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Derek Mahon Poetry Essay Peer

The poet Derek Mahon is a superb recorder of loss and master of the elegy. He is also passionate about guarding against the crush of market forces in the arts – so what drove him to take part in a documentary about his work?

I AM ON my way towards Compass Hill in Kinsale where Derek Mahon has lived for the last 10 years, when by chance I happen to see the poet himself, wandering along with shopping bags on Pier Road. Time, it seems, is marvellously elastic in this lovely laid-back and sea-washed part of the world: the scheduled interview time has transformed into errand time. Thus I give him a lift, and we complete the errands en route to the atmospheric house overlooking the harbour, where he lives on the ground floor.

The Poetry Nonsenseis the title of a documentary about Mahon’s life and work, directed by Roger Greene, and which will be shown on Wednesday as part of the Kinsale Arts Week. It is not the first time the documentary has been screened – it was shown at the Galway Film Fleadh, for instance – but the fact that Mahon now lives and works in Kinsale will make Wednesday’s screening there a particularly special event.

Born in Belfast in 1941, he had lived an almost entirely city life prior to moving permanently to Cork: in Dublin, London, New York and Paris variously. “We tire of cities in the end: / the whirr and blur of it,” begins A Quiet Spotin Mahon’s most recent collection, An Autumn Wind. As in this and in previous collections, such as Harbour Lights, many of the poems refer both directly or obliquely to Kinsale, its characters, and the life Mahon has lived there for the last decade.

“The whole atmosphere here is very conducive,” he explains. The house he lives in was built for married officers quartered at Charles Fort in the 19th century. Both the house (divided into apartments) and its gardens feature several times in An Autumn Wind, which is dedicated to his landlady, who lives upstairs.

Mahon, a distinguished poet who has won a number of awards, including the David Cohen Prize for Literature in 2007, is known to be reserved in person, rarely giving interviews. So what made him agree to be the subject of a documentary that both he and the film-maker hope will soon air on either RTÉ or BBC, thus reaching a wide audience?

“I had always resisted the idea of doing a TV thing,” he explains. “I always said no, out of shyness. But I did agree to this one. All the others have done it; all the other Irish poets. It was probably the last chance I will have to do it. I’ll probably drop dead very soon,” he adds unsmilingly, repeating this assertion twice. Even though mortality – his own and other people’s – is a frequent subject in his work, it’s somehow still an odd, unsettling line to hear thrown out so deliberately.

The documentary takes its name from something his father once asked him: “When are you going to give up the poetry nonsense?” As it happened, Mahon never did.

He is a superb recorder of loss, and master of the elegy. His elegy for Louis MacNeice, In Carrowdore Churchyard, becomes a prism of revelation with each new reading; always “keeping the colours new”. As does his best-known poem, A Disused Shed in Co Wexford, where the lost and forgotten dead of wars and conflict strain towards our collective memory, as mushrooms in a shed will crowd a keyhole of light; “the one star in their firmament.”

Mahon works slowly, on one poem at a time, through many drafts. He writes every day, “Long-hand first and the typewriter. Not too quick to the typewriter, though.” The title poem of Harbour Lights, for instance, took “Weeks. Oh, weeks,” he sighs. The typewriter on the table in front of the window is a manual one: Mahon carefully eschews what he describes as “high-tech things”. He does not drive, does not have a mobile phone or a computer, and claims now to never have looked at anything on the internet, beyond “looking over someone’s shoulder occasionally.”

As a writer, is he not at least curious about the possibilities of accessing and researching all sorts of information, via the internet? He shakes his head and laughs, looking simultaneously appalled and amused.

“No, no, no,” he insists. “It’s something to do with being a mechanical klutz. I’m no good with things like that. And also there’s something sinister about the internet I just don’t like. Or so I imagine. Well, it originated of course as a military intelligence tool, and to my mind, it’s never quite lost that association.”

Mahon is very particular about whom he reads. “I tend not to read young poets. I tend to wait until they’re a bit older and writing better. I tend not to read young novelists either. Same thing.” Unusually for a poet, Mahon claims he has no interest in growing his own readership. “I want somereaders. I don’t want global readership. I don’t want just anyone accessing my work,” he declares grandly.

What does he mean by ‘just anyone’? “There’s too much ‘Po-Biz’ as they call it in the United States,” he says with distaste, spelling out the word letter by letter, his lip curling. “The whole globalised creative writing racket. Poetry as a business. What I’m really trying to say is that you shouldn’t be writing for a global audience.

