The Redress of Poetry

Seamus Heaney 1939 – 2013 – Oxford Lectures (1995)
A capricious and arbitrary analysis of the first of this series of lectures

“Heaney discusses and celebrates poetry’s special ability to redress balance and to function as a counter-weight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world” (Book Blurb)

The Redress of Poetry sets out, in its own words, ‘to show how poetry’s existence as a form of art relates to our existence as citizens of society – how it is ‘of present use’. Whether the lecture serves this ‘present use’ ascribed unto itself or not, we shall endeavour in due course to determine: suffice it for now to say that it is surely of present delight.

The general tone of this discourse is necessarily philosophical, its content reflection of no mean weight. So what saves it from becoming pedantic and ‘boring’ for the most general of French-cheese-lays-crunching general readers? Well, a profusion of well-bestowed adjective, to begin with: most of the lines here lilt the impressively rolling periods of the academe right out of the window. Here we have ‘the dead-pan cloudiness of the word-processor’, ‘Herbert’s daylight sanity and vigour’, and such wonderfully-worded commentaries as ‘poems which seem so perfectly set to become perpetual-motion machines can find ways of closure and escape from their own unfaltering kinesis’. This is ‘lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane’ that cannot fail to captivate.

The lecture professes to express ideas necessarily profound and frequently paradoxical: yet a book-blurb may quite neatly summarise the essence withal. How comes this about? How is obscurity here banished from the academic lecture, over which it generally asserts dominion as a right, if not as a duty? Clarity of vision and the strength of the author’s convictions may have something to do with it: but we must admit that the curious felicity of the writing owes itself above all to the author’s meticulous planning and ruthless pruning of inanities. Hard work has been done, and it reveals itself in the readiness with which the discourse may be perused.

This carefully-crafted clarity doubtless contributes to the peculiar fluidity of this lecture – peculiar, because it weaves, meanders, saunters, dashes whither it will, according to an internal rhythm all its own. Perhaps the mingling of the written and the spoken word holds the secret. A lecture, after all, is but a discourse written down in order that it may be spoken aloud. Few lectures engage the reader in dialogue quite as this one does – dialogue in very truth, an it please you.

“‘He was a man who used to notice such things,’ say the neighbours, on this side of the frontier. ‘Which things?’ asks the reader, and from the other side the poem answers … ‘Anything else?’ says the reader. ‘Blackness, mothy and warm,’ says the poem. ‘The full starred heaven that winter sees’, things like that. ‘My God!’ says the reader.” Now this is an invitation to dialogue far more subtle and intimate than the shrilly insistent ‘Look well, O wolves, look well!’ to be found in some lectures. Others, enwrapped in lofty purpose, bid the reader hie to the scullions’ entrance, and amble on through page after page in bewigged complacency. Heaney succeeds in avoiding these extremes, and strikes a happy mean that serves to redress a little of the balance of the lecture, at the very least.

For a note of dissatisfaction, stifled by awe of the anon and the many excellences of the lecture, does tend nonetheless to persist. At the end of the lecture, we emerge defiantly convinced that while this may be one part of the poetic truth, one way of looking at poesy, it cannot be all of it. This would hardly require such belligerent assertion, if only the lecture did not so unabashedly assume ‘a wonderful logical and psychological self-sufficiency’ – a description culled from Heaney himself, though quoted brazenly out of context. As it is, the very certainty which facilitates comprehension and lends such pleasing strength to the style begins to ruffle our feathers rather, when we return for a closer scrutiny of the content. The sheer authorial cheek of the man, inviting us to share his ideas one moment, and assuming that we do share them the next! Where is his “’My God!’ says the reader” now, eh? Where the preaching professor overrides the poet-philosopher, he tends to get on our literary nerves, even when we do agree with what he is saying.

For he does often speak sooth, the good professor. Poetry as it ‘offers a response to reality that has a liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit … tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium’ by being ‘a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances’ is a beautiful thing to muse over. The political relevance of poetry, its compatibility with political activism, especially where writers have ‘internalised the norms and forms of the tradition from which they wish to secede’, constitute aspects of our post-thingy reality which we cannot escape contemplating.

And yet, at some especially whimsical fundamental level, we resent Heaney for writing this ‘Redress’ of poetry. If one is to go about redressing things, why does it always have to be ‘an apologie for poetrie’? Must it always be the poet who shame-facedly shuffles his feet and says “Ah yes, it is poetry, but it is ‘of present use’, you know.” Or else, with pathetic defiance: “Confound you all, poetry rules! It is ‘of present use’, so go kill yourselves!” Why must poetry beg for the right to breathe?

More literature than philosophy and more poesy than prose, this lecture does not – cannot – serve to redress poetry, for poetry has scant need of redress. It will, however, serve right well to turn the most prosaic of readers into a convicted poet, for the space of that one eventide.

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