Within the Jurisdiction of Form

Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001 by Seamus Heaney. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002.

As Reviewed By: Carol Bere

Seamus Heaney is probably the most universally known Irish poet today. He has won all the big races, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, and a cursory trawl through a library catalogue or the Internet suggests that Heaney criticism has become something of a cottage industry. Less discussed is Heaney the critic. He has commented that criticism initially held little interest for him, that “from the beginning there was an element of the ‘duty dance,’ of the good boy doing his university work, about my criticism.” Yet there is little hint of turgid academic prose, fashionable theory, or aggressive controversy in Finders Keepers, a valuable collection of autobiographical articles, lectures, essays, and reviews covering a thirty-year period. Rather, Heaney is a teacher, a learned close reader, and occasional proselytizer for poetry in general. The strengths of the collection are Heaney’s persuasive commentary on poetic technique, and the often unexpected, perceptive insights into the work of poets he particularly admires, like Wordsworth, Yeats, Kavanagh, Auden, Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, and Czeslaw Milosz.

[private]What interests Heaney is a poet’s creative process, the fabric of affects or significant “under-ear activities” that comprise a poem-the language chosen, the imagery, inherent rhythms, and indigenous sounds that provide a level of understanding not compromised by a surface level of paraphrase-“the cultural depth-charges latent in certain words and rhythms…the relationship between word as pure vocable, as articulate noise, and the word as etymological occurrence, as symptom of human history, memory, and attachments.” He considers the ways in which a poet’s relation to time, place, or historical situation underpins or shapes poetic technique and informs the work-whether reflected in the poetry of Northern Ireland writers (who “take the strain of being in two places at once…needing to accommodate two opposing conditions of truthfulness simultaneously”) or of Joseph Brodsky (and his “journey from dissidence in Russia to exile in the United States”) or in Robert Lowell’s search for “a way of writing that would be an anatomy of his own predicament and of the age.” Heaney is also one of the few contemporary poets who frequently insists that our initial response to a poem should be pleasure, delight, and surprise. In more classic terms, he prefers poetry that delights and instructs. He admires the balance, for example, evident in the poetry of Milosz, “where the needle is constantly atremble between the reality principle and the pleasure principle: Prospero and Ariel adding to either side of the argument.”

The essays in the collection are held together, says Heaney, by searches for answers to central preoccupying questions: “How should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?” In the broadest sense, then, Finders Keepers represents the autobiography of the poet. Themes of displacement, the poet as outsider, are natural corollaries-but also implicit in the collection is Heaney’s search for confidence as a poet, his coming to terms with personal doubts about the importance and value of poetry in the contemporary world. Heaney often speaks of the “miraculous” arrival of poetry as a vocation, but his personal background shaped his initial doubts about the role of poetry in his life. He was born on a farm in County Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest of nine children in an Irish Catholic family, and was later the scholarship boy” at Queens University in Belfast. As Heaney has noted, getting a job was the expectation, not attempting to structure a life as a practicing poet.

In an early essay “Feelings into Words” (l978), Heaney comments that the literary language, the English canon, initially had little relevance for him, until he began to be influenced by his reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins at school, and responded to the “bumpy alliterating music” and “ricocheting consonants” of his verse, which he later interpreted as connecting to the regional characteristics of his own Northern Ireland accent, and somehow validated his desire to write poetry. Yet in the early days in college, Heaney had little sense of the poem as a whole structure. Rather, he was all craft and little technique. In one of his more subtle distinctions, Heaney differentiates between craft and technique. Craft is “the skill of making….It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self. It knows how to keep up a verbal athletic display; it can be content to be…all voice and nothing else-but not voice as in ‘finding a voice.'” Technique, on the other hand, says Heaney, “involves not only a poet’s way with words, his management of meter, rhythm and verbal texture; it involves a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality….Technique entails the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form.” The initial stirrings of technique for Heaney-what Frost called that “lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness”-were first realized in an early poem, “Bogland” (1969), with its associations with the landscape and memories of early childhood, and the notion of the bog as the “memory of the landscape.” He speaks of an almost unrealized, unconscious need “to make a congruence between memory and bogland…and our national consciousness.” With the opening lines, “We have no prairies / To set a big sun at evening- / Everywhere the eye concedes to / Encroaching horizon,” Heaney began to set down what he referred to as “an answering Irish myth,” to the frontier myth of America that he had been studying.

In “The Makings of a Music” (a wonderful essay on the “music” of Wordsworth and Yeats that should have been included in Finders Keepers), Heaney indirectly suggests ways of reading his own poetry, as he explores the relationship between elements of poetic music-the influences of the sounds, diction, and rhythms drawn from literary tradition, and a poet’s unconscious activity, individual response to sounds, music, his “instinctual ballast.” Critics have often remarked that a Heaney poem is instantly recognizable, that the individual syllables, sounds, and rhythms are distinctive; or as fellow Northern Ireland poet, Michael Longley commented, “Seamus writes in….his own dialect in some strange way, which is very rich, like clotted cream.” Yet it is also clear that in different ways that Heaney has responded to the music of Wordsworth, to what might be called his unselfconsciousness, his trust in the “validity of his experience,” his “composition as listening…[and] surrender to energies that spring within the centre of the mind,” and to Yeats’s struggles toward mastery, his experiments with voice, his efforts toward control, to create a “music of energy reined down”; or as Heaney remarked in “Yeats as an Example?”-“Yeats encourages you to experience a transfusion of energies from poetic forms themselves, [and] reveals how the challenge of a metre can extend the sources of the voice. He proves that deliberation can be so intensified that it becomes synonymous with inspiration.”

