John Hewitt: An Honest Ulsterman’s ‘Poemosaics’



John Hewitt is in many ways the most concertedly traditional of the writers who published poems in response to events in the North of Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. His long writing career, extending from the mid-1920s to his death in 1987, was marked by what Seamus Heaney has called ‘an emphasis on the poet as maker, a concern for professional standards in the handling of form, a distrust of freedom and extravagance that has not been earned by toil within the traditional modes.’1 In his essay ‘Irish Poets, Learn Your Trade’ Hewitt himself outlines the virtues of tight form:

The couplet and the sonnet in particular, although they may admit resounding rhetoric, nevertheless are strict, limiting to the natural sprawl of words and ideas, involving compression, order, balance, the decorum of a stable tradition.2


Belated Emer Bitter Gourd Creative Mind Comfortable Pace Poetic Form 
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  1. 22.
    Ibid., p. 122. Martin Mooney has argued in ‘”A Native Mode”: language and regionalism in the poetry of John Hewitt’ that it is this phrase which marks ‘Regionalism’s value to Hewitt the middle-class socialist’ (The Irish Review, No. 3, 1988, p. 69). As well as the renewed currency which Hewitt’s idea attained in the late 1960s, which I now go on to discuss, it has more recently surfaced in the thinking of Edna Longley (in The Living Stream (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1994, p. 195) and also of John Wilson Foster, whose Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1991)Google Scholar
  2. 43.
    Between 1931 and 1939, unemployment in Ulster stood at an average 27 per cent (see Jonathan Bardon, A History of Ulster (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1992), p. 529).Google Scholar
  3. 49.
    Collected Poems, p. 12. The ancestors of these Antrim farmers had been some of the most dedicated recruits to the cause of that historical force in Irish history which had drawn the two sides of the nation together in order to resist British occupation, the United Irishmen. Hewitt has not pursued this historical precedent for his ideal of a free, tolerant Ulster society in his poetry, but has in his discussions of the Rhyming Weavers from the area and in The Longest Campaign’ (Ancestral Voices, p. 126-33). The United Irishmen have provided an important precedent for the political thinking of the next generations of poets, like Tom Paulin in Liberty Tree (London: Faber, 1983)Google Scholar
  4. Paul Muldoon in Madoc (London: Faber, 1990)Google Scholar

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© Steven Matthews 1997

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