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Response to Rob Stanton

 

 

The following are my responses to some points Rob Stanton made in his critique of my article The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-Garde. His critique can be found here.

   

 

Stanton critique:

 

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?

   

My reply:

 

This was not said nor implied by me in my article.

Stanton critique:

 

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.

 

My reply:

 

This isn’t what I said nor implied in my article relating to the word “dissembling”, which was used in relation to Heaney’s attempts to reposition (in his book The Redress of Poetry) his poetic aesthetic and practice (which Stanton correctly describes, when he says in his critique of my article: ‘Heaney’s poetry does indeed abound in [...] the reinforcement of an essentially conservative worldview, little epiphanic confirmations of fixed national, social, familial and personal identity bringing us back to “hard realities”’) to appear less linguistically conservative and descriptive than they actually are.

 

Stanton critique:

 

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.

 

My response:

 

This point is referring to Heaney’s polemical prose as it appears in his book, The Redress of Poetry. Stanton’s position doesn’t, though, address my article’s detailed discussion and analysis of the comments Heaney makes in that book, regarding his preferences and encouragement for a poetic that utilises descriptive and accurate language.

 

Stanton critique:

 

Heaney, as Side sees him, is a self-limited advocate of phanopśia over melopśia and logopśia, 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.

 

My response:

 

This seems to be saying that Armitage, O’Brien and Duffy owe more to the legacy of The Movement than Heaney does. If Stanton chooses to re-categorise Heaney in this way, that is his prerogative, but as I mention in my article, Robert Conquest in the Introduction to his anthology of Movement poetry, New Lines, describes Movement poetry as ‘empirical in its attitude’ and that values clear meanings along with a ‘refusal to abandon a rational structure and comprehensible language’. To me, Heaney, Armitage, O’Brien and Duffy fit adequately within this classification. Indeed, Heaney, endorses what Conquest says, examples of which can be found in my article, but which Stanton has not mentioned.

 

Stanton critique:

 

‘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.

 

My response:

 

As I never discussed Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in my article, I have no strong opinions about it other than to say that it is a combination of prose-like accurate description and philosophical discursiveness. (Incidentally, as I have written about elsewhere, philosophically discursive poetic language can be seen as a mimesis of thought processes, and, therefore, just as descriptive as Heaney’s other uses of language in poems.) I would not say about ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, as Stanton imagines I might, that the philosophically discursive elements 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’; that would be to credit me with too much interest in the poem. Its prose-like descriptiveness can be seen in the first four stanzas:

 

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.

 

If these stanzas are not obvious enough to be recognised as prose-like and descriptive, let us render them in the following way:

 

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.

 

The final four stanzas are:

 

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

 

Here we see a continuation of the prose-like language but this time with a philosophically discursive register, which Stanton seems to think makes the poem more problematic than a typical Heaney poem, hence Stanton’s marking it out for attention, and also, presumably, to place it in the same (or nearly so) aesthetic vicinity as a Prynne poem. As I say, I didn’t mention this poem in my article so it is not something that I think a discussion of in the way Stanton has framed one is crucial to the article’s point.

 

Stanton critique:

 

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 [Heaney] displays little real faith in his own “alternative”.

 

My Response:

 

Stanton can’t be referring to the same Heaney quotation from the interview that motivated my article; otherwise he could not really honestly claim that the quotation does not represent ‘a smug faint-praise dismissal on Heaney’s part’. He also hasn’t addressed the point I made in my article about the quotation, which was:

 

When he says of the alternative poetries in Britain that it ‘is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be’, who are the “some” he is referring to? No doubt, the main body of the mainstream, but I think, also, Heaney himself. His acknowledgment of Prynne, here, seems to be little more than an attempt to distance himself momentarily from the “some” he alludes to. If it were not this, then his saying that, ‘these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence’ recoups the generosity he grants Prynne.

 

Stanton’s critique:

 

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.

 

My response:

 

I do mention in my article that Ashbery does have more cachet in America than in the UK, when I say:

 

[Heaney’s] citing of Ashbery as a belated mainstream voice also makes little sense outside of Ashbery being published in the UK by Carcanet. Certainly, he cannot be referring to Ashbery’s poetic, which has yet to receive unreserved approbation by mainstream criticism, at least in Britain.

 

Stanton’s critique:

 

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.

 

My response:

 

I don’t think my article is limiting the definition of what poetry can be, but only pointing out the ways in which Heaney has redefined and repositioned his poetic aesthetic in various statements he made in his book, The Redress of Poetry. It is true that I personally don’t think that what he writes is poetry, but that was not the point of my article.