“There should be a privacy and a measure of mystique to the work. Because it’s a special activity, poetry. There are things we don’t understand, philosophical things. I think of poetry as connecting with those things. Ideally. Maybe. Which implies a kind of inaccessibility or maybe inscrutability, ineffability, on the part of the readers. Some word like that.

“There is a dimension which not only needs to be treated with respect but almost with fear, really. I’m talking about poetry as a secular religion.”

He talks gleefully about poet Harry Clifton’s recent acceptance speech on becoming the new Ireland Professor of Poetry. “I thoroughly enjoyed Harry’s rebuke to the Taoiseach,” he chuckles. He is referring to when Taoiseach Brian Cowen stated that the arts had a large role to play in getting Ireland “back on track.” The Taoiseach had declared that “we must connect with that brand now and use it to give us the competitive advantage in a globalised world that is increasingly the same.”

In reply, Clifton warned against the arts being in danger of becoming “no more than a crush of market forces where the human mind becomes a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.”

“Poetry has become too much of a business,” Mahon repeats. “We have to guard against the commodification of the arts, and particularly the commodification of poetry. To me, the idea of using the arts to build ‘brand Ireland’ is very dense and philistine.”

It is striking in the documentary that virtually nothing about Mahon’s private life is recounted: it’s very much an edited version of a life and work. He doesn’t even take the cameras to see the house where he grew up in Belfast, merely waving a hand vaguely towards the direction of the street instead. Neither are we told the names of the two children who appear in a single still, or the name of his ex-wife, pictured on their wedding day.

In his work, however, he writes frequently, and movingly, about his children, and their various absences from his life. The best known of these is The Yadoo Letter, addressed directly to the two children by his marriage, where he describes himself as “your lost father.” He also in recent years has had a third child, the “rosy daughter” of Cloud Ceiling;a joyous and exhuberant lyric about his late fatherhood.

“Reticence,” he says now quietly, by way of explanation for the many gaps in the documentary. It may also be embarrassment. Mahon was a very public alcoholic for many years. In The Poetry Nonsense, he stands at the entrance to the flat in Fitzwilliam Square he rented for many years, and incants, “Four and a half minutes to Doheny Nesbitts. Eight minutes to the Shelbourne Bar.”

Dawn at St Patrick’sis a poignant and visceral poem about the long process of drying out:

I chew my thumb

and try to figure out

what brought me to my present state –

an “educated man”, a man of consequence, no bum

but one who has hardly grasped what life is about.

“Alcoholism hindered the work,” he admits frankly. “I can write about these things and deal with them in verse, but I’m reluctant to talk about them in a documentary or in a newspaper. I don’t want to be constantly banging on about booze, and there are other people involved when it comes to late fatherhood.”

What does he consider to be the function of poetry in 2010? He thinks for a while. “I suppose the function of poetry for me is the celebration of the English language,” he answers eventually. “To celebrate language, which is a way of celebrating life.”

The Poetry Nonsensewill be screened as part of the Kinsale Arts Week at the Municipal Hall on Wednesday at 6pm, followed by a post-screening Q & A with Derek Mahon and director Roger Greene.


The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past –

deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,

browsing on spire and bogland; but today

our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,

our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay

like racehorses. We contemplate at last

shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon

In creating a project to investigate the relationships among members of the Belfast Group, it is important to know exactly what that Group is. Being specific about this when creating our data was critical so we could accurately measure who was connected to this thing we call “the Belfast Group.” But, as often happens with humanities data, it turns out that things are a little messy. In this case, while the term originally refers to the writing workshop begun by Philip Hobsbaum, many critics and commentators have also used it to refer to the idea of a Belfast “school” of poets (see Clark 1, 6). Many members of this supposed school—Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, among others—were, of course, participants in the writing workshop, which adds to the slippage between the two uses. But while it is demonstrably true that a writing workshop existed, it is less clear whether there was any unified purpose that might constitute a school; as Norman Dugdale put it, the “The Group had no manifesto, no corporate identity, no programme beyond providing a forum in which writers […] could produce their wares and have them discussed” (Dugdale et al. 54). For the purposes of this site, then, when we speak of the “Belfast Group,” we mean the weekly writing workshop founded by Hobsbaum and continued by Seamus and Marie Heaney, along with Michael Allen and Arthur Terry.

