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"Nobel laureate Heaney is a pastoralist with a strong and critical sense of history. His rich and earthy poems are about the life of the land of northern Ireland as well as the evolution of the heavily mythologized Irish identity. Heaney's sonorous lyricism stems from his love of the cycles of country life, the mystery of the sea, the satisfying rhythm of hard, physical work. But Heaney loves poetry and poetics as well as nature and expresses this passion in his forceful if demanding literary essays. This is his third book of criticism, and it contains 10 lectures Heaney delivered as professor of poetry at Oxford. In the title essay, Heaney explains how poetry balances the 'scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium.' After considering all the burdens contemporary poets carry, from the long tradition of the form itself to pressing political perspectives, Heaney still insists that 'poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness.' This viewpoint underlies his shrewd essays on George Herbert, Christopher Marlowe, the Irish poet Brian Merriman, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop." --Booklist
Professors of poetry, apologists for it, practitioners of it, from Sir Philip Sidney to Wallace Stevens, all sooner or later are tempted to show how poetry's existence as a form of art relates to our existence as citizens of society - how it is 'of present use'. Behind such defences and justifications, at any number of removes, stands Plato, calling into question whatever special prerogatives or useful influences poetry would claim for itself within the polis. Yet Plato's world of ideal forms also provides the court of appeal through which poetic imagination seeks to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions. Moreover, 'useful' or 'practical' responses to those same conditions are derived from imagined standards too: poetic fictions, the dream of alternative worlds, enable governments and revolutionaries as well. It's just that governments and revolutionaries would compel society to take on the shape of their imagining, whereas poets are typically more concerned to conjure with their own and their readers' sense of what is possible or desirable or, indeed, imaginable. The nobility of poetry, says Wallace Stevens, 'is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without'. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.
Stevens, as he reaches this conclusion in his essay 'The Noble Rider and the Sounds of Words', is anxious to insist that his own words are intended to be more than merely sonorous, and his anxiety is understandable. It is as if he were imagining and responding to the outcry of some disaffected heckler in the crowd of those whom Tony Harrison calls 'the rhubarbarians', one crying out against the mystification of art and its appropriation by the grandees of aesthetics. 'In our time', the heckler protests, echoing something he has read somewhere, 'the destiny of man presents itself in political terms.' And in his understanding, and in the understanding of most people who protest against the ascription to poetry of any metaphysical force, those terms are going to derive from the politics of subversion, of redressal, of affirming that which is denied voice. Our heckler, in other words, will want poetry to be more than an imagined response to conditions in the world; he or she will urgently want to know why it should not be an applied art, harnessed to movements which attempt to alleviate those conditions by direct action.
The heckler, therefore, is going to have little sympathy with Wallace Stevens when he declares the poet to be a potent figure because the poet 'creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it, and . . . gives life to the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of [that world]' - meaning that if our given experience is a labyrinth, its impassability can still be countered by the poet's imagining some equivalent of the labyrinth and presenting himself and us with a vivid experience of it. Such an operation does not intervene in the actual but by offering consciousness a chance to recognize its predicaments, foreknow its capacities and rehearse its comebacks in all kinds of venturesome ways, it does constitute a beneficent event, for poet and audience alike. It offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist. For the activist, there is going to be no point in envisaging an order which is comprehensive of events but not in itself productive of new events. Engaged parties are not going to be grateful for a mere image - no matter how inventive or original - of the field of force of which they are a part. They will always want the redress of poetry to be an exercise of leverage on behalf of their point of view; they will require the entire weight of the thing to come down on their side of the scales.
So, if you are an English poet at the Front during World War I, the pressure will be on you to contribute to the war effort, preferably by dehumanizing the face of the enemy. If you are an Irish poet in the wake of the 1916 executions, the pressure will be to revile the tyranny of the executing power. If you are an American poet at the height of the Vietnam War, the official expectation will be for you to wave the flag rhetorically. In these cases, to see the German soldier as a friend and secret sharer, to see the British government as a body who might keep faith, to see the South-East Asian expedition as an imperial betrayal, to do any of these things is to add a complication where the general desire is for a simplification.
Such countervailing gestures frustrate the common expectation of solidarity, but they do have political force. Their very power to exacerbate is one guarantee of their effectiveness. They are particular instances of a law which Simone Weil announced with typical extremity and succinctness in her book Gravity and Grace. She writes there:
If we know in what way society is unbalanced, we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale ... we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, 'that fugitive from the camp of conquerors'.
