Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seamus Heaney discusses the concept of poetry from a number of angels, discuss.

The essays in The Redress of Poetry have more cumulative force than individual character. Though seldom striking in themselves, they are convincing in their belief that poetic invention “represents not a submission to the conditions of [the] world but a creative victory over them.” If Heaney does not have the original prose voice of Auden or Eliot, he has maintained for English poetry a responsive, gratified and radical ear.  Redress of Poetry exhibits a number of themes, critical concerns and stylistic prose bytes. To achieve this, Heaney also also used many intertexual references.
For example, he refers to Herbert.  Herbert is an unexpected model, coming from the man who, more than anyone, speaks for civilization and decency in contemporary Ulster, a more polemicized hero seems to be in order. But Heaney has always had a bittersweet relationship to his community. In 1975, he made an early appearance on the international stage with his poem “Punishment.” This was around the time that the IRA began tarring and feathering Catholic women who dated British soldiers. Heaney compared those women’s bodies to that of a neolithic adulteress who had been stoned to death and dumped in a bog. He concludes:
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you but would have cast, I know, the stones of silence. I am the artful voyeur of your brain’s exposed
This is a far cry from Herbert’s clever machinations on Anglican theology. The choice of Herbert as a model is also a flagrant defiance of the poet with whom Heaney is too often compared: W.B. Yeats. (It takes Heaney five pages to use the Anglo-Irishman’s name.) This is understandable: enormous difference stands between the photographic mind that captured “Punishment” and the misty painter’s eyes that looked into Victorian medievalism and saw a Celtic Revival. We shall see whether Heaney can actually become Herbert, and what effect that attempt will have on his writing. In any case, he is, now in position to make the attempt.
Seamus Heaney wrote of the need to bring about a redress of poetry in modern poets. The concern indicated is the place that poetry should strive to attain in a socio-political setting. The idea is that poetry should function in redress of balance to unbalanced forces acting upon the world of the poet. This is such that the prevailing sentiments of the poet’s surroundings should shape and bend the nature of the focus of their writing. For example, Heaney states that an American poet writing during the Vietnam period should concern themselves with poetry that addresses the existing unrest in such a way as to bear a standard for the position of the author within the conflict also. In this the poet unsheathes his pen in the same manner as the soldier lifts his rifle, and towards the same goal, i.e. the elevation through victory, or the ode that praises it, of the position for which the warrior-poet strives. Thus the American “wave[s] the flag rhetorically”, just as the English poet, the German poet, or any other nationality elicits support and response from its poets as patriots of its cause. Though this can easily be anti-governmental as well, and poets are supposed to establish redress through support of revolution where that imbalance is detected also. Poetry, and the act of redress is a system of weights and counterweights, or to be more accurate reality and counter-reality. The poet sets up through his words a disparate view of a particular situation than would be readily apparent by having merely observed the situation. This creation of a counter-reality does in no way suggest a conflict with the presented reality and the observed reality, these two need not be placed into such direct opposition.
However, the reality suggested by a poet through their work should highlight a position in order to more easily show a concurrent yet different position, which the poet presents as a better scenario. This presentation need not be explicit. Nowhere in poetry must the poet in true expository style state the redress he wishes to make and support his position. It is up to the reader in trying to gain a true understanding, not only of the poet’s words, but of his position, to justify that position via the vision given him by the poet’s words. Perhaps a good place to begin in examining the issue of redress in poetry would be in Heaney’s own work “Requiem for the Croppies”. This is a poem that deals with a people’s need for redress, which is actively sought through warfare. This position can be gleaned by careful study of the poem, and is never expressly stated by Heaney.
In this particular piece, Heaney is attempting to speak to an audience about the difficulties he personally has observed in his native Ireland. To do this he utilizes the language which would be a common parlance for that region, and sets up with his readers a familiarity based on language between the reader, and the subjects of the poem. Heaney is careful, unlike some of his contemporaries and most of the literary models of excellence to refuse obscurity in his poem. This is of course obscurity both of language, and of reference. Such things, though they admittedly show a great knowledge, and creative use of the language would only serve in this instance to distance the reader from the subject Heaney is presenting. This linguistic style is also a matter of redress, and stems in large part from Heaney’s conscious or unconscious desire not to distance himself from his origins, but rather to exemplify them through the elegant simplicity of language. The redress of poetry is an issue that Heaney is remarkably adapted to presenting.
