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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.

Letter to the Editor

From Ira Lightman, 2009-04-02

Dear Editor

I’ve been really enjoying reading Heaney’s poems this past week, and Jamie McKendrick’s too. I took both their Selected Poems out from the Northern Poetry Library. I sincerely mean I enjoyed them, as I flicked through (as I’m sure everyone does) to land on a handful for my personal anthology of Ira’s faves.

I felt if anything that Heaney’s early work is connotative, and McKendrick is right to say Side has Heaney wrong on this. Heaney has a good eye, certainly, for what Robert McKee calls (talking of story) knowing a world so as not to write clichéd plot development, clichéd action, clichéd denouement. Moment by moment, Heaney avoids this cliché, of detail, and progression of detail, yet sometimes seems to affirm a cliché in the whole feel of the poem. I feel, and I think Jeff should, that all writers should consider McKee’s advice on cliché in progression of detail, but we should all think about cliché of the whole.

I see Jeff Side’s article as a revulsion from writing accessibly, so that we can see the whole and nothing but the whole. And he is wedded to novelty and a certain queerness, and I share some of that. But I actually find all the terms thrown up, by Heaney and by Side, useful.

In Side’s defence, I restate my point in my first letter that Side, like Heaney’s interviewer working from the impression Heaney gives, is talking about reaching people with great art, where most everyone else seems to me to be talking about the brawls in the taverns of poetry readers, readers who read books, not by any means the large world of audience thought of by Side and the great poets. And of course why no-one can write properly anymore, too obscure, academic, and bad. That is why Side should lead the attack, as I said in my first letter, because he has non-petty ambitions. He starts the ball rolling. His writing comes from great disappointment that the mode and bulk of Heaney’s writing doesn’t make Heaney the prophet. There should be a prophet of what Side hopes for.

I think Side doesn’t read Heaney’s borrowed quotation about Auden and “the normal” very probingly. I don’t think it’s about being Joe Normal, but about what is normal to the human condition: love, death, stubbing your toe. This is a fault Side shares with Perloff, who is very good at spotting allegiances to schools of epistemology (and unless we are simply vulgar philistines, against all philosophy back to Socrates on principle, then we should look to spot that in life too). Perloff and Side can misread the nuanced emotional specifics, the “I see what you mean” tenderness one needs in conversation, when reflecting back “this is what I hear you saying” — although I can attest that they are both people full of kindness and tenderness to people they encounter in life. The need sometimes to stop talking in your own usual idiom (“change the record” as the saying goes) sometimes leads one into new language, but more often into cliché, the shared. If it becomes then the thing that breaks you wide open to say it, then okay, disregard McKee. Otherwise reaching out to cliché is casuistic politics, something I personally like, and I think Bob Dylan does, but I see Perloff and Side don’t.

McKendrick hints that I am promoting my cv. Of course I am, we all are in this debate, I think. But I want to own up to what’s making me feel vulnerable, so that I don’t become knee-jerk. I look at some poems I’ve been writing lately, for example, that I thought were a clever mix of Heaney and Prynne, and see (after days of reading Heaney) they look more Heaney. Then an old friend writes to me that he’s just been reading them, and doesn’t get them at all. I wonder If Heaney ever got that response, and how it would make him feel, say when a poem is in draft?

I myself balanced the response between

1) disappointed that I hadn’t reached my friend,

2) wanting to do so with a future poem,

3) feeling misunderstood, and

4) remembering others have liked the poems and volunteered anecdotes about how the poems reminded them of incidents in their own lives, in a very close and particular way, that made me feel useful and also that my poem had communicated.

To attempt some lit crit… Heaney’s poems in Death of a Naturalist (which says explicitly that he doesn’t want to be an empiricist naturalist, or not just that) rather tendentiously compare things in nature to “bombs”, and I don’t think that this is beginning photographically, and then laying on an extra meaning. It’s at least as much somebody wanting to write about the bombs in late sixties Irish life, but finding words cohering into a musical pattern about a nature scene, and also feeling he’s telling a story, and getting someone’s ear. Who hasn’t sat down and found the poem writing them, not the poem they sat down to write? Critics (not least of my prose style) might say I have no skill in telling stories, and might be right. But I do have my moments of reaching people with patterns of words. When Heaney comes to write literally about bombs, in North, it feels like a sort of release of the breath held in the non-empiricism, the odd metaphors of Death of a Naturalist.

