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?