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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sigh, Calamity, Jeremiad

A first dip into Stepping Stones, Dennis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Seamus Heaney. I excitedly seek out any evidence of a Heaney other than or dissenting from the emollient, diplomatic Heaney only too familiar from his public walkings-on-air of these last few decades, if only in the interests of rounding out his persona a little.

SH Comparing Larkin’s treatment of him in his letters to Berryman’s Dream Songs:

Larkin’s masks allow for something a lot more brutal and unlikeable than Berryman’s. Substitute a Mr Bollocks for Mr Bones, a National Front man for the frontman Henry, and you have the team and the permission.

On Prynne, of all people, and the ‘avant-garde’:

These poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence. There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W.H. Auden and I like the sound of it: somebody said that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent. (...) Now that’s what I yearn for – the cement mixer rather than the chopstick.

On Beckett and Irish modernism:

It was a single partisan review from the Beckett of ‘Whoroscope’ that foisted this fantasy of a ‘tradition’ of Irish ‘modernist’ poetry on us. It seems to me that in the final uptoss, as Kavanagh might have said, those thirties modernists get marks for effort, and effort in the right direction, but the stuff they actually wrote is generally of period interest.


This is a good deal of ‘something almost being said’, as Larkin might have put it, about his move away from Northern Ireland, and sometimes more than almost, as in the fairly brisk dismissal of James Simmons and his childish attempts to reel the superstar Heaney back into the manageable orbit of a dressing-down in the pages of the Honest Ulsterman or some such local occasion. There is a valiant but embarrassing attempt to square that belief, above, in ‘rooted normality’ with whatever it is makes Paul Celan a great poet. I’m grateful to that ‘rooted normality’ soundbite, as it sums up for me the grounds of my disagreement with Heaney about, well, everything I disagree with him about (Heaneyesque chiasmus, that). If ‘rooted’ and ‘normal’ are no guarantees of anything, as I would have thought, ‘rootless’ and ‘abnormal’ aren’t either, but since explaining my reasons why all the great Heaney virtues, of confirmation, being ‘forwarded in ourselves’, redress and authentication etc, are for me by a distance the least interesting thing about his work would take a couple of thousand words, I should probably stop. A couple of thousand words I’d like to write, but some other time.

Besides, there is much more that’s new to read too. George Szirtes’s enormous new doorstopper of a New & Collected, and a marvellous supplement to the latest Stinging Fly, Marks, in which poets are paired up with visual artists. One last surprise from Stepping Stones though. How odd to find Heaney quoting Emil Cioran. And yet he does, from The Temptation to Exist:

Routine of the sigh and of calamity, jeremiads of minor peoples before the bestiality of the great! Yet let us be careful not to complain too much: is it not comforting to oppose to the world’s disorders the coherence of our miseries and our defeats? And have we not, in the face of universal dilettantism, the consolation of possessing, with regard to pain, a professional competence?


Coirí Filíochta said...

Any mention of you, Cliff or me Dave?

What about Dennis? Did he not mention the time i asked him if he fancied decantin from the Surgeons and round off the launch of hus collected with me, experiencing Buddy Wakefield in Brogans, the night i was last to leave after suppin the PI red and gettin emboldened enough to ask?

hand in - the exact sequence of letters in the word verification

Lookin back it was bleedin obvious wannit? i mean, he's gonna forgoe the special moment of familial warmth that took 30 years to arrive at, to wander off with a drinker from the Iveagh homeless hostel clearly one over the eight?

It didn't happen Dave, but more important than that, i was mad/daft/imaginative enough to actually believe it could...and that's what counts mate innit? Faith in what others would laugh at us for as being impossible.

Did Shay not speak of the first time we were in one another's company, in Kavanagh's centenary year, at the Launch of Fallon's Georgics, in the lecture theatre at the Surgeons? me with manuscript book and weildin a pen, nickin off Peter the odd phrase, rapt silent for the Mossbawn Magus.

And then in the snifters afterwards in the ball room, whackin up a poster advertisin PJ Brady's one man Kavanagh show at the Palace, and mister Poetry comin over askin if i had permission to put it up, me havin thought of this eventuality, tellin him i had and him almost physically assistin me in takin it down afore he copped on the attention it would draw. Too late, job done, ppl wonderin, who's that..and then puttin it up on a moveable noticeboard just outside the ballroom doorway, and as i turn to leave, yer man and Peter havin a time out on the stairs, accident but right in front of the boss's eye.

i tell yer, i felt good that night, when chance brought what plottin never can.

