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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.

Desmond Swords

On Seamus Heaney

Letter to the Editor: 2009-03-31

I have been following the scuffles on the cobbles of cyberville’s poetry village which Side’s article kicked off and have to say, what a palava over a few sentences by the Mossbawn magus. McKendrick’s initial assessment seems about right. Side is interrogating what Famous said, with all the relish of a traffic warden on price work. I have no problem with this, as I love a good row as much as the next bore, and hopefully the three and four way straightner between the two factions, will produce a bit more virtual rounds before everybody gets bored or all blathered out and retreats to their respective corners with a bit more ammo and animosity in the hearth for another flare up.

I think it only fait to point out I have no affiliation with anyone gassing here. I am a bloke in a bedsit trying to get my own laughably titled career up and running, and what struck me about Side’s rant, is the earnest, serious, self-righteous po-facedness of it all, unleavened by any spark of wit or humour. There is a notable absence of gags, which is excusable if the language is shaped such as to hold the eye with its inventiveness, but the laboured long winded phrases of the prosecuting doctoral student, read as if they are written by… well, a phd student in the place of pretend, the try-out gaffe which prepares us for real life by allowing us to indulge in exploratory stabs of intellectually sounding chat – to approximate what we hope will lead us to the real thing after the ticket’s been got and, qualified, we exit and drop the linguistic tricks and ticks indicative of prolonged exposure at the coal face of diligent, detached and dispassionate academic study.

The natural audience for this article, the language of it suggests, is a phd student’s supervisor, as it is little more than extended riff from a jump in point of Stepping Stones where the honey throated Irish warbler says the avant garde is old fashioned – which Side believes worthy of a thorough and rigorous interrogation, and uses mores and sensibilities of the student essay to do so, and delivers in language one expects of a young fogey earnestly plodding in a hutch at the academy, taking things very seriously because his own primary intellectual audience for the last ten years up till 2007, was a phd supervisor and a classroom of earnest wide eyed students in the teaching roles he took on when not seeking poetic keys to the universe, passing on a hard won mystical wisdom which our star Rumpole of the Jacket Magazine, begins demolishing H’s rep with at the start of his cerebral prosecution of a man far, far more famous than himself:

“Several things about this statement need to be addressed, so I will go through it step-by-step to do so. When Heaney says that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned, what does this really say regarding the term’s significance in relation to his own poetic ideals?”

They *need to be addressed* Side tells us, but the closest he gets to informing us why is very opaque and after finishing the article one is left with an aftertaste which suggests the primary impelling force on a human level, is the good old green eye rather than any burning conviction that some theoretical travesty of natural law has been occasioned by a man nearing seventy years of age, ten years with a buss pass and Side piously informing us that his writing and blather is but the posturing of a sly, self-centred poet who, by the way Side speaks of him, can’t wait to cross the Styx and get reading what people are saying about him after his encounter with Charon, which suggests

1 – Side does not conceive Seamus Heaney the human being, and in his place, has a mere textual construction of Heaney the Writer, who was put on this earth solely to wind Jeff up — enough to spend a long time and much effort in seeking to prosecute him as a heretic and chancer who just sort of happened to end up as the most significant living poet of the latter third of the 20C writing in English, by a combination of lucky accident, scheming and diabolically unfair practices which so offend the morally spotless Saint Jeff the Inquisitor doing it for the poor deluded folk who think Heaney might actually have a bit of talent.

By the time I reached this paragraph, I was ready to agree with anything Side said, because I was so bored:

“It should be pointed out that defamiliarisation is dependent upon vision in order to revive our awareness of objects that have become over-familiar through constant exposure to them. To this extent, it is an empiricist mode of writing. Seen in this light, Heaney’s transfigurations are not as transcendental as they initially appeared to be.”

This language serves as an example of why the evidence for the prosecution is so unconvincing. Side takes the very poetic qualities in Heaney’s word play, and attempts to hold them up to a super-rational light of linguistic inquiry which displays none of the inventiveness and originality he seems to be arguing for.

He takes laughable liberties by inventing a self fulfilling range of traits, much as an amateur psychologist or novelist practicing on people at bus stops would decant into their journals a whole imagined inner topography based on the fleeting glimpse: but with the difference is that Jeff is doing it straight. No gags, where’s the wordplay that arrests the eye from start to finish? Nowhere and nothing to detain us but academic argot and the poetic legaleeze leading nowhere exciting or original. Insult the man, tear him down, administer a good kicking, pan the git, but show us why and with passion, both of which are (unfortunately) not in attendance and so Side’s attempt at immortality on the back of what the immensely more exciting live Tipperary poet Noel Sweeney terms: “a simple gentle country man” – didn’t land a blow except to show himself as a bloke whose ambition is limited by a sense of feeling hard done by and sublimating that into raving at the wind, his straw man here still far more interesting in both print and (one suspects) person than his would be literary assassin.

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