Clearly, this corresponds to deep structures of thought and feeling derived from centuries of Christian teaching and from Christ's paradoxical identification with the plight of the wretched. And in so far as poetry is an extension and refinement of the mind's extreme recognitions, and of language's most unexpected apprehensions, it too manifests the workings of Weil's law.
'Obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin.' So Simone Weil also writes in Gravity and Grace. Indeed her whole book is informed by the idea of counterweighting, of balancing out the forces, of redress - tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium. And in the activity of poetry too, there is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales - a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical situation. This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances. And sometimes, of course, it happens that such a revelation, once enshrined in the poem, remains as a standard for the poet, so that he or she must then submit to the strain of bearing witness in his or her own life to the plane of consciousness established in the poem.
In this century, especially, from Wilfred Owen to Irina Ratushinskaya, there have been many poets who from principle, in solitude, and without any guarantee of success, were drawn by the logic of their work to disobey the force of gravity. These figures have become the types of an action that gains value in proportion to its immediate practical ineffectiveness. In their case, the espousal of that which critics used to call 'vision' or 'moral commitment' grew exorbitant and carried them beyond the charmed circle of artistic space and further, beyond domestic privacy, social conformity, and minimal ethical expectation, into the solitary role of the witness. Characteristically, figures of such spiritual stamina incline to understate the heroic aspect of their achievement and insist upon the strictly artistic discipline at the heart of their vocation. Yet the fact remains that for the writers I have mentioned, and others like them- Osip Mandelstam and Czeslaw Milosz, for instance - the redress of poetry comes to represent something like an exercise of the virtue of hope as it is understood by Vaclav Havel. Indeed, what Havel has to say about hope can also be said about poetry: it is a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation . . . It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don't think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favourable signs in the world. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
Of course, when a contemporary lifts a pen or gazes into the dead-pan cloudiness of a word processor, considerations like these are well in the background. When Douglas Dunn sits down at his desk with its view above the Tay Estuary or Anne Stevenson sees one of her chosen landscapes flash upon her inward eye, neither is immediately haunted by the big questions of poetics. All these accumulated pressures and issues are felt as an abiding anxiety but they do not enter as guiding factors within the writing process itself. The movement is from delight to wisdom and not vice versa. The felicity of a cadence, the chain reaction of a rhyme, the pleasuring of an etymology, such things can proceed happily and as it were autistically, in an area of mental operations cordoned off by and from the critical sense. Indeed, if one recalls W. H. Auden's famous trinity of poetic faculties - making, judging, and knowing - the making faculty seems in this light to have a kind of free pass that enables it to range beyond the jurisdiction of the other two.
It is only right that this should be the case. Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world. To put it in W. B. Yeats's terms, the will must not usurp the work of the imagination. And while this may seem something of a truism, it is nevertheless worth repeating in a late-twentieth-century context of politically approved themes, post-colonial backlash and 'silence-breaking' writing of all kinds. In these circumstances, poetry is understandably pressed to give voice to much that has hitherto been denied expression in the ethnic, social, sexual and political life. Which is to say that its power as a mode of redress in the first sense - as agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices - is being appealed to constantly. But in discharging this function, poets are in danger of slighting another imperative, namely, to redress poetry as poetry, to set it up as its own category, an eminence established and a pressure exercised by distinctly linguistic means.
Not that it is not possible to have a poetry which consciously seeks to promote cultural and political change and yet can still manage to operate with the fullest artistic integrity. The history of Irish poetry over the last 150 years is in itself sufficient demonstration that a motive for poetry can be grounded to a greater or lesser degree in programmes with a national purpose. Obviously, patriotic or propagandist intent is far from being a guarantee of poetic success, but in emergent cultures the struggle of an individual consciousness towards affirmation and distinctness may be analogous, if not coterminous, with a collective straining towards self-definition; there is a mutual susceptibility between the formation of a new tradition and the self-fashioning of individual talent. Yeats, for example, began with a desire 'to write short lyrics or poetic drama where every speech would be short and concentrated', but, typically, he endowed this personal stylistic ambition with national significance by relating it to 'an Irish preference for a swift current' and contrasting it with 'the English mind ... meditative, rich, deliberate', which 'may remember the Thames valley'.
