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This item is taken from PN Review 74, Volume 16 Number 6, July - August 1990.

The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney's first lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, is published by the Oxford University Press at £2.95. The new Professor praises his illustrious predecessors, but one of his models might have been Housman's famous Leslie Stephen lecture of 1933. Housman, in speaking for himself, spoke also for a wider readership disenchanted with the critical and creative orthodoxies of the day. Heaney, with a very different voice, a different rhetoric from Housman's classical reserve and asperity, sets out to define the nature and function of poetry in our time in terms at once familiar and suasive. And again the Anglo-American Modernists are out.

As an Irish Catholic, he insists on the abiding importance of the literary canon, despite the fact that he stands outside the British cultural experience (as he sees it) and feels with increasing intensity the colonial legacy of British impositions and tones. Though he portrays the canon as open-ended, he perceives in it a crucial stability at once accessible to and necessary for each writer in English. It is particularly salutary that this message should be delivered in a major British university where the justification of canon itself is debated. Heaney (like Derek Walcott and, more subtly and 'democratically', Les Murray) proves his point in his poems which at their best reveal the inspiriting power of what we undeniably have in English.

Salutary, too, is his insistence on the primacy of the creative over the critical intelligence, especially the critical intelligence which by its strategies seeks to attenuate the effect of poetry and other literary work.

Yet there is much to argue with in the first twelve pages of his lecture. I was struck by the extreme secularity of his propositions, the sense that his attempts at definition are entirely trammelled in the twentieth century and that his readings backwards in time tend to appropriate to the argument work which, from a more historically alert perspective, would seem to contradict or qualify it.

Those first twelve pages suggest that for Heaney poetry has become, in conception and in reception, a public and, necessarily, a political activity, 'the need to give voice and retaliatory presence to suppressed life, be it ethnic, sexual, social, or political'. The poet as speaker becomes almost synonymous with the poet as spokesman - spokesperson - in a way which, while insisting on the subtlety and intimacy that the art requires, and on the primacy of witness, denies the individuality of that witness.

How many, even among poets who call themselves political, aspire 'to correct the world's imbalances'? Which 'world': Clare's or Chatterton's, Celan's or Mandelstam's? There is no 'world' in Heaney's sense, except in poets like Harrison and Brathwaite, for example, whose different worlds are specific and self-defined. If we set in balance against them Tomlinson or Walcott we may have less timely poetry, and yet poetry less bound to historical, class and ethnic contingencies. It achieves at times the 'redress' Heaney proposes, but it is busy about more complex matters, too. It has native landscapes but no predetermined programme: speaking, not speaking for.

Heaney's argument is one of displacement. I would not wish to quarrel with his view of the twentieth century (though its horrors are only quantitatively, not qualitatively, unprecedented). I accept his sense of the abjectness of what he calls 'the European mind', by which he seems to mean the political intelligences that produced the tyrannies and wars of our age. I accept that poets write at certain times, in certain places and under very real compulsions. But from this no generalities emerge, certainly not the conclusions, so widely-held in the 1970s and 1980s, that poets and apologists for poetry 'all sooner or later have to attempt to show how poetry's existence at the level of art relates to our existence as citizens of society - how it is "of present use".' Heaney is describing a very modern sort of a poet and by a curious metonymy embraces the whole of Parnassus.

He quotes Stevens: 'a violence from within that protects us from a violence without'. This he translates as: 'the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality'. I don't think this is what Stevens is saying. He uses the indefinite, not the definite article, and 'a violence without' is not, in context, political or social but something other, timeless and not historically contingent.

