Tony Curtis, ed., The Art of Seamus Heaney (1982; rev. edn. 1994)

CONTENTS: Introduction [7]; Roland Mathias, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ [11]; Dick Davis, ‘Door into the Dark’ [27]; Philip Hobsbaum, ‘Craft and Technique in Wintering Out’ [35]; Anne Stevenson, ‘Stations: Seamus Heane and the Sacred Sense of the Sensitive Self’ [45]; Edna Longley, ‘The Manuscript Drafts of the poem North’ [53]; ‘North: Inner Emigré or “Artful Voyeur”?’ [63; also in Poetry in the Wars, 1986]; Tony Curtis, ‘A More Social Voice: Field Work’ [97]; Anne Stevenson, ‘The Peace Within Understanding: Looking at Preoccupations’ [129]; Ciaran Carson, ‘Sweeney Astray: Escaping from Limbo’ [139; prev. printed as review in Honest Ulsterman, No. 76]; Barbara Hardy, ‘Meeting the Myth: Station Island’ [149]; Helen Vendler, ‘Second Thoughts: The Haw Lanthern ’ [165]; Bernard O’Donoghue, ‘Heaney’s Ars Poetica: The Government of the Tongue’ [179]; Patrick Crotty, ‘All I Believed that Happened There Was Revision ’ [191; on Selected Poems and New Selected Poems]; Douglas Dunn ‘Quotidion [sic] Miracles: Seeing Things ’ [205]; Bibliography; index of poems discussed; Notes on Contributors.

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Tony Curtis: ‘In his recent work the poetry becomes a tough legitimising force for language as the means by which we make sense of the world and ourselves - the world as philosophy and as the light by which to see around us. (p.8); The poetry of the two last collections [Haw Lantern and Seeing Things] goes some way towards redressing the strained imbalance between fact and myth which both Edna Longley and Barbara Hardy found disconcerting in earlier work. [10]. Later, Tony Curtis: ‘Seamus Heaney has been working out his necessary loyalities over the previous four collections and that took an explicit shape in “Singing School”. [102]; more oddly, Curtis later remarks: ‘Heaney is a member of a disadvantaged minority in the North of Ireland: he is a Catholic and a republican. Perhaps he needed to distance himself from Belfast to gain a perspective on the situation there.’ [105]

Roland Mathias: He is not concerned with the elucidation of any kind of biological order. The poet himself, and beyond him his family, his family’s tradition has been hacked out, so to speak, from the natural environment - these are at the centre of Heaney’s poetic intention./What Heaney owes to Hughes, then, is a subject-matter that is rural, ungenteel and treated with force, not any kind of interpretation of that subject-matter.’ [Mathias, p.16]; Further, in connection with Heaney’s profession that ‘the heavily accented consonantial noise’ of G., M. Hopkins ‘educated’ his ear, Mathias remarks that ‘the tautness of Hopkin’s line and the inventiveness of his vocabulary that most quickly strikes another reader, it is certainly the battery of consonants that attracts Heaney’ [17]; […] the impression given by these later poems collectively is of desultoriness, of lack of cohesion.’ [22]; remarks the word ‘scaresome’ and calls Heaney's phrase “rhyme … to set the darkness echoing” an ‘opaque but exhilarating conclusion’ [idem]. Note that Mathias politely refers to ‘bog’ as ‘peat moor’ [18].

Dick Davis: ‘One of the chief reasons for the tang of authenticity which so much of Heaney’s poetry brings with it is the fitness of the language he uses for the vision he has to record. His subjects - the fecundity of the landscape, the packed density of darkness (geological, mythical historical) that [33] awaits the poet’s exploration, the intimately visceral emotions of fear, nausea and sudden wonder - are presented in almost wholly physical language.’ (pp.33-34); quotes “the redemptive quality of the dialect, the gutteral, the illiterate self” [34].

Philip Hobsbaum: ‘This, however true it is, smells not of silage but the lamp: the lamp of a bright boy from St. Columb’s School, who studied Hopkins, Hardy and Frost at the right time and turned them to notable account. It is the snap-crackle-and-pop of diction; the very cud of memory. [37]; further, Heaney is not an intellectual. An intellectual, in the accepted sense, would not be able to present in this eidetic mode a contrast that can lead to conflict [...; 38]. On Patrick Kavanagh: ‘This was Heaney’s true predecessor, Patrick Kavanagh, whose craft occasionally wobbled a bit but whose technique, as Heaney himself has said, was certain.’ [39]. Hobsbaum speaks of the ‘loose quatrain of Kavanagh in “The Great Hunger” and elsewhere’, with remarks: ‘The loose quatrain frees Kavanagh: he can play more tunes on it than any but the greatest poets have managed in free verse.’ [40]. Further, ‘One sign of his potential is the heuristic quality of his critical writing: such an essay as “Feeling into Words” is likely to be pondered when nearly all structuralist discourse is dead.’ [43]; ‘Seamus Heaney has it in him to rival Robert Frost or Thomas Hardy, though he is unlikely to do so by taking any more from those particular poets than he has acquired already.’ [43.]

Anne Stevenson: ‘For Stations is not a book of poems, as North is, but a collection of highly charged prose pieces which Heaney asks to do the work of poems. And this, for all their skill of language, they do not quite do. […/] We are left wanting either more autobiography or more art; or perhaps less art and more context, more “reality”.’ [50]; further, ‘For a man of sensibility and tenderness, it is too easy to take the soft option of a loving concentration on himself. Heaney is among the best poets living today, but if he is going to last, the self-bog, in the end, won’t preserve him. It is good to know he is translating Dante. That looks like the way out. [51; END.]