At such moments of redefinition, however, there are complicating factors at work. What is involved, after all, is the replacement of ideas of literary excellence derived from modes of expression originally taken to be canonical and unquestionable. Writers have to start out as readers, and before they put pen to paper, even the most disaffected of them will have internalized the norms and forms of the tradition from which they wish to secede. Whether they are feminists rebelling against the patriarchy of language or nativists in full cry with the local accents of their vernacular, whether they write Anglo-Irish or Afro-English or Lallans, writers of what has been called 'nation language' will have been wrong-footed by the fact that their own literary formation was based upon models of excellence taken from the English language and its literature. They will have been predisposed to accommodate themselves to the consciousness which subjugated them. Naturally, black poets from Trinidad or Lagos and working-class writers from Newcastle or Glasgow will be found arguing that their education in Shakespeare or Keats was little more than an exercise in alienating them from their authentic experience, devalorizing their vernacular and destabilizing their instinctual at-homeness in their own non-textual worlds: but the truth of that argument should not obliterate other truths about language and self-valorization which I shall come to presently.
In any movement towards liberation, it will be necessary to deny the normative authority of the dominant language or literary tradition. At a special moment in the Irish Literary Revival, this was precisely the course adopted by Thomas MacDonagh, Professor of English at the Royal University in Dublin, whose book on Literature in Ireland was published in 1916, the very year he was executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. With more seismic consequences, it was also the course adopted by James Joyce. But MacDonagh knew the intricacies and delicacies of the English lyric inheritance which he was calling into question, to the extent of having written a book on the metrics of Thomas Campion. And Joyce, for all his hauteur about the British Empire and the English novel, was helpless to resist the appeal of, for example, the songs and airs of the Elizabethans. Neither MacDonagh nor Joyce considered it necessary to proscribe within his reader's memory the riches of the Anglophone culture whose authority each was, in his own way, compelled to challenge. Neither denied his susceptibility to the totally persuasive word in order to prove the purity of his resistance to an imperial hegemony. Which is why both these figures are instructive when we come to consider the scope and function of poetry in the world. They remind us that its integrity is not to be impugned just because at any given moment it happens to be a refraction of some discredited cultural or political system.
Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated. The Divine Comedy is a great example of this kind of total adequacy, but a haiku may also constitute a satisfactory comeback by the mind to the facts of the matter. As long as the coordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world that we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function. It becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way. In fact, to read poetry of this totally adequate kind is to experience something bracing and memorable, something capable of increasing in value over the whole course of a lifetime.
There is nothing exaggerated about such a claim. Jorge Luis Borges, for example, makes a similar point about what happens between the poem and the reader:
The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on pages of a book. What is essential is . . . the thrill, the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading.
Borges goes on to be more precise about the nature of that thrill or 'physical emotion' and suggests that it fulfils the continual need we experience to 'recover a past or prefigure a future' - a formulation, incidentally, which has a suggestive truth at the communal as well as at the personal level.
The issue is clarified further if we go back to Borges's first book of poems, and his note of introduction:
If in the following pages there is some successful verse or other, may the reader forgive me the audacity of having written it before him. We are all one; our inconsequential minds are much alike, and circumstances so influence us that it is something of an accident that you are the reader and I the writer - the unsure, ardent writer - of my verses.
Disingenuous as this may be, it nevertheless touches on something so common that it is in danger of being ignored. Borges is talking about the fluid, exhilarating moment which lies at the heart of any memorable reading, the undisappointed joy of finding that everything holds up and answers the desire that it awakens. At such moments, the delight of having all one's faculties simultaneously provoked and gratified is like gaining an upper hand over all that is contingent and (as Borges says) 'inconsequential'. There is a sensation both of arrival and of prospect, so that one does indeed seem to 'recover a past' and 'prefigure a future', and thereby to complete the circle of one's being. When this happens, we have a distinct sensation that (to borrow a phrase from George Seferis's notebooks) poetry is 'strong enough to help'; it is then that its redress grows palpable.
I would like to spend the rest of the available time in celebrating one such undisappointing poet. For three centuries and more, George Herbert exemplified the body heat of a healthy Anglican life. John Donne might be permitted his fever and chills, Henry Vaughan indulged for his Welsh mysticism, and Richard Crashaw condoned in spite of a torrid Catholicism; but George Herbert's daylight sanity and vigour, his via media between preciousness and vulgarity, promoted the ideal mental and emotional climate.
