There’s been quite a bit of chat about Soundings since its reissue last winter, so this will be brief. Augustine Martin, a professor in University College, Dublin, was charged in 1969 with compiling an anthology for second-level study in Ireland. The anthology, seen as a stopgap until a more permanent curriculum was drawn up, was called Soundings: Leaving Certificate Interim Anthology. Martin became a Senator in 1973, where he served until 1981, the last two years overlapping with his tenure as Chair of Anglo-Irish Literature in UCD. He died in 1995.

The book is a superb selection of the greats of the poetic tradition and there are few gripes one could have with the work here. Any selection will be subjective and one surely must stand beside the quality of what’s there as opposed to arguing in favour of the absence of something else. And that’s what Martin did. I find the inclusion of Thomas Hardy and George Herbert a little strange when there is no Byron or Coleridge, and we will move on to Thomas Kinsella soon enough. But there is much more success than failure, even if the omissions eventually killed the book off.

The 2010 reprint of Soundings

Martin’s introduction is as good an overview of poetry as one could wish for: in his introduction to the 2010 edition Joseph O’Connor is spot on in his praise. Martin’s thesis, that ‘…from the outset the study of poetry must be based on the reading of poems’ (xii) seems like an obvious thing to contend, but the intrusive nature of some annotation, especially in school texts, has to be seen to be believed. This thesis informs the book, with glossary kept at the end, biographical notes keeping the respectful distance that late 20th century criticism demanded and questions (termed ‘explorations’) ‘designed’, he notes, ‘to send the reader back to the poem in order to savour it more fully’ (xiii). The Introduction directs the reader to some points on prosody and structure but the concentration is much more on communication, on message, than on the craft of poetry. That approach might have dated a little, the enjoyment of the language of poetry now receiving much more attention at L.C. level than what Adrian Mole used to call ‘translating Shakespeare into English’[1]. Nothing Martin suggests here is wrong, however: it’s still an introduction well worth a student’s time.

It’s something of a joke that the ‘interim’ anthology lasted until the reinvention of the Leaving Cert. English syllabus in 2001, but there were probably several reasons not to change it. Principally, I’d say that the book’s longevity speaks to the careful and successful selection of a wide base of poetry; it certainly features much of what was seen as the canon’s greats at its time of compilation and the success of the recent reprinting is testament to its quality. Another possible reason for leaving the anthology there may lie in the undeniable link between politics and art in Ireland: Martin, as a former artistic director of the Abbey Theatre and the leading voice on Anglo-Irish studies, would certainly have been aware of the sensitivity needed to handle an artform so caught up in the birth of the Irish Republic. 1969 was a year of great upheaval in Ireland and it was followed by thirty years of troubles too clear in the mind to have to detail here. Amending the selection to either include or exclude poetry by Irish writers from the 20th century (one of the main criticisms of Martin’s choices) could have been seen as politically motivated and may have been avoided for this reason.

A third reason for leaving things as they were may have been linked to the Church and the inherent nature of much of the poetry of the 20th century. By the 1980’s there was a feeling that women poets were under-represented in the canon—the dead white males of the tradition were not, it was said, a full representation of the history of poetry. In a book featuring the work of 22 poets there is only one woman—Emily Dickinson—in Soundings. With an increasing number of female students and teachers and a growing sense of the entitlement of women to be represented in the canon, Soundings was seen as more than a little anachronistic, especially with significant poets like Elizabeth Barrett- Browning, Sylvia Plath and Eavan Boland left in the margins. But Martin, the Asssociation of English Teachers and the Department of Education were working within an education system founded by religious orders and, generally speaking, seen as a reflection of a fairly well-established and conservative value system. Poems detailing more adult themes and exploring gender issues might have met with opposition, and Martin had steered clear of much of this in the same way his Anglo-Irish poetry avoided all but the most established observations on the nation’s birth. In that light Martin’s inclusion of Thomas and Eliot, for example, could be seen as courageous.

