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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Shannon Ward, Blood Creek

A 24-page chapbook, Shannon Camlin Ward’s Blood Creek (Longleaf Press, 2013) is a strong debut collection of poems with often intense subject matter and images.  I will say that I am friends with the author, and went to school with her, so I don’t claim to be objective — but I like that intensity, for example in “Her New Father”:

When he looks at her, his retinas flash
the peculiar flame of the predatory eye caught in the beams
of headlights in tall grass by a country road
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

One day soon, she’ll steal his truck,
rip the poems from his lips, drive South.

It’s interesting that in this poem, the step-father, a seemingly despised figure, nonetheless speaks in poetry, which the speaker will co-opt for her own purposes as artist.

The collection’s opener, “Directions,” an imperative-mood prose-poem, functions both as an ars poetica and a road narrative through the underside of America.  Molestation and abuse recur as themes throughout, or hints of these at least, but the speakers in Ward’s poems never wallow in victimhood but rather seem to gain the upper hand in their particular situations through sheer perseverance, ingenuity, and strength.

The ekphrastic/tribute poem to the Mexican American artist Carlos Almaraz yokes Ward’s work to his ecstatic, urban “dizziness” and suggests a new phase of development.  Wherever this poet goes next, her taut lines — often long lines — and skill for finding the precise, necessary word will undoubtedly stand her in good stead.  In the meantime, you would not go wrong to pick up Blood Creek.  Along with its vigorous poems, it’s a very nicely produced little volume.