Throughout the 10 lectures reverberates the overall theme of redress -- in its dictionary sense meaning reparation, and in one of its obsolete definitions suggesting “a course where something unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential.” The first poem cited, Robert Frost’s allegorical “Directive,” commences with the hard monosyllabics of desolation, “Back out of all this now too much for us,” but glimpses nevertheless a potential order of things “beyond confusion” and implies “that the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.”  Poetry, Heaney states, is essentially an answer to the conditions of the world given in poetry’s own terms rather than the language of uplift. “To effect the redress of poetry, it is not necessary for the poet to be aiming deliberately at social or political change.” Which, of course, does not mean the poet dodges his civic responsibilities; only that poetry reconciles two orders, the practical and the poetic, the former teaching us how to live, the latter how to live more abundantly.  When Mr. Mandela's writing rises to a noble statement, that statement has been earned. It has behind it the full weight of a life endured for the sake of the principles it affirms.
Consequently, there is genuine healing power rather than mere rhetorical uplift in Mr. Mandela's espousal of the aims of the Durban conference, and the conference could well adopt as its sacred text something he wrote in his book, ''Long Walk to Freedom'': ''It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, black and white. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.''
With such personal, individual empathy, Mr. Mandela shows himself to be an artist of human possibility. He might well be called an activist, but he has a visionary understanding and would surely agree with the conviction that sustains.  Highly recommended for anyone to whom poetry is important and feels that most criticism seems to miss the point.  These lectures were originally conceived and delivered as individual pieces, but as a collection they also provide an account and defence of Heaney’s philosophy of poetry. Heaney deals with poems from the point of view of a reader to whom poetry is important as a means of understanding and coping with life -- for whom, as he says, poetry is “strong enough to help”.  As literary criticism they are excellent (if eclectic), and are particularly valuable because they are free of much of the nonsense which creeps into academic commentary on poetry. This isn’t to say that Heaney always makes perfect sense, and a couple of the pieces veer towards self-indulgence; nevertheless they are extremely readable, stimulating and -- an extremely rare thing in critical writing -- inspiring.
In ‘The Redress of Poetry, Heaney wants now to speak directly to the issue of aesthetic release and its relation to ethical concern. This impossible and necessary relation is one interrogated afresh by artists in each generation....[He] suggests that the truest ethical concern for the writer must be the widening of consciousness, first on his own part and then perhaps on the part of his readers....But when the chief aspect of poetic utterance which is being appreciated is ethical intent--as in all the chant about ‘the personal is political’ and ‘the poetry of witness’--the time requires Heaney’s insistence on the irrepressibility of headlong imagination and spontaneous linguistic freedom which he finds not only in Marlowe but also in the comic energy of Merriman.
Heaney wants to think of poetry not only as something that intervenes in the world, redressing or correcting imbalances, but also as something that must be redressed--re-established, celebrated as itself. The criticism poets write is most often interesting because of their own poetry, but Heaney’s criticism would be read even if it were unbolstered by a contiguous poetic achievement. The essays are not always startlingly revisionary; they are the result of a deeply personal engagement that has been transmuted into what feels like common--communal--sense. Heaney has the most flexible and beautiful lyric voice of our age, and his prose often answers his poetry in a run of subtle and subtly resonant phrasing....The essays in ‘The Redress of Poetry’ have more cumulative force than individual character....If Heaney does not have the original prose voice of Auden or Eliot, he has maintained for English poetry a responsive, gratified, and radical ear. Heaney’s tendency is to look for the poet’s visionary prowess within a repressive social context. This is not a simple political stance...but the endurance of the poet’s words to envision either a Utopia or a chaotic universe entrapped by its priorities.