Then the second time, at St Pats when He delivered a Kavanagh lecture, note takin, still got em, his Poetic, dead easy, three point plan developed from Wordsy. Third time, the next week when i went back for the mext lecture by some childhood studies expert and turned up late, sat down at the back, and two rows away an elederly man alone, no one sat two seats either side of him: me just scribblin notes, then close to the end, the senior fella turns his head slightly..blow me, is that who i think it might be? i think. then yeah, gotta be, so chance again..right, at the finish everyone's gonna get up but i don't wanna start deep actin like the rest around the stars, so... head down carry on jottin, he sees me unaware of him, perfect.

Fourth time, ropin poets for the Dublin Tara Awareness gig in Major Toms, part of six Paul Casey the ard ollamh set up, me MC'in, makin it fair, eight poets between six bands, four of each gender, asked loadsa ppl, got turned down coz, well, how much am i on? nah mate, musos and poets don't mix, some said, and knowin it would firm up at the O'Driscoll launch of his latest a week or two before, sure enough, rope in the final pieces, and at the moment of speakin to one of the biggers, advicin me to ask Peter, Fallon exits with the boss, eyes lock for the first time, and bingo, i robbed his talent by psychic means dave and that means, we can sell it dave, so put the word out, a tenner a go ffor the one sheet of holy paper blessed by our leader, via me, who is just a dreamer.

love and peace

Mark Granier said...

Ah, but 'rooted normality' v. the rootless abnormal wasn't as near to the mark as the advance-forward-rear-guard's forming

"...a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence."

That, in my estimation, is spot on. The v-word especially, as in Silliman's recent approval of a certain poet for avoiding "the zero sum game of vulgar narrative."

That aside, I wish you WOULD set out what you have against Heaney's work, because I am curious. I can't see how you can deny that H has brought something new to the language, to name just one of his virtues, and this is no small thing. Sure, his later work may have its weaknesses, but whose does not?

In any case, I would like to see you try to defend (or retract) an earlier remark, that Heaney is not someone you "rate".

puthwuth said...

It’s good to ventilate one’s prejudices and I’m sure I should do that too at greater length where Heaney is concerned, greater length than I’m about to do here. I looked it up and the phrase I used was ‘rate... as such a great writer’. It’s not that I don’t rate him at all, far from it. It’s just that I’ve never been able to think of him as a favourite writer. My principal disagreement with him is my recoil from his obsessive even-handedness, balance, over-cautiousness and control. It’s a temperamental thing. Even when he talks about lashing out, in a poem like ‘Weighing In’, he’s still doing it from inside the framework of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that. Another example would be his dead cousin’s harangue of Heaney in Station Island, accusing him of saccharining his death with Dante. This in a poem more or less based on Dante. The accusation is stagey and rhetorical and isn’t allowed escalate to the level where it really would threaten to derail the poem. So I don’t just mean even-handedness politically, I mean aesthetically too. I don’t have much time for Silliman and his post-avant proletkult, but even within the world of Irish writing I don’t see Heaney as connecting to the writers that I enjoy most (Mangan, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien). His choice of Kavanagh as a lodestar is an entirely understandable way of getting around the otherwise disabling influence of Yeats, but I think it ties him too much to a world of domestic realism. The Heaney I like best is Heaney at his strangest, ‘The Tollund Man’ for instance. I also think he should take advantage of getting on in years now and do a Geoffrey Hill – break utterly, irresponsibly free. But maybe that’s my prejudice showing through now. Since that’s obviously just not the kind of writer he is.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Coming at it from my own experience, when i first got on the bus of third level learning, the poet-mentor running the course i stumbled into for three yrs, was Robert Sheppard, who is firmly in Bernsteins and Silliman's mob, and the whole poetry component of the writing course, was American modernism beginning with Ez's dictum of treating the image as the thing, early European fururism and via Zukovsky, Olsen and the Black Mountain mob, to the Beats and terminating at the gates of langpo, with a total absence of anything prior to Pound. This any learning about meter or the history of the Lyric, had to be done outside the course.

I remember in the second yr being taught by a mature phd student in their final push to be a fully ticketed doc of po-mo, who had to travel thirty miles for a mornings teaching, a hundred quid, less probably, to hang about with us angry bums on seats duffers, not exactly the creme de la creme of British wannabe's, many plucked straight off the dole, maximising the funding numbers, and all without books out, directing the collective energy from the chips on our shoulders toward a bloke suspiciously not up on the finer intracacies of choral hexameters or any deep grasp of Koine Greek.

