|Jacket 37 — Early 2009||Jacket 37 Contents page||Jacket Homepage||Search Jacket|
This piece is about 12 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Rob Stanton and Jacket magazine 2009. See our [»»] Copyright notice.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/37/heaney-prynne-by-stanton.shtml
[»»] 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.
The unswervingly stern and somewhat unfair critique of Seamus Heaney offered by Jeffrey Side and Jamie McKendrick’s funny (if glib) riposte [in this issue of Jacket] run the risk not only of inspiring pointless ad hominem mud-slinging (always embarrassing to see, from whatever angle), but also of boiling a potentially interesting debate down to a oft-rehearsed set of perceived dichotomies – radical vs. conservative, innovative vs. formal, avant-garde vs. traditional, ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked’, even Romantic vs. Classical – that are of limited real use. Instead of two predictable camps circling their wagons on opposing sides of the same insurmountable mountain and firing off ineffectual volleys, it is surely worth initiating a more topographical study. To this end, I aim to compare poems here by Seamus Heaney and J.H. Prynne – one of only two ‘avant-garde’ poets Heaney mentions by name in Side’s quotation – to see what, if anything, lies beyond their obvious difference.
It is presumptuous to imply, even indirectly, that Seamus Heaney is the closest thing the current British poetry scene possesses to a genuinely popular artist just because the poetry-buying public is made up of ignorant fools who don’t know what is good for them. Assuming, then, that there are other reasons, what is it that this audience ‘gets’ from Heaney’s work? Surely not only, as Side implies, the reinforcement of an essentially conservative worldview, little epiphanic confirmations of fixed national, social, familial and personal identity bringing us back to ‘hard realities’. Heaney’s poetry does indeed abound in such moments of muted recognition and realisation, but is that really all that is in it? Side presents Heaney as a poet of familiarity and stability, whose ‘dissembling’ relates mainly to his jockeying and uneasy self-positioning in the cloistered and inaccessible corridors of academic discourse. Whatever his failings as an artist may be, that simply isn’t the Seamus Heaney I read.
Indeed, I am always struck, when I do return to his work, by how many of his poems are directly or indirectly about poetry, about, more specifically, becoming – or maintaining an identity as – a poet. This might be understandable in early work like the (to my mind at least) pretty risible ‘Digging’, in which the fledging poet forsakes his forebears’ spades for a pen before arguing unconvincingly for their essential equivalence. By 1984’s Station Island – where the now 45-year old poet is still summoning up Joyce’s ghost to tell himself ‘[w]hat you do you must do on your own’ and ‘[t]he English language / belongs to us’ – the focus on the ‘growth of the poet’s mind’ has reached the level of neurosis, even for a committed Wordsworthian like Heaney. Bulwarked by such undeniable public signifiers as the Nobel Prize, Heaney’s contemporary reputation is decidedly monolithic, but are such self-motivational moments the expression of an assured and confident poet? This wavering becomes even more apparent at the ‘microcosmic’ scale of the individual poem. Take ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, which has fascinated me since I first read it in 1996’s The Spirit Level. The first section ticks the boxes on a number of Heaney clichés:
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
Yes to reconfiguring of Irish legend (Irish Catholic legend in this case), yes to ‘warm’ depictions of the natural, yes to vocation seen as organic part of a vague ‘network of eternal life’. This poem might be seen – cynically – as a machine for generating a closed-circuit chorus of gently pitying ahs between identifying poet, identifying readership and safely back again, as everyone confirms the picturesque and moving qualities of baby blackbirds and Irish saints. Even the ‘And’ that opens the poem (a nod – is it possible? – to The Cantos) seems to confess, here I go again. And so he might, except that the poem quickly sprouts a second section that effectively thwarts such expectations:
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘to labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
This doesn’t quite escape from cloying abstraction – hello ‘shut-eyed blank of underearth’ and ‘love’s deep river’ – but at least contextualizes them clearly (if uneasily) in the imagination. Heaney’s questions put us at a ‘distance’ precisely as they enumerate specific sufferings, snapping us out of the first section’s too-easy lull of narcotic identification. There are few ‘mainstream’ poets who would rend the veil quite as thoroughly as Heaney does here – this is just a poem, folks! – and one must wonder at his motivation. Is this a dismissive denouncement of the frivolous imaginings of poetry in the face of the saint’s total sacrifice, or a fear on Heaney’s part that faith in the natural threatens to ‘blank’ his own consciousness of self, identity, location and therefore purpose? Does he admire St Kevin, or is he frightened by him?
