James Wood

  • The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 213 pp, £15.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 571 17562 7
  • The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 71 pp, £14.99, May 1996, ISBN 0 571 17760 3

Seamus Heaney has always doubted poetry – not as a philosopher might doubt reality, but as a rich man might doubt money. He feels not scepticism, but guilt. He thanks poetry for existing but is tormented by the size of its donation. Poetry, he suspects, has no right to its wealth; so he lavishes scruples on his readers. Heaney’s poetry is loaded with anxiety and self-tormented power. At times this is truly powerful, and at other times merely self-tormented. But this is nevertheless the grimace of a major poet.

In much of his work, both in verse and prose, Heaney has struggled for a defence of poetry’s right to luxury, a right that is earned, it seems, through hard work in the unglamorous ranks of the actual. Poetry, as Heaney sees it, cannot simply promote itself to eminence. It must first redress reality. This, says Heaney in The Redress of Poetry, his latest book of criticism, is its ‘counterweighting function’:

Its projections 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 co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world that we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighing function. It becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a fully empowered way.

Heaney is rarely convincing while swimming in theory, and at such moments one is grateful that his poetry, which is more intelligent than its defence, has tended to be dry of such generalities. It is hard not to feel in Heaney’s talk of ‘comeback’, ‘match’ and ‘counterweighting’ that what is being credited is not poetry’s counterweight but reality’s weight. It would seem that poetry’s ‘function’ is one ordained and controlled by the greater power of ‘the world we live in and endure’.

In fairness, Heaney is hardly the only poet to wring himself thus. In this century, William Carlos Williams was also obsessed with how

Beauty should make us paupers,
should blind us, rob us – for it
does not feed the sufferer.

Equally, the world that Heaney has been enduring since the mid-Sixties has often exerted a despotic pressure. He is not simply the Keatsian harvester beloved of school examination boards, but a deeply political writer who has been building a nation – historical, mythological, etymological – in his poems. Once the political urgencies of the late Sixties and early Seventies were felt, it was clear that a Catholic poet had certain debts and constituencies. ‘From that moment,’ Heaney has said, ‘the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.’ Unfortunately, in the boil of side-taking, others are likely to have heated ideas of what is ‘adequate’ poetry and what is not. A poem in The Spirit Level, his new book, recalls the following encounter between poet and constituent:

          So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’

There is a kind of vivid obscurantism in Heaney’s prose (and in a small portion of his poems) towards poetry’s rights and duties. Both The Redress of Poetry and its predecessor, The Government of the Tongue, propose a poetry that ‘answers’ the world. This answering achieves adequacy in two ways: it offers reality a version of itself – ‘a concrete reliability ... an upfront representation of the world it stood for or stood up for or stood its ground against’; and it offers reality something more than itself: the poem’s own, self-justifying aesthetic adequacy as a wholly imagined thing in its own right.

That reality does indeed request an answer, and that poetry must earn the right to supply one, is not queried. So, in The Government of the Tongue, Heaney argues of Chekhov’s journey to report on the conditions at the prison island of Sakhalin, a journey of great arduousness, that Chekhov was justifying the softer existence of his fiction. He ‘had to earn the right to the luxury of practising his art’. Heaney represents in similar fashion Robert Lowell’s year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Lowell was ‘earning his poetic rights by service in the unpoetic world of jail’. Elsewhere, Heaney asks: ‘What right has poetry to its quarantine?’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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