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“A torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets”: Seamus Heaney’s Redress of Poetry

In Seamus Heaney’s Casualty, a poem about a pub-going Ulsterman who ignores a curfew during the peak of the Troubles, and is killed for it, the last three lines (the poet speaking to the dead man, the “casualty”), are a study in ambivalence:

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

The ambivalence is one that runs through Heaney’s poetry, perhaps best exemplified by the section in Station Island, where (in a fictional meeting), James Joyce tells the poet to “let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” The ambivalence is about the relationship between poetry and politics, instantiated by the tension between the desire to keep words apolitical, and the temptation to intervene directly through poetry.

If such questions remain unanswered in Heaney’s verse, then The Redress of Poetry – a collection of ten lectures delivered at Oxford – gives him a chance to answer them in prose. Eight out of the ten lectures are about other poets – Christopher Marlowe, Brian Merriman, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Hugh McDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is in and through writing about these poets, however, that Heaney painstakingly constructs his own poetic manifesto, dealing with the relationship between words, culture, politics, and the world.

It is almost trite to say that politics suffuses our world, and that nothing – not even poetry – can be free of it. The very use of language is a political act, and the dream of an apolitical realm of pure art is simply that much – only a dream. This is something that Heaney is acutely aware of, and he is acutely aware of his own subject-position: as an Irishman, part of a colonised culture, and yet as a white European, also part of a colonising culture. But the question remains: and then what? The task of The Redress of Poetry is to show how language and poetry are tangled up with politics and with the burden of history, and yet not reducible to it.

The project is set out in the opening, eponymous essay, where Heaney notes that “poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.” Soon after, he writes that “[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.” 

If there is whiff of the old poetry-as-a-vehicle-for-revealing-hidden-aesthetic-[apolitical]-truths here, it is quickly dispelled when Heaney moves to examining his selection of poets. The first essay is about Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, and Heaney begins by acknowledging that he has “learnt to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism”, and therefore “what I want to do here… is to find a way of reaffirming the value and rights of Marlowe’s poetry in our own post-colonial time.” How is one to do this? Heaney’s answer is that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even for the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things… it is obvious that poetry’s answer to the world is not given only in terms of the content of its statements. It is given perhaps even more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; and it is given also by its need to go emotionally and artistically ‘above the brim’, beyond the established norms.” Form, then, is the answer: form that, in a certain sense, exists prior to language, language with all its baggage and burdens of history (it is perhaps no coincidence that Heaney uses the phrase “musical trueness). At another place – in his essay on Hugh McDiarmid, Heaney seems to affirm this when he writes that “the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.” 

And yet, in the same essay, Heaney describes his poetry as composed of “a language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” In a collection that is otherwise so acutely conscious about the place of language in the world, the reference to “language pure as air” (a little reminiscent of Colm Toibin, at one point, talking about language that is free and untouched) comes across as surprisingly naive. Indeed, it directly contradicts a particularly brilliant observation that Heaney makes in his essay on Elizabeth Bishop: “it is precisely Bishop’s linguistic virtuosity that creates the delightful illusion of access to a pristine, pre-linguistic state.”

In fact, the contrast is all the more jarring, because Heaney spends a substantial amount of time interrogating the precise relationship between language and the world. In his essay on John Clare, Heaney writes that “Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of those whose spoken tongue is an English which sets them at cultural and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative ‘Official Standard’.” This paragraph comes soon after he approvingly quotes Tom Paulin’s description that there is a “sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language.” The use of the adjective “authoritarian” to describe “language” is surely a carefully-chosen one, and is meant to indicate the political baggage that language carries. And in that same essay, Heaney ends with one of his most eloquent passages, basing the idea of a “world culture” in the equality of languages:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

Of course, even as he speaks about a world culture, Heaney’s vision is enclosed within his own “horizon” (to borrow a term from Gadamer): to make his point about “outback” and “dialect” cultures, he references an Australian (Les Murray) poet’s choice of a Greek image (Boeotia). While Boeotia might be an “outback” relative to Athens, and Hesiod a rustic in relation to Homer, these references are all part of an existing canon that is the product of a certain universalisation of a “Western” aesthetic. It would be churlish, of course, to blame Heaney for this: the Redress of Poetry is a beautifully self-aware book – but it is a point that must be made. In a similar fashion, in his essay on Dylan Thomas, Heaney writes about how he treated “language as a physical sensation“, and then goes on to call this an “Egyptian” style (with references to fertility, the Nile, and Anubis)! He uses the word “Egyptian” on more than one occasion to describe Thomas, and each time it is as if Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is swimming in one’s mind’s eye – you could not ask for a more textbook case of unthinking, internalised Orientalism. Gadamer was right after all: nobody can escape the bounds of their horizon. I point out these (what in my opinion are) slips, to highlight, as well, that any exploration of such topics in the world constructed along the axes of power and dominance, is fraught with peril, and even a walker as sure-footed as Heaney is bound to slip on a couple of occasions.

