Princeton Weekly Bulletin, April 20, 1998

Exhibit marks donation of Milberg Collection of Irish Poetry to Firestone Library

"Whatever is well made"

By Justin Harmon

To mark the acquisition of the Leonard L. Milberg '53 Collection of Irish Poetry, which comprises more than 1,100 printed works by 50 poets from the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, an exhibit of materials from the collection will be on display in the Main and Milberg galleries of Firestone Library from April 27 through September 20.

The exhibit's title, "Sing whatever is well made: The Leonard L. Milberg '53 Collection of Irish Poetry," is taken from a line in "After Ben Bulben" by W.B. Yeats.

In the exhibit are approximately 150 items: first and significant editions of the poets' books, broadsides, translations into English, children's books, fiction and nonfiction, and ephemera such as poem cards. Other items include a box of pen nibs belonging to James Joyce and a framed holograph poem written by Seamus Heaney on the occasion of Paul Muldoon's 40th birthday.

Chronicle publishes new poems

The international appeal of Irish poetry and its pervasive influence on world literature reflect the extent to which Irish poets, writing of matters specific to Irish experience, also are writing fundamentally about the human condition, according to Samuel Hynes, Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature, Emeritus.

Hynes prepared the introductory essay, "The Poem of Ireland," for the spring issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle, which includes previously unpublished poems by 41 of the poets featured in the Milberg collection. Also featured are essays on Irish poetry before and after Yeats, the legacy of Louis MacNeice, themes and tensions within current Irish poetry, the writing of poetry, and publishing Irish poetry.

"While no single volume can be exhaustive of everything that is happening in Irish poetry, this is a remarkably thorough anthology," said Muldoon, professor of the Council of the Humanities and Creative Writing. "I am sure that, for the poets, the sense of being included in such a volume is both daunting and delightful."

Shaped by divisions

Ireland's long poetic tradition has been uniquely "shaped and shaken by the deep national divisions that have made the island's troubled history and that still scar and define the present," writes Hynes in "The Poem of Ireland." "Irish poetry is like a monument built along geographical fault lines, where one rock surface grates against another: Irish against English, Catholic against Protestant, royalist against republican, language against language. ...

"The poetry of Ireland stands as a powerful and living part of a long tradition, recognized everywhere as important, not only for its expression of the condition of being Irish, but of the condition of being human in our time. [Ireland's] Troubles are the troubles of all mankind."

One need only open a newspaper to find evidence of the relevance of Ireland's "Troubles" in the larger public imagination. News of an impending peace agreement for Northern Ireland has dominated the front pages of American newspapers these past weeks. At the same time, inside pages of the New York Times included a review of Martin McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inish-maan," newly opened at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, as well as an essay lambasting the use of the pennywhistle, with its Celtic overtones, to add sentiment to popular music, such as the theme "My Heart Will Go On" from the blockbuster movie Titanic.

Polish, Romanian

The poets whose works are assembled in the Milberg collection represent an impressive range. They include poets from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as Irish expatriates. Some, like Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Liam O Muirthile, write in the Irish language, exploring its richness as a source of verse, despite -- or because of -- its legacy as a language of the disenfranchised. Many, such as Brendan Kennelly, Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney, have turned at times to other cultures' mythologies and to other modern languages, including Polish and Romanian, creating poetry that is broadly international.

More than 80 years separate the births of the oldest and youngest poets represented in the collection: the earliest, Padraic Colum, started as a writer for Yeats' Abbey Theatre, where his play The Land was produced in 1905; the most recent, Sara Berkeley, has a home page on the World Wide Web.

The collection was donated to Princeton by Leonard Milberg, who chairs the board of Milberg Factors Inc. in New York City. In 1994 Milberg gave the University a collection of American poetry, comprising works by more than 70 contemporary poets. He began his Irish poetry collection shortly afterward, at Hynes's suggestion and with the encouragement of Muldoon.

"I am a collector; it's part of my nature," says Milberg. "I learn as I collect. Week by week, as I gathered the materials for this collection, I studied Irish poetry, history and legends. After a while, I recognized the universality of these poets. They are people of exceptional learning and interest, writing in a way that reflects the beauty of the language. I was amazed to find such a relatively small group of writers turning out such a large body of extraordinary work."

Photographic portraits of five poets featured in the Milberg collection
and in the Princeton University Library Chronicle are available at
(Copyright 1997 Robin Hiteshew)