9 May 1999

Heaney and the “Frontiers of Writing”

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?

These questions I think are not quite easily answerable by, say, interviewing him for a TV program or a radio program, or even talking to him after he has given a lecture at Berkeley or Oxford or Harvard.  These are the unconcealed personages that are always seen and named by the “them”--reader, critics, polished TV talking heads, university professors, and Oprah Winfrey’s book club.  Heaney must be always seen as someone completely different from the public and pasted-on labels given to him by these and other groups.  He must be viewed and thought about in another light.  How is this light achieved, and why would we want to achieve it?  The answer is simple, in our media driven age--we want to know, always, if the people we hear about and read about--the famous stars and icons of an age--are really real.  But these types of questions always beg of metaphysics, which in itself, is purely pointless and meta-philosophical.  Of course they are really real, in the sense that they breath, eat, perform daily functions, maybe go to church or synagogue, vote, pay taxes, etc.  But in the sense that we know our mothers, or in the sense that we know our wives or best friends, people like Heaney will always remain ethereal, iconic figures in a world of famous faces and names.  Heaney will always remain in the Platonic-ideal world of the forms, while everyone else, for lack of a better word, remains swimming in the material recesses of the institutions and realities created for us by the techno-media elite, the people who provide the masses with the images of reality.  Artist Brian Eno was once asked if he would like to meet Edward Hall, famous historian, sociologist, and critic, of whose books Eno was quite well read.  Eno responded by saying, “Why would I want to?  What am I going to say to him-- ‘I read your books in the 70’s and 80’s and I agree with you?’”  I feel the same way about Heaney--why would I want to meet him?  What would I say to him-- ‘I really like your poetry, especially the imagery you created in “Mossbawn?”’ It would necessitate an awkwardness for both him an me--young adoring fan, famous literary icon meeting after lecture--both frown afterwards.

Heaney does, I think, present these pulling pressures of the poet quite well in much of his poetry, usually implicitly, and more explicitly in his prose writings and criticisms.  “Frontiers of Writing,” first given as a lecture during Heaney’s tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and now reprinted in his collection Redress of Poetry ,  remains, in my mind, the closest approximation of Heaney’s attempts are reconciling these pulling forces knawing and scratching at the poet.  It seems to me that this text was specifically an unconscious response to his 1974 lecture at the royal Society of Literature entitled “Feeling into Words.”   In both of these lectures, Heaney is addressing these forces that comport a poet towards one thing or another, towards one side or another.  Just like the political and social upheavals and indeterminacies of the situation in Northern Ireland, Heaney remains caught in this place, this topos is just as indeterminate.  Heaney states early on in “Frontiers of Writing” of his indeterminacy within the place of his techne and within the place of his identity as Irish, stating that he was missing from a wake for the death of hunger strike victim in prison, in which “--[the] imagined event from which I was absent shadowed and questioned my presence at an otherwise perfectly jocund college feast.”   His heart and his cultural/national identity draw him closer to empathize with the Irish plight, but he seems so distant from the actualities, as if he had long ago left those moments of rage towards British occupation in the recesses of his gray matter, and instead had begrudgingly joined the ranks of those who now are considered “commentators” on the events of the day.  He now, at a distance, through his writing, comments on the troubles in Northern Ireland, as a passive man of letters who is wined and dined by the literary paparazzi.  But his text is littered with attempts to draw together these feelings of empathy for his countrymen and his connection by techne to the great literary tradition of the English language that he is now heir and representative of.  He seems to want, as he puts it to “suggest that poetry represented a principle of integration within such a  context of division and contradiction.”   He wants to allow the poetic to come in between the division between peoples and cultures, and he wants poetry to be the bridge personally between his dual placements as an Irish poet and the stellar luminary of the English language.  As he says further, he had to scrap that idea, because implicitly, he would be going against what he himself has always had to deal with--how far must a poet compromise poetic integrity, artistic creativity with the political commentary necessary during times of duress by the imaginative figures of society, the ones who look up to “Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate poet.”

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:

    [P]oetry, 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.

But my question remains, are these the frontiers of writing?  Must writing always be bounded by the historical circumstances?  And if so, does the poet, inherently by their position, need to address and reflect on these issues?  As Heaney states, there has been an entire generation of Irish poets who have had to ask themselves these very questions in lieu of actually writing away from these questions.  But as to the notion that the frontiers of writing remain based wholly within these bounds is a question that must be decided upon and answered by the poet themselves wrestling with the tradition they have inherited and the tradition they wish to destroy.

  Heaney, Seamus.  Preoccupations:  Selected Prose 1968-1978. New York: Noonday, 1980. p. 60
  Heaney, Seamus.  Redress of Poetry. New York: Noonday, 1995. p. ix.
  Heaney, Seamus.  Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978. New York: Noonday, 1980. pp. 41-60.
  Redress, p. 186-7. Heaney was attending a college dinner at Oxford, in England with all of its added English environmental factors, while at the same time, a hunger striker close to his family had died.
  ibid. p.190.
  ibid. p.191. Robert Pinsky as quoted by Heaney from Poetry and the World, Ecco Press, New York, 1988, p.85.
  ibid. p.192.
  ibid. p.193.