One of the more valid points McKendrick makes against Side is pertinent here: Heaney has adapted and changed over the years, albeit slightly, and saddling him with an unwavering Hobsbaum-inspired poetics is like arguing that Prynne never really moved on from early models like Donald Davie or Charles Olson. In The Spirit Level, as in the preceding volumes Seeing Things and The Haw Lantern, ‘the great physician of the earth’ – as Paul Muldoon waggishly calls him – ‘is waxing metaphysical, has taken to ‘walking on air’’, i.e. has self-consciously moved away from his previously grounded concerns to something more abstract and fable-like.
Form itself reflects the change. The tercets of this poem – like those of the earlier sequence Squarings – seem more indebted to the airy Wallace Stevens than the labourious Robert Frost Heaney favoured earlier in his career. Such self-consciousness in compensating for past bias is not an example of ‘dissembling’, but a more fundamental attempt at a self-righting equivocation. Ira Lightman is right in seeing this aesthetic of ‘saying nothing’ – ‘Is it any wonder when I thought / I would have second thoughts?’ – as coming out of Heaney’s political context and history, from a climate in which not taking a side represented taking a side. This can be seen in the very texture (and title) of a volume like The Spirit Level, which balances a Yeatsian public poem like ‘Tollund’ (in which a vaguely-defined ‘us’ is liberated to become ‘[o]urselves again, free-willed again, not bad’ in the light of the Good Friday Agreement) with the comfortless ‘A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also’, with its encompassing vision of death as ‘Great chiefs and great loves / In obliterated light’. If today’s poetic ‘mainstream’ can usefully be referred to as – appropriating Silliman’s appropriation of Poe – a ‘School of Quietude’, Heaney’s quietude, while undeniable, is no oasis of stolid calm, but riven with tension.
Attempted balance generates not calm in ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ but explosion. However we interpret this individual poem, or place it in Heaney’s oeuvre, the violence of the gesture is unmistakable: the whole poem erupts into surprising self-laceration and doubt after a ‘typical’ Heaney opening, balancing impulse with consequence like a willed act of contrition. Although the critic Heaney – the public Heaney – can be relied on for periodic accounts of the vital humanistic work of poetry – indeed, his Nobel speech evokes St Kevin again in a slightly less ambiguous light as ‘true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder’ – I cannot help feeling that his real power as a writer lies not in uplift, but in torn and doubtful poems such as this one and the non-stance stance he takes in them.
Here I differ from Side, who sees Heaney’s prose as a clear index of his poetic intentions. Instead, I would argue that Heaney’s prose is essentially cheerleading on poetry’s behalf, trying to convince not only audience but also poet of its ongoing intrinsic value and relevance. His poetry is where he actually entertains and engages with his real doubts. If a commune between poet and readership is what is aimed at throughout Heaney’s work, then an identification-with-doubt seems more healthy to me than with the chthonic certainties of a (to name another recent ‘canonical’ figure often linked to Heaney) Ted Hughes any day of the week.
J.H. Prynne’s poetry – and this is where I can sympathise with Side’s implicit exasperation – seems to me endlessly more ambitious than Heaney’s, and has attempted, increasingly, what seems a ‘total’ expression, dragging in individual perception, stray cultural detritus, political commentary, esoteric specialized terminologies, everyday slang, scientific jargon, emotional feedback, unpredictable connotation – everything, in short, that Prynne is, knows and feels (a not inconsiderable amount). Such complexity does not make for easy consumption. Take this example:
All the fun of the pit gets well and then better,
sand spun off as yet to bind promise to tap up
one clock via another, either to both, sky-divers
like swallows gorging their young. In staple pairs
all so sudden with a tumult, written for nothing
to skip a beat, break open the shells; dexter risen
forward, new zonal application as leaf by shaded
leaf glows with wanting itself so. None other for
both or neither, before this after that, hall-way of
desire in fairest placement rising. As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided: hot justice pleading for penalty
in a rigged-up camp of love, courtship plays requited
and branded so faintly at implicit final appeal.