And these are but minor blemishes – for the most part, The Redress of Poetry is a beautiful book. Heaney has that unique ability of capturing the essence of a poet, or a poem, with impossible economy. In his analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he writes that “the master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” I cannot think of a more perfect description of Wilde, and of this poem of Wilde’s. His description of Hugh McDiarmid is equally pithy and brilliant: “In 1922 he emerged like a new and fiery form out of the agitated element of Christopher Grieve’s imagination; or it could be said with equal justification that he emerged from the awakened energies of the Scots language itself.” On Dylan Thomas: “Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language.” And perhaps, in closing, it would be most apt to quote his observation on poetry and the world, as a whole: “The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.”

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The Sultan’s Seal on Sargon Boulous

The Sultan’s Seal blog has an interesting essay discussing the life and work of the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos, whose poems I have loved (whenever I can get my hands on a translation). It also includes a beautiful (and, I suppose, topical) translation of the poem “The Refugee Tells“. I find this essay particularly interesting, because it extols the Boulos for being “an uncommitted wanderer”, “free[ing] text of its historical onus… [to push] it back into the broadest possible human context.” As always, I wonder whether this is strictly possible – whether one can liberate oneself from the essential situatedness of human beings (including political situatedness), and find refuge in an abstract “human context.”

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“… in squalid and ferocious geometry”: Italo Calvino, ‘The Road to San Giovanni’

“What had the cinema meant to me in this context? I suppose: distance. It satisfied a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

Reading Italo Calvino is like trying to grasp a fistful of clouds and mist. His words, phrases, sentences arrange themselves into constellations that are suggestive of familiar experiences, when seen from a far distance; but their suggestiveness depends upon suspending the concrete ways in which we relate to the world, and embarking upon a wild leap of imagination. For me, this leap is possible only for momentary instances, that split second in which you’re suspended in mid-air, before gravity grounds you again. This is why I think of his writing as clouds and mist – in its distance-yet-nearness, its affinity to touch, yet resistance to being grasped and held, and its momentariness.

The Road to San Giovanni is a fascinating collection of five essays, because it begins with Calvino’s self-reflective, autobiographical journey, which gives us a glimpse of how his mind came to transmute the concrete into cloud and mist – and then demonstrates that mind at work (without quite losing that critical distance to fiction). The first two essays – The Road to San Giovanni and A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography – are in the first category, before a gradual, almost imperceptible shift from reflections upon method to the method itself, until in the last essay – Calvino’s musings upon his aesthetic – style an content have become almost as blurred as they are in his fiction.

In the opening, eponymous essay – The Road to San Giovanni – Calvino recalls accompanying his father on the morning walk from their house to their farm at San Giovanni. Calvino draws a vivid picture of his father’s earthiness – his love of plants, his deep knowledge of their taxonomy, his daily proximity to the ‘natural’ world – before sharply setting it against his own, contrarian slowly-forming consciousness:

“To my father’s mind, words must serve as confirmations of things, and as signs of possession; to mine they were foretastes of things barely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed. My father’s vocabulary welled outward into the interminable catalogue of the genuses, species and varieties of the vegetable world – every name was a distinction plucked from the dense compactness of the forest in the belief that one had thus enlarged man’s dominion – and into technical terminology, where the exactness of the word goes hand in hand with the studied exactness of the operation… I could recognize not a single plant or bird. The world of things was mute for me. The words that flowed and flowed inside my head weren’t anchored to objects but to emotions, fantasies, forebodings. And all it took was for a scrap of newspaper to find its way beneath my feet and I would be engrossed in soaking up the writing on it, mutilated and unmentionable – names of theatres, actresses, vanities – and already my mind would be racing off, the sequence of images would go on for hours and hours as I walked silently behind my father.”

