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Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney's Poetics

Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney's Poetics

by Michael Cavanagh

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Nobel Prize winning Irish writer Seamus Heaney has been an ambitious critic as well as poet, publishing five books of literary criticism in the four decades of his career. This book surveys his critical essays, setting forth Heaney's poetics-his concept of what poetry should be and what its uses are-and relating them to his practice as a poet.
The first


Nobel Prize winning Irish writer Seamus Heaney has been an ambitious critic as well as poet, publishing five books of literary criticism in the four decades of his career. This book surveys his critical essays, setting forth Heaney's poetics-his concept of what poetry should be and what its uses are-and relating them to his practice as a poet.
The first full-length study of Heaney's poetics, Professing Poetry explores Heaney's unusual concept of influence and the various ways in which Heaney interacts with other writers. It shows how Heaney, writing brilliantly about others, establishes quiet partnerships with them. It shows as well how he sometimes resists writers, sometimes misrepresenting them and even himself in the process. The book returns frequently to Heaney's anxiety about poetry's justification, to his wariness of the politicizing of poetry, and to his spirited and eloquent defense of what he calls poetry's "redress." Heaney wants to "make sense" of poetry in the context of the modern world, but he feels the pull of contradictory opinions. Poetry, he sometimes thinks, should immerse us in the world. At other times Heaney thinks it redeems us by putting us at a distance from the world.
Professing Poetry aspires to a simple language described by Heaney in Finders Keepers as one in which "there will be no gap between the professional idiom and the personal recognition." The study considers Heaney's relations with Robert Lowell, Dante, Philip Larkin, Patrick Kavanagh, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and others.

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Catholic University of America Press
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6.10(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

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By Michael Cavanagh

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2009 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1671-3

Chapter One



Seamus Heaney's essays and interviews are an immediate pleasure. We are struck by the freshness and persuasiveness of his impressions: that reading Yeats's poetry is like "getting on a bronze horse." That Elizabeth Bishop's poetic tone "would not have disturbed the discreet undersong of conversation between strangers breakfasting at a seaside hotel" (GT 101). That when we read Christopher Marlowe, we are in "thrall to the poetic equivalent of a dynamo-hum," a sound that "both exhilarates and empowers" (RP 29). That Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" can sound like the "cry of Marsyas" but also, alas, like "the strings of Mantovani" (RP 95). That Dante is a "woodcutter singing at his work in the dark wood of the larynx" (EI 18). We appreciate the wickedly clever phrasing that arrests Dylan Thomas in a "doctrinaire immaturity," and that speaks of his anti-intellectualism as "a bad boy's habit wastefully prolonged" (RP 140–41). Even if we don't agree with Heaney, we don't forget it when he speaks of the light surreptitiously present in Philip Larkin's poems, "honeyed by an attachment to a dream world that will not be denied because it is at the foundation of the poet's sensibility" (GT 21). We don't forget Heaney's description of the tone of Lowell's Day by Day, which, he says, "touches a muted Homeric note of landfall" (GT 143). Or Heaney's phrase to describe the vision of Wordsworth's Winander Boy as he becomes "imprinted with all the melodies and hieroglyphics of the world" (GT 163). Or his observation about how common household objects that are "seasoned by human contact possess a kind of moral force" and "insist upon human solidarity and suggest obligations to the generations who have been silenced, drawing us into some kind of covenant with them."

There are four volumes of prose: Preoccupations (1980), The Government of the Tongue (1988), The Place of Writing (1989), and The Redress of Poetry (1995). In addition, there is a volume of selected prose, Finders Keepers, which appeared in 2002 and which contains some new and hitherto uncollected essays. Back in 1980, reviewing Preoccupations, Edna Longley claimed that "Heaney is of course an occasional critic, tempted on to the podium only by what is dear to his heart or his art." Longley would probably not imply the same today about the scope of Heaney's criticism, even if she did affirm its heart-centeredness. Many of Heaney's essays were academic lectures, abundant proof that Heaney has written his prose not incidentally but out of a desire to weigh in as a literary critic. Peter McDonald is right in perhaps half-cynically saying, in a review of Finders Keepers, that Heaney's success comes from his ability to sound above the battles of the English profession, at the same time that, reading his essays, "we can make out the sound of points being scored in the academic power-play." Literary criticism makes up a significant part of Heaney's career; it isn't merely reviewing or merely an occasional by-product of his poetry. There have been numerous essays, many not yet collected, and numerous interviews. Most of Heaney's interviews are considered (if not emphasized) in this study because many of them are sufficiently thoughtful and ambitious to qualify as literary criticism.

