The good of poetry has come to be an article of faith, not just in poetry’s commercial promotion (which is perhaps fair enough), but in the messages sent to a reading world by many poets themselves. In his introductory remarks to Finders Keepers, a generous and valuable selection from thirty years of his own critical writings, Seamus Heaney speaks of how his essays are mostly “appreciations, reports on the good of poetry itself”, and goes on to acknowledge that they “are also, of course, testimonies to the fact that poets themselves are finders and keepers, that their vocation is to look after art and life by being discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for”.
Heaney’s “of course” speaks much of redress. It is interesting that an announcement like this of the poet’s vocation to “look after” us at the same time as - indeed in the very act of - looking after art, can be passed off as a matter of course. The “of course” is perfectly justifiable though, since Heaney is voicing a matter that is at present one of genuine consensus. For many of us, the goodness of and in poetry reflects on the society in which it is appreciated, and validates those best instincts which in all our areas of concern - the personal, the cultural, and even the political - we tell ourselves that we share. In this scenario, the poet-critic becomes a wise family doctor who prescribes the artistic medicines and pick-me-ups to keep us all in good shape.
Like any consensus, this is comforting. Yet there are good grounds for being a little suspicious of the authority on which the ministrations of many poet-critics are based. At one extreme, the poet-critic might use his or her eminence to whisper to academic audiences the sweet nothings that convert wilful obscurity, or scholarly waywardness, into the winningly idiosyncratic and whacky, tickling the jaded palates of a professional elite. At the other extreme, the spectacle of a media poet-pundit calling for unmetaphorical blood to be shed in the
Middle East in order to satisfy his own hatred of Zionists might give us pause in considering the large-scale good that poetry can do. Of course, Heaney’s relentlessly positive and affirming attitude to “life” (like his attitude to “art”) makes such extremes in his own case unimaginable; but his notions of the poet’s authority, and the poet’s entitlement to speak on the realities that make up our common life, are by now articles of faith for a culture that rewards, as a matter of course, celebrity with authority.
But we have all taken too much on trust the easy job-share which that hyphen in “poet-critic” effortlessly implies, as though the two parts of a complicated function worked obviously and naturally in accord, and one part simply cross-subsidized the other. This element of trust is where issues of authority reside whenever we encounter someone who writes poetry telling us about what poetry is: he or she has earned our trust, the assumption goes, and we should listen carefully to what they have to say. To pay attention to poets’ criticism, then, is a way of assenting to, and respecting, what Heaney calls their “vocation”. As with any matter of deep religious faith, there is little point in attempting to argue with this; but we might remember, all the same, what W. H. Auden (himself a busy critic) had to say about the whole enterprise, when he wrote in 1956 of how “I am always interested in hearing what a poet has to say about the nature of poetry, though I do not take it too seriously”, and hardly spared himself in following this up:
As objective statements his definitions are never accurate, never complete and always one-sided. Not one would stand up under a rigorous analysis. In unkind moments one is almost tempted to think that all they are really saying is: “Read me. Don’t read the other fellows”.
Perhaps, though, this is less self-castigating than it sounds. There is a subtle, but altogether persuasive connection being established here between critical rigour and unkindness; and just as Auden’s winning candour effectively gets the rigorous analysts off his case, so Heaney’s gift for the humane and life- affirming makes critical disagreement with him both difficult and distasteful.
For Heaney, the poet’s vocation conditions his criticism, and speaks for its ultimate authority. In a fascinating essay on T.S. Eliot (collected here for the first time), Heaney writes of how “poetic vocation entails the disciplining of a habit of expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of a life”. While Heaney characteristically underestimates the extent of Eliot’s doubt on the matter of his own poetic vocation, the confidence of this connection between expression and the conduct of a life is impressively and persuasively voiced. There are no reasons for doubting that fine poets like Heaney - and other excellent poets before him - have felt a sense of “vocation”; at the same time, mediocre poets have also professed to have such a sense, and it has been far from unknown amongst the downright bad poets of all ages. “Vocation” is not enough in itself: for many are called, but few are chosen.
It is at this point, the point of comparison and evaluation in the reader’s exercise of judgement, that the critical function comes into play, and here Heaney is both an excellent guide and practitioner. Finders Keepers reprints a number of critical essays which 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. Even so, the worth of this criticism is sometimes confused with its attitude, with its impeccable manners and ability to work the cultural room, and Heaney himself is not always able to prevent his admiration for writers shading in to a mode of proprietorial congratulation; in this sense, the constant juxtaposition of reminiscence and personal reflection with critical assessment is not always to Heaney’s advantage.
It would be hard, though, to call any of the autobiographical elements in Heaney’s prose idiosyncratic or distracting. On the contrary, these stretches (which may account for whole essays, or which may introduce or conclude a critical discussion) seem brilliantly of a piece with the tone of address overall, and offer scores of connections with Heaney’s own poetry, assuring us that the critical and the creative functions of this mind are moving in step, and towards some wholeness of aesthetic perception and activity. In terms of rhetorical effect, Heaney’s technique is a triumph.