This starts off with playful twists on common idioms – all of the fun of the ‘fair’ gets redirected to the decidedly less fun ‘pit’ (with its connotations of mining or Hell) while ‘gets well and then better’ plays off the fact that we happily tell people to ‘get well soon’ and hope that they ‘feel better’ too, when the two aren’t really compatible, at least in a sequential way: can someone be any better than well? This bifurcation introduces a preoccupation with twinning and doubling that comes to dominate the poem: the ‘staple pairs’ of sky-divers, ‘leaf by shaded / leaf’, the two clocks, one of which will be ‘tapped up’ (?) via another (how does this work?), moving from alternatives to unity (‘either to both’, then later ‘None other for / both or neither’).
Figuration works in this poem via suggestion and implication rather than overt comparison (with ‘sky-divers / like swallows gorging their young’ a particularly vivid exception): ‘sand spun off’ to ‘bind promise’ suggests an hourglass (another two-part mechanism) in the context of ‘clock’, with the falling sand comparable to the falling sky-divers, whose suddenly opening parachutes might well resemble a ‘tumult’ or ‘shells’ breaking open, the associated thrill like a heart ‘skip[ping] a beat’ (another everyday idiom re-routed), before the parachutes in turn suggest falling leaves seeking a new ‘zon[e]’ on the ground. The upbeat tone of this image-complex, with its undertones of release and excitement, is implicit (if ambiguous) in the positive connotations of ‘fun’, ‘well’, ‘better’, ‘promise’, ‘staple pairs’ (hard not to read/hear ‘stable’, but positive in either case) and the phrase ‘skip a beat’, suggesting that more than the leaf ‘glows with wanting itself so’. One is put in mind of the surprise ending of Rilke’s tenth Duino Elegy, where happiness unexpectedly ‘falls’. These positive possibilities are summed up in the single, odd-but-precise word-choice ‘dexter’, the opposite of ‘sinister’ – i.e. on the right rather than on the left – and with all the fortuitous connotations that suggests in comparison. It is both literal and specific – the right side of these falling divers/leaves is ‘risen / forward’ – and figuratively propitious, implying a potentially ‘good landing’, a ‘hall-way of / desire in fairest placement rising’.
The mood gets gloomier as the poem goes on, the language of law and restriction crowding out the intimations of uplifting downfall. First we have the need for a ‘zonal application’ – bureaucratic red tape and/or nefarious parceling, buying, selling and developing of land. Possession, or desire for possession, is implicit. Then, towards the end of the second stanza, we get ‘hot justice pleading for penalty / in a rigged-up camp of love”, where words like ‘hot’ and ‘camp’ shift disturbingly from positive, light-hearted, sexy connotations to more painful hints of detainment and torture and back again, with some kind of negative erotic energy powering the violence. It is hard, in this light, not to see the ‘court’ in ‘courtship’, not to interpret the ‘plays’ as power-plays rather than enjoyable romps and ‘requited’ as carrying a genuine burden of obligation. ‘[A]ppeal’ overlaps the languages of law and attraction, ‘final’ brings foreshadowings of mortality, while ‘implicit’ suggests the chance for a reprieve is pretty slim. The sense of overbrimming joy that underpins the earlier part of that poem has curdled into a punishable excess – a proper ‘gorging’ – summarised unpleasantly in the nasty bathos of being ‘branded so faintly’. The poem itself seems to contain reflections on the difficulty of avoided such imposed strictures:
As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided
The sweeping momentum of the first stanza carries the reader well into the second before he or she notices the darkening tone. It has an almost Blakean air (‘The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom’), with the punitive, legalistic forces of authority poised at the gates to trim the sky-divers’ wings. . . .