What Terry Eagleton says about The Redress of Poetry could be applied to nearly all of Heaney's criticism, that it is "literary criticism of breathtaking brilliance, and not just what is sometimes dutifully dubbed a 'poet's criticism,'" by which apparently Eagleton means that it is more intellectually ambitious than the work of most poets. Equally authoritative is the hard-to-please Peter McDonald, who says that "a number of critical essays ... have become essential items for serious readers of the poets they examine. Heaney's insight and acuteness on W. B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, William Wordsworth, and John Clare are enough to give him serious critical weight, and an assured currency." With some exceptions, however, Heaney's critics (Henry Hart, Helen Vendler, Thomas Foster, Daniel Tobin, Floyd Collins, and Michael Molino) have looked at Heaney's prose only glancingly. Elmer Andrews and Anne Stevenson are exceptions, but their work covers Preoccupations and not the later volumes. Bernard O'Donoghue writes about The Government of the Tongue in his highly useful Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1994) but is mainly concerned with Heaney's thoughts about Mandelstam and Dante. Arthur McGuinness, in his Seamus Heaney: Poet and Critic (1994), discusses Heaney's first two volumes of criticism but is more interested in paraphrasing the essays than in thematics and controversy. In his recent Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing (2003), Eugene O'Brien has endeavored to deal at times with Heaney's prose, but his approach is more theoretical-philosophical and less literary than this one and less devoted to reading the prose as if it were on a par with the poetry and worthy of exegesis in its own right. Only Neil Corcoran has attempted, in his Poetry of Seamus Heaney (1998), to put all of Heaney's criticism to date into perspective and to give it its due along with the poetry. Corcoran says that Heaney's prose is "self-consciously the product, or offshoot, or even intellectual ambience, of his own poetry." One can quarrel with the lack of significance implied in "offshoot," but there can be no doubt of the relationship of Heaney's prose to his poetry, and no doubt, ultimately, that the ambition of the prose merits Corcoran's treatment of it in a separate chapter of his book, whatever he says about "offshoot." Like his poetry, Heaney's criticism may not always be consistent—indeed, it is usually conflicted—but it is clear, strikingly well written, and adventuresome. One of Heaney's subjects is the definition and defense of poetry. Another, implicit subject is the contextualization and defense of his own poetry and career as a poet. As such, prose is not simply another thing Heaney does: it complements and completes his poetry. It is at the very center of his literary enterprise as a poet with a public conscience and a private heart.

It is remarkable how important prose is in Heaney's formation and in his continuing life as a writer. In his recent interview with Mike Murphy, he cites Wordsworth's "Preface to The Lyrical Ballads," Keats's letters, and Eliot's "writings" as giving him, when he was at college, a "sense of poetry and sense of what it is to be a poet." Eliot's "writings" certainly include, and perhaps emphasize, Eliot's criticism, which Heaney remembers having read at Queen's: "the most lasting influence from this time was Eliot's prose, all assembled and digested by John Hayward in a little purple-coloured Penguin book ... reminiscent of a confessor's stole. There I read and re-read 'Traditions and the Individual Talent,' essays on the metaphysical poets, on Milton, on Tennyson's In Memoriam. On the music of poetry. On why Hamlet doesn't make it as a play, as an objective correlative. But most important of all ... was a definition of a faculty which he called 'the auditory imagination'" (FK 36). There was the criticism of C. K. Stead. As we look further into Heaney's career, we see the impact of other prose works: Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned, Osip Mandelstam's "Conversation about Dante," Zbigniew Herbert's Barbarian in the Garden, Czeslaw Milosz's Native Realm, Richard Ellmann's "W. B. Yeats's Second Puberty," Daniel Corkery's The Hidden Ireland, and of course the voluminous prose of W. B. Yeats. Because prose matters to Heaney, it isn't surprising that most of the poets who have been important to him have written ambitious prose: Yeats, Milosz, Mandelstam, Eliot, and Wordsworth.

