no ranting against the exclusion or under-representation of women in so many anthologies; instead she offers a measured, factual overview of the Irish woman poet in the second half of the twentieth century. She notes that, in the 1958 edition of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, seventeen women poets were included; in the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, published twenty-eight years later in 1986, the contemporary women poets were omitted. Such a statement prompts many questions, raises many issues and sends one in search of answers.

'Omissions are not accidents.' In McBreen's book there are no omissions; what she offers here is a comprehensive and thorough account of twentieth-century Irish women poets. The poems are not all of the same high standard, but Blake's dictum comes to mind when reading and re-reading The White Page: 'there is no competition among poets.'

The White Page is a generous book and a splendid millennium project. Once invited, the women poets sent McBreen a poem, a photograph and biographical details. Her contributors serve McBreen well and she in turn serves them, offering succinct, perceptive comments on the work. It is also a handsome production: stitched binding ? essential in a work of this importance and one which will be used frequently; an attractive typeface; photographs of the poets; a representative poem (some are published here for the first time); biographical and bibliographical details; excellent indices; an authoritative Introduction and Afterword and Notes contextualising the project; a Bibliography; a magnificent Gwen O'Dowd painting on its cover.

McBreen knows that, of the one hundred and thirteen poets writing in English and Irish collected here, 'only a handful are known to the world at large'. I would have liked more than one poem per poet but it is peevish of me to complain and this book will nonetheless alert the interested reader to the range, quality, energy and determination of Irish women poets today.

I have been interested in McBreen's project from its beginnings and, now that is between covers, I find myself returning to it again and again. Not surprisingly, the book's first print run sold out within months of publication and it should enjoy a very long shelf-life. As a reference book, it is invaluable and will allow readers in Ireland and beyond immediate access to a body of work. Such a source-book for this past century in every country would be an excellent thing. And why not begin here at home? The book is a reminder. Once there was a lack of information on Irish Women Poets. That lack has been made good with The White Page.