The poets Heaney most admires have suffered, often terribly, and this leads him to the crucial displacement. Writing of his beloved Mandelstam and of Zbigniew Herbert he says: 'The admirable thing about those lives is precisely that they demand to be read as lives, not just as literary careers.' This would suggest that poets with mere careers are written down; also, it suggests that in some instances the life validates the work, our respect for the work (which we may be unable to approach directly in its original language) requires the succour of extraneous knowledge. It is a question which troubles us when we try vainly to assess the work of Sylvia Plath as it were in ignorance of her history. The life validates the work: how does this differ, as displacement, from Marxising readings which insist on the generative centrality of mechanical contingencies? What are we to make of those poets who, like Elizabeth Bishop or Geoffrey Hill, insist on their privacy? Will we be unable to read them properly until their biographies have been written? I would venture that they have had lives as intense and raw as some of the poets Heaney admires, and as that most biography-less of poets, Emily Dickinson. What abides is the poems.

In admiring poets who burst out of what he calls 'the charmed circle of literary space', he again calls on the life and not the words the poets set down. What makes the extreme formalism of Miklos Radnoti's Eclogues, written in prison camps in the Second World War, so resonant, is not their witness to the experiences he was being subjected to but the survival, even within those extreme conditions, of 'literary space'. The poems did not seek redress against a given evil but insisted (I am not even sure if the insistence was deliberate) that the genre, the words and rhythms, survived on their own terms. The poems are a value, not a statement. To cry out, or to tie the word to the particulars of punishment, would have been to subject the integrity of the poem, to make the poem victim. Not that Radnoti's poems exclude extreme experience, but what matters - rather than witness - is transfiguration. Here 'the sanctuary of literary form' proves enabling indeed.

There should be no difference in kind between the 'artistic space' (as opposed to the political space) of Mandelstam and Sidney, of Herbert and Bishop; the differences are in the occasions the poets respond to, in the vigour and valour of the achieved artefact, the completeness or otherwise of the transfigurations through words.

Heaney's argument is sometimes hard to follow, so condensed is it, glancingly allusive and yet so general in tendency: 'the best poetry will not only register the assault of the actual and quail under the brunt of necessity; it will also embody the spirit's protest against all that.' These are indeed, as he concedes, 'high astounding terms', so high as to lose, until the closing pages, sight of particular poems, diverse traditions, distinct occasions.

Heaney brings his general argument to a climax when he asserts the continuing priorities of the 'poetic intelligence' (here he avoids the word 'imagination', which he uses elsewhere) at a time of destabilising critical debate. Poetry seeks 'bearings'. He rises to a metaphor so complex that it will doubtless give rise to a dozen doctoral dissertations: 'it is still possible to conceive of the poem as travelling the troubled element of consciousness with all the volition and integrity of a shock wave travelling through water. Not so much a momentary stay as a reactive heave against confusion.' Poetry 'has to be a model of active consciousness'. 'It has to be able to withstand as well as to envisage, and in order to do so it must contain within itself the co-ordinates of the reality which surround it and out of which it is generated. When it does contain these co-ordinates, it becomes a power to which we can have recourse; it functions as the rim of silence out of which consciousness arises and into which it must descend. For a moment, we can remember ourselves as fully empowered beings.' This impassioned, metaphorical language draws its terminology from various critical sources, and yet it exists at a level of unavailing abstraction.

Throughout the first twelve pages of the lecture, I kept exclaiming: 'What about George Herbert? Where does he fit into all this?' As if to answer my indignant call, Heaney devotes most of the concluding ten pages of his lecture to George Herbert, reading his great poems with the fresh eye of a Roman Catholic Irishman who insists on his share in this Anglican patrimony - patrimony not because it is Anglican but because it is at the heart of the English lyrical tradition. I cannot fit the two parts of the lecture together, try as I might, and yet I am grateful for both - the former because it insists on the universality, despite the politics of colonialism and new nationalism, of an English-language canon; the latter because it takes me closer to a great poet. Heaney has the acute critical eye of a practitioner and talks with luminous clarity about poetic forms and about specific poems. I hope his future lectures will avoid what T.E. Hulme called 'the circumambient gas' of generality, so at odds with his particularizing critical tact.


This item is taken from PN Review 74, Volume 16 Number 6, July - August 1990.

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