The anthology had aged quite badly in places by its demise in 2001, though: Thomas Kinsella, the only living poet in the book, had not lived up to his promise (not to mention his own dissatisfaction at the poems included in the book) and had been outstripped by Seamus Heaney and several others as dominant voices in Irish poetry by the 1980’s. My wonderfully enthusiastic English teacher bought me a copy of The Haw Lantern in 1987 but I was writing essays about Tennyson at the same time. The omission of Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and James Stephens, many of whom were eloquent in their observations on the situation in the North, was becoming less defensible by the year. Most glaring, though, was the lack of women poets. In particular the slant in the selections from Dickinson, away from her more transcendental poetry towards the more psychological, depicted her among a particular generation of readers as mad, confirming to many a suspicion as old as Virginia Woolf that strong female voices are conveniently rendered insane by the establishment. I might not go that far, but when we get to Dickinson we’ll see how representative the sample really was. It was indefensible, though, to have equal numbers of male and female students sitting an exam where male voices were favoured to such an extent.

The rather embarrassing inside back cover of my Soundings. Note the use of egg language in the left centre.

I’ve kept my copy of it, though, and now it has eight years of teacherly notes in the margins and on post-it notes. When I’m working with poems I know are in there I’ll open it up and see what the younger versions thought then; sometimes when there’s a poem missing from the new course I’ll read aloud from it. This is the first time I’ll let anyone see my delightful cursive script of the title of Marillion’s first album, though. The truth commission has begun.

[1] Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13¾ , 1982.


So, Gentle Reader, here’s a thing about evolution and education. If you get bored half way through (as I’m sure you will), make sure you click through the link at the end: it’s really impressive and concise in a way I could never be.

In a week where contestants for the Miss USA pageant were asked their views on evolution in schools (via Ben Goldacre, ta), we once again find ourselves baffled by the answers given by otherwise sentient human beings. While we should really feel a little gratified that the eventual winner was the self-confessed ‘huge science geek’ from California who was forthright in her support for evolution and the Big Bang theory, we should also be chastened by the answers given by most of the other empowered, alert women cross examined in the piece. Most declared it to be a choice, that both should be taught in schools, while the women from more conservative states predictably noted that God made them with a purpose (Miss Alaska, presumably refrerring to the swimsuit section) and that evolution was therefore something with which they could not agree, even though ‘you can never have too much knowledge’ (Miss. Kentucky). If you get the chance to see Miss Indiana, about 4.35 in the full video, do: a classic kick to touch that convinces no-one. Big shout out to Miss Minnesota, who might as well have lit up a crack pipe when she references the Pope on the subject. You go, Catholic girl.

The recent debate to find the most right-wing person in America

I have several problems with this issue, not least having to watch the women squirm a little when asked a question they knew had to be answered in a certain way: letting the whiff of success get in the way of one’s beliefs indicts the whole process. Of course the Miss USA pageant is not the place to air one’s leftfield views (or so we thought until the leftie Californian actually won), but it does show how such controversy has a chilling effect on expression. Look at the Republican contenders for next year’s Presidential election and you’ll see a selection of intelligent people all vying to be more extremely right-wing than the others. It’s under this penumbra that mad laws get passed, that ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ become terms of abuse. It helps nobody. But look at the premise behind most of these answers: evolution and creationism are posited as rival beliefs. I find this intriguing.

This issue is one which has the potential to rive education in America, an issue that already has. When evolution as a theory is posited alongside creationism, as either a science or a matter of religious faith, I have to draw a line. It’s been said many times and much more eloquently than I can declare it, but evolution is not a matter of faith and should in no way involve one having to compromise one’s belief. It’s science, and we evaluate science based on how the theory stands up to scrutiny, how well evidence supports it and whether exceptions outweigh the rule. It allows us to change our minds, to step back, to step down.