Even having made it clear what we mean when we say “Belfast Group,” it’s also true that the writing workshop was not a single, consistent entity. Split into two phases and involving a rotating cast of writers—some of whom deny their involvement or its significance—the Group was anything but the fixed entity that would be desirable for conventional data analysis. And the multiplicitous nature of the workshop was more than just membership. Individual accounts of how the Group worked or who was involved regularly contradict each other. Trying to account for all of these varying perspectives fifty years later, it is even more difficult to know what the Group was and how it functioned. Indeed, given these conflicting memories, one of the goals of this project is to create an alternate way of considering what the Belfast Group was. This data-centric representation of the Group is, of course, not “Truth,” with a capital T, but simply one more perspective, as we write in our essay about archival bias.

What follows here is a brief account of the Group members’ singular perceptions of the writing workshop and some of our thoughts about doing data work on an entity which is anything but singular.

Group Think? Conflicted Reminiscences of the Workshop

When trying to understand the Belfast Group, it seems logical to go to the source: the people who participated in it. Yet, in a collection of memories about the group—termed a “Symposium”—published in the Honest Ulsterman in 1976, we find a number of conflicting descriptions of the workshop. Longley described being “rather surprised by the ferocity of Hobsbaum’s attack” on his work, but added that he eventually “look[ed] forward masochistically to the seasonal maulings” (Dugdale et al. 57). Jack Pakenham recounts enjoying the “verbal battles which were part and parcel of the meetings” (Dugdale et al. 58), and Derek Mahon claimed that the Group met to “read and savage one another’s work” (“Poetry in Northern Ireland” 90). Simmons, on the other hand, recalled that “all there was kindness and encouragement,” a fact which “irritated” him as it diluted any potential feedback (Dugdale et al. 59). Bernard MacLaverty, in a 2000 interview, suggested that Hobsbaum would always “find something to say to validate what was written on the page” (qtd. in Clark 44). In another venue, Joan Watton Newmann wrote that “the ethos [Philip Hobsbaum] created and sustained was one of pleasure and discovery. There was no space for destruction” (“Coming of Age” 118). Arthur Terry split the difference between the camps, calling the workshop’s tone “an agreeable mixture of friendliness and astringency,” as did Seamus Heaney, who wrote that if Hobsbaum “drove some people mad with his absolutes and hurt others with his overbearing, he confirmed as many with his enthusiasms” (Dugdale et al. 61, 62).

In addition to disagreeing about the general tenor of meetings, the Group participants also express differing opinions about the types of poetry that were favored at the meetings. Both Pakenham and Longley comment on a particular aesthetic bias that ruled the group. As Longley put it, “Hobsbaum’s aesthetic demanded gritty particularity, an unrhetorical utterance” (Dugdale et al. 56). This mode conflicted, he notes, with both Pakenham’s “free-wheeling surrealist verse” and his own disposition “as a lapsed Classicist” (Dugdale et al. 56). Terry, on the other hand, writes that “nothing approaching a ‘group-mentality’ ever emerged” given “the sheer range of opinions and the presence of so much individual talent” (Dugdale et al. 61).[1] Perhaps, then, Pakenham and Longley noticed the dominant aesthetic because they found themselves so far outside the prevailing style.

The members also had differing perspectives on the mix of people involved in the workshop. Pakenham thought the group was too academic and “University orientated [sic],” because “the majority of the Group [...] were either University Lecturers or their students” (Dugdale et al. 57). But Arthur Terry felt that one of the Group’s strengths was its “being a meeting-place for people of very different backgrounds and interests, many of whom were refreshingly unconnected with the University” (Dugdale et al. 61). Since Terry taught at the university, the inclusion of anyone from outside that world could have felt like a breath of fresh air; for Pakenham, who worked at Ashfield Boys’ High School as “an English teacher involved in the teaching of Literature,” the number of university-affiliated members must have felt conspicuous (Dugdale et al. 58; see also Gormley’s Art Auctions and Culture Northern Ireland).[2] Yet this difference in opinion might not come down to different perspectives: Terry and Pakenham might also be remembering the Group at different points over the course of its nine years. The Group really might have been different given its separate phases and conveners and what Hobsbaum called the “turnover of talent” (Dugdale et al. 55). For example, Michael Longley writes that he “never saw Simmons at a Group meeting” (Dugdale et al. 56). Thus, while Heaney commented in 1976 that the Group allowed the public to think of the writers as a “single, even singular phenomenon,” this seems to be a kind of useful fiction (for both public and writers), and was clearly an oversimplification even at that point in time (Dugdale et al. 62).

