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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.

Todd Swift and Jeffrey Side:

‘The Dissembling Poet Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde’

An exchange from Todd Swift’s blog, March 2009

Todd Swift: From Todd Swift’s blog, March 30, 2009:

No Bother At All

Paragraph 1

Jacket’s lately been publishing articles and letters defending or questioning Heaney’s legacy and poetics. There is even a letter from poet Jamie McKendrick. I can’t help but feel the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. There is a bigger picture, and a bigger struggle, and using Heaney as strawman/ punching bag (or Holy Grail) is just not on. Jeffrey Side, who knows his stuff, has set up a rather obvious Movement vs. New Romantic/Apocalypse historical binary. Histories of modernism are more various and complex than that, as Robert Scholes has shown us. Empson defended Dylan Thomas; Larkin adored Yeats (that sort of thing).


The problem is, when poets get stuck into arguing about 50-year-old grievances, it becomes as intractable as The Middle East — with the difference that the ground has shifted. The real problem, which Heaney typifies for critics like Side, is that there does seem to be a smug, conservative establishment at work in certain parts of the British poetry publishing world — and it is tedious and unilluminating to constantly see the same faces and positions marketed as “mainstream” (and therefore rather safe) to the general public. Side is also correct to observe that this Tradition tends to dislike stylistic excess, poetic artifice, and avant-gardism — though it often represents aspects of High Modernism. But much else is currently going on in British poetry, well-between the poles of extreme-Prynnism and ultra-Faberism.


Side should really be critically reading Peter Porter, if he wants to examine the High Priest of Neo-classical Empiricism. Porter, now 80, is a master craftsman and crafty interlocutor of all things not-quite-right, and also has a new Picador book out, called Better Than God — which makes Don Paterson’s immodest title God’s Gift To Women appear almost, well, Christian. The mistake that those, like Side, make, when they start exposing Heaney’s “poetic” as being conservative, or old-fashioned, or whatever, is that they forget two things: a) most people who read poetry think Seamus Heaney is a wonderful person and immensely talented; b) Heaney writes brilliantly crafted poetry that is some of the most aesthetically and politically subtle of the last 40 years — perhaps the most so. Puzzling over Heaney, as if he was a sham, or a hoax, won’t do. His criticism, I agree, is notoriously parsimonious, and full of odd decisive mandates — like a clenched Ezra Pound’s A Few Dos and Dont’s.


But Heaney’s poetry is bigger than that. His poetry is far more stylish, even ornate, than he might care to admit (but which Alvarez observed). I think Heaney is not as great as Yeats or Kavanagh, but clearly, one of the four or five best Irish poets of the 20th century (Muldoon would be there too). He’s clearly the major British/Irish traditional “lyric” poet of his generation, and won’t be budged from that canonical seat by smug potshots from the lollipop brigade — but nor does he need smug defense either. Heaney needs to be made less canonical, by reading him strangely. That may happen, in 20 or 30 years.


Meanwhile, less ad hominem, from all sides, would be useful. And I do agree with Side — poets needn’t be rooted in normality to be excellent — and, for that matter, how many ever, really, were and are?

The item above has been slightly revised since first publication. Ed.

Jeffrey Side: From Todd Swift’s blog, March 30, 2009:


Todd, I can’t disagree with some of the more general points you raise about the nature of the debate surrounding Heaney within (for want of a less problematical term) “the avant-garde” (or ‘the lollipop brigade’, as you may be alluding to them). But I do think you have slightly misrepresented my article by suggesting its concerns are entirely outdated; and I am intrigued by what you see the “bigger struggle” as being, if, indeed, my article suggested a need for one.


I don’t think my article does sets up a ‘Movement vs. New Romantic/Apocalypse historical binary’. I mention the Movement and the New Apocalypse poets only once, in describing Robert Conquest’s view of them in his Introduction to his New Lines anthology of Movement poetry. The bulk of the subsequent section of the article deals with Heaney’s involvement with The Group and his poetic nurturing by Hobsbaum. I would not disagree with you that the history of modernism is complex and varied, and I don’t think anything I have said in the article suggests the opposite. So, it is slightly disingenuous of you to suggest it does.