It is worth noting as well about Heaney—a poet who has frequently argued (and perhaps overargued) for the special, nonparaphrasable language of poetry, for poetry as an ineffable art—how analytical and discursive his mind can be and how important analysis is to his formulation of the way poetry "means." His experience with Eliot and Auden, as he is at pains to tell us, was seriously advanced when he came to the realization, after much effort, that their early work could not be analyzed and paraphrased. That is, he learned vividly what mystifiers (in the good sense) Eliot and Auden were by obstinately trying to make sense of them and failing. He tells an amusing story of how he learned at college to stop analyzing Eliot by sitting and listening to a recording of Eliot's poetry in the company of two graduate students in biochemistry who "in their unprofessional but rewarding way ... still assumed that mystification was par for the course in modern poetry" and who, therefore, weren't half as bothered by Eliot as Heaney was (FK 38). Making sense of poetry is a professor's business, and the fact that Heaney has written prose all his life, explaining everything, especially why some things can't be explained, has much to do with his being an educator much of that time and being proud of it.

In this respect one is inclined to take issue with Anne Stevenson's emphasis on the "personal" and "feminine" in Heaney's Preoccupations, which she sees as starkly opposed to the more "masculine" critical manner of Eliot. Unquestionably Heaney is warmer than Eliot, and the first few essays in Preoccupations are personal in a way that Eliot never was. It is important to Heaney to take note of the way writing comes out of lived experience. Nevertheless, Heaney is just as inclined as Eliot is to generalizing and theorizing, even in this early volume of essays. Heaney's meditations on "masculine" vs. "feminine" poetry, on "technique" vs. "craft," on the marriage of pagan and Christian elements in Irish nature poetry, are a professor's work in just the same way that, a decade later, his demarcations of stages in the careers of Kavanagh, Plath, Auden, and Eliot (and by extension stages in any modern poet's career) are the work of someone who wants to influence how poetry is thought about. And fifteen years later he is just as professorial when he discusses the various kinds of "redress" poetry offers, or analyzes the "quincunx" that makes a connection between Irish frontiers and different traditions of Irish writing (RP 199). Heaney's perceptions of individual poets are usually satisfying, but, as if a "heckler" were at his ear saying "so what?" he almost consistently pushes perception into rule, category, and definition. Though Heaney's thinking on the subject is complex and open to contradiction, including a sometimes rather hostile view of any poetry that has designs on its readers, this educative consideration clearly influences his judgment of other poets. Heaney favors Joseph Brodsky, for instance, because he never used his background as a political prisoner to make things easy for himself in the United States, "but instead of embracing victim status and swimming with the currents of radical chic, ... got down to business right away as a university teacher at the University of Michigan," and in his subsequent academic career brought a "new vitality and seriousness to the business of poetry readings" (FK 439, emphasis added). Auden and Milosz are both educators, both aware of poetry's potential to make the world a better place. Heaney may prefer Auden's early nondidactic poetry, but he endorses and respects the later "wise" Auden. It is the same side of Heaney that speaks of the "salvific function" of poetry. By contrast, he disparages Philip Larkin because of the cultural philistinism promoted in his prose and interviews, and Dylan Thomas because he encloses himself in a wall of language. As these examples indicate, it isn't so much a matter of a literal educational function as it is the practice of making oneself responsive to a readership, real or imagined. Heaney favors Yeats because "the aim of the poet and of the poetry is finally to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole" (P 106).

It is important in this respect that Preoccupations, Heaney's first book of essays, comes with this long epigraph taken from Yeats:

I was asked if Cathleen Ni Houlihan was not written to affect opinion. Certainly it was not. I had a dream one night which gave me a story, and I had certain emotions about this country, and I gave those emotions expression for my own pleasure. If I had written to convince others I would have asked myself, not "Is that exactly what I think and feel?" but "How would that strike so-and-so? How will they think and feel when they have read it?" And all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root. Coventry Patmore has said, "The end of art is peace," and the following of art is little different from the following of religion in the intense preoccupation it demands. (P 14, emphasis added)