Whether or not the writing workshop was dominated by people affiliated with Queen’s University, most individuals haven’t questioned their participation in the Group. But that is precisely the case with Derek Mahon. In 1970, Mahon wrote an article in Twentieth Century Studies about the development of “Poetry in Northern Ireland.” He mentions the “group seminar which met weekly in [Hobsbaum’s] flat” and suggests that “The Hobsbaum seminar (known as ‘the Group’...) was probably the first to crystalise the sense of a new Northern poetry” (“Poetry in Northern Ireland” 90, 91). In continuing, Mahon clarifies the importance of the Group for the authors in Northern Ireland: “Here was this man from London, people thought, whose name and whose friends’ names appeared in leading journals, and he’s actually taking us seriously” (91, original emphasis). Perhaps it is the “us” in “he’s actually taking us seriously” or the fact that Mahon writes so knowingly—if briefly—about the Group here, but many people associated him with the workshop. This could have also come through his close friendship with Longley.[3] Longley was clearly a member of the writing workshop—although not a founding one, despite Hobsbaum’s occasionally listing him as such[4]—and it therefore stood to reason that his compatriot Mahon must be as well. Yet Mahon claims to have only gone to a single meeting of the Group and has since vehemently denied playing any real part in it, as he did in a 1991 interview: “I was not a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s fucking Belfast Group. I was in a different city. I was a member of my own group in Dublin. I went once to Philip’s group, and never again” (“Q. and A.” 28, original emphasis).[5] While he might have attended only a single time, we do have one Group sheet of Mahon’s poems in the collections at MARBL, which suggests that his poems were discussed on one evening. At first glance this seems to suggest that Mahon did more than just drop by the meeting, as he likely would have had to schedule his attendance and make the poems available to the Heaneys, Terry, or Allen ahead of time for distribution. But as Stephen Enniss discusses in his recent biography of Mahon, “a number of the poems present on the sheet were not written until after Mahon had left Belfast for Canada” (269 n. 62). Enniss suggests that Longley probably “took it upon himself to prepare a Group sheet of Mahon’s poems that he presented in his place” (270 n. 62).

Yet Mahon may have been more inclined to be considered part of a group that was making some literary noise earlier on, at the time of his article in Twentieth Century Studies. He describes Northern Ireland therein as a “cultural desert” in the 1950s and, in the opinion of many, “traditionally philistine” (“Poetry in Northern Ireland” 90, 89). Heaney suggests that Hobsbaum’s ability to energize the Belfast literary scene was in part because he had “trust in the parochial, the inept, the unprinted” (Dugdale et al. 62). If these two descriptions are accurate, one could imagine that inclusion in a group that had some literary recognition would have been valuable to young poets. But, as Heather Clark argues in The Ulster Renaissance, once the individual authors’ reputations were on the ascent, it would perhaps be less desirable to be seen as members of a “school” (173–207 passim.). Indeed, while Mahon is the only person who challenges his association of the Group, many others have downplayed its importance for—and, by extension, Hobsbaum’s influence—on their writing. Longley, for example, writes that “I can honestly say that I didn’t alter one semi-colon as the result of Group discussion” (Dugdale et al. 57).[6] Pakenham believed that the excellent poems and stories he heard at the group were written “in spite of the criticism expressed there not because of it” (Dugdale et al. 58). Others declined to comment in The Honest Ulsterman’s “Symposium” “on the grounds that they regarded the meetings as little more than pleasant social occasions”—at least as they looked back from the more established literary moment of 1976 (Dugdale et al. 53).[7] Yet Mahon, of all people, wrote that Hobsbaum’s “enthusiasm generated activity in people who might otherwise have fallen silent” (“Poetry in Northern Ireland” 91).

Regardless of what the Belfast Group was, how it worked, or who felt that it was important, everyone appears to agree on one thing: the reason for being there. As Stewart Parker writes, “What did we find to talk about so interminably[?] [...] [W]hy, the world was young, poetry was under every stone, just waiting to crawl out and be mimeographed. Poetry! God how we craved it, molested it, exalted it, lived it—but above all explicated it!” (Dugdale et al. 59).