I have to add in passing, that this complexity is exacerbated if we take into account that Pound also adored Yeats, who said of Pound that he ‘helps me to get back to the definite and concrete, away from modern abstractions’. Here, we see early Modernism’s debt to Wordsworthworthian empiricism as Yeat’s defers to Poundian linguistic precision. A precision, by the way, that Heaney exemplifies and (to complicate matters further) praises Yeats for when he says of Yeats’s use of the authorial “I” that ‘it is brilliantly and concretely at one with the eye of the poet as retina overwhelmed by the visual evidence of infinity and solitude’.


I have to disagree with you, however, when you say: ‘But Heaney’s poetry is bigger than that. His poetry is far more stylish, even ornate, than he might care to admit (but which Alvarez observed)’, because Alverez in a quote in my article says the opposite. Indeed, he is quite damning of Heaney. He says:


If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way. Eliot and his contemporaries, Lowell and his, Plath and hers had it all wrong: to try to make clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness was to mistake morbidity for inspiration. It was, in the end, mere melodrama, understandable perhaps in the Americans who lack a tradition in these matters, but inexcusable in the British’.


I think Heaney would agree with you when you say he needs to be read strangely. It may slightly irritate him that he is not read as, say, Ashbery is.

Todd Swift: From Todd Swift’s blog, March 31, 2009:


Hi Jeffrey, glad to hear from you. I don’t think my post is being disingenuous at all — It is a way of raising interest in your Jacket project and is not meant to be a word-for-word explication of your own writing — but rather, an interpretation with emphasis (my own) added. Blogs are not the place for academic rigour, but polemical swing. Hence, the “misrepresentation” of your article, which you accuse me of, seems rather an odd observation — would you have expected a representation of your article? That’s Xeroxing.


No, instead, I wanted to observe how often, in such debates, the usual suspects get trotted out, and The Movement and The Group are among them. I am intrigued you haven’t picked up on my suggestion to read Porter more closely — he was in The Group, and is far more conservative in his poetics that Heaney will ever be — and a fiercer opponent of the outer limits of linguistic experiment in verse. Porter, of course, shares one austere critical element with the Adorno Brigade — he detests popular culture (TV, film, pop songs) and once claimed to have never heard of, or heard, U2.


Anyway, on the subject of Alvarez, who I know a little, and have talked to about Heaney on several occasions, you are right about the quote you offer. However, what I was referring to was Alvarez’s essay on Heaney where he basically accuses him of being a dandyish stylist, without substance. The thing you have not indicated is that there is only a spectrum difference between Heaney and Alvarez on the subject of style and content. Alvarez thinks (more or less) that content (what is being struggled with in the self and world) is crucial for the poet, and no subject should be off-limits. He wanted more engagement, not less. Heaney, who wants more engagement with the empirical world than, say Dylan Thomas, wanted less than Alvarez. But both want much more “world” in their work than Ashbery does. Though who got more world in than O’Hara?


So often, these “poetic wars” really come down to teams. There’s no point in saying that one football team is mainstream and the other experimental, when the score is nil-nil, or close to it. The point is, there seem to be poetry teams, playing off each other — but the ball’s in play, and the field, though wide, is open to all for the duration.

Jeffrey Side: From Todd Swift’s blog, March 31, 2009:


Todd whilst I’m grateful for your drawing attention to the debate, this can be a double-edged sword if, as you say with regard to blogging, academic rigour has to left out. I would quibble slightly with this, though, and suggest that there is no compulsory reason why blogs should exclude such a quality, even if they choose to be polemical. Polemics, after all, did grow out of academia. Of course, I don’t expect ‘Xeroxing’ either, but merely an accurate reflection of my argument, which would have taken no more words to write than those you did write.


To be honest, I have not studied Porter to the extent I have Heaney, regarding Porter as something of an irrelevance given that his pronouncements on poetry are likely not to be as heeded as those of Heaney, given Heaney’s fame and influence.


With regard to Alvarez, in light of your saying you have met him and talked to him regarding Heaney, I can only defer to you on the matter. But I would say that Alvarez is mistaken if he thinks Heaney is a ‘dandyish stylist, without substance’. True, within Heaney’s poetic writing a sort of plodding ostentation is present but it is always grounded on an “engagement” (if not in the way you exactly mean it) with the world, albeit less emotional and angst ridden than Alverez would prefer.


My quoting Alverez in my article wasn’t to deny the points you make, but to suggest that Heaney’s current elevated position in poetry is unjustified within the context of the of 20th century poetic history. I was not trying to argue that Alvarez and Heaney are poles apart in their views of poetry.