S/he hated me, i could tell, for bringing in the latest fruits of my learning, a dissenter in class, going off-script with the phrases and maxims of the crazees natural enemies, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and the day i found out about the base of quantative metrics, a nightmare for this expert poet schooled in the moderns.

But it was perfect really, having to go totally against the natural lyric grain first, to actually learn in the school furthest from one's own, as it meant i was exposed to stuff first hand and after a while, got the hang of it, how to play the po-mo game. Just agree with it, the madder, most seemingly deviant verse going, juyst say, yeah, it's great, especially the way only the vowel A is used throughout the 350 page poem. As this wrong foots the expected response and after a while, you cop how genuine the artist is in their method, like goodfellas outbluffing each other in the hugging and respect stakes.

But the day I found Heaney's prose and told one of the kids on class, the look of horror on the tutor's gob said it all. Treason, but the truth is, I have always thought Heaney the best because he has the three strings to the poetic bow. He proves in prose without having to show any poems, why many think him the best. His eloquence surpasses that of any other poet's prose i have read, and live, well it's just doing it that counts, as we cannot fake the real thing, experience of live reading. And i found myself after ten, twenty, thirty times out in quick weekly succession, that after a while, reading live - you see it for what it is, a rehearsal for the next time, a practice, just doing it. And the writing is the same. The hardest thing is to get over other people's opinion putting you off when you first start, what Amergin terms

the abundence of goading when one takes up the prosperity of bardcraft

as this can be debilitating when starting out. But Heaney, he has been the bar to reach in relation to eloquence, and what i found is, what he says is true, to himself, that we have to find our own note, as we are all unique and can only be ourselves, and he gets it for fence sitting but his even handedness is understandable, and he says it in his prose, that after Derry, everything changed for him as a poet, his whole relationship with it underwent a seismic shift, that it became a political act, in the sense of using what gifts he had to make a statement to the world, at that time that the irish native he is, was like the blacks before Obama, inherently less classy in print, less capable of being the best poets in the Yeatsean sense of world best leaders. And Yeats had his aristocratic hang ups and planter history to reconcile, whereas Heaney was the first native Irish poet in the sense of coming from the voiceless stock whose history was hedge schools and penal laws, famine and all the rest of what 80% have as their history here. And that he got to where he is, look at the British poets, their role models, Mandy who got the two fingers in a poem heaney wrote in Boston, not having a clue how it would go down, preparing for the worst and history in the form of a poem, same as Yeats. Look at Mandy now, back then, imagine the casual superiority and co-opting of a person's whole ID, for the purpose of being another's pawn and poodle, and when the dust settled, well, poetic gravitas within one's person, cannot be won by a gang of backslappers all agreeing the five, ten, twenty grand's gonna make you the real deal, as Segais well where the bearla filidh dwells, is our own note within, and only slog and intellectual graft, pride in self and enobling without the need of any other human being on God's earth, innit chaps?

regan - the sequence of letters dave and mark, baggsy jack, whose carter, baggsy drivin the granada into the cardboard boxes.

gaingstu - the letters now, I nut gags. yah or nah?

Anonymous said...

Not so odd really. He has quoted Cioran before - when interviewed about District and Circle and 9/11 - something which aroused my own curiosity.

Rushing out to get Stepping Stones now...

sean lysaght said...

However you 'rate' Heaney, it's clear that his is the reputation by which many Irish poet/critics calibrate their own work. I don't see that Mahon or Carson or Muldoon provokes such a sea of hands raised to comment. Like Yeats before him, Heaney's achievement casts a long, broad shadow; it even tends to monopolise the discourse.
It says something about our reflexes as writers that Heaney's success is so often perceived as a threat rather than an enabling presence. In classical tradition, every writer is welcomed into the company of the Muse; romantic jockeying for place and priority comes later.

sean lysaght said...

The problem is, is there any free space on the podium, given Heaney's sprawling eminence? To my mind, there is some foothold to be won by asking the following question: just what, precisely, is the essence of Heaney's poetic? The answer surely has to focus on his language of what Gus Martin called 'the existential moment'. Again and again he manages to create a world through language. Years ago, my father marvelled at the phrase 'a smoke of flies' in the poem 'At Ardboe Point' in Wintering Out. Once we recognise this core imaginative capacity we can ask a series of related questions: is there really what poetry should be about, or is there any other territory available?

sean lysaght said...

