Friday, August 22, 2014

On Seamus Heaney

A few days ago I linked an article by Kevin Kiely, on Seamus Heaney (here), on social media.  I quickly realized that not a lot of people like Kiely’s criticism these days.  I had not actually read much from Kiely in recent years, but remembered him as the editor of the poetry page at the magazine Books Ireland, where he published me in the late 1990s. Apparently since then he has annoyed many.  (Here is one reaction, by Patrick Cotter.)

That said, my accompanying comment to my posting of the link was this: “While I have thought Heaney is/was very good at what he did at times, I have to say, I agree with a lot of this. And I stand by that.  Not all of the Kiely piece is fair — e.g. lines like “He became everybody’s favourite, famous Séamus. Everyséamus” and “Heaney’s wife Marie Heaney, née Devlin sister of Barry Devlin of Horslips, ensured an easy entrée to RTÉ’s arts programming,” and I’ve seen some accuse him (Kiely) of sour grapes.  I can’t say what his motivation in writing the article was, but it appears to fit a recent pattern.  But when he notes that “The preoccupation with bogs was all-enveloping as [Heaney] turned to bog corpses, skeletons and bones — all safely distancing him from the sectarian Troubles whose heinous burials of course find no resonance in Heaney.  At base, Heaney is a poet of nostalgia for home, hearth, turf fire, hen-house and bicycle,” I have to agree.  Actually, I would say that there is perhaps resonance with issues of the Troubles in some of the bog-body poems, but always designed in a quiet, oblique way, so as to upset no one’s sensibilities.

Many like this about Heaney, of course, his bog and farm metaphors, and that is fine, but it’s not something that especially appeals to me, all in all.  And the latter point (At base, Heaney is a poet of nostalgia for home, hearth, turf fire. . .”), whatever you might think of Kiely, is little different than the one I made early on as editor of The Burning Bush (circa 1999), and other commentators made in the same journal.  I might have been partly motivated by youthful (or at least still somewhat youthful) brashness, but also it’s also not that far away from Thomas Kinsella’s scathing comment in The Dual Tradition (1995): “Heaney has dealt with some experiences of growing up Catholic in a Protestant Unionist Six Counties.  The impression is of carefulness, fulfilling the established expectations — as one might expect from a member of the underprivileged class managing a successful exit.”  For me, Kinsella was always a much sharper, more intense poet.

However, I mean what I said about Heaney being often undeniably being very, very good, whether one agrees with his stance or politics or not.  And my understanding is that he was a wonderful and affable person.  And I certainly have no wish to speak ill of the dead.  But there can ultimately be no sacred cows in poetry.  Every poet’s body of work is going to be up for criticism, alive or dead (and that is if we’re lucky).  And at the same time, every reviewer is liable to have his or her own ethos/credibility queried, as Kiely’s deserves to be.  So I guess I am saying that while I can’t speak for Kiely, some of his points are worth considering in this particular instance; they are not even especially new.

I revert to what the poet James Liddy wrote of Heaney in his collection I Only Know That I Love Strength in My Friends and Greatness (Arlen House, 2003), while both were still alive:

. . . I look askance at Irish contemporaries, I slap the current laureate’s wrist for his reservations, “waywardness and eccentric beliefs”. What is missing from Seamus: he learned from everyone except Yeats, the teacher of religious studies. No Sutras or Gospels up his sleeves, Seamus can be a dull writer. Waywardness in muse-pursuit cannot be eccentric, look at the punk spray on Pegasus’s wing. Those astral marshals, Yeats and Wilde, blitzed us for ever, punks not the Dublin tinsel crowd in the paddock.

The quote “waywardness and eccentric beliefs” comes from Heaney’s essay on Yeats in his prose book Preoccupations (1980).  Heaney there defends Yeats as an artist, but what Liddy notes above is Heaney’s distance from Yeats, admiring Yeats yet still characterizing him as “wayward and eccentric.”  Liddy suggests that being wayward and eccentric is in fact the basic condition of the artist, a condition that Heaney himself does not seem to approach. 

I’m not here going to judge whether anyone is or is not a true artist, but on a subjective level I am more sympathetic to Liddy’s bohemian (“muse-pursuit,” “punk”) vision of art, and Kinsella’s form and Republicanism.


Mary O'Donnell said...

I really like this Michael. It seems so fair. Re what Kinsella wrote, only another poet of considerable stature could write such a comment, though many think and thought it!

Mike Begnal said...

Thanks for that, Mary. I would like to think it is possible to criticise without being accused of envy, speaking for myself at least.

Mike Begnal said...

A couple of people have made the point that some of Heaney's bog-body poems do in fact address the issue of the Troubles, and where Kiely seems to suggest that they are really solely only about bog bodies, I would agree that there could be other resonances there. So perhaps I am remiss in saying I agree with that point wholesale. What I wished to put forward in that regard is a broader interpretation of the point, that Heaney, where he did address that issue, did so in a quiet, oblique way designed to upset no one's sensibilities, and the rest of the quote, “At base, Heaney is a poet of nostalgia for home, hearth, turf fire, hen-house and bicycle.” But certainly it is not true that Heaney did not engage with the issue of the Troubles at all.

As this post has been getting around a bit and is already out there, I think it would unfair for me to edit or "ellipsize" the Kiely quote in question for my own purposes, so I add this comment as clarification.

Mike Begnal said...