While this achievement encourages other poet-critics, it does not necessarily vindicate their efforts. One secret of Heaney’s success is the relatively conservative nature of what he has to say, and the safely canonical area in which he chooses to operate. Situating himself rhetorically above the academic fray, Heaney can afford to wear his learning lightly, while voicing critical views that have weight and consequence in the academic/critical world. And, just occasionally, we can make out the sound of points being scored in the academic power-play, as when Heaney (in 1991) affirms that “Poets are more likely to attest without self-consciousness to the living nature of poetic tradition and to the demotic life of ‘the canon’”, and laments that “Nowadays, undergraduates are being taught prematurely to regard the poetic heritage as an oppressive imposition”. This taught “suspicion”, Heaney continues, is “destructive of cultural memory when it is induced in minds without any cultural possessions whatever”. It is when “a poet quotes from memory or from prejudice or in sheer admiration”, he concludes, that “‘the canon’ is manifested in an educationally meaningful way”. These sentiments (which are both correct and necessary) are coming from a poet, but also - and perhaps more meaningfully - from an Ivy League Professor.
Culture, Personality and Criticism
“Cultural memory” is where criticism, like poetry, has its true business. Yet the term itself is snared in difficulties and complications. What is unfortunate in Heaney, and distressing in some poet-critics who take his success as their example, is the failure to understand that an artist’s sense of authority, and the authority residing in our common memory and culture, are not the same thing. Audiences, in this respect, have a lot to answer for: Heaney writes, for example, of their “desire to have the worth and meaning of the art confirmed” when the poet, reciting or lecturing, stands before them. There is a glitzy confusion here, which affects more poets than Heaney. It is as though a rapt audience adores through its hero the art of poetry itself, binding listeners and performer into a common identity. The celebrations here are also implicitly matters of mutual congratulation. If the true critic seldom feels this, there are good reasons why he or she cannot feel it, and cannot let it condition or influence the work in hand. And, in this case at least, it is the critics who are in the right, and the poets who are dazzled by the occasion, and misled into mistaking the authority of acclamation for the authority in culture.
“Culture” is, of course, a much fought-over word, and we use it in the singular here with a degree of deliberateness. However, culture means nothing without criticism: a series of celebrity-endorsed poets and poems does not add up to a culture, and the replacement of poetry’s slow complexity of meaning and effect with a set of easy-access soundbites and pre-fabricated evaluations does not constitute criticism. Here, the poets who attempt to peddle their “personality” are parts of the problem: this holds good for the determinedly idiosyncratic as much as for the in-your-face epigrammatists, who offer two kinds of stand-up routine in which a facile cleverness does duty for thought. Too often, media-weight is the measure of authority. Of course, critical authority can and does exist; but it comes from careful judgement, engaged analysis, and reasoned argument. The language needed for that kind of authority is clear and precise; while it may sometimes be difficult, it must always be accountable to the world in which it is read, without resort to any kind of special pleading. No allowances need be made. In part, though, it is Heaney’s drive towards a wholeness of personal and cultural memory, critical and creative engagement, which helps to underwrite the cultural amnesia he properly condemns.
Literature, though necessarily a private pleasure, is not ultimately “personal”. Good criticism operates on this understanding, and on the good faith that language can be thought about, and thought twice about, without such thinking being overpowered by the force of anyone’s personality. And this takes time, for patience is the first critical virtue. If it takes a lifetime to appreciate Wordsworth or Milton, let it: so much the better. But that lifetime must be our own, not someone else’s; other people’s memories of literary experience, like second-hand interpretations, cannot replace or override the real thing. Our interest in poets’ criticism ought to be a critical interest, and not an aspect of our veneration for the poets concerned.
All of this must sound both stern and sour, and it would be difficult, to convince many readers that these reflections stem from what is actually an admiration for Heaney’s prose. At his best, Heaney reads himself and others with an utterly persuasive clarity, and expresses his own gratitude to both art and life with an old-fashioned delicacy and grace: the best of this criticism is, in the best sense, indeed good for us. Yet there is a sense in which Heaney only gives us the good news about literature, and this is the prose of a man whom the audience always applauds, and for whom the uncertainties, contradictions, difficulties, and ambiguities of language and memory are always going to be reassuringly resolved in the end. Such a resolution - which may indeed be a necessity for the poet in Heaney - sometimes tells fibs to the critic, for whom the audience’s applause seems to constitute a further confirmation of integrity and vocation. These “appreciations”, in other words, seem often to bask in the knowledge of their own appreciation. However we admire the performance, it is less critical exertion and all-out struggle than it is a relaxed lap of honour. At a time when too many poets are poet-critics, and when even the most modestly gifted feel obliged to possess a personal ars poetica, there are good reasons for refusing to take Heaney as an example.