Iffat Maqbool Asst Professor Dept of English
University of Kashmir.
Despite the ascendancy of “Formalist” poetics in the second half of the twentieth century, a literature of engagement was increasingly offered from those emergent cultures that needed new paradigms to counter the modernist model offered by the western academia. Cultures like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Ireland have proffered anti-colonial literary models that seek to de-centralize the totalizing impulse behind west-centric aesthetic discourses.
Ireland, interestingly, offers a peculiar example in that it yields to none of the traditional “postcolonial” binaries that one associates with the South-Asian model. The anomalous position of the European nation of Ireland is best summed up by the remark that “Ireland is a first world country with a third world memory”.Devasted by centuries of political uncertainty, Ireland remains even today a country with a volatile political situation where issues of Nationalism and identity are never out of currency. The long standing acrimony with the imperial neighbour England, the years of unrest and violence, the ultimate halving of the nation into two, the fragile peace that resulted as a consequence of the birth of the Republic of Ireland that constitutes the United Kingdom and the independent republic of Northern Ireland— gives to the Irish a unique position within the European union.
Irish writers have inevitably responded to this dominant political metaphor that runs as a major preoccupation from W B Yeats onwards. This strong commitment to Nation or Nation- space is best summed up by Vincent Buckley:
“…a centre of power exerting a strong inward pull a strong emotional disposition, or habit of mind, or social or political intention”. Artistic responses to this “emotional disposition” towards the politics of the country are impressive ranging from W B Yeats, J M Synge, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Kinsella, Derek Mahon, Micheal Longley, Paul Muldoon, and Seamus Heaney.
Seamus Heaney, in particular, has been increasingly vocal about some of the fundamental issues that confront an Irish writer as he juggles between demands of Nation-centric themes and artistic integrity. His poetry has been acclaimed for its power to evoke an indigenous Irish identity with its revivalist tendencies and “earth-bound” pastoral landscapes. This attachment to place is evident in the earlier poetry like “Death of a Naturalist” where the dominant trope is that of poetry as a “dig” for retrieval of culture and identity that has been silenced/subordinated by the colonizer’s version of the same. The poems get increasingly political with the publication of “North” and finally culminate in a desire to move away from the explicit political content of the earlier poetry in volumes like Field Work and The Haw Lantern. However, politics is never far from the poems even as the poet attempts to depoliticize the landscape: questions of Irish identity and nationalist politics are still posed. Heaney’s considerable poetic achievement attracts attention for two reasons: One, there is the dynamism of a “felt” poetry that strikes new ground in so far as it invents or reinvents an idiom resonant with defining cultural and historical matrixes on the one hand and on the other, equally poised to venture from this predetermination into the realms of the imaginatively transcendent. Secondly, Heaney’s tireless critical activity –evident in his prose writings- is remarkable for its sincerity and almost programmatic endeavor to articulate a
cohesive and self-validating vision of poetry. Through his commitment to reconstituting the status of poetry, and in his insistence to voice/define a creed of poetry in today’s politically volatile world, Heaney becomes the true spokesman of Poetry.
It would not be out of place to mention that Heaney’s role as eloquent ambassador of poetry rests as much if not more on his prose writings as on his poetry. Andrew Motion calls Heaney’s essay The Government of the Tongue (1988) as “… one of the masterpieces of modern criticism”. In May, 2003, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 won the Truman Capote award for literary criticism. The award is billed as “the largest annual cash prize for literary criticism in the English language.” Helen Vendler praised Finders Keepers for “…a brimming metaphoric energy…a buoyant vivacity of description …reflective humour…and an imaginative penetration unequalled in contemporary critical prose”.The term Poet-Critic at once suggests itself, the word at once holding one’s interest in contrast to the notion of an academic critic.It also helps to establish an interdependence between the twin activities of creative and critical writings that Heaney has undertaken.Many critics refer to these essays and lectures in terms of providing some form of explicatory or contextual commentary on his poems.They tend to make frequent use of his prose in order to explain the backdrop of many of his poems; the prose pieces are seen as some sort of companions to the poems: this approach to the prose as secondary to the poetry encourages the notion that the prose is of supplementary status. Though an explicit interdependence between the poetry and the prose does exist, this response to his critical writings or lectures takes away from them the force and revelatory qualities that they certainly possess.
Recent criticism has however claimed a central place for Heaney’s prose: Eugene O’Brien in his book Searches for Answers, advocates the primacy of Heaney’s critical writings and urges for “viewing the prose as central to his overall developing project”. He argues that far from being a meta-commentary on his poetry, it is a seminal aspect of his work and in no way miscellaneous to his poetry. In his prose writings, Heaney articulates his concerns about the nature of Art in today’s world, the efficacy of poetry to “redress”, and finally the role of the poet in bringing about transformative truths in the face of injustice and violence. This his how he comes closest to the expression of a peculiar poetics- that singularly possesses a “strong ethical as well as aesthetic charge”.Bernard Donohghue remarks
“ Heaney’s mature poetry has always included criticism and conversely his criticism is unmistakably the work of a practitioner, thereby satisfying the demands of modernists since Eliot that the critic of poetry should, ideally, also be a poet.”
