July 2003

James Purdon


The Hip Flask: Short Poems from Ireland edited by Frank Ormsby

I may not have mentioned this before, or even considered it in any particular depth as an essential part of the reading act, but I'd like to flag for attention the fact that poetry comes in collections. An obvious fact, you might think, but it certainly makes a difference. I'll take a risk and trace this, loosely, to a time when the first poets (who tended to recite rather than publish) began, for various reasons, to write things down. The major problem, throughout a fair slice of literary history, from the earliest Hebrew and Greek poems until, I'd venture a guess, some point in the mid 15th century, was one of materials, which simply weren't readily available. Paper was crude, expensive, and difficult to procure.

So, laying his words down for posterity, the would-be poet scrawled in the margins or wrote on the back of other people's work. Or, like the convict-narrator of Richard Flanagan's recent (and excellent) Gould's Book of Fish, he flipped the whole book over when finished, and started writing between the lines in the opposite direction. Sometimes, in a particularly iconoclastic mood, he might scrub off whatever was already written on the parchment, and write over it as a palimpsest, covering up someone else's memory - or one's own. Poems began to overlap, or were fixed together (often irrespective of author or origin) until such time as they were printed or, more likely, erased.

Collecting poetry has always been be a risky business. Some wonderful examples of Tudor poetry were assembled by the entrepreneurial Richard Tottel in 1557. He printed fragments which, previously, had circulated only in manuscript form between friends. Essentially, he anthologized great poetry for ease of distribution, comparison - and, of course, to make money. Unfortunately, he couldn't keep his hands off the verse, re-wrote some of the best lines in English poetry to fit his own shaky ideas on metre, making extra work for countless generations of critics ever since.

Beware, then: anthologies can be a mixed bag, and must be done well, if done at all. Fortunately, editor Frank Ormsby has managed to do very well indeed, in selecting over a hundred poems for The hip flask: short poems from Ireland. The book finds its strength in its limitations. Ormsby has carefully selected only those poems which will fit easily and aesthetically into each one of the book's small pages and, indeed, into one's memory after only a couple of readings.

The versatility of this short poetry is the perfect justification for Ormsby's decision. Here is to be found love poetry, sex poetry, poetry in memorial and poetry in anticipation. Poetry in translation from the Gaelic is represented beside a poetry of "San Giovanni," "Padre Pio" and "The Mass": the language of Italian Catholicism fused in Ireland with the very different political and religious connotations of English.

The breadth of poets represented is impressive, giving a staggering and atmospheric introduction to Irish poetry from Yeats to the present day - though marks must be deducted for the surprising omission of one or two big names. (Oscar Wilde, granted, falls outside the editor's 20th-century remit, but the absence of Eavan Boland and James Joyce is unconscionable.) Also questionable are the (no doubt very good, but distinctly un-Irish) woodcuts, by Barbara Childs, inoffensively, if unnecessarily scattered among the resident verse. Despite this, The hip flask is an excellent introductory volume of short, digestible poetry, beautifully bound and easily enjoyed.

A sharp whisky, rather than the full pint of Guinness.

The hip flask: short poems from Ireland edited by Frank Ormsby
Blackstaff Press / Dufour Editions
ISBN: 0856406813
168 Pages