The position of a poet within the political and social movements of their times is a precarious one in that the poet has two public duties to fulfill, while at the same time has many personal obligations that cannot be negotiated or subsumed for any public option that might present itself.  Heaney often quotes Stephen Dedalus’s dictum that the poet, famous or not, unconsciously or not, “forge[s] the uncreated unconscience of the race,” and I think this is indicative of the tension and tradition from which Heaney himself must fall back upon and uphold.  This pulling, this turning of the head one way at one moment, another way the next second can prove to be quite debilitating when there is any sort of self-conscious self-reflection.  The poet remains hidden under layers of public namings and roles he must play, but at the same time has this inner privacy that tries desperately to remain unaltered and true to the poet’s techne, that all-encompassing descriptor of means and ends, teachable and unteachable.
But what does this mean for the poet, this moment of looking back and forward that remains perpetually encased in all uncoverings and disclosures?  For Heaney it remains essentially the pull between private and public, between personal motivations and wants and public demands and beckonings--those “daunting pressures and responsibilities on anyone who would risk the name of poet.”   Much of the time, Heaney remains focused towards his discipline, his techne, which is that of “Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate poet.”  But is this what remains of Heaney after these namings are taken off?  What of the Heaney who sits in front of his fireplace reading Eastern European poets? What of the Heaney who talks to his wife on a nightly basis, and does the usual “person” duties that all of the masses who read his texts do?  What of the Heaney that is underneath the all-encompassing propaganda machine that is the literary trade in Western neo-liberal capitalist states?
The conflict of topos, figuratively and literally, is teased out throughout much of Heaney’s prose works.  He seems constantly lost within these dueling forces, who present to him no answers but more problems and questions in which the poet, consciously or not, answers with what Pinsky calls the “feel to answer, a promise to respond.”   But this response, as Heaney continues, throws the poet’s experience into a “labyrinth” from which the aporia of his situation arises and becomes pronounced as a poet to face and take heed of.  Heaney is taking his own frontiers of his written work and recasting it within the needed commentary of what it means to be a poet in a specific historical situation that seems to have no alternatives, no ways of curing the disease of contempt and historical baggage.  Heaney wants poetry to provide an alternative:
Poetry, that is, being instrumental in adjusting and correcting imbalances in the world, poetry as an intended intervention into the goings-on of society--even then, poetry is involved with supreme fictions as well as actual conditions.  What [poetry] is offering is a glimpsed alternative, a world to which ‘we turn incessantly and without knowing it.’
Poetry can do this, I think, to a certain event.  I would argue even more so in Ireland than in the United States, where poetry has fallen below many other forms of cultural creations and is now considered romantic entertainment by the catchy media conglomerates who control dissemination of ideas.  But with the Irish still caught up in troubles that are beyond borders and nationalities (all people everywhere should be worried about what is going on in  Ireland), it still remains to be seen what poetry can do for specific cultural/social realities.  I mean, honestly, is poetry going to provide an alternative political reality for someone stuck in a abusive/discriminatory social environment?  Is poetry going to provide some notion of truth that is obtainable by a populace of literate people?  Heaney comments:
To be a source of truth and at the same time a vehicle of harmony: this expresses what we would like poetry to be and it takes me back to the kinds of pressure which poets from Northern Ireland are subject to.  These poets feel with a special force a need to be true to the negative nature of the evidence and at the same time to show an affirming flame, the need to be both socially responsible and creatively free.
What Heaney is describing is something that is long past in his career and at the same time something he speaks of in the present tense--the need to be cognizant at all times the historical milieu that the artist, the poet is thrown in existentially, is under the influence of intellectually, and must respond tow as a figure that provides alternative worlds from which some escape can be had be an audience.
A poet’s political views will more likely turn up in his prose, but even here Mr. Heaney is wary. That very wariness was the subject of a series of public lectures he gave between 1989 and 1994 as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Ten of those fifteen lectures have now been gathered in “The Redress of Poetry,” and the result is a meditation on the uses of art and power, a fresh and astute defense of poetry against any attempt to reduce it to a relevant or useful commodity. Poets from Sir Philip Sidney to Percy Bysshe Shelley to Wallace Stevens have all written impassioned, stirring defenses of their art. In its more reasoned, subtle and amiable way, Mr. Heaney’s new book takes an honored place with theirs.
