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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.

From Jamie McKendrick, 2009-04-09

On Seamus Heaney

Dear Editor,

Though I complained of Ira Lightman’s assumptions in my last letter, they were obviously provoked by my unkind opening jibe and I can see now that he has an independent view of Heaney’s poetry which makes my own assumptions about him wrong. (This was David Latané’s fair point against me.)

Todd Swift has his assumptions and seems to think I have no place speaking in this forum. It’s strange to have him pin a Faber tag to my lapel as if I’m here on a sales outing. I’ve no idea what he means by “ultra-Faberism” but I guess he’s got his own axe to grind and perhaps he can see an unsavoury, homogenized position shared by what looks to me like quite a various bunch of poets.

Still, I’d welcome this chance to reply directly to Side about the points he’s raised in response to my letters and I apologize for its length. It’s grim work, but someone has to do it — and I can’t promise Desmond Swords any gegs. (A long time since I’ve heard that word.) I see how this may well provoke further point-by-point refutations, but to spare myself and others, I hope to make this my last contribution on the matter.


What made me write in with annoyance in the first instance was the whole tenor and direction of your article, from the title onwards, which wanted to establish a pattern of “dissembling” — essentially dishonesty and bad faith, a serious charge — in Heaney’s writings. Your copious footnotes and quotations from his prose revealed no such thing. No doubt all this looks to you like “academic polemic” but it looks to me more like a grievance-in-waiting you’ve hung onto Heaney’s interview reply. The result is to make the reader question your own honesty, as indeed Swords did. His approach follows your own example: he’s making assumptions about your motives just as you did about Heaney’s, the difference being that you were wearing a scholarly carapace, and he a cap and bells.

But let’s move on to the article:

You take a number of instances from The Redress of Poetry in which Heaney weighs, with considerable care, the rival claims of life and art on poetry and, in each case, you arbitrarily assert that he only cares about the mimetic function, the life side of the equation, and has no serious regard for the other side, presumably your side, though it’s hard to see you as the perfect advocate for the art when Heaney is portrayed as underselling it. (This is a world I don’t think even Pope could have imagined.)

Let me take some examples. You quote Heaney saying “And yet, limber and absolved as linguistic inventiveness may seem in poetry, it is not disjunct from or ever entirely manumitted by the critical intelligence.” Like it or not, Heaney has taken pains in the way he’s expressed this tension (“not disjunct from or ever entirely manumitted by”) only to have you flatly ‘translate’ his argument into a “distrust of linguistic ingenuity” and to claim “he places reason above artifice and content before form”. This is a travesty of scholarship — it’s like saying, regardless of what the author actually writes, he means what I want him to mean. Heaney gives due weight to both claims and you say he’s dismissing one of them. You start from a rigid, aprioristic position and blindly ignore even the evidence you adduce.

Your account of Heaney’s dealings with Clare is similarly garbled, and keeps presuming Heaney is promoting his own poetry. You accuse him of arguing “disingenuously” when he claims that “there is more than mere description in Clare’s poetry”. Why should this uncontroversial claim be disingenuous? (Everyone who reads Clare can see there’s a large freight of description, but most of us easily perceive that the description, at least in his best poems, adds up to something a great deal more.)

In your reply to me you refer to Heaney’s “sometimes, dismissive evaluations of other poets”, presumably referring to his account of Dylan Thomas, about which you say he is “again, favouring content over poetic language”. Heaney’s essay is full of praise for Thomas, but there are occasions in which he sees Thomas carried away by the “extravagance of imagery and diction”. Heaney isn’t saying he doesn’t enjoy that extravagance, he clearly does even in the quotation you give, but it’s just that he prefers it in certain instances where there’s more undertow or counter-pressure from the material. This seems to me a fair criticism, and one that many other admirers of Thomas, myself included, would concede. You might have a more original or different case to make about Thomas (though there’s absolutely no sign of that) but here again Heaney’s argument certainly isn’t “disingenuous” or “dissembling”.

In almost every reference to his essays, you wilfully twist what Heaney writes, and use clumsy prompts like “ opportunistically”, or the above, that are meant to discredit him. These, especially “casuistry”, in the perjorative sense you intended, describe your own approach far more accurately than Heaney’s.

