The Argotist Online
to Rob Stanton
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
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?
was not said nor implied by me in my article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
cell, but the cell is narrow, so
turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
lays in it and settles down to nest.
feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
head and claws and, finding himself linked
the network of eternal life,
moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
these stanzas are not obvious enough to be recognised as prose-like and
descriptive, let us render them in the following way:
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.
final four stanzas are:
since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
being Kevin. Which is he?
or in agony all the time
the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
up through him? Is there distance in his head?
and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
prayer his body makes entirely
he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name
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.
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”.
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.
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.
do mention in my article that Ashbery does have more cachet in America than in
the UK, when I say:
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.
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.
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.