This idea – that words do not describe (or, for that matter, construct) reality, but are “foretastes of things bearely glimpsed, not possessed, presumed“, is (I think) at the heart of all Calvino’s writing. Think of The Castle of Crossed Destinies, where allegory is piled upon allegory, a set of worlds imagined and connected through a structure of overlapping – yet chaotically arranged – tarot cards. Or think of Invisible Cities, invisible only to sensory perception, but cities that we have all imagined, in fragments and in parts. Nietzsche described words as rainbow bridges (rainbows — presenting the illusion of a pot of gold at their ever-receding end, much like words hold out the illusory promise of conclusion and possession upon their mastery?) – and truly, in reading Calvino, I often feel as though I’m walking on a rainbow-bridge, with the only thing holding me up are the fragile and ambiguous strands of imagination.

The concrete is a source of disenchantment. So Calvino describes the neat symmetry of farmland as a “squalid and ferocious geometry.” In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about how the Greeks, with their passion for symmetry, balance and geometry, got their aesthetics hopelessly wrong. Calvino, like Kerouac, rebels against this sense of conclusion, of finality, and of control – although in a very different way.

It is not, however, that Calvino is entirely convinced of his way. In The Road to San Giovanni, he describes his dissociation with his father’s way of life as  “the loss that I inflicted on myself, the thousands of losses we inflict on ourselves and for which there is no making amends.” But it would seem to be a necessary – if tragic – loss, because, as he writes in A Cinema Goer’s Autobiography, we all need to find something that allows us to relate to the world in a way that gives it fullness, necessity and coherence – and this, in a way that he describes as:

“… a need for distance, for an expansion of the boundaries of the real, for seeing immeasurable dimensions open up all around me, abstract as geometric entities, yet concrete too, crammed full of faces and situations and settings which established an (abstract) network of relationships with the world of direct experience.”

“Abstract, yet concrete too” may sound like a strange paradox, but for me, the paradox dissolves when I think – again – of his writing as clouds and mist, or as a constellation: concrete in the sense of a part of our world, embedded in the here and the now of sensory perception, but abstract in the sense of not being completed by it. Perhaps this is best exemplified in Memories of a Battle, where Calvino describes (I use the word “describes” in its loosest sense) a battle that he participated in on the side of the Partisans during World War II. In a short essay, Calvino invokes seven different images and metaphors to “describe” memory, each time hinting at its incompleteness. Memories are “sandgrains… in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought.” They are “lurking like eels in the pools of the mind“, needing to be stirred so that they can rise to the surface. They constitute the “trail… that crumble[s] under pressure“, like their trail towards the besieged village on the night of battle. They are uncertain, like the “uncertainty of the light and the season and what was to follow.” They are buried “under the sedimentary crust of hindsight.” They are at a valley bottom, and Calvino fears that “as soon as memory forms it immediately takes on the wrong light, mannered, sentimental as war and youth always are, becomes a piece of narrative written in the style of the time, which can’t tell us how things really were but only how we thought we saw them, thought we said them.” And lastly, memory is like a “broken net“, that holds some things, but nor others. What unites these very diverse set of images is an echoing sense of uncertainty and distance, which – in turn – is made vaguely concrete by Calvino’s choice of precisely those images that are in some loose way connected with the night of battle.

“Just steep gorges, beds of dry streams overrun by brambles and ferns, smooth pebbles your hobnail shoes slither on, and we’re still at the beginning of the approach march, just as it’s an approach march I’m trying to make now on the trail of memories that crumble under pressure, not visual memories because it was a moonless starless night, memories of my body slithering in the dark, with half a plate of chestnuts in my stomach…”

But in La Poubelle Agreee, a meditation upon garbage disposal in Paris, Calvino becomes far more circumspect, acknowledging that this world of gossamer webs is only made possible by the very real. In one of the most direct observations of the book, he notes that “our genteel lifestyle seemed guaranteed for all eternity by the availability of cheap labour…”, before going on to echo Aristotle’s understanding of the public/private divide (albeit in a very different way):

“…that heaven of ideas in which we undeservedly soar (or imagine we soar) and which can exist only in so far as we are not overwhelmed by the waste with which every act of living incessantly produces.”

But much like The Road to San Giovanni, this understanding is fleeting. By the time we come to the last essay – Calvino’s reflections upon his own style – the concrete has disappeared entirely, and we are back in world of mist and clouds. But I think that those observations in The Road to San Giovanni and La Poubelle Agreee remain crucial, because they show that Calvino possesses the self-awareness to know and understand what it takes for those clouds and mist to exist. Less Wilde’s clarion call of “art for art’s sake“, this is more reminiscent of those immortal lines of Auden:

Nor ask what doubtful act allows

Our freedom in this English house

Our picnics in the sun.”

And it this self-awareness, I feel, that adds immeasurable depth and richness to this book.

 

 

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