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:
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.”