Memories vs. Data

It’s important to remind ourselves of the difficulty of knowing what the Belfast Group was when analyzing it from a data-centric point of view. After all, visualizing the relationships among the Group and its members requires us to treat it as a single entity with a stable identity. We seem to confirm this thinking, whether it is meaningful or accurate, when we create an entry for the Group itself in a dataset or use a linked-data URI for reference. The neatness of a single-line entry for the writing workshop seems to contradict the contradictory recollections of its many different participants.

A desire to overcome this all-too-singular thinking is part of the motivation for creating the visualizations on Belfast Group Poetry|Networks. The graphs and maps do not seek to resolve the incompatible reminiscences of the Group so much as present one more lens through which to view its activities and thereby disrupt the notion of a static thing that was the “Belfast Group.” For example, one of our network graphs attempts to fracture the concept of a stable Group by highlighting the Group during its two separate time periods. This visualization makes it easy to see that there really were two different groups of people participating in the workshop. Individuals like Stewart Parker, Joan Watton Newmann, Brian Scott, and J. K. Johnston only participated in the first instantiation, and Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and Trevor McMahon, among others, attended only when the Heaneys were leading the Group. This graph also helps us identify those individuals who span both phases, among them Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and James Simmons, but also Iris Bull, Maurice Gallagher, Norman Dugdale, and more. A version of this network graph is presented below in a static form so as to make it easier to read. We have also colored the different nodes on the graph according to algorithmic community detection, where the computer identifies subsets of nodes that are tightly connected to each other.

Of course, it should be said again that this visualization is incomplete. Since it only represents those who authored or owned Group sheets from this particular period, many individuals do not appear. Marie Heaney, for example, was clearly a participant in both phases of the workshop, but she does not appear in this visualization due to how the Group worked and due to cataloging practices (both of which we address below). Similarly, Brian Scott might have attended during the second phase but simply not authored or owned any Group sheets that have made their way into the collections at Emory or Queen’s.

By transforming our data in other ways, we’re able to gain insights into the Group members’ relationships with one another. As mentioned above, the influence of the workshop on the participants’ writing is questionable; Michael Longley, for example, provocatively wrote that “the poetry would have happened anyway” (Dugdale et al. 57). While it is impossible to accurately tease out questions of influence or might-have-beens, we can use it to look at the various descriptions of the people involved with the Group as a way of seeing how well our data matches up against the memories of the people involved.

For instance, Norman Dugdale discusses some of the most important members of the workshop in the “Symposium”: “In my time, Hobsbaum, Heaney, Longley and Terry formed the core of the group” (Dugdale et al. 54). He goes on to say—using a poetic metaphor not inappropriate for network theory—that these four were “circled by many lesser moons and a shifting penumbra of casual attenders” (Dugdale et al. 54). How does this recollection comport with our data? Looking at our visualization of Belfast Group authors by period, which is based on the authorship and ownership of Group sheets with inferred dates, we find that Hobsbaum, Longley, and Heaney are in the top four nodes by almost every network measure that might indicate the importance of influence of a node in a network. These measures include the total number of connections that each of them has to other people (“degree”); their likelihood of being along the shortest path between any two points on the network (“betweenness centrality”); and how many connections the nodes that they are connected to have (“eigenvector centrality”). This last measure is often used as a proxy for understanding influence in a network and resembles the PageRank method that determines Google’s search results. In each of these measures, Hobsbaum is by far the highest, which can be attributed to his being the sole owner of the sixty-six Group sheets at Queen’s, which make up just under fifty percent of our data set (n=138).[8] In this sense, our data for Hobsbaum, Heaney, and Longley matches Dugdale’s recollection of the Group...except for Arthur Terry.