Further note: OK, I have now realized that many don't read the comments, and so I have indeed made a small edit in the text to clarify my position, with these comments left here in the interest of being open about my process.

Totalfeckineejit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Higgins said...

I have no doubt that there is a serious re-assesment of Seamus Heaney's work to be done. However, this is not it. The article is very shallow. In support of his argument Kiely mentions the following supporting witnesses: James Simmons, Desmond Fennell, & Eamon Dunphy. Each of these was, in his own way, a crank in relation to Heaney's work. And Kiely's reviews for the past four years or so have been bizarre. I don't think the Kiely article has any more credibility than an essay on some aspect of rocket science would have if it were written by someone who believes that the moon landing was a hoax filmed in a Hollywood studio. The messenger's record matters. I read Kiely's reviews for entertainment, but would never take anything he said about a poet seriously.

Mike Begnal said...

Kevin, Well, it's an interesting question -- to what extent will one's animus for the messenger preclude us from hearing the message. I think I tried to deal with that to an extent here, but certainly not to everyone's satisfaction (or necessarily even to my own). I see Kiely's piece as not even close to being a be-all-and-end-all of a serious reassessment of Heaney's work, but I guess in this post I am trying to take it out of his hands and say that similar ideas have been around for a long while, put forward others, including myself (briefly) in the preface to TBB1 in 1999. Kinsella's The Dual Tradition is 1995. There is room for someone, a more serious and respected critic to take all of that much further in the present. (I am not saying that this blog post does so to any great extent -- it is a quick, subjective take, not an in-depth academic analysis or close reading of Heaney's work.)

Mike Begnal said...

"...put forward by others," that is.

Kevin Higgins said...

When I say that "this article is very shallow" I mean of course the Kiely article not your blog piece Mike.

Mike Begnal said...

I got that; thanks.

Tim Miller said...

Hey Mike. I thought I'd add my two cents on the Heaney bit. I'd go a bit further than Higgins and just say that not only is Kiely a sloppy bit jealous griping (you don’t really need to read past the schoolyard fight headline), but I'm not even sure a formal reassessment of Heaney as a whole is necessary. Perhaps for strict academics this may be true, but poets do the assessing themselves all the time without ever saying a word, learning from another’s work or discarding it.

Nobody would care that Heaney apparently focused on nostalgia, bogs, or the farm, if he didn’t sell so many books, weren't so famous, and if more “sophisticated” poets didn’t feel jealous as a result. After which it only becomes easier to mock Heaney’s subject matter or “readability.” I think the most revealing critical piece on Heaney is still Alvarez's terrifically negative review of Field Work at NYRB (which is no longer available in full for free—there are other excerpts on Wiki). There, Alvarez’s annoyance at Heaney’s fame is coupled with his supposed betrayal of Modernism--"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."

It's always disconcerting to see a poet imagining there is every a "right true way," like some fundamentalist. So it's worth reminding ourselves that, no matter how public or famous the poet, poetry and so much of art is still intensely private and mysterious, and we really don’t choose what we write. As much as I'd love to consciously follow in the footsteps of a handful of writers or -isms, ancient and modern, when I actually sit down to write, something slightly different always happens. We can no more say that poetry “should” be political anymore than we can say that is absolutely shouldn’t; writing poetry is hard enough without imagining that we can or should force ourselves or others to address things (like the Troubles) more frequently, or to stop writing about the farm and bog bodies or archeology.

I personally don’t see anything cute, quaint, or limited in his focus on nature; and very little of what I love of his is so nostalgic as to merely be a prompt for misty eyes. Yet I can’t deny that nearly everything after 1984's Station Island seems amazingly uneven, which amounts to more than half his career. But so what? I’m merely going to focus on the 150 or so pages of his that really astound, which is all that really matters.

Bitchy things like Kiely's are a reminder that he wrote what he did to get the attention he’s now getting. And the desire for that attention and the means used to get it has nothing to do with poetry.

Mike Begnal said...

Tim — I think you make a lot of good points. Regarding Kiely – I simply wanted to use his article as a jumping-off point for some thoughts of my own, but I have to admit now that his piece is so contentious, I mean his name itself is even so contentious, that this seems to immediately trip people up and lead to a discussion at least partly skewed by people’s aversion to said critic. So in retrospect that was probably a mistake, though I think I did try to deal with that at the start of my own short piece above – clearly not enough for most, though.

For me, I’m not trying to RE-assess Heaney’s work so much as state what I’ve mostly always thought (going back to the Burning Bush days). And, it is a short, subjective blog post – a true assessment or reassessment would require much more length, numerous close readings, etc. That kind of writing is not what this is, for now.

And again, in stating that I am being subjective here – which I thought was the obvious implication from the piece’s form and style – I also of course agree that there is no necessarily “right” or “wrong” way to write poetry. I am laying my own biases and concerns on the table and foiling them against Heaney’s.

I am also not suggesting that there is anything wrong about nature as subject matter – to quote Jack Kerouac paraphrasing the Ella Fitzgerald song, “It ain’t watcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” For example, Maurice Scully also often focuses on the natural world or scenes of domestic life, but what he does with these is vastly different from what Heaney does with them.

In any case, good to hear from you! Hope you are well.

Anonymous said...

Heaney was a good poet, simply not a great one, because he had nothing great or profound to say.
Unfortunately the trend for clever simile and cute metaphor currently has poetry written in English firmly in its grip. A knitting circle is not however a substitute for intense thought