This capacity to summon the world of experience derives from a 'monologue of interiority'; what is usually absent in Heaney is the rhetorical note. Only rarely does he opt for direct public address, in the second part of NORTH, in the Open Letter pamphlet, etc. His northern pedigree bred caution (Whatever you say, say nothing).
Something that gives Yeats's work from the middle period onwards its own splendour is the poet's capacity to write rhetorically, with an audience in mind if not in view. Yeats had won for himself a public idiom by then. Poetry as public idiom is, to my mind, the most apparent situation vacant at present; it is also the hardest to fill.

puthwuth said...

Thanks for those, Sean. Eliot said there is no competition among poets, a statement I've always thought was true, on the deepest level. One of the things I like least about accounts of the Northern Irish renaissance of the 60s and 70s, or whatever we agree to call it, is the suggestion of emulousness and jockeying for position critics read into those various poets' rise to fame. Even if true on a personal level, this is a phenomenon with nothing to tell us, I think, about Heaney's work or anyone else's.

Kinsella has often striven to speak in a public idiom, though Butcher's Dozen is hardly an unqualified success, in that vein. Over here in England Hill has always been adamant that poetry is public, rather than private speech. The best of Canaan seems to me an example of just what contemporary poetry can do, in that style.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Eliot said a lot of things Dave, in an English accent, even though he was from America, and he had his pitbull cheerleader Leavis fawning all over him orgasmically in print. But he was top dog and one can imagine, saying stuff for effect, like he did when he said at his most culturaslly paranoid about the number of languages worth writing in being very small because only those with a national literature to draw on are somehow worthy.

An argument whose logic would deny the world of his own English speaking American and Antipodean lit, and when he says there is no
competition among poets, I haven't read the context, and would be very grateful if you tell me the article and I can make my own mind up. But I agree with you that, on the deepest level we do not compete with anyone but ourselves, the quarel with our soul that is the basis of Art.

My theory is that it is all relative and the top ten percent most contented, the one on ten of us who are most at peace with our practice, be it a well known or unknown, we are the ones who when we meet each other, recognise that quality in others, and naturally i put you in that 10 percent and not as some poet-political act of blogosphere cant of Excellent as always crit, but from experience that you don't seem threatened or jittery around my art, and seem perfectly relaxed, respond positively to it yourself, rather than start trying to shut me up, which has happened a lot in my career as a bloke in a bedsit doing poetry very happily, writing and reciting, not chasing the dollar, but any lack of material success, totally outweighed by the moments of satisfaction as Heaney calls them, that we learn to recognise and form the basis of the deposits in the Faith bank of poetry that is the deeper streams you allude to.

If you get two actors in a room and they begin improvising, if they are both in the top ten percent, their interaction will make them both benefit by being in the moment, flying on instinct alone and creating the higher form of performance Art. Like the improv-comedy in Dublin that mushroomed and the best of them niow are slick slick hot, very very developed live, making it up and the first time i saw them, blown away at how reflexive they were. And this whole scene that now employs a good few and makes them good dough, from my reading, down to one man called Ciaron, who used to be a humble bar man in the Hapenny Bridge pub, who had a gift for this and by some typically Irish quirk of randomness, set it all in motion and now, his ID is not Ciaron the barman, but Ciaron the comedy genius doing what he was destined for, what he had a reasl talent for and came out as it has, three nights a week and everyone throwing money at him to see the fella do what he loves.

The flip side of course, is everyone wants to be a poet, and there will be those whose desire does not balance up with their talent, and vice versa. So you have someone with lots of confidence, who is good at talking, organising, and the poetry component is smaller than their big talk, and they will get on by bluff, and there are lots of them, same as there are those who will be like Ciaron, but who haven't found how to out it, and who have far less confidence, but much more talent, who will get sidelined and excluded by the lesser talented, as they feel artistically threatened round them, and unfortunately, in most places, in London especially, as I know from experience, if you turn up at a poetry do, it isn't all free hugs and warm welcomes, but depressingly competititive superior types playing it cold and straight faced, and their work not that hot anyway.