That I am only gesturing toward a sea of potential meaning here (and this in just one section – the final one – of the 2001 sequence Unanswering Rational Shore) should not imply that there is any ‘charlatanry’ afoot, simply that this poetry is particularly rich and open to interpretation on a word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase level. I have given only my immediate reactions and second thoughts here and feel sure others would reach different conclusions about what is going on in this poem; given more time and re-readings I’m sure I would too. The poem seems to warrant, require, even want this type of further investigation and reflection.
Some might (and evidently do) find such indeterminacy questionable and rebarbative: even positive critical assessments of Prynne often fight shy of actual close engagement with the words on the page. However, I feel this poetry invites deep and repeated reading primarily because of it. Prynne’s critical output to date – notably the volumes They that haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (Parataxis, 2001) and Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and Others (Barque, 2007) – suggests the kind of minute analysis he would probably wish for his own work and the sort of attention he probably applies to its composition. Whether it is reasonable or realistic to expect any given reader to grant a literary work this kind of attention seems beside the point: the artist is free to request it; the reader is free to give it, or not. One is put in mind of Joyce’s reported quip responding to the question “Why did you spend seventeen years writing Finnegans Wake?”: “So you could spend seventeen years reading it” – entirely serious and playful at the same time. Prynne seems similarly driven in his artistic ideals and ambitions, even if it isn’t always easy for the onlooker to pinpoint accurately what they are. To quote Geoffrey Hill, a different kind of poet again to both Heaney and Prynne:
We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?
That seems more true of Prynne’s work even than it does of Hill’s.
The question of how the difficulty of an ‘ordinary day’ might fit into a poem takes us back to one of the more interesting asides in Side’s essay: the delineation of ‘defamiliarisation’ as an ‘empirical mode of writing’, something more grounded and reactionary than radical or transcendent. Despite Shklovsky’s context within the Russian avant garde, he had realistic fiction as much in mind when he discussed and defined ‘ostranenie’, and it is easy to trace the logic behind Side’s assessment: a two-part process is involved, with the thing depicted presented in artfully unusually terms, only for the reader’s ah of recognition to sound when memory or imagination supplies the missing nominalism. ‘Normality’ floods back in, but with (ideally; supposedly) an added freshness. This, it could be argued, is what metaphor has always done, justifying to some degree Side’s strictures about its conservatism.
The curious thing is that an aesthetics of ‘fidelity to the actual’, of ‘just representations of specific nature’ (to twist Johnson’s phrasing) can be traced back further than the mainstream defamiliarisations of Heaney and English ‘Martian poets’ such as Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, to decidedly ‘avant-garde’ roots. Pound’s tenants of Imagism – and the actual poetic practice of Pound, H.D., Williams, Moore and other first generation Modernists – can be seen as the wellspring here, continuing through second generation figures like the “Objectivists” Zukofsky, Reznikoff, Oppen and Niedecker to present day practitioners like Ron Silliman and Rae Armantrout, who are – despite ‘Language’ writing’s alleged focus on the textual and non-referential – empiricists at heart.
British poetry in the twentieth century doesn’t really possess anything like this clear lineage, despite contrary flourishes (some of Lawrence’s poems, for example). ‘Avant garde’ poets from Dylan Thomas and David Jones, through W. S. Graham, Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting down to contemporary figures like Tom Raworth, Geraldine Monk and Maggie O’Sullivan have consistently privileged (to use Pound’s terms) melopœia (poetry in which ‘[w]ords are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning’) and logopœia (‘a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas’) over phanopœia (‘throwing a visual image on the mind’). Even apparently ‘earthy’ poets such as Hardy, Edward Thomas and Ted Hughes rarely present the object for the object’s sake alone.