Bursting out of my reading of Heaney’s books is the poem “Casualty” by him, it is absolutely fabulous. Taking away from the poems around, and the essays, and poems, it’s just fabulous, in the moment, present, line by line drama. And I keep re-reading it, as I don’t with any other poems I’ve read this week.

I just want to say, therefore, not “what about the poems?” but “what about the single poem, the one page worth the lifetime’s work”? I like what Heaney has written about Dylan Thomas. He seems haunted like Hamlet by the apparition of the ghost that seems to be his father, that he may tumble over a cliff in following him. I’ve just recently been re-reading Thomas, and some of Heaney’s reservations echo my own. But while this week I agree with Heaney that “the necessary thing” still seems to come through, a Jamesian phrase, I really interpret that to mean some feeling of a Dylan Thomas poem like “The Force that through the Green Fuse” still seems to thrill me as it did when I was a boy. Nostalgia makes me want to read some plastic oomph under the words, even when I don’t now like some of the words he chose.

I think I will feel like this less and less, as time goes by. I think Thomas’ poems hold open some idea of a writing a poem that lots of people will love which joys in the plasticity of language. But less, as time goes by. This is a sadness for non-Georgians, akin to the sadness I identify in a neo-Georgian now that Prynne is published by Bloodaxe.

A Dylan Thomas poem that I had overlooked until re-reading him is the poem “Prologue”, again absolutely fabulous. I have the same sense of sighing after every line, and feeling the drama of what next on each line, that I have in reading Heaney’s “Casualty”. And in both poems, a sense of the whole. As Pound said, some innovators spawn imitators, and their imitators teach us how to read them. I feel that later poets after Thomas make simple some of “Prologue”’s gestures, and now I can read “Prologue”. Perhaps I feel the same of Heaney’s oeuvre, and “Casualty”? Is it patronising to say what I’ve said about Heaney if I conclude that even only one poem by him is great?

Jeff Side quotes Heaney about Bishop: “she never allows the formal delights of her art to mollify the hard realities of her subjects”. What is tragically moving about this is that, again, it’s typical poet’s hopefulness to think one’s art appeals, whereas it’s more likely a single poem that does, and one against the overall direction of the art. I don’t think I want to go back to much of Bishop’s art, to many of Bishop’s poems, though I do want to go back to a few Bishop poems, intensely. Heaney seems to be talking about a mode — where there are in fact only poems, or a poem, in the oeuvre. He is speaking out of an aspiration, and a vanity, which touches me, as suffering does, as much as Side’s remarks touch others, though they show it by responding in annoyance.

By contrast, there are definitely poets for me, like Stevens, Wordsworth, Sandburg, Dickinson, that I want to go on reading, and re-reading. Such that the act of reading any poem of theirs keeps ramifying, making me love all the other poems by that poet all the more. That’s my sense of a poet’s mode, and it’s very much inductive and a posteriori. I don’t think even Wordsworth’s self-declared rules were a rule of “never” as Heaney implies Bishop’s (if they exist) were. A rule of a mode cannot even be spoken of by a practising poet who won’t break it, if the poet is any good. They write essays, as Heaney and Side imply, to reach out to the world, to mollify the audience, who get the poetry better after reading the essays. (They get the poetry, I don’t know that they get the mode, the rules. The sort of inductive total pleasure of “give us another one, please; we know it’ll be great too.”)

Rules! Many live in a world where they quail at the thought of breaking their own rule of being seen to write like Prynne, or Heaney, depending on who they are, at all. Call it making things beyond the pale, or unsultably, laughably, bad, but it is arbitrary misguided rule making nevertheless.


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