Further, ‘[…] all the essays in Preoccupations are conspicuously personal. They fall so far short of contemporary standards of “emotional systemisation” that we read them as we do Heaney’s poems, as distinctive perceptions of a humane[,] intelligence and eminently generous personality.’ [131]; Nowhere is the strength of Heaney’s androgynous understanding [135] more apparent than in his essay on Gerard Manley Hopkins. […] (pp.135-36); Of Heaney’s remarks on Keats and Hopkins: ‘Now, this is all most enlightening and informative. … It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Heaney so perfectly realises the “congruence” Hopkins’s poetry builds between that poet and his faith, that he sees so clearly the “state of negotiation” (as Ted Hughes has put it) “between the man and his idea of a Creator” without which Hopkins’s poetry would never have come into being./ So perhaps the outstanding impression left by this essay, as by most of Preoccupations, is one wise man’s liberality which, though [136] personal, is perfectly unselfish. […] Heaney’s openness is at times frightening; we almost fear for him, for he seems to have no defences - not even a faith. [136]

Further remarks on ‘the “hump” of the English literary tradition and from the fecund “bog” of his own and Ireland’s history. Out of these conscious and unconscious hemispheres he has constructed a habitable inner world which we may call understanding.’ [137]

‘What Heaney says about the language of these poets [Hughes, Hill, and Larkin] is incisive and true; but by putting their language first, before their meanings or their subject matters, Heaney achieves what distinctively inside perspective on their poetry that a purely academic critic might miss.’ [132]

‘For all his Irishness, what Heaney seems to be doing in Preoccupations is exploring in prose the vein opened up by Robert Lowell in Life Studies. After Life Studies it seemed possible […] to break away with [sic] ] Eliot, with impersonality, with the stern patriarchal injunction to reduce the female-infected ego - at least in criticism - to pulp. […] Rather than shutting out or abandoning the masculine mode of criticism, Heaney brings it to its natural feeling for mystery and divination […] a femaleness which enriches his poetry to an extent not yet realised, possibly, by the more extreme protagonists of the feminist movement.’

Edna Longley: remarks of poems in Wintering Out, ending with “A New Song”: ‘As a group the poems insinuate that the ghost of Gaelic, local idiom, the sound of the land itself, all united in Heaney’s own utterance, are compelling the tradition of Shakespeare and Spenser to go native.’ [70]; Longley compares Heaney’s version of the troubles in “Whatever you Say, Say Nothing”, with Derek Maohn’s ‘bleak earlier indictment’ [‘WE yield instead to the humorous formulae/The spurious mystery in the knowing nod/Or we keep sullen silence in light and shade,/Rehearsing our astute salvations under/The cold gaze of a sanctimonious God’], adding the remark that ‘the mood of Heaney’s poem comes over as irritation, impatience, rather than grand indignation (perhaps partly as a result of his difficult gear change from poetic smoke-signaller to loud-speaker).’ [73]

Notes that “Bog Queen” is the ‘one Bog poem with true Irish antecedents’ in as much as the body in question was found on Lord Moira’s estate in Co. Down in 1781. [79]; ‘Given Heaney’s previous successful explorations of landscape, water, femaleness, what has gone wrong this time? His prose comments support the view than an obsession with stacking up parellels, has replaced flexible “soundings”. […] Ireland is the straw that breaks the poems’ backs.’ [81]

Further remarks that Seamus Deane found Heaney (and Derek Mahon) a-political in comparison with John Montague, whose The Rough Field (1972) had “politicised the terrain” of his native Tyrone, quoting Deane: ‘it is Montague, with his historical concentration, that this fidelity [to the local] assumes the shape of a political commitment.’ (‘Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism’, in Douglas Dunn, ed., Two Decades of Irish Writing, Carcanet 1975, p.16; here p.92.)

Longley remarks:‘The Deane interview epitomises the intensive pressure on Heaney, including his own sense of duty: to be more Irish, to be more political, to “try to touch the people”, to do Yeats’s job again instead of his own.’ [93]; ‘By plucking out the heart of his mystery and serving it up as a quasi-political mystique, he temporarily succombs to the goddess, to the destiny feared in Derek Mahon’s “The Last of the Fire Kings” where the people desire their poet-king “Not to release them/From the ancient curse/But to die their creature and be thankful.”’ [End; 93].

Also quotes J. W. Foster: ‘Heaney’s conceit (landscape=body=sex=language) and the way it sabotages emotion leads him into […] difficulties.’ [‘The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’, Critical Quarterly, Vol. 16, [1964], p.45.) [Note: Longley notes that ‘Heaney demurs’ re Seamus Deane’s query about Cruise O’Brien’s repudiation of Irish atavism in “Unhappy and at Home”, Crane Bag, 1979.]

Ciaran Carson: [quoting, ‘a staffer in air/as if a language/failed ...:] ‘The language in question is, presumably, Irish, whose ghost is subliminally present throughout the book; this is one way of trying to ease the unrest of the linguistic dilemma whih is, to a greater or lesser extent, the heritage of every Irish writer. Joyce invented a language; Beckett wrote in French; others translated, or received their inspiration from translation. We can see how Thomas Kinsella’s [141] version of the Tain, for example, with its violent narrative, its deep and prophetic utterances, mirrors Kinsella’s own work; it is an historical and linguistic imperative. Translating is one way of trying to come to terms with the already created conscience of the Irish language.’ (pp.141-42).

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