Sunday, December 5, 2010

Heaney as a Non-Political Poet

Heaney is a non-political poet. He, like Keats, is a pure poet who believes in art for the sake of art, poetry for the sake of poetry. He is committed to poetry. No doubt Heaney’s poems, like The Tollund Man, Wedding Day and A Constable Calls, are political poems but Heaney claims that there is no politics in them. Heaney believes that poetry and politics are two different subjects and they should remain separate.

Heaney agrees with Joseph Brodsky that the only thing poetry and politics have in common “are the letters P and O”. He also believes that one should be aware of the things going around him, especially when there is a big massacre, and that he must play his part as much as he can. But he wants not to be a heckler. In his famous essay, The Redress of Poetry, he charged the heckler for making poetry a device for bringing revolution. This creates confusion in understanding Heaney with two approaches—on the one side he believes that art is important, and on the other side he believes that life is also important. But he has resolved this problem and has made politics a subject for poetry by making a myth of the archetypal pattern. Here, in the selected poems of Heaney, we find an attempted reconciliation between poetry and politics.
Heaney belongs to Ireland and Ireland has been suffering from the worst effects of politics. He has a deep attachment to his country. He cannot bear the violence and cruelty from which his people have been suffering for centuries. He, actually, wants to share their hopes, worries and frustrations. Heaney cannot ignore the grim realities of life. This has created a sense of guilt and an oppressive fear in Heaney and it is very much visible in his poetry.
In The Tollund Man, Wedding Day, A Constable Calls, The Toome Road, Personal Helicon and Casting and Gathering, we find Heaney both as a poet and as a citizen of Ireland, who has great compassion for the Irish people. In these poems, which are known as bog-poems, he discusses the questions—whether one should be committed to poetry or to life? Is life more important or art? Is life more important or poetry? In these poems he seems to know his role in this human tragedy. As a poet, he feels himself guilty because a number of people, including his own relatives are dying and he is doing poetry. It seems difficult for Heaney to remain detached with this dilemma. This was the complexity and conflict in the mind of Heaney. He finds it very hard to reconcile the two contradictory approaches.
He goes to another approach which is the approach of compromise. His compromise is to find some aesthetic approach to politics. He believes in the aesthetics of politics, not in the violence of politics. He wants to rise above party-politics.
In Easter 1916, W. B. Yeats mourns the death of the Irish people, but at the same time he is equally sorry for the young men who were soldiers in the English army as he says:
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part.
This is what Heaney wants to do. The poet must feel for all humanity. He resolves this problem by creating a myth. The myth is that strife and violence are the pattern of life. They are inevitable. No body can stop them, but through the message of love and peace, the poet can provide some consolation, some redress. It means that the poet is only a mourner.
In the poem The Tollund Man, he has made politics a subject of poetry by creating a myth. Heaney takes the title of this poem from Glob’s book about the archaeological excavations in Jutland, a marshy land in Denmark. One head, which was found separated from the body, had been kept in a museum, called Aarhus. And the sacrificed man was given the name of Tollund Man.
It was thought that the Tollund man was sacrificed to the goddess of land, the mother goddess. Heaney sees this sacrifice in the archetypal pattern which he applies to Ireland. Heaney thinks that it is the destiny of man that he has to sacrifice for the prosperity of the land.
She tightened her tore on him
And opened her fen.
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,
This has been going on since the dawn of human life on the earth. This is Heaney’s stoicism. Thus to talk of destiny, to talk of myth, or of the archetype does not mean to talk of politics. This is how Heaney turns a political situation into a mythical situation. This is what he means by the aesthetics of politics, that politics becomes a part of the emotional being of man. This is how Heaney reconciles a personal contradiction, a contradiction between politics and poetry, between life and art.
In this way, Heaney reconciles poetry and politics without making poetry a subservient to of politics. Heaney says:
The Tollund Man seems to me like an ancestral, almost one of old uncles, one of those moustached archaic faces you used to meet all over the Irish countryside.
The poem shows a humanitarian zeal on the part of Heaney. He sympathises the Irish sacrificing class in an anti-political style. By quoting the reference of the Tollund man, he makes way for bringing politics into poetry.
Wedding Day is also a bog poem. It is a much more political poem, but Heaney claims that there is no politics in the poem. The poet, symbolically, considers Ireland as a bog country. By this, Heaney means, the sacrifices of the common Irish people in the bog of civil war. The whole country has become a bog, because there seems to be no escape from sacrifices. People, willingly or unwillingly, have to give sacrifices. But in this process of sacrifice, Heaney sees redress of miseries; he seeks consolation in these sacrifices. He thinks that it is the only answer to the miseries of life.
There had been two distinct attitudes towards the miseries of life in the time of Heaney. One group believed that misery is an essential part of life, and that miseries were man’s destiny. This is a pessimistic approach and the conservatives believe in this concept. The conservatives believe that man is helpless before the odd circumstances he faces. It is a negative approach. The other group says that miseries are not his destiny, and that man has the power to overcome his difficulties. These are, actually, progressive or socialist people, who have confidence in themselves. Heaney was caught in the mire of the ideological war.