This may be a misrepresentation of the Herbert known to scholars and specialized readers, the poet whose 'tickle points of wit' were in fact subtle addresses to Calvinist divergences of doctrine within the Church of England, but I do not think it misrepresents the general impression of him which a sympathetic literate audience carries around. Herbert's work, moreover - so essential to the tradition of English lyric, so domiciled within a native culture and voice, so conscripted as a manifestation of the desirable English temperament - was long understood to embody the civilities and beliefs which England, through the operations of its colonial power, sought to impose upon other peoples. But in the end, my point has to be this: even the most imposed-upon colonial will discern in the clear element of Herbert's poetry a true paradigm of the shape of things, psychologically, politically, metaphorically and, if one wants to proceed that far, metaphysically. Even here, between marginalized reader and privileged poet, the Borgesian circularity applies. Herbert's work, in other words, is an example of that fully realized poetry I have attempted to define, a poetry where the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our own experience.
His poems are wise and witty transformations of the ups and downs of his pulley-like sympathies. His w:t, indeed, is as integral to his world view as his religious faith. All the antitheses which exercised him and upon which he exercised his mind - creator/creature, heaven/earth, soul/body, eternity/time, life/ death, Christ/man, grace/guilt, virtue/sin, divine love/courtly love - all these antitheses were commonly available through the cosmology and theology of the Church of England in the early seventeenth century, and the drama of Herbert's poems is played out wholly in terms of the Christian story and liturgy. But such antithetical pairings are experienced more immediately as emotional dilemmas than as doctrinal cruces: they are functions of the poet's mind as it moves across the frontier of writing, out of homiletics and apologetics into poetry, upon the impulses and reflexes of awakened language. At an elementary level, some grasp of the poems' basic conceptual and theological machinery is, of course, necessary, but what Borges calls 'the almost physical emotion that comes with each reading' derives from the superfluity of the poems' language-life and their structural animation. What might be called the DNA pattern of Herbert's imagination is fundamentally a matter of up-down, criss-cross motion, reversals effected with such symmetry that they are experienced as culminations, tensions so thoroughly exercised and traced home that they return the system to relaxation, dialogues so sinuous that they end with speakers ready to start again, sometimes from diametrically opposed premises. The wonder is that poems which seem so perfectly set to become perpetual-motion machines can find ways of closure and escape from their own unfaltering kinesis.
It is tempting to use the word 'balance' here, but to use it too soon would preclude sufficient acknowledgement of the volatile aspect of the Herbertian scales, the fluidity of all about the fulcrum, and the sensitivity of the arms to leverage by wit or wisdom equally. In fact, wit/wisdom may turn out to be the central antithesis, because it is in the delights of Herbert's witty making that the gravity of his judging and knowing works itself in - and then works itself out. At its best, this play of mind is heuristic. It may have illustrative force in relation to the truths of religion, but it is also doing the work of art: personal force is being moved through an aesthetic distance, and in a space where anything can happen the longed-for may occur by way of the unforeseen, or may be balked by the limitations of the usual.
In Herbert's 'The Pulley', for example, a pun on the word 'rest' is executed in slow motion. As in the operation of a pulley, one of the word's semantic loads - 'rest' in the sense of repose - is gradually let down, but as it reaches the limit of its descent into the reader's understanding, another meaning 'rest' in the sense of 'remainder' or 'left-over' - begins to rise. At the end, equilibrium has been restored to the system, both by the argument and by the rhythm and rhyme, as 'rest' and 'breast' come together in a gratifying closure. But as with any pulley system, the moment of equilibrium is tentative and capable of a renewed dynamism. The poem can be read as a mimetic rendering of any pulley-like exchange of forces, but equally it presents itself as an allegory of the relationship between humanity and the Godhead, a humanity whose hearts, in St Augustine's phrase, 'are restless till they rest in Thee'.