Heaney’s prose collection could be classified into four categories: One, the theme of ‘place’ or ‘home’ and its interrelationship with the theme of identity and roots spelt out brilliantly in his prose collection Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978.
Secondly, Seamus Heaney’s commitment to the “Irish Question” and the insistence with which it is posed throughout his critical/aesthetic manifesto. This includes his peculiar position as a minority Catholic poet writing (at least to begin with) from the site of the “Troubles”- the state of Northern Ireland, with its problematic status as a “British” province. Third, his “Ars Poetica”-writings that aim at a(re) definition of the art of poetry and its function in today’s world. He particularly dwells on the precarious balance between the “committed” and “aesthetic” nature of poetry.
Lastly, but importantly, Heaney’s analysis of the work of other writers, some canonical others peripheral including his working out a debt to Yeats, Kavanagh, T S Eliot. He also shows a penchant for the inclusion of non-canonical writers thereby giving to his criticism a revisionary and revelatory power.
The present paper will focus on the first category-namely the preoccupation with “place” and the grounding that results from such attachment.
Preoccupations Selected Prose 1968-1978 is clearly intended to have the force of a manifesto and could easily rank amongst the most successful attempts made by Heaney to develop his poetic standard and its accompaniments.Heaney’s poetry has always rested upon the notion of a ‘source’-and consequently aspires towards a poetic language that has the weight and grounding of such an impulse.
Fittingly, the first essay in Preoccupations is about a source, Mossbawn, the rural farm where Heaney grew up as a child. Place and Identity merge as Heaney pays tribute to rootedness in a sacred, ‘feminine’ landscape. His concept of origins is symbolized by the pump in the yard, the sound of which he associates with the Greek word Omphalos, “the centre of the world”. Heaney draws on autobiography to give a childhood reminiscence of the pristine quality of the Irish countryside, where “the living tree flourished and breathed” and whose memory is embedded in the poet’s mental landscape:
“ To this day, green, wet corners, flooded wastes …any place with the invitation of watery ground and tundra vegetation…It is as if I am betrothed to them”. Like Yeats before him, Heaney here typifies the Revivalists response to Irish culture by invoking a gendered, feminine concept of the Irish landscape.
This sacramental, ritualistic bond with ‘home’ or with place finds a potent expression in many poets writing from erstwhile ‘peripheral’ cultures. The relationship of the poet with the physical place becomes more than a mere attachment; it is a primal commitment to the notion of a spatial metaphor that spurs the poet into artistic expression. It is a “poetics of place”—an aesthetic that is also exemplified by James Joyce’s life-long commitment to the mindscape of his urban Dublin. The external landscape is therefore mindscape, memoryscape and dreamscape.Les Murray of Australia puts it succinctly:
“This country is my mind
I lift my face and count my hills and linger over one:
…and where I take my city friends to tempt them with my past”.
A postcolonial reading of this essay takes into account how peripheral places become agents of “reterretorialization”, sites of resistance against the hegemonic ‘ globalizing’ tendencies of the colonizing culture.Nevertheless,the poet does not only wallow in the idealization of a pristine past but constantly negotiates between the two impulses that beckon him:
“ One is lived, illiterate and unconscious. The other learned, literate and conscious. In a literary sensibility both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension”.
An act of reterritorialization that has traditional sanction in the native Irish literary tradition is the writing of “place-name” poems, the writing of which places Heaney in a direct line of succession in the native literary genre called dinnseanchas in Ireland.Speaking of the Irish countryside, Heaney takes up place-names such as “Drum cliff”, “Ben Bulben”, “Lissadel” and “Innisfree” and explains:
“ All of these places now live in the imagination,all of them stir us to responses other than the merely visual,all of them are instinct with the spirit of a poet and his poetry”.
The Dinnseanchas has a unifying function in so far as it is used as a common weapon to de- anglicize the land:
“Irrespective of our creed or politics irrespective of what culture or subculture may have colored our individual sensibilities, our imagination’s assent to the stimulus of the names, our sense of the place is enhanced, our sense of ourselves as inhabitants not just of a geographical country but a country of the mind ( stress mine) is cemented”. Thus, Heaney too performs the modern version of the earliest tendency to “imagine” or (re) invent Ireland, a task performed by some of the most significant writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Seamus Heaney.Preoccupations.Selected Prose 1968-78.London, Faber and Faber, 1980.
—————— Finders Keepers:Selected Prose 1971-2001.London:Faber and Faber,2002. Martin Leer. “ This Country is my Mind”.Les Murray’s Poetics of Place.”Australian Literary Studies,Vol. 20,2001.
Elmer Andrews. The poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism.New York: Palgrave Macmillan,1998.
Neil Corcoran.The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study.London.Faber and Faber,1988.