Poetry is not printout, never merely a fading duplicate of experience. Instead, the book’s title essay insists, a poem is the imagined alternative: “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.” And reading, then, is a fable about crossing from one dimension of reality to another. Poetry’s counterreality, furthermore, is meant to complicate experience rather than simplify it, to distort in order to reveal. Grotesque or ecstatic, its excess is meant to balance “life’s inadequacies, desolations and atrocities” without being expected to assume ethical obligations or political motives. Mr. Heaney’s first principle is pleasure. After all, “no honest reader of poems . . . would see moral improvement or, for that matter, political education, as the end and purpose of his or her absorption in a poetic text.” The pleasure we take in poems -- even our guilty pleasure in poems written by a talented “oppressor” -- comes from their sensuous bravura, from their ability to include what Rilke once called “the side of life that is turned away from us,” and finally from their instinct to transform the circumstances and conditions of life.
An exemplary reading of Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander,” which was written in the late 1580’s, makes his point convincingly. Mr. Heaney first read the poem as a student at Queen’s University in Belfast, and even then could see it as an example of nascent English imperialism: “This English pentameter marched in step with the invading English armies of the late Tudor period.” However he may have winced at the implication, he thrilled to the lines, and he began to see how Marlowe’s mind worked: “a mind that knows both the penalties of life and its invitations, one closer to the spirit of carnival than to the shock tactics of agitprop.” Marlowe’s gorgeous poem of doomed love is, at its grandest, a parable about the motion of the soul, a motion toward liberation and beatitude but “countered by an implicit acknowledgment of repression and constraint.” Its artistic virtuosity, in other words, is at once undercut and heightened by its psychological realism.
In his “Defense of Poesy,” Sir Philip Sidney linked the creative act of the poet with the pursuit of virtue, “since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.” There is, of course, something too simple . . . about that account of the matter. . . . There’s more phenomenological accuracy in John Keats’s notion that poetry surprises by a fine excess, although it’s worth remembering that by “excess” Keats did not mean just a sensuous overabundance of description. What he also had in mind was a general gift for outstripping the reader’s expectation, an inventiveness that cannot settle for the conventional notion that enough is enough, but always wants to extend the alphabet of emotional and technical expression. Even a poem as tonally somber as, say, “Tintern Abbey” is doing something surprising and excessive, getting further back and deeper in than the poet knew it would, the poet being nevertheless still ready to go with it. . . . At these moments there is always a kind of homeopathic benefit for the reader in experiencing the shifts and extensions which constitute the life of a poem. An exuberant rhythm, a display of metrical virtuosity, some rising intellectual ground successfully mounted -- experiencing things like these gratifies and furthers the range of the mind’s and the body’s pleasures, and helps the reader to obey the old command: nosce teipsum. Know thyself.
Redress of Poetry display much of the intellectual restlessness, linguistic wizardry and political conscience that have shaped Heaney’s own poetry. His thesis is that poetry of the highest order must redress social imbalances, at once transfiguring the circumstances it observes and offering an unforeseen, more humane, aesthetic alternative. This is an abstract and rigorous idea, yet nonacademic readers will find much to savor as Heaney tests and refines his paradigm in light of a largely canonical selection of poets (most are from the British Isles). Ranging freely from a brief life of each poet to a close reading of a few poems by him or her, he addresses, for instance, how Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” assuages the “loss” to which it alludes; how Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” “extended the alphabet” of Elizabethan sexual mores; and how 19th-century rustic poet John Clare achieved a truly lyrical local idiom at odds with official English. With their palpable evocation of the writing process and their disavowal of jargon and trendy political abstractions, these are exemplary essays?and tell us much about the influences and obsessions of this year’s Nobel laureate in literature.
By “redress” Heaney means the preferred definition of compensation for a wrong, but he also intends the obsolete meaning of bringing hunting dogs back to the chase, since poetry is a game of “fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness,” one in which a force “unhindered, yet directed, can sweep ahead into its full potential.” Eminently readable, the various essays here are united by a personal yet profound tone. They explore a broad range of poets, from Christopher Marlowe and John Clare to W.B. Yeats and Elizabeth Bishop, but Heaney’s focus is on poetry’s ability to redress “all of life’s inadequacies, desolations, and atrocities,” not by means of direct political response but simply by being its own intrinsic reward. For all literary collections.
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. 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-delivery.

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