Therefore it is not surprising that, in finding a more recent exemplar of the ‘total love for the thing-after-anotherness of the world’ he admires so in Clare, Heaney turns to the American Elizabeth Bishop – who inherited an ethical emphasis on accurate observation in part from the example of Marianne Moore – rather than a British poet. The ‘fidelity to the actual’ practiced by poets of The Movement was less to do with the particular observed and more to do with the texture and nature of human interaction and community, making satire and commentary their typical modes. Heaney, as Side sees him, is a self-limited advocate of phanopœia over melopœia and logopœia, but this actually sets him apart from the legacy of The Movement, seen more directly in poets like Simon Armitage, Sean O’Brien and new laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
The poems discussed above show a telling contrast on this issue. Heaney’s poem is itself conflicted: the first section attempts to render St Kevin’s situation in naturalistic terms, complete with convincingly ‘real’ blackbirds, but the second unweaves this work, concerned that an unquestioning faith in the natural is maybe a promoting of the irrational over the rational. Being ‘mirrored clear’ might seem the aspiration of a phanopœia-centred art, but the worry here seems to be that defamiliarisation only works if it does lead back to the familiar, otherwise we are lost in an alien world. This may be, as Side might argue, the predictable bad faith of an artist at odds with both his material and materials, but this denies the considerable pathos implicit in Heaney’s dramatisation of his fears.
What kind of ‘fidelity to the actual’ might Prynne’s poem be said to demonstrate? Not, clearly, the unambiguous depiction of a shared physical reality, despite that flourish of the sky-divers like ‘swallows gorging their young’. Instead, it is primarily a poetry of logopœia – the ‘dance of the intellect among words’ – to be apprehended mentally and (to a lesser degree) aurally first, before any visualization can take place, if any can. A cliché of ‘postmodern’ literature to be sure, but Prynne’s poetry ceaselessly foregrounds its own existence as discourse – written material – and much of its poetic energy derives from the friction of juxtaposition, of individual words’ whole histories of usage and connotation jostling for attention. As my tentative interpretation above indicates, it is largely allegorical: ideas and impressions form as the reader reads, coalesce into a vague overview or narrative – in this case, of indulged and (maybe) excessive pleasure curtailed by sanctioned authority – that is invariably provisional, but still suggestive. It requires and motivates thought and is fundamentally restless.
This may be at the heart of a curious result of comparing these two authors. Standard thinking has Prynne as the more ‘difficult’ and ‘challenging’ of the two – and in many ways he is – while Heaney is the more ‘popular’ and ‘down to earth’. Heaney is certainly more successful and visible in worldly terms – Nobel prize, best-sellers, feted spokesperson – while Prynne must apparently content himself with an (admittedly expanding) coterie of peers, admirers and idolators. This relative social positioning, however, has seemingly little influence on their respective poetries.
‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ may or may not be typical of Heaney’s work, but the anxieties it uncovers surface at regular intervals. To argue, as Side might, that these moments of weakness and doubt are staged simply so he can come back all the stronger, reasserting his competence and the validity of his aesthetic – i.e. that they are mainly a rhetorical device – misses the regularity and intensity of these self-debasements. One can pluck examples almost at random: ‘Exposure’, where Heaney presents himself as ‘neither internee nor informer, / An inner émigré’ who has ‘missed / The once-in-a-lifetime portent, / The comet’s pulsing rose’; ‘Casualty’, where Heaney begs the eponymous dead fisherman to ‘Question me again’, knowing he has no answer; or section xxxvii of Squarings, where Heaney ruefully praises Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems as showing the ‘virtue of art that knows its mind’, knowing that his own do not. It is not always clear in these moments whether Heaney doubts himself or poetry itself.
Prynne’s poetry is also pessimistic, but more in terms of subject matter and outlook. Recent poems like ‘Refuse Collection’ and To Pollen, for instance, deal directly with the ongoing war in Iraq and work hard – usually through shifty, shifting pronouns – to implicate reader and speaker alike in the cycle of state-sanctioned murder and torture:
All are disfigured. I saw a hole in my chest, feel
ashamed to plead for your own life it is utter crass
from a hole in the face word vomit lost for them, hurt
stain so much disowned. You hear what you say over
to get off and by right in a mutilation outburst, for
any life at all stand-in to be shameful in a news
flash grease trap.
Prynne’s indeterminacy can be seen as a form of protest, an admittance that if language is indeed irredeemably corrupted and implicated, it can at least be coaxed into displaying, if not exorcising, its scars and inconsistencies. Despite the darkness Prynne sees encompassing modern culture, this grain of resistance, however remote, is what makes his work paradoxically uplifting. This is poetry that despite heavy burdens envisions itself as vital, necessary, maybe even change-inducing; a faith that places Prynne squarely in a Romantic tradition of possible renewal. It may only be a potential, and it may stand against intimidating odds, but it is ultimately more optimistic than the Oz-like revelation at the heart of ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, even if it is Heaney himself who pulls back the curtain.