Perhaps this poem does not immediately strike us as what has been called 'big-league poetry'. Its pitch is low, it proceeds about its business without histrionics, and the sureness of its progress invests it with an underplayed self-containment. It is, in fact, a little more sober than many of Herbert's poems. Nowhere does it evince the catch in the breath that occurs with happy frequency elsewhere in his work. It does not have those surprising local effects of lyric joy which remind us how available this poet once felt himself to be to a more erotic genre, how capable he would have been of a delicious squandering had he not made sacred poetry his whole vocation. But if 'The Pulley' is subdued to its demure purpose, it still generates that compensatory pressure which all realized works exert against the surrounding inconsequentiality. In its unforced way, it does contain within itself the co-ordinates and contradictions of experience, and would be as comprehensible within the cosmology of Yin and Yang as it is amenable to the dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
Herbert's most celebrated poem, 'The Collar', illustrates much more dramatically than 'The Pulley' all that I have been claiming for him. The dance of lexical possibilities in the title; the way in which the poem changes partners with the meanings of 'collar', as an article of clerical clothing and a fit of anger; the reversal of emotional states from affront to assuagement; the technical relish of postponing stanzaic composure until the last four lines - it is all as Seferis wants poetry to be, 'strong enough', and can be hung out on the imaginative arm of the balance to take the strain of our knowledge of things as they are:
This poem has a wonderful logical and psychological self-sufficiency. It is so formally replete that it tempts me to quote from Wallace Stevens again: 'a poet's words are of things that do not exist without the words.' And yet 'The Collar' has an applicability beyond its own vivid occasion, and could be read at certain historical moments as a way of comprehending ironies and reversals more extensive than the personal crisis which it records. Which is to say that as a form of art it does relate very definitely to our existence as citizens of society. When the terrorists sit down at the negotiating-table, when the newly independent state enters history still being administered by the old colonial civil service, then the reversal which the poem traces is merely being projected upon a more extensive and populous screen.
This is why references to Herbert's simplicity can often come across as too simple themselves. His poems, of course, exhibit an attractive forthrightness; his articulation has an exhilarating clarity about it and gives the reader the airy sensation of invigilating from a superior plane. But neither the lucidity of presentation nor the even tenor of voice should diminish our respect for the tried quality of Herbert's intelligence. Even that immaculate ballet of courtesy and equilibrium in 'Love III' represents a grounded strength as well as a perfect tact. This country parson may not have gone to the Gulag for his faith, but he possesses a sort of Russian down-to-earthness, a readiness that would not be found wanting:
The OED has four entries for 'redress' as a noun, and I began by calling upon the first sense which it provides: 'Reparation of, satisfaction or compensation for, a wrong sustained or the loss resulting from this.' For 'redress' as a verb the dictionary gives fifteen separate entries, all of them subdivided two or three times, and almost all of the usages noted as obsolete. I have also taken account of the first of these obsolete meanings, which is given as, 'To set (a person or a thing) upright again; to raise again to an erect position. Also fig. to set up again, restore, re-establish.'
But in following these rather sober extensions of the word, in considering poetry's possible service to programmes of cultural and political realignment, or in reaffirming poetry as an upright, resistant, and self-bracing entity within the general flux and flex of language, I don't want to give the impression that its force must always be exercised in earnest, morally premeditated ways. On the contrary, I want to profess the surprise of poetry as well as its reliability; I want to celebrate its given, unforeseeable thereness, the way it enters our field of vision and animates our physical and intelligent being in much the same way as those bird-shapes stencilled on the transparent surfaces of glass walls or windows must suddenly enter the vision and change the direction of the real birds' flight. In a flash the shapes register and transmit their unmistakable presence, so the birds veer off instinctively. An image of the living creatures has induced a totally salubrious swerve in the creatures themselves. And this natural, heady diversion is also something induced by poetry and reminds me of a further (obsolete) meaning of 'redress', with which I would conclude, a meaning which comes in entry four of the verb, subsection (b): 'Hunting. To bring back (the hounds or deer) to the proper course.' In this 'redress' there is no hint of ethical obligation; it is more a matter of finding a course for the breakaway of innate capacity, a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential.
Herbert, for all his inclination to hold to the via media - at the line between exhaustion and unappeasability - provides us constantly with those unforeseen images and stanzas that send our reader's mind sweeping and veering away in delighted reflex: straining towards felicity - which we get in the 'window-songs' line of 'Dullness', for example - is a sine qua non of lyric power:
Such an apostrophe, from his poem 'The Forerunners', is surely just the kind of apostrophe we would like poetry to call from us. That impulsive straining towards felicity - which we get in the 'window-songs' line of 'Dullness', for example - is a sine qua non of lyric power:
|The Redress of Poetry||1|
|Extending the Alphabet: On Christopher Marlowe's 'Hero and Leander'||17|
|Orpheus in Ireland: On Brian Merriman's The Midnight Court||38|
|John Clare's Prog||63|
|Speranza in Reading: On 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'||83|
|A Torchlight Procession of One: On Hugh MacDiarmid||103|
|Dylan the Durable?: On Dylan Thomas||124|
|Joy or Night: Last Things in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and Philip Larkin||146|
|Counting to a Hundred: On Elizabeth Bishop||164|
|Frontiers of Writing||186|