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Heaney Agonistes

[»»] Jeffrey Side: The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde

[»»] Rob Stanton: ‘A shy soul fretting and all that ’: Heaney, Prynne and Brands of Uncertainty

[»»] The Group in Belfast, 1960s
(Seamus Heaney: The Early Years)

Letters to the Editor from: [»»] Ira Lightman; [»»] John Muckle; [»»] J.P. Craig; [»»] Jamie McKendrick; [»»] David Latané; [»»] Aidan Semmens; [»»] Ira Lightman (2); [»»] Jamie McKendrick (2); [»»] Ira Lightman (3); [»»] Desmond Swords; [»»] Todd Swift and Jeffrey Side; [»»] Jeffrey Side, reply to Desmond Swords; [»»] Jamie McKendrick (3); [»»] Ira Lightman (4); [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Ira Lightman; [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Jamie McKendrick; [»»] From Desmond Swords, 2009-04-07; [»»] From Jamie McKendrick, 2009-04-09; [»»] Jeffrey Side responds to Jamie McKendrick; [»»] Andrew Boobier

To send a letter to the editor, click here: [»»]. I would prefer not to change what is published here; if you have second thoughts, please send a second letter.

Ira Lightman

On Seamus Heaney

Letter to the Editor: 2009-03-30

I agree that Prynne and a lot of his contemporaries have declined to be published in certain commercial anthologies. I wish they had. But I wouldn’t have volunteered my work if I were them, for most poetry magazines. Most poetry editors say “please read our mag, and send poems like stuff we already publish.” I myself still do send in work to mags, when I sense there’s a point.

I didn’t say, maybe McKendrick thinks Jeff Side did, that “ … these days there are queues forming down many high streets for the work of poets whose reputations Heaney is now subtly trying to undermine.” It’s such a crass thing for McKendrick to say, if he’s responding to my letter.

What I said was “now that Prynne has been marketed by Bloodaxe, Prynne’s work cannot simply be dismissed."

This is just true. I’m not saying it’s equally read (and since when did numbers count? Heaney himself says in his interview that a poet has a feel for another poet, a duty to poets, beyond sales figures. Is Bob Dylan a better poet than Heaney because he has more people who memorise and analyse his verses — and choruses?). I’m noticing that, for example, my father’s 80 year old retired teacher friend, bought the Bloodaxe Prynne. And a lady at Colpitts in Durham talked to me about how she’d been reading recent Hill and the collected Prynne, and was no experimentalism afficianado.

Therefore, if say 10 percent of all people who read poetry who don’t ever buy things from small presses are now reading Prynne, that means they’re trying to sound out the work, feel it, read it. I was saying, rather convolutedly, that Heaney before could skim Prynne and not assume when he dropped Prynne’s name that anyone knew the work. Now when he mentions Prynne he can’t be just dismissive. Who knows, he might even parody Prynne one day? By contrast, he still talks about Language Poetry as if most of the people who would read an interview with Seamus Heaney have not read the work. Thus, Heaney’s pose of being knowledgeable about avant-gardism is bunk. He only takes them seriously when they command a market share.

I don’t particularly like Prynne or Heaney’s work after 1975 or so, except for Prynne’s 1980s book Word Order, and with no exceptions for Heaney. I said in my letter that I liked Heaney before that, and didn’t like his answers in his interview. How this makes my letter “invective” except to someone who isn’t bothered to engage with me at all, is a mystery.

Let me model how to engage. I looked up some of McKendrick’s work online, three poems including the poem “Apotheosis". I like the line;

"he demonstrates with a bumblebee on the windowframe"

I find the rest very affected, in a Martian manner of grabbing around for deliberately mixed metaphors, and loose allegory, mostly about bees. I prefer Donald Davie’s “blue-black hornet” switching back and forth by a colonnade, or Ezra Pound’s “wild bees at Eblis". It is a more simple naming, as Davie says of Bunting compared to Hughes, and the work is done by the clashing of sound, and sent sealed into memory. Yet I can step back enough to see that a story is being sent into memory by each of McKendrick’s 3 poems, and reveals a tenderness, to people, and natural scenes, albeit not one couched in present or memorable phrasing. I find more tenderness, indeed, in McKendrick’s work than I find in Heaney, who does not maybe need it, who takes on himself some of Michael Stipe’s line “you wore our expectations like an armoured suit". If I can step back, and find some worth, I am not McKendrickite as a critic. If I am in satiric mode, I am not merely bitchy, not in a reviewerese cattiness.

Finally, I did layer on my heavy dislike for David Cameron rather arbitrarily in my letter. That’s because, like Joyce (whom Heaney namechecks but does not engage with in Station Island), I like to layer in contemporary events at the very moment of writing. Not always skilfully, and well done on Kendrick for spotting a bum note in the sentence of mine he cites. I was trying to find examples of politics, now; how one engages a big audience, now. One does it by striking a note of being aloof, not merely reacting to tabloids, but having a long term strategy, like President Obama, with a hint of pragmatism and a bit of demagoguery. I call that “counter-intuitive” theory, and gravitas. I personally liked Blair, I see Cameron as son of Blair with no actual strategy.

I don’t want to see Heaney as like an old politician, who had his day and I must now accept as cynical. In fact, I saw in the namecheck for Prynne some sense of trying to keep up with what might actually excite and engage and touch people. I want him to be like Yeats, political and relevant to the last.

Just to underline, too, to McKendrick. I meet hundreds of people, and talk to people about poetry, as a poet, not as a teacher. I make Public Art with text, and draw on Prynne, Heaney and Language Poetry. I appear on Radio 3 a handful of times a year. His insinuation that I am some kind of sad loser who only talks to other people who read small presses is ignorant, insulting and a mark, to me, that he only wants to engage with me if he’s heard of me “on the circuit" — if there might be money or kudos or “tenners” in it, to use his own revealing word. Who thinks poets have more money than others? I don’t. Or that I was criticising Heaney for having more money than me? Let McKendrick prove it, prove anything in fact. Let him say anything to do with the higher values of poetry, the argument for its own sake, the ethics and beauty and possibilities of poetry. Many people read Heaney, but does the DNA of his poetry get into their DNA the way that Prynne or Stein or Carl Sandburg or Emily Dickinson or Wordsworth or Wallace Stevens do? No.

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