I can believe – rereading the interview quotation – that Heaney doesn’t see much in Prynne’s aesthetic, but he cannot deny it as a necessary thing, as something at least potentially exciting and motivating. I don’t, pace Side, think this represents a smug faint-praise dismissal on Heaney’s part, largely because he displays little real faith in his own ‘alternative’ – note that he ‘yearn[s] for’ a holistic ‘cement mixer’ aesthetic rather than confidently owning it. ‘Avant garde’ may indeed be an outdated term, especially given its militaristic overtones, but against this type of thwarted desire, the invigorating spirit represented by Prynne’s work will always crop up again and be relevant.
Economics and Visibility
I realise that by focusing only on poems I have enjoyed and returned to I may be misrepresenting Heaney’s work as a whole. However, I still feel that the anxieties and concerns I have indicated recur too frequently not to be significant. Heaney is about as popular and successful as a contemporary poet can get, but his apparent freedom to bask in the security of public acclaim, academic positions, prominent prizes and healthy sales figures doesn’t seem to console him. Instead, it may even add to a burdensome sense of being a spokesman. The resentment – not too strong a word I think – demonstrated by Side in his assessment may well result from an understandable feeling that figures like Heaney monopolise a too-large chunk of the limited media attention for poetry at the expense of more deserving talents, making it harder for genuinely innovative writers to get noticed and recognised.
While there is truth in this, it is too simplistic to use as a one-size-fits-all criteria dividing the poetry world readily into, on one hand, worthy toilers-in-obscurity and, on the other, vapid media whores out for themselves. There is also truth in Ron Silliman’s repeated observation (see his blog, virtually passim) that the main problem with ‘official verse culture’ (to use a now-hackneyed designation) is that it presents itself – i.e. its informal affiliation of big name trade presses, publishing outlets and sympathetic critics – as the sum reality of contemporary poetry at any given synchronic cross-section, condemning everyone else to (at best) marginal status, if not outright non-existence. Side’s annoyance at Heaney’s comments – and the lip service they pay – may well stem from this sense of ungrounded ostracism: he does come across a little like the smug host welcoming Prynne and his ‘people’ in ‘alternative poetics’ to the banquet before seating them safely at a table at the back. Such a reading, however, fails to acknowledge the genuine doubt – and therefore pathos – behind Heaney’s big gun name-checks – Auden, Eliot, Lowell – and his unfulfilled desire for a ‘cement mixer’ poetic.
Prynne, again, offers a contrast. What irks me most about Heaney’s comment – and which, surprisingly, Side doesn’t discuss – is his assumption that what might be more charitably regarded as a neo-Marxist scepticism about uncritical involvement in the consumer marketplace actual represents a detached aestheticism, a ‘kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence’. This is woefully inadequate to the complex stance taken both by Prynne and by writers obviously indebted to him (John Wilkinson, Drew Milne, Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady, just for starters). It is also where Heaney comes closest to sounding like the stereotypically prejudiced and near-sighted figure Side paints him as. The clichéd image of Prynne’s career Heaney gestures toward – that he has systematic trained up (read: brainwashed) a coterie of like-minded supporters from his safe position as a Cambridge academic, ensuring publication and positive critical attention without the messy business of actual ‘engagement’ with the reading public at large – overlooks the economic realities of the choices he has made.
After a now disowned debut from a trade press (1962’s Force of Circumstance and Other Poems, published by Routledge), Prynne has actively sought fugitive publication – small presses, limited runs, elegant editions – not as a way of thumbing a nose at the public, but of circulating work to interested and curious parties without necessarily imposing it on everyone else. What can seem controlling – such as being picky about what anthologies one’s poetry appears in – may be an honest, even generous acceptance that modern poetry is now more a matter of occasionally overlapping tribes than a single monolithic culture. It is, to be crass, a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality, which is uncommon and odd enough these days to appear radical. It is hard to think of even semi-recent precedents – Emily Dickinson? Jack Spicer? Hopkins? – and it might be necessarily to go back to the model of private circulation popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to find them. Compared to that, Prynne in fact seems positively outgoing.