To turn to the other points that you raise in your reply: the question about whether J.H. Prynne has declined certain publishing opportunities is something I’m no expert on. I understand, for example, that he chose not to appear in at least one widely-distributed anthology (The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945). If I’m right, he may have all kinds of unimpeachable reasons for doing so. But even if I’m wrong, since I’m not in the least blaming him or others for such a choice, and you, on the other hand, were blaming the ‘mainstream’, I’d say the burden of proof for that claim lies on your shoulders not mine. The idea that certain poets affiliated with Prynne should expect to receive “ouvertures” and “offers of publication” from the larger presses is comic and naive: in the overwhelming majority of cases poets submit their manuscripts to publishers. It’s an arduous and sometimes dispiriting business, as I and hundreds of others can testify. If some poets chose another route — of smaller press publication — without all that bother, it may well be a fine and private decision but it carries the inconvenience of (even more!) minimal distribution and coverage. I’m far from sure that these poets would necessarily be accepted but I’m convinced that some who publish in small presses have, for whatever reasons, chosen that as their preferred mode. (For those with any interest in a wider readership, not only Bloodaxe but also Carcanet have published a number of poets whose practices diverge from the ‘mainstream’ and Salt has displayed an eagerness to do so.)

Two other matters remain. Your argument that concertinas the Movement into the Group and then conflates Philip Hobsbaum with Heaney has certainly been repeated ad nauseam — it’s almost become an article of faith in some quarters; but repetition isn’t proof, and your article merely parrots these connections. The quotation you do give from Hobsbaum reveals a clunky, English nationalist agenda in his questioning of Pound and Eliot’s status — and it doesn’t take much wit to work out why Heaney would dissociate himself from that. In terms of practice, it would make much more sense to see Heaney learning from, among others, Kavanagh and Yeats at home, and across the Atlantic from Lowell and (to a lesser extent) Bishop. I intend no disrespect to Hobsbaum in repeating that Heaney, almost from the outset, had outdistanced this supposed master. (The same is true of Longley and Mahon.) What I can’t see is why so many critics like Robert Sheppard, who are informed in other areas, invest so deeply in this bankrupt notion. Do they have to believe Andrew Crozier has the last word when he says “The present-day canon has its roots in the Movement” ?

(That quotation appears, as your footnote proclaims, in Antony Easthope’s deeply philistine book Englishness and National Culture. I suspect he’s the only author you footnote who might just approve of your venture — I’d bet good money that Morrison, Haughton and even Fenton would be appalled at the uses you’ve put them to.)

Finally, your argument about the connotative aspects of poetry is, I’m afraid, plodding and doctrinaire. Connotation in language is just one, often, minor aspect of poetic practice and by no means a defining one (in some of Geoffrey Hill, for example, it can take on a important role, in some of William Carlos Williams it’s narrowed to nothing). There are many excellent poems that deliberately exclude or minimize connotation. Some types of ambiguity are useful and enriching in poetry and some not. But even if we were to accept it as a criterion, your insistence that Heaney as a poet undervalues the connotative aspects of language is refuted by almost every quotation you’ve given from his prose. Your own prose is dreary and monotonous where Heaney’s is explorative and supple. But the real test would be his poems and, as I’ve said, you’ve deliberately avoided them. It’s ghastly to excerpt lines as possible targets, and readers who know Heaney’s work could supply hundreds of better examples, but can anyone imagine a Movement poet writing lines so full of linguistically self-referential tropes as these typical lines from early Heaney: “The tawny guttural water/ spells itself… ” or “the shower/ gathering in your heelmark/ was the black O/ in Broagh…”? Or a line taken at random from late Heaney: “Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away”? That Heaney cleaves to the actual and the physical, and relishes description, is not in the least evidence that his poems deny the linguistically extravagant and inventive, or that they fail to achieve effects beyond the literal. (Just how connotative and challenging to literal paraphrase his poems are will be clear to anyone who has tried to translate him into another language. I suspect quite a few ‘experimental’ poets would be far less problematic.)

You may not care for any of these effects in his poems but your remarks about Heaney’s style illuminate nothing about his practice. Your view of Heaney’s prose is blinkered and (both historically and geographically) parochial — there’s just no sense at all of a writer who is having to engage with political turmoil up close and having to think hard about the responsibility poetry might have both to its own imaginative freedom as well as to the social context — and for most of Heaney’s writing life that has been one of murderous conflict. The idea that The Movement or the Group would help Heaney steer his way through any of this is deeply unconvincing. But ultimately it’s the continuous assumption of bad faith that betrays the ill-motivated and petty-minded rather than the polemical nature of your article.


Jamie McKendrick

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