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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 Jeffrey Side, 2009-04-10

Jamie, just to respond to a few points you make in your response to my response to your letter about my Heaney article. I will quote from you and add my comments beneath.

“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.”:

I think when readers compare my article with Sword’s diatribes against me personally a fairer assessment will be made. Indeed, that you find Sword credible weakens your own credibility slightly.

“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 is curious that Heaney uses the words ‘absolved’ and ‘manumitted’ in the sentence you quote. The meanings of these words, as you know, are “Freed from any question of guilt” in the case of ‘absolved’, and “Free from slavery or servitude” in the case of ‘manumitted’. These words are morally charged ones, and not as objective and analytical as you seem to be suggesting. Why would one need to use them in a sentence that is, as you interpret, merely an expression of an observed tension? Why shouldn’t ‘linguistic inventiveness’, as Heaney describes poetic language, be “freed from any question of guilt” (although, something of his real opinion on this is revealed when he slips into the sentence the word ‘seem’ to suggest its continuing “guilt”)? And why is it necessarily the case that it cannot be “free from slavery or servitude”? That in the case of the former it is, and in that of the latter (according to Heaney) it is not, to me, questions Heaney’s objectivity regarding the sentence you quote. It also further demonstrates his frequent use of slippery critical language. So it is not as clear-cut as you assume when you say: ‘Heaney gives due weight to both claims and you say he’s dismissing one of them’. With Heaney, his critical language has to be carefully decoded in order to appreciate its subtleties.

“Your account of Heaney’s dealings with Clare is similarly garbled, and keeps presuming Heaney is promoting his own poetry.”:

I never used the word “promoting” in relation to Heaney’s use of poetic apologia. It is not my unique opinion that Heaney in his critical writings of other poets uses it as apologia for his own poetry. In ‘Power and Hiding Places: Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney’, Hugh Haughton says that Heaney ‘has used critical prose as a powerful instrument in helping define the terms through which his own work can be understood. In readings, essays, interviews and lectures, he has proved himself [… ] an eloquent self-promoter of his own art.’ This was quoted in my article, but you seem not to have noticed it.

“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.)”;

The quote from Heaney that proceeds my use of the word “disingenuously” is: ‘Just because Clare’s poetry abounds in actualities, just because it is full of precise delightful detail as a granary is full of grains, does not mean that it is doomed to pile up and sink down in its own materiality’. Heaney is being disingenuous to the extent that he argues that Clare’s poetry is more than ‘photography’, after Heaney has, elsewhere, praised it for its absence of artifice. He thinks it a good thing of Clare’s ‘Mouse’s Nest’ that ‘there is an unspectacular joy and totally alert love for the one-thing-after-anotherness of the world’. This is a small point and I’m surprised you make such a fuss over it.

“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.”:

I disagree that Heaney is ‘full of praise for Thomas’. It seems to me that his observations of Thomas’s “shortcomings” as a descriptive poet tells us that Heaney wishes Thomas were more of an empiricist. He suggests this by damning Thomas with faint praise. As I said in the article, for Heaney, Thomas ‘continued to place a too unenlightened trust in the plasticity of language’.

“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 pejorative sense you intended, describe your own approach far more accurately than Heaney’s.”:

I can only say that you, again, have not attempted to look further than my article and to the sources cited in it. I apologise if you find my vocabulary offensive to Heaney.

“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.”:

I have to disagree; the burden of proof is still on your shoulders. I have not blamed the mainstream in this matter. I mentioned nothing of this in my article or in my response to your initial response to the article. You have elevated it to a contentious issue. Although you now claim not to be ‘blaming [… ] others for such a choice’ your response to my article suggested otherwise. You said: ‘Even if Prynne himself has declined to be published in certain commercial anthologies and other poets affiliated with him have expressed scorn for the larger poetry outlets, that doesn’t let the mainstream off the hook.’ Here, you put words into my mouth by suggsting that my article suggested this, which it didn’t. These are entirly your suppositions.

“The idea that certain poets affiliated with Prynne should expect to receive ‘overtures’ and ‘offers of publication’ from the larger presses is comic and naïve.”:

I was responding to your use of the word “scorn”, which you connected to my article (and which wasn’t in it). In your response to my article, you said that ‘poets affiliated with him [Prynne] have expressed scorn for the larger poetry outlets’. My response to this was to question it. I said: ‘If other poets “affiliated with him have expressed scorn for the larger poetry outlets”, does this mean that such “scorn”, as you put it, was born of offers of publication from such quarters? I seriously doubt it. Such a reaction is likely to be because of a lack of such overtures.’ I meant by this that for these poets to scorn (or reject) the mainstream, as you imply, would require something for them to practically reject, other than the mere concept of a “mainstream”. The only thing that comes to mind in this regard is some sort of publishing offer. Given that this would not be forthcoming in most cases, “scorn” would be absent, and therfore a misapproriation by you of the word “scorn” in this context. Again, I have to stress, this is a straw man of your own construction, my article didn’t broach the subject.

“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’?”:

All I can say is that Heaney’s poetic aesthetic is influenced by Hobsbaum’s, among others. I make no claim that Heaney has imbibed Hobsbaum’s poetic xenophobia, but that is mentioned in relation to Hobsbaum’s aesthetic as applied to what he saw as an inappropriate poetic language as expressed in the poetry of Eliot and Pound.

“I’d bet good money that Morrison, Haughton and even Fenton would be appalled at the uses you’ve put them to.”:

Fenton isn’t quoted in the article, Alverez is. The quote is from a book written by Fenton in which he uses the same Alverez quote. Morrison is quoted in context, as is Haughton. So I see no reason why they would be ‘appalled’.

“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.”:

Your last sentence shows you don’t really understand the difference between poetry and prose.

“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.”

Like Sword, you demonstrate your ignorance of the differences between language used in prose criticism and poetic language. Criticism has no requirement to connote, but to be precise. I’m surprised that someone who is fairly intelligent should not understand this.

“Your own prose is dreary and monotonous where Heaney’s is explorative and supple”.

To be too supple in prose criticism could lead to a slippery use of language, don’t you think?

“But the real test would be his poems and, as I’ve said, you’ve deliberately avoided them.”

My aim was to look at his critical prose writing, not his poems.

“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.)”

Both lines you quote are mediocre examples of poetry. Both, as you correctly point out, are heavily adjectival and descriptive. Using words like ‘tawny’, ‘gutteral’ or ‘telluric’ won’t detract from this. Where his poems attempt to use linguistically interesting words, these words usually only serve to shore up reality, they fail to project beyond their specified meanings. They function as adornments to description. They are tools to make explicit what would otherwise remain vague, or connotative.

“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.”

Again, I did not intend addressing these issues in the article. I was merely looking at the way he uses his prose criticism as apologia.

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