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Tome On The Range

An Open Letter To Sean Thomas
Stephen Connolly , September 8th, 2013 08:04

Stephen Connolly writes in response to a cynical Telegraph blog on the life and work of Seamus Heaney

It takes a certain kind of audacity to annoy me, but your article for The Telegraph on the day of Seamus Heaney's funeral succeeded. I should begin by letting you know that I'm entirely aware that your article was written as an exercise in gaining attention; your anonymous authority is transparent and such emptiness should not be playing on my mind. And yet it is. Perhaps it's the arrogance in your suggestion that you've been 'debating' about poetry. Perhaps it's your glib anti-Irish sentiments on Twitter ('leprechaun hat', indeed). Perhaps it's your swift move from attempting to write as some kind of pseudo-critic to attacking Seamus Heaney's personal life ('by all accounts, Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney was a functional alcoholic'). More than this, I think it's your wholesale view of poetry: to you, poetry is something that can be judged by how many gobbets you can pull from your head, seemingly without context and seemingly at random, or by some vague notion of how a line sings.

Let's start with the latter - your wholesale view of poetry - and the merits of something 'unforgettable'. In your article you write: 'Can anyone spontaneously remember a single line of Seamus Heaney? When I asked this same question of Twitter my laptop screen filled with tumbleweed, until someone eventually suggested that Heaney’s memorable talent was, arguably, proven by this line: “Between my finger and thumb, the squat pen rests, I’ll dig with it.”' Except you didn't ask the same question: on Twitter you wrote that 'he didn't write a single memorable line'. I don't mean to suggest that I have a better understanding of language, but that doesn't look like much of a question to me. If you want something memorable and in keeping with your suggestion that Larkin is of great worth because you can remember the last line of 'An Arundel Tomb' then may I suggest a line from Heaney's poem 'The Harvest Bow': 'The end of art is peace'. That's one you can take out on social occasions; you can even mention its three iambic feet so that people know you're not clueless when you talk of how it sings. These six syllables are anything but 'awkward, dull, obscure, and forgettable'.

But that's not how poetry works, is it, Sean? When you quote the final line of 'An Arundel Tomb' as a solitary utterance you're removing the subtle ambiguities of the previous lines, the ones where Larkin writes of our 'almost-instinct' being 'almost true'. You see, this business of quoting a line or two in isolation is not quite as simple as you suggest and when you single out the ending of 'Digging', the first poem in Seamus Heaney's first collection, you are denying any insight into what Helen Vendler describes as his 'unusually alert and self-taxing artistic evolution'. 'Digging' is an important poem because it works as a kind of manifesto, a metaphorical starting point for his work: to single out a minute selection from a vast oeuvre as a means of judging a poet's value is, at best, a bit foolish. It's this impulse to reduce genuine engagement down to media-friendly phrases that has led to the incessant reference to the 'be advised, my passport's green' note as though it might offer a summation of Heaney's nuanced political composition. Poetry doesn't function in simple terms that are easily defined: Seamus Heaney's genius lies in his visceral, tactile approach to language. In 'Anahorish', a poem from his 1972 collection Wintering Out, he writes of the 'after-image of lamps / swung through the yards / on winter evenings' left by thoughts of his childhood home. To paraphrase Don Paterson, he marries the word to the event, making the personal universal and we, as readers, are privy to his innate descriptive ability: his is not poetry that delights in ornamentation or flourish, it is a poetry of acute perceptions of human experience. It is the clarity with which he offers us his perceptions – often dealing with difficult human and political subjects – that make us 'gasp in wonder'. You can find lines that sing on greeting cards, anyone with a little skill in versification can write memorable lines, but the kind of palpable reaction you get from reading Heaney at his best – try 'Clearances' from The Haw Lantern or 'The Guttural Muse' from Field Work – is utterly inimitable. Committing some lines to memory is one thing, but to have the lingering 'after-image' is something much deeper.

Now, Sean, when you talk of Seamus Heaney as irreproachable it's difficult to say that you're anything but wrong. He was lambasted for his 1975 collection North because it was seen as an acceptance of the violence of the time, he was even dubbed the 'laureate of violence'. In 'Punishment' he describes himself as an 'artful voyeur' who would 'connive / in civilized outrage / yet understand the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge'. These are not the words of someone who can be described as simply as, in your words, a 'sensitive Lefty'. 'Punishment' is perhaps Heaney's most painful poem to read, it is difficult not to be disgusted by what, at first reading, appears to be his 'understanding' of the brutal treatment of Catholic women who were tarred and feathered for being romantically linked to British soldiers. Yet what Heaney is really doing is something much more complex: 'Punishment' is a poem where unfathomably deep, confluent emotions meet, his outrage is an outrage with himself, his stance is multifaceted and pained, he is overwhelmed by guilt when recognising the ramifications of his 'understanding'. This is a political poem, but not in the gaudy Right versus Left binary positions that you write about. It is not a polemic, it is not empty rhetoric. You get the feeling reading 'Punishment' that it is a hard-won truth, difficult to write, difficult to publish. Yeats famously said, 'we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry'. You can agree or disagree with his complex political position, but it would be very hard to suggest that this is anything but great poetry. The word 'sensitive' does not begin to describe this poet, Heaney's perceptions are akin to those of a finely-tuned seismograph by which we can temper our own understandings of the world. It's for this reason that people as unlikely as Liam Neeson made such grand statements as 'he defined our place in the universe'. In this context, it's not overblown in the slightest.

Then there's the matter of tact: does it do you good to know that your article was published on the day of Seamus Heaney's funeral, a day when his family and friends were still in shock at his unexpected death? Nobody is suggesting that you don't have the right to publish whatever you want, but I'd like to know what mixture of vanity and puerile mischief put you up to it. In District and Circle, the 2006 book that deals inexplicably well with global politics, Heaney published the poem 'A Shiver'. It can be read as a powerful diatribe directed at those who may be foolish with positions of power. In an act of technical accomplishment Heaney cuts the tenth line short, he writes that power is 'withholdable at will'. Nobody will suggest that you have much power to your words or actions, Sean, but it might do you some good to mull that phrase over, so here it is again: 'withholdable at will'. To attack his poetry is one thing, but to attack his person is something different entirely. Does even the most hardened part of you not see that there is something about publishing your shoddy attempt at literary criticism on the day of his funeral which is below all adult dignity? You seem to relish the attention, making statements as if Seamus Heaney was just a name printed on the front of books for 'Lefties' to unthinkingly and unanimously praise. Poetry is not, and never has been for anyone who takes it seriously, about fame. When you're talking about innovative poets at the level of Yeats, Larkin, Plath and Heaney it is absurd to suggest that you can definitively say that any of them are better than the others.

I use the word innovative to segue into my last quarrel with you, Sean. What exactly do you think gives you the right to talk about 'leprechauns' while making sweeping statements about 'the Irish'? And then to make an unsupported statement that a recently-deceased man was an alcoholic? In 'Singing School' Heaney wrote of 'inferiority complexes', that 'Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English Lyric'. Seamus Heaney's unfaltering innovation paved the way for those of us who may still have believed in such colonial rubbish. Paul Muldoon once said of Yeats that 'the rest of us are just labouring at his foothills'; the same can easily be said of Seamus Heaney and it takes even the most limited critical ability to realise this.

So, by all means engage in debate about poetry, but make sure you're informed.

Keep your eye clear, Sean. Posterity will take care of itself.

Stephen Connolly is a 2011 graduate of the MA programme at the Seamus Heaney Centre, now in the 2nd year of a PhD looking at traditional set forms in the poetry of Paul Muldoon, and runs The Lifeboat reading series

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