Either way, this approach echoes the kind of quiet confidence in poetry’s vitality, relevance and survival odds mentioned above, irrespective of the growing (and realistic?) pessimism of Prynne’s worldview. It certainly shows up McKendrick’s snide dig about the ‘queues forming down many high streets’ for ‘avant garde’ works as the mercenary-seeming misstep it really is. When has market share ever necessarily equated to any art’s aesthetic value?
Ironically – and it can’t all have been thought out in advance, can it? – this technique hasn’t worked out too badly, and Prynne is now safely ensconced as the ‘secret king’ of British experimental poetry, a shadowy but permanent presence and influence, even in the consciousness of the mainstream (hence Heaney’s semi-begrudging name-check). The most public effect of this situation to date – aside from the Bloodaxe Poems (1999, updated edition 2005) – was the heated debate which erupted over Ed Randall Stevenson’s The Last of England? The Oxford English Literary History Volume 12 1960-2000, which suggested that Prynne’s poetry might ultimately prove more durable than that of Larkin. On the questionable basis that no publicity is bad publicity, the Prynne ‘brand’ has reached a level of exposure the poet himself may never have intended for it.
John Ashbery, the other ‘avant garde’ type Heaney mentions by name, offers a promising point of comparison here. Side is being somewhat disingenuous when he claims Ashbery ‘has yet to receive unreserved approbation by mainstream criticism’. Although this is true to some extent of the UK, where Ashbery – like Stevens before him – has never really been embraced wholeheartedly by the critical establishment, a figure who has become the first living poet to have a collected edition published by the Library of America, who – at the age of 80 – was selected by MTV to be its official laureate, can hardly be deemed obscure. Heaney is spot on when he says his is a ‘voice’ that has now become central, but dead wrong to imply any corresponding change on Ashbery’s part to make this possible. The important point is that Ashbery ‘achieved’ his position with zero visible compromise of his aesthetic; the ‘mainstream’ has simply had to reshape itself to accommodate him, and he has become arguably the most influential single poet since Pound.
It may take longer for Prynne’s ‘spikier’ poetry to achieve the same result, but everything about his self-presentation suggests he has the confidence it will happen eventually. Heaney, coming from the other position entirely, from a maybe premature absorption, surely doesn’t express his doubts because he senses some avant garde ‘wind of change’ a-gatherin’ that will necessarily make him irrelevant (McKendrick’s barbs are more or less on target here), but because he suspects they communicate something humanly meaningful. They are easy to relate to. Maybe a little too easy.
The radical incompatibility of the aesthetic represented by Heaney and the aesthetic represented by Prynne, their respective brands of uncertainty, will not disappear. It is hard to believe in some Blairite ‘third way’ that can select the best aspects of both and fuse them neatly in the melting pot, despite the popularity right now in America of just such a concept of ‘hybridity’. Instead, this is one arena where another of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell – ‘Opposition is true Friendship’ – may finally hold sway. However, their mutual existence and the value that many see in one or the other approach should give us pause to ask what poetry is right now, what it should be, who it should be for and why, and where it is going. Our doubtlessly provisional answers to these questions need not be punitive. Carving out territories and sticking to your guns is for armies and corporations. The ‘big, normal world’ that Heaney desires to express is more big than it is normal.
Finally, at root, I think I resent any pronouncement limiting what poetry is and can do, something both Heaney and Side are guilty of here, Side maybe more so. Poetry is always potentially anything anyone can claim it is, and more. Always more.
 I’ve never been able to accept the simile ‘snug as a gun’ – it works on a ‘musical’ level, maybe, but is ugly in every other way…
 Heaney’s more unilateral return to his usual stomping grounds in Electric Light and District and Circle has – for me, at least – made for far duller and more predictable poetry.
 Indeed, it could be argued that Prynne’s ‘aura’ has been accrued to some degree to the detriment of deserving contemporaries such as R.F. Langley, Peter Riley, Douglas Oliver and Wendy Mulford, whose reputations are altogether too small on this side of the Atlantic especially.