This passage, in addition to Heaney's own Foreword to Preoccupations, announces much of Heaney's career as a critic. Significantly, it is a prose passage from Yeats, the exemplar-poet. Neil Corcoran has taught us all how important exemplary figures are to Heaney. The presence of Yeats's prose at the beginning of Heaney's first collection of prose is "exemplary," not merely explanatory. It gives sanction to poets writing prose, and not only prose but prose that explains the poet's art, as Heaney will go on to do. Yeats moreover is doing here what we'll see Heaney do for the next few decades: denying the intentionality of good creative writing without denying its significance. Yeats resists propaganda and cultivates the notion of sincerity: Cathleen came out of a dream; the dream became joined with certain emotions Yeats had about Ireland, and Yeats expressed those emotions "for my own pleasure." The emotions are significant to others because they are sincere and because "all life has the same root." We shall see Heaney insist repeatedly in his prose and imply in his poetry that literature is the primary way we have of connecting to other peoples, who all come from a common "root." A writer therefore can, he argues, write of himself and still be representative. This is what may be called the "choric" figure of the poet, a concept of Yeats inspired in Heaney by C. K. Stead. We shall also see Heaney analyzing the origins of his own poetic works in much the same way that Yeats does here—"professing himself," as it were, as if to compensate for his usually rather strict notion that genuine poetry can't be paraphrased. In this matter as well, Yeats also is exemplar. As I shall argue later, "exemplar" does not mean "source."

The last sentence of Yeats's passage quotes a phrase from Coventry Patmore ("the end of art is peace") that Heaney cites in his poem "The Harvest Bow" and that might serve as a motto for one of the two most significant strains of his poetics, namely, that art represents a mastery of reality. One can only wonder, however, what he made of the final part of Yeats's sentence. Obviously Preoccupations takes its title from Yeats's "preoccupation," but does Heaney read a meaning into the contrast between "end of art" and "intense pre-occupation?" Is a contrast intended between "peace" and "intense"? Does Heaney's appropriation of Yeats mean that the intense "preoccupations" of his prose are vital to his "peaceful" art? Does he mean that prose preoccupations must come before that art? Heaney's own Foreword encourages these questions, for it suggests that his prose in the 1970s and after substituted for the long-missed "intensity" of his conversations with his literary friends in Belfast a decade earlier, the implication being that the revival of intensity would spur his poetic art as well as revive a sense of society that was missing in his new life. His prose seems connected to his decision to leave an academic position in Belfast for Glanmore, a decision that involved his abandoning a public sphere. The move, which put poetry "more deliberately at the center of my life," led moreover to literary freelancing, that is, lecturing and reviewing, and these activities obliged Heaney to ask some hard questions of himself about the nature of poetry, as well as to consider the obvious question about how he was going to make a living (P 11). It would appear that this move entailed an insecurity about poetry writing that could be assuaged only by intellectual pre-paration. It would appear that leaving academic life made Heaney not less but more theoretical, more inclined to look into what he calls the "what might happen" of poetry (12). Edna Longley has speculated that the writing of North might have been an overcompensation for Heaney's leaving Northern Ireland. In a similar fashion, we might suggest that anxiety about doing the right thing in life in moving to Glanmore entailed for Heaney a parallel anxiety about his proper goal as a poet/intellectual—and the result in Heaney's case is a compensatory public-oriented career of prose and an emphasis on poetry's defense. As Heaney puts it in the Foreword, "I hope it is clear that the essays selected here are held together by searches for answers to central preoccupying questions: how should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?" (11). Heaney uses the word "properly," and the phrase in which it is embedded—"how should a poet properly live and write"—points to a lifetime of moral considerations spoken or unspoken in his criticism, from his censuring of Dylan Thomas to his near-worship of Wilfred Owen and Osip Mandelstam. It isn't enough to write poetry: one must somehow, either in one's writing or in one's living, or both, establish the "right" to write poetry. From this period onward, Heaney's poetics is bound up in sanctions and rights.


Excerpted from PROFESSING POETRY by Michael Cavanagh Copyright © 2009 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Henry Hart
"Cavanagh knows Heaney's criticism and poetry inside-and-out, and he does an admirable job of discussing the influence of other writers on Heaney's poetry and criticism. While numerous critical studies of Heaney exist, Cavanagh's book is the first to bring Heaney's essays out from the wings to center stage."--(Henry Hart, The College of William and Mary)

Meet the Author

Michael Cavanagh is Orville and Mary Patterson Routt Professor of Literature at Grinnell College.

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