Heaney says in the interview i only read now, that the reputation bubbles up to the public, from the practitoners first, as all the ones in our various spheres, will be keeping the eye out for who has what shay calls *it* "whatever that is" he says, but whatever it is, we all know who has got it, and they are the ones we respect, and my old drama teacher said, actors (poets) are like any other profession, in the respect they can be trained to do it like plumbers and brickies, and 70% are the bog-a-dayers, nowt special, then 20% who have that bit extra, could make it memorable for the audience, then 8% with something above that who stand out and they are the ones laughing who have a bit of real gravitas about them as they don't have to pretend, as they are just themselves, like meeting Longley, dead down to earth and everyone surprised, I mean go to any provincial scene and the local stars in the 70% mob, who might have one or two books out, because there are so many of em, who are the ones competing most, they act more important than the ten to fifteen bookers in the 8% who come across as more normal and just look and behave like anyone else. No obvious poetic ticks to telegraph to their public they are artists, in the way your 70% mob can be, with the obviously arty rig ups, distinctive raiments and that.

Then, you have the 2% who have got IT big time, totally consumed, and a relationship with what they do which goes far beyond the norm, and if they weren't poets of the highest rarest order, would be in mental hospitals on ECT, as they have learnt to harness the unique imbas gidt and chanel it positive. So you see a homeless drug addicted alocoholic, all that energy and will put into destroying their lives, no different than the poet writing a book a day who has learnt to revrse the polarity to writing instead of drugs and orgies.

and i came across an appropriate triad,

Brothers, (kin) are energised by competition

which is true, if it is in the right amount, as competition is a way fo life in ireland, but in a positive way, which is like a rising tide that lifts all boats.

When i was in the three year WaR at Brogansd Write and Recite every tuesday, the level of live ability meant we all wanted to do better than each other, but knew each other well, and that human aspect, week in and out, all getting better in a competitive environment, nowhere in england did i experience that scene, and it was only after it ended, the true benifits became apparent, that confidence weekly recital gives you, in randem with lots of writing and learning, means you get the three strings to the bow of poems on the page, critical prose and live, and very few have all three, 10% at most, but that is the state where you have the trinity and will be in the top 10% by default, as most have one or two, but 90% at least, do not have all three, and i have none.

love and peace

hoedoe - letter verifiction ho dee o

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for the response, Puthwuth. Your magnanimity is appreciated. That said, I think you ask (or expect or wish) a little too much of Heaney:

"My principal disagreement with him is my recoil from his obsessive even-handedness, balance, over-cautiousness and control. It’s a temperamental thing. Even when he talks about lashing out, in a poem like ‘Weighing In’, he’s still doing it from inside the framework of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that."

Obsessive? "Over-cautiousness"? That's a little unfair, I think. Heany's tact, his ability to see more than one side of the argument, never struck me as a shortcoming. Rather the reverse. And if H were less tactful you can imagine what might ensue, all those lobbyists lobbing their personal/political shitballs, which they do anyway.

As an example of his too-even-handedness, you chose 'Weighing In' and that poem about his dead cousin confronting him in the Station Island sequence. I agree that the latter is perhaps a little staged, a little too cleansed and rhetorical. But another poem from the sequence (one I referred to in response to your post about Heaney/Murray last year) is much less tactful. In fact the fury/disgust/betrayal comes off it in waves, a palpable heat. Here is an example, if we need one, of Heaney taking "history's stinking breath" full in the face, when he confronts an old neighbor, "the perfect, clean, unthinkable victim", who tells him that the assassins were:

"... barefaced as they would be in the day, // shites thinking they were the be-all and end-all." When H asks forgiveness, he is dismissed bluntly: "...'Forgive / my eye', he said, 'all that's above my head.' "

H has engaged more directly with politics, for example in his play The Burial at Thebes, where Bush can be heard clearly in Creon’s: "Whoever isn't for us / Is against us." Not Heaney’s strongest writing perhaps, but a far cry from his usual even-handedness.

A better example of H letting his guard down is his encounter with the IRA acquaintance on the Belfast train (from The Flight Path):

So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’

to which H responds:

‘If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’

This is perhaps the closest he has come to telling his begrudgers to go and fuck themselves, and I salute him for it. If his health holds up, he may just do a Geoffrey Hill and surprise us all.

Regarding Heaney’s taking up all the space on the podium of “'the existential moment”, you may be on to something there, something that may have a special import for the kind of poetry I write, which so often takes its soundings from that very territory. But I can only plough ahead and hope for the best. I do make use of another persona, more vatic and rhetorical. But with this voice, I am always slightly troubled by whether or not I am really up for it, whether I have the gravitas or am just codding myself. You are right. The “public” address is much harder do well, or seems so anyway.