From Todd Swift, March 31, 2009:


Hi Jeffrey, I am not sure you are correct in saying: “Heaney’s current elevated position in poetry is unjustified within the context of the 20th century poetic history” for many reasons. As you know, following studies on canon-formation, and evaluation, of the last 20 years, several things seem clearer: a) there is no one thing known as “poetry”; b) canons are partial and formed for various reasons; c) there are many and various clashing and competing versions of literary history.


I would rather you had framed your comment along the lines of, from your perspective, Heaney is less significant to the narrative you wish to create, for the story of 20th century poetry.


Too often, quarrels between poetry seem based on the Holy Grail of a one and true History, or Canon, that everyone wants a piece of. But there is no such thing beyond its mirage.


I am not sure, for instance, that Heaney’s position is “elevated” except insofar as anyone who has a Nobel Prize bestowed upon them receives an enormous injection of cultural capital that, frankly, no one else can easily undo. I know many poets who do not prefer his verse. But of course he is widely taught and read.


Heaney’s status is emblematic of the relationship between Ireland and Britain in the 20th century, and also relates to the vagaries of the publishing trade. He was the best of a superb lot of poets that emerged during the Troubles, as you know, and this alone was historically compelling. However, Heaney’s ability to fuse Wordsworth’s intelligence with a more Irish sensibility was rather impressive and original, and commanded great respect.


In order to understand Heaney’s significance for the world, it is first important to understand how and why British and Irish poetry still command such undue force, when and where they do, in the world. Much of this is due to an impressive “back catalogue” of over 500 years of deeply-influential and often beautiful poetry.


But it is also part of the culture industry. As I have suggested before, being a poet published by a small press, and being a poet published by a press like Faber and Faber is not merely a slight difference — but the difference between attending Oxbridge, or a very low-ranked university. One can pretend such differences aren’t there, but they are. Larger presses confer immeasurable prestige upon their published authors — and, in a world where, increasingly, poetry is more prized than actually read, prestige is 99% of the battle.


Heaney has the most prestige of any living poet, true.


But consider the prestige of any of the current poets published by Faber, or Picador. They too are far more likely to receive reviews in quality journals and papers, and be invited to international festivals, and receive positions in the academy, and on prize panels — and therefore, it becomes, quietly, self-perpetuating.


This cycle of prestige, though, is not a sinister invisible plot — it is an open process that most poets refuse to challenge, for fear they will be excised from the inner circles. The ugly truth is, many poets crave your so-called “elevated position” themselves. I suspect that these quarrels over position would dissipate if poets were less ambitious, and the common reader were less easily impressed by big-name awards and imprimaturs.


You are right, Jeffrey, to cast light on the mechanisms that inflate and extend reputations. However, I think that by focusing on the least unworthy figure (Heaney) you may be less successful than if you explored the relatively mediocre figures that are also part of an establishment battling with the margins — a battle that has little to do with poetics per se and more to do with social rank.

Jeffrey Side, March 31, 2009:


Todd, you raise a very pertinent point when you mention canon formation, which you rightly classify as problematical, but I don’t think the tenor of my statement particularly alluded to the canon. I was merely pointing out the high regard contemporary critics, publishers and poets hold for Heaney. My using the word “context” wasn’t to suggest a canonical connection, but rather a more informal gathering of opinion formed outside of academic discourse during the past 40 years.


I do think, though, that despite canon formation studies as a discipline, or aspect of theory, in the UK a canon will inevitability be formed by those in academia who are, perhaps, not as progressive as those engaged in the sorts of study of the canon you mention. It is understandable to assume that literary theory necessarily has a bearing on the sorts of poetry that is published, or which poets become approved by the establishment. The depressing reality is that (in the UK at least) it is the publishers and magazine editors who have the final say, and many of them are currently connected to academia, such as Michael Schmidt for instance. So, to this extent, canon formation studies is largely irrelevant, for all practical purposes.


I don’t have an argument with you when you mention the various reasons (national, political and “Wordsworthian”) as to why Heaney holds the position he does in poetry. The main point of my article was merely to point out that in his The Redress of Poetry, Heaney intimates that what he is doing with regard to poetry is in actuality (if only his detractors had the discernment to see it) no different from the real innovators and sculptors of language, such as Joyce and Eliot. That this is not the case is evident in his poetry. This is my only argument.

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