Similarly in modern literature, we find two distinct approaches in relation to poetry. Some people, like conservative writers, think that it is not the job of poets and poetry to interfere in politics. They believe that poetry has nothing to do with the realities and complexities of life. The poet can just preach love, sympathy and humanity. But there are other people, who believe in the power of man. They are much more concerned with life. O’Neill, Hemingway, G.B. Shaw, Lorca and Arthur Miller fall in this category. It is a group of what we call progressives. They believe that man must find out the faults, committed by men, responsible for his miseries, and that he must try to remove these faults as far as he can.
They want to root out the problems disturbing the natural phenomenon of life. O’Neill finds that Puritanism causes a misapplication of the religious beliefs, which have made life difficult to live. Man must try to fight them, rather than cry over them and feel consolation in crying. To cry over the miseries of life is not redress or consolation. It is false consolation, which is destructive. There must be a constructive approach to life. This is what the progressives do. They expose the foibles, mistakes, follies and faults of men so that these can be removed. The reason for this is that they want to make progress and they want to make life progressive and prosperous as well. They cannot be silent in the face of the miseries and cruelties created by the wrong people of the society, as the conservatives do. The protest should be positive, like the one made by the protagonists of Arthur Miller.
John Proctor, the hero of Miller’s the Crucible, protests to solve the problem of coercion. In this play, he has shown a mirror to the establishment of the USA that what they are and what they are doing and, no doubt, he has been very successful as far as his protest is concerned.
So the concept the bog-poems, The Tollund Man and Wedding Day give is that Heaney by nature is a pure poet but he has feelings and sympathies for the Irish people who are being killed ruthlessly. So, Heaney accepts both the realities, i.e., one must be committed to art, but he must also think for life, because one cannot remain indifferent when atrocities and sufferings are going up all the time. He must write of the cruelties of the state which is a political matter. But Heaney has done it in a detached manner. The impact of politics on the psyche of the common man is the subject of his poems. The poet has tried to project the mental state of the Irish people who live in a perpetual state of fear and terror. The Blacks of South Africa also used to live under this state of terror and they were questioned when they sometimes occupied a room, seat or place, reserved for the Whites. Harry Bloom writes in Transvall Episode:
Any knock at the door might be that of a policeman; any day might be the one when a husband fails to come from the work and is found to be in a jail, arrested for any regularity....
This is the kind of fear in which the Catholics of Ireland have been living. The main Ireland got freedom in 1922 and it became a Republic, but that part of Ireland which was attached to the Main land England, and is called Ulster, remained under British control. The majority of the Irish are Roman Catholics whereas the English are Protestants. Ulster is the home of the Irish people but it has been largely occupied by settlers from England and Scotland. England has dominated the economy of Ulster and even distorted its culture. Thus, the Irish felt very sore about it. There have been continuous clashes between the Catholics and the Protestants. In this way, the Catholic or the Irish majority have been reduced to a minority in their own country. W. B. Yeats, a renowned Irish poet, also wrote a poem Easter 1916 about the killing of the Irish Catholics.
So in “The Tolland man”, Heaney recalls an incident in which bodies of four young Catholics, murdered by Protestant militants, were dragged along a railway line in an act of mutilation.
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
In ‘A Constable Calls’ we find the subjectivity of the poet as he discusses the untold miseries of the Irish Catholics, created by the English Protestants.
Heating in sunlight, the ‘spud’
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.
The Toome Road has also some political strains in it but the poet, as usually, doesn’t discuss it in a political manner. He talks about the threat of state teirorism. The poem shows a sense of state of war. The army has occupied the country and the citizens are living in a state of scariness and fear.
How long were they approaching down my roads As if they owned them?
The citizens are very much depressed by seeing the armoured forces entering their country, cities, houses and fields. There is no one to whom these citizens may complain. As Heaney says:
It stands here still, stands vibrant as you pass
The invisible, untopppled omphalos
So, in his poems Heaney discusses the political strains but in a non-political way because he firmly believes that it is not the function of poetry to change the circumstances prevailing in a country. Poetry, according to Heaney, can just tell the way and one can follow it. It is not the duty of a poet to fight against terrorism and it is not the job of poet to find out the causes of oppression; what the poet can do is that he may make us feel the distinction between the good and the bad. This is what Heaney means when he says in his essay The Redress of Poetry that poetry is only the state of the mind. It should have no concern with the state of the world. That is what he says in his poem ‘Personal Heliconthat inspiration is the echo of consciousness of soul and it has nothing to do with the circumstances or surroundings. A poet gets inspiration from his soul and not from the things around him.
So it is correct that Heaney writes about politics yet there is no politics in his poetry. He has made politics a subject for poetry in an emphatic way. Heaney is just giving the poetry of these traumatic experiences. He, in fact, wants to redress the people through his art without becoming a heckler. He finds a middle way between the two extremes, between the idealist and the escapist. He uses the myth for bringing politics into poetry. Heaney’s approach is the approach of compromise. Heaney’s compromise is to find some aesthetic approach to politics, in the aesthetics of politics, not in the violence of politics.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!