Religion is your own business. If you’re secure in your beliefs I think there’s little I can do to sway you but I wouldn’t want to, so we’re both good to go. On the other hand, there is little to be said for the attempts of those on the fundamentalist side of things to block the teaching of evolution in schools. Evolution is a theory, and a well developed one as theories go. If you look at the evidence of fossils, of embryology and of plant and animal life all around us and can’t see how the theory of evolution actually increases the awe we should feel at the complexity and love of creation then you’re really putting the cart before the horse. Instead of God having created a world where life adapts and develops to meet different challenges offered by other developments, what fundamentalist belief offers is that fossils were left there to test our faith, that scientific progress is not a gift from God but some kind of human imperfection from which true believers will be raptured one of these days. So the implication is that God puts some stuff out there to take the mickey out of us? Shouldn’t the argument for God’s abiding love be strengthened by the theory of evolution? It’s no more provable than denying God’s abiding love so it remains a question of faith, but nobody is offering (well, nobody in science classes, anyway) evolution as a faith. It’s a theory. I keep saying it. Learn about it in Science class and then go across the hall and ponder the metaphysical implications of what you’ve learned.

A great man: Al Panuska, SJ

For years science and religion have gone hand in hand: sometimes, as in the case of Galileo, progress met with opposition from Church elders; sometimes the most prominent proponents of scientific advance were men of the cloth: look at Gregor Mendel, for one. The Jesuits struck me as particularly important in the development of science in the religious context, and when I discovered that the great man who was president of the university I attended was most famous (so famous that he’d been on Oprah, I’ll have you know) for his work in cryogenics I didn’t see it as a conflict, no more than I see medical science as an abberation of God’s will to kill people at His whim. My father’s generation believed the letter of the Bible: the creation theory of the Garden of Eden and the Flood were literally understood. But when I explained to my father how something scientific worked he was genuinely impressed, despite his lack of pretty much any formal education. We were taught about creation theories and flood allegories in different religions, but the message was the same. It now fit in with the understanding progress gave us of how the universe came to being. God didn’t give us fossils to test our faith, he gave us Newton, Einstein and Darwin to explain creation to us, all the better to stand on the shoulders of these giants and bellow out the first verse of How Great Thou Art. Why does science threaten religion now when people used to be able to discriminate between the two, just like Miss Minnesota?

I recently read with interest an article about faith-based schools in Ireland. One of the worries that the Church has with regard to a push towards non-denominational schools by our current Minister for Education is that religious belief is being seen as anti-intellectual, a barrier to educational progress. Perhaps the disgust felt by a generation determined to learn the lessons of clerical abuse is clouding the appreciation of the role ethos plays in education: these views have the effect of (to borrow someone else’s words) ‘mischaracterising religion as inherently or distinctly irrational, divisive, anti-intellectual and a constraint on the development of an individual’s full potential’. For me, working as I do in a Jesuit institution, nothing could be further from the truth. Students are encouraged to develop critical thought and to make value judgements of their own, sometimes at odds with the strict doctrinal line of the denomination supporting the institution. As long as they’re considered, mature and reflective, opinions are respected. The American model, based on the extreme position of some church groups to curricular issues, suggests that the Church offers nothing but interference, a very sad characterisation indeed. When the age-old story of the Texas Board of Education (which approves content for its state schools and, as the largest market in the US, consequently influences curriculum throughout the state system[1]) resurfaces as it did last year, it again posits education as the enemy of religion. To some, that suggests that education threatens our values; to others it suggests that religion likes to keep its followers in the intellectual dark. Nobody wins and, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not accurate anyway.

Anyway, here’s a truly tremendous post from a man so talented he couldn’t have been put here by accident and is consequently proof of the abiding love of a Supreme Being: British artist Darryl Cunningham explains in a comic strip the broad theories of evolution and natural selection. Why can’t this be seen in wonder as evidence of an even more carefully-considered creation? It’s plausible, no?

[1] Although apparently the iPad’s use in State schools has reduced the Texan influence: now content can be changed much more easily in states not controlled by seven mad people. Hurrah for technology.