The Art of ‘Silence’ in the Poetry of Northern Ireland’s Medbh McGuckian


A new book examines the work of Medbh McGuckian, a poet from Northern Ireland.

The book, by Kingsborough Community College Professor Maureen Fadem, is called Silence and Articulacy in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian.

Fadem uses Northern Ireland’s fraught politics and history as a starting point for understanding McGuckian’s poetry. “Her being from the North, ​the part of Ireland that remains part of the U.K., she experiences a kind of marginalization and alienation from Irishness,” Fadem said in an interview with SUM.

Fadem views McGuckian’s “weird, ungrammatical, absurd use of the English language to write a poem” as a form of poetic “silence.” It’s “not the English language we are familiar with,” Fadem said. “We read it and we don’t understand it.”

McGuckian’s wordplay also represents the displacement of her ancestral language, Irish Gaelic, with English, the colonizer’s language. McGuckian herself alludes to this disconnect in her poem “The Aisling Hat” when she says: “(T)o speak is to be forever on the road, listening for the foreigner’s footstep.”


In another poem, “Elegy for an Irish Speaker,” McGuckian writes: “Most foreign and cherished reader, I cannot live without your trans-sense language, the living furrow of our spoken words that plough up time.”

Another form of silence in McGuckian’s poetry is her use of imagery. Images are “an important part of all literary and imaginative writing,” Fadem says. But for some writers, “the image is so powerful that it eclipses the language as something that conveys the meaning.”

A third aspect of silence in McGuckian’s work is what Fadem calls her “intertextual” writing, where the poet speaks not in her own voice but instead uses words and phrases from other writers – everything from historical research to the letters of Jane Austen, which she cuts up for use in her most recent book, Love, the Magician. Fadem invokes Walt Whitman’s “big, booming, heroic voice” as a study in contrast with McGuckian, who quietly pieces together “a whole mass of scraps, of intertextual scraps,” a “gathering of twigs as if for a nest” that results in a “perfectly brilliant poem.”

These three variables, aspects of the composition or poetics of McGuckian’s work, come together to equal what Fadem calls a “silent” poem.

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Silence and Articulacy in the Poetry of Medbh McGuckian
Lexington Books, 2019

Work By

Maureen Fadem (Associate Professor, English) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Kingsborough Community College

Bonus Content

"Medbh McGuckian" (The Poetry Foundation)