Throughout our data, Terry—then a professor of Spanish at Queen’s and noted translator of Catalan works—is relatively unconnected to other members of the Belfast Group. First, since we do not have his papers in MARBL, we do not have record of either his correspondence or his ownership of Group sheets.[9] Having access to this information would have caused him to appear more prominently in our visualizations of people associated with the Belfast Group and the Group’s authors by period, respectively. What’s more, we only have records of three Group sheets that he authored, all of them in the first period of the Group. Without a paper trail, then, he becomes relatively invisible in our measures, despite Dugdale’s pointing to his role in the “core of the group.” More vexing, in our overview of the Belfast Group, Enniss notes that Terry was a co-organizer of the second phase of the Group, along with the Heaneys and Michael Allen (“The Belfast Group Writing Workshop”).[10] (Michael Allen, it turns out, is even less represented in our data than Terry.) A way to reconcile our data and Dugdale’s recollection, then, is the likelihood that Terry became central to the Group by his bringing people together and attending meetings but did not author any Group sheets—or at least any that we know of—once Hobsbaum left.[11]

If we turn to the relationships clustered around James Simmons, we have another opportunity to compare our data with individuals’ perceptions about the Group. As noted above, Simmons reported after the fact that he found the feedback at the workshops to be too positive, on the whole. Still, he had “no doubt that those evenings were useful educational events” and “was glad to have some serious people paying attention to [his] work” (Dugdale et al. 59). In particular, he calls attention to Arthur Terry for being “particularly lucid and balanced as a critic”—again pointing out Terry’s importance to the Group, despite what our data may seem to indicate (Dugdale et al. 59). Yet Simmons writes that his “memories of the whole thing are very vague” and, perhaps most germane for our purposes, claims, “I never really got to know any of them well, perhaps because I was that much older” (Dugdale et al. 60). Indeed, when we look at Simmons’s connections in our visualization of people associated with the Belfast Group, which represents the relationships among individuals and organizations connected to the workshop, we see that he is a bit more isolated than other equally well known members of the Group. While Simmons has connections of varying strength with Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon thanks to his correspondence with them, he lacks any connection whatsoever with Hobsbaum, Edna Longley, or Ciaran Carson. This of course does not mean that they didn’t know Simmons, but that our data does not account for the nature of their relationship. This lack of direct connections to some of the key members of the Group results in Simmons being excluded in our data model from a number of different cliques within the Belfast Group, where a “clique” is defined as a subgroup in a network where every individual is connected to every other individual. Whether or not it was Simmons’s age, that he lived in Nigeria from 1964–67, or that when he did live in Northern Ireland it was almost always outside of Belfast, our model suggests that Simmons does seem to have “never really got to know” the members of the workshop as well as some others did, although he did edit some of their work during his time at The Honest Ulsterman.[12]

We can see this disconnect play out more specifically in the relationship—or lack of one—between Simmons and Michael Longley. As already mentioned, Michael Longley states in the “Symposium,” “I never saw Simmons at a Group meeting” (Dugdale et al. 56). Again, our data appear to corroborate this statement. When considering our visualization of Group authors by period, which represents authors and owners of Group sheets, we see a relatively faint connection between the two authors. This comes from there being just a single Longley Group sheet in the Simmons papers and none whatsoever authored by Simmons in the Longley papers. This is somewhat surprising as Longley’s ten Group sheets make up the second largest total for a single author in the data set, and Simmons is tied for fourth with four Group sheets; what’s more, the Longley and Simmons papers contain twenty-seven and eighteen Group sheets, respectively. Since the two men don’t own more of one another’s work in this format, there’s a strong likelihood that they did not attend the same Group meetings. Also plausible, of course, is the fact that one or both of them simply didn’t keep the other’s work. If Longley did not see Simmons at Group meetings, there is a good chance that others did not connect with him either. That said, the two men are connected in the visualization of people associated with the Belfast Group by virtue of their correspondence, even though much of it takes place after the conclusion of the Group.

It is similarly enlightening to consider Simmons’s relationship with Hobsbaum. While no correspondence exists in MARBL between Simmons and Hobsbaum, the Simmons papers do contain one Hobsbaum Group sheet and Hobsbaum’s papers at Queen’s have three Simmons Group sheets. The result is that while there is no connection between the two on our graph of people associated with the writing workshop, a clear relationship between them appears on our graph of authors and owners of Group sheets by period. This marks in some ways the reverse of the Simmons–Longley relationship, where considerable correspondence exists but almost no Group sheets. The two graphs measure different things and point simultaneously to the limitations of a data-centric approach—the fact that Simmons clearly had a relationship with both Hobsbaum and Longley that is not completely captured by our data—and this approach's strengths—the fact that these relationships seem to be of a different quality.

