Ever since Plato, poets have been a victim of the allegation that poetry is a useless thing and that it does not have anything to offer. And poets have always been trying to defend themselves. It is probably Heaney who has defended poetry the best. He starts with the argument that a Heckler might question about the use of poetry but might not have a thorough reading of poetry. He would have his allegations based merely upon the little reading he might have had in his lifetime. He might say that politics, science and other fields of knowledge have contributed towards the development of mankind but poetry has not served mankind at all, as poetry is something associated only with imagination and poets are the imaginative people who do not have anything concrete to offer.
To answer these charges, Heaney proposes a number of advantages of poetry. First of all, poetry has a redressing effect. It renders hope to its readers by saying “it is a state of mind not the state of the world.” Secondly, a poet sees the society and finds out the reasons of disturbance in the equilibrium in a society. He is the one who not only recognizes the source of disturbance but also adds weight to the lighter scale to restore the equilibrium. Similarly, poetry gives an outlet to the powerful emotions of the poet as well as the reader and hence protects them from“violence without”.
Heaney also answers the question why we do not enjoy poetry. He says that we enjoy poetry only when our experience coincides with the experience of the poet. As “the taste of apple does not lie in the fruit itself but in its contact with the palate”.
The first poem quoted in full in this book is George Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’; the last is one of Heaney himself, a twelve-line section from a sequence called ‘Squarings’. The ‘Squarings’ poem tells the story of an apparition experienced by the monastic community in Clonmacnoisie sometime during the Middle Ages: a crewman came down to them out of a visionary boat in the sky but could not stay and had to be helped back out of the human element because, as the abbot perceived, he would have drowned in it if he had remained. ‘The Pulley’ is a parable about God devising a way to keep the minds and aspirations of human beings turned towards the heavenly in spite of all the pleasures and penalties of being upon earth. Both poems are about the way consciousness can be alive to two different and contradictory dimensions of reality and still find a way of negotiating between them, but I did not notice this correspondence between their thematic and imaginative concerns until the whole book had been assembled in manuscript.