While Simmons claims in the The Honest Ulsterman—a publication that he founded—that he didn’t really remember the Group meetings nor know the participants well, he also undermines that claim in the same paragraph: “I seem to remember preferring some of Joan Newman’s [sic] poems (Joan Watton she was then and lodged with us in Lisburn). [...] Stewart Parker and Hugh Bredin I remember too” (Dugdale et al. 60).[13] Our visualization of Group sheet authors and owners indeed shows a connection between Simmons and these three poets. In each of these three cases, the edge between Simmons and the other poet is the same weight because there are two Group sheets from each of them in Simmons’s papers in MARBL. Due to this, one might reasonably assume that Simmons had the same sort of relationship with Parker, Bredin, and Watton Newmann. Yet Simmons’s comments in the “Symposium” suggest that things should perhaps be visualized differently: while he “remembers” Parker and Bredin, Watton Newmann lodged with Simmons and his wife Laura Stinson. That surely suggests a stronger relationship, as do his further comments: “Joan Newman [sic] I knew and loved, the girl and her work, and so that is what remains with me of that period. The critical evenings I never think of; but the excitement of reading her poems as they came out is with me still” (Dugdale et al. 60). From the vantage point of 1976 when The Honest Ulsterman took his comments on the Belfast Group, it seems clear that Simmons felt he had no connection as strong as that with Watton Newmann. Yet, based on how our network data was collected, there was no way we could know about or include this external, affective connection between the two. So while our approach confirms some of what Simmons reports, it belies other—perhaps more important—parts of his recollections.


The examples in this essay hopefully point to how a data-centric approach can clarify our understanding of literary communities. Such a method allows us to verify claims made by members of the Group about who was there and what roles they played. It helps us tease out the different time periods within a protean group such as Hobsbaum’s writing workshop, and it helps us better conceive of the range of possible entities that could fall under the rubric of “the Belfast Group.” At the same time, the recollections of Group members point to places where our data are incomplete and could, in all likelihood, never be complete. That said, we can imagine other questions to ask of the data: for example, examining the strength of relationships among what Hobsbaum calls the “founder members” and the relationships these founders form with “later entrants” (Dugdale et al. 55), or, taking a page from Simmons, looking at the connections among poets of different generations, such as those like Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon who joined the Group in its second iteration. It’s possible that no meaningful connections will be found when asking these questions, and that’s an outcome that should be familiar and acceptable to both literary scholars and digital humanists. But patterns will occasionally surface that scholars can interpret, and that chance makes it worth the pursuit.

This essay was peer reviewed by Geraldine Higgins and Nathan Suhr-Sytsma.

  1. ^ In an essay about the epistolary poems of Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, Gavin Drummond writes, “While the Group may or may not have affected the aesthetic of these writers, their informal groupings did. [...] The poets in this community may have disagreed with each other poetically and politically but they listened to each other, habitually communicated with each other, and often changed their poetry on the advice of one another” (32).
  2. ^ While Belfast was a relatively small community, Queen’s University made up an even smaller portion of that population. The population of Belfast in 1961 was 415,856; by 1966 it had actually declined to 399,270 (Government of Northern Ireland 6). Contrast this with the population of London in 1961: 3,200,484 (1961 Census of England and Wales). In 1966, there were a total of 5,371 students (full-time, part-time, and postgraduate) enrolled at Queen’s, and there were 562 full-time academic staff—88 of them in Arts—and 78 full-time lecturers (Clarkson 195-212 passim.). Any literary community in Belfast and surrounding Queen’s would have been smaller still. Perhaps the grouping of disparate talents into a “school" can be attributed to this environmental scale, in which authors were likely to be in contact with one another.
  3. ^ In The Ulster Renaissance, Heather Clark points to the friendship of Mahon with Longley, as well as with Heaney, as “forever link[ing] him with Hobsbaum’s Group”: “Heaney, Mahon, and Longley formed a subset of that Group, which Michael Foley referred to as the ‘Tight Assed Trio.’ These three gave more readings together in Belfast during the 1960s than any other Group configuration, cementing the public’s perception of them as a clique” (57).
  4. ^ In a 2000 interview with Heather Clark, Hobsbaum lists Michael Longley among the “later entrants” to the Group while identifying Edna Longley as an original member (Clark 55, 54). Yet in The Honest Ulsterman’s “The Belfast Group: A Symposium,” which was published in 1976 and therefore much closer to the events at hand, Hobsbaum names “Michael and Edna Longley” among the “founder members” (Dugdale et al. 55). Hobsbaum’s later account along with Michael Longley’s own recollection—“The group was a going concern by [the time I attended]: I can in no way be seen as a founding member”—suggests that the former was simply mistaken in The Honest Ulsterman (Dugdale et al. 56).
  5. ^ Mahon’s comments about his presence at the Group are reported as fact by Frank Ormsby in the introductory remarks to “Symposium” in The Honest Ulsterman (53). Stephen Enniss’s biography of Mahon repeats the claim, based on his schedule of courses at Trinity and his moves to Paris and Canada in 1964 and 1965, respectively (57, 61–62). Finally Hobsbaum, in an email to Clark in 2005, stated that Mahon attended the Group just once “when he was back in Belfast” (55). The claim is a little less precise when reported by Longley in the “Symposium,” however; he writes that “Mahon was present only once or twice as a kind of outside observer when he happened to be back in Belfast and staying with me” (56, emphasis added). While the possibility of Mahon’s attending more than once is intriguing, in the end, it is not critical to know exactly how many times that Mahon attended the Group. Instead it’s simply worth noting (again) that humanities data are tricky, as they so often consist of memories and paper trails.
  6. ^ In a “Recollection” about the Belfast Group, Hobsbaum writes, “The tendency to use the Belfast Group as a means of revision was not general” (178) which corroborates Longley’s statement.
  7. ^ While some individuals declined to comment for The Honest Ulsterman, it is very likely that not everyone who participated in the Group was invited to do so. In his editorial comments Frank Ormsby does not make it clear whom he contacted, but it is safe to assume that some of the less well known or less published participants—Iris Bull, Hugh Bredin, Lynette M. Croskery, or Joan Watton Newmann (about whom more below), among others—probably were not asked. It is especially interesting to note that no women contributed to the “Symposium.”
  8. ^ When calculating these same network measurements against the complete data set (as represented in our visualization that shows individuals connected to the Belfast Group, including second-degree connections), both Longley and Heaney remain ranked in the top eight individuals in measure of degree, betweenness centrality, and eigenvector centrality. Hobsbaum, on the other hand, falls considerably in every measure. This can be attributed to the fact that the complete data set relies heavily on the collections in MARBL which holds the bulk of Heaney’s and Longley’s papers, but only a small box of Hobsbaum’s materials. Our approach could be expanded to include materials at other archives—even if they did not natively expose their data in appropriate formats. Even if we had the time and resources to do this work, Hobsbaum’s papers have not yet (as of this writing) been processed at the University of Glasgow.
  9. ^ The fact that Terry’s papers have been collected neither in MARBL nor anywhere else, including the University of Essex where he worked for 21 years (Philip Terry), says something again about the biases inherent in archives. Since Terry was a scholar and a translator, his output is seen as less valuable and interesting to most archives.
  10. ^ Terry’s obituary in The Guardian corroborates both Dugdale’s and Enniss’s comments about him: “In the Belfast Writers’ Group, founded in 1963, his original contributions were limited to verse translations, but his presence was indispensable, as was his organising work. A valued friend to poets since his Barcelona days, he now won esteem from Philip Hobsbaum, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and many others” (Round).
  11. ^ A recent email from Arthur Terry’s son Philip to the authors helps establish that Terry was indeed in attendance in the second half of the Group (Philip Terry). Philip Terry included scans of three Group sheets (two of them identical) enclosed in his father’s copy of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist (1966): two copies of the Heaney sheet that starts with “Icon” and one copy of the sheet with “Servant Boy.” One of these Group sheets carries the same handwritten note (subsequently duplicated) and about the date of the workshop as appears on copies of the Group sheet in the Simmons and Carson papers in MARBL. Since Carson did not participate until the second phase of the Group, we have clear evidence that Terry did as well. If these Group sheets were added to an archival collection and made part of our data set, Terry would consequently be connected to the second phase of the Group.
  12. ^ Clark writes extensively about how Simmons perpetually felt excluded from the Belfast poetry scene, both during and after the Belfast Group workshops; see 87-89, 176-82 passim.
  13. ^ In The Honest Ulsterman, Simmons refers to Watton by her married name, Joan Newmann, although he spells it incorrectly as “Newman” (Dugdale et al. 60). For consistency’s sake, we use her full name to refer to her in our essays, since her maiden name appears on her Group sheets.