Few poets of Heaney’s generation were immune to the presence of T. S. Eliot, and he is quite explicit about his debt to the poet. In the previously uncollected “Learning from Eliot,” Heaney remarked that he assumed that “until one found him [Eliot], one had not entered the kingdom of poetry.” Eliot did not teach him to write, but he did teach him to read poetry, to listen to the music of poetry, to “seek the contour of a meaning within the pattern of a rhythm.” Eliot’s comments on the “auditory imagination” (“the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling….”), resonated with Heaney’s own preoccupations with acoustics. He begins to understand Eliot, or at least segments of The Wasteland by listening to the cadences of the story of the fate of Phlebas in the “Death by Water” section, or by reading aloud the opening lines of “Burnt Norton.” He praises the provocative “shape and sound” of Paul Muldoon’s poetry that delivers far more than an initial reading suggests; and he rightly assumes that the way into the poetry of Ted Hughes is through his native West Yorkshire dialect, his consonantal diction, which takes “the measure of his vowels like calipers, or stud the line like rivets”; or, as put more simply by Hughes, “In writing verse, it’s what I hear.”

But Heaney is also about much more than acoustics. Referring to the early Auden, he mentions “a new rhythm….is a new life given to the world…..The rhythmic disjunctions in Auden’s lines, the correspondingly fractured elements of narrative or argument, are wakenings to a new reality, lyric equivalents of the fault he intuited in the life of his times.” Somewhat surprisingly, while commenting that Sylvia Plath’s “tongue” was governed by “the disciplines of metre, rhyme, etymology, assonance, enjambment,” he veers off into a somewhat predictable approach-the three stages of Plath’s poetic achievement-and circumvents the “new reality” suggested by Plath’s poems. Heaney ultimately concludes “There is nothing poetically flawed about Plath’s work,” before inserting the qualifier: “What may finally limit it is its dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition, even though this concern must be understood as a valiantly unremitting campaign against the black hole of depression and suicide….I believe that the greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained, or at least a fullness of self-possession denied to Sylvia Plath.” Heaney’s overall assessment of Plath’s poetry is certainly not new, but it is also a view that Plath’s advocates, even Ted Hughes in some of his writing and letters about her poetry, would dispute.

In “Frontiers of Writing” (l993), Heaney’s concluding lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford (not collected here), he states that one of his consistent themes has been the “idea of poetry as an answer, and that idea of an answering poetry as a responsible poetry, and the idea of poetry’s answer, its responsibility, being given in its own language rather in the language of the world that provokes it….” And poetry as affirmative, transformative, answering, responsible, is ultimately the subtext of Finders Keepers. Heaney admires Robert Lowell’s response, his assumption of the role of the poet as a conscience of his society, his dedication to creating poetry “that would be an anatomy of his own predicament and of the age.” He admires Beckett’s ability to look into the bleakness, and produce a positive response; Milosz’s credibility and belief in individual responsibility; and Holub’s faith in life. And, finally, he admires the Yeats who answered the world on his own terms, and the Yeats of “The Man and the Echo,” written near the end of his life, who confronts the historical events of Ireland, demonstrates how the spirit must endure, and “preserves a freedom and manages to pronounce a final Yes.

The notion of answering, of a responsible poetry, also connects directly with the one area of controversy that has surrounded Heaney’s career-his response, or in some cases, perceived lack of response, or sufficient response to the sectarian conflicts in the North. Praise has not been universal in Ireland. He has been criticized for side-stepping, for not being sufficiently vocal, or taking a more absolute stance in his poetry about the position of the Catholic minority in the North; criticized by Protestant loyalists who suggested that his membership in the Catholic minority implied support for the IRA (whose violence he has condemned); criticized for not being sympathetic to the Unionist position in the North; and criticized for moving to the Republic in l972 after the IRA violence in the North.

There’s barely an interview where Heaney is not questioned about his position on the “Irish question.” Heaney has certainly debated his role and responsibility to speak out on political issues, but he does not see himself as a political poet in the manner of Brecht, Adrienne Rich, or Neruda. But if I take Heaney correctly, the shift early on in his poetry “from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament,” assumes an engagement, which can be tracked throughout his poetry-particularly in North (1975), which drew praise as well as harsh criticism-his responsiveness to the changing political environment, to the violence inherent in the politics in Ireland. In the newly collected “Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland,” Heaney emphasizes the relationship between poetic technique and the historical situation, insisting that the notion of the “poem as having its existence in a realm separate from the discourse of politics, does not absolve it or the poet from political responsibility”. And for sheer splash, later tempered a bit in “Frontiers of Writing,” Heaney stunned readers by responding to the publication of Contemporary British Poetry (l982) edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion (in which he was headlined as “the most important new poet of the last fifteen years”), by publishing a lengthy poem, “An Open Letter,” asserting rather unequivocally ” be advised / My passport’s green. / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast The Queen.”

Yet while Heaney champions the power of poetry “to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the wrongness all around it,” in the various essays of Finders Keepers, he also insists that poetry is its own reality, that even when confronted by immediate social and political pressures, the poet’s “ultimate fidelity must be to the demands and promise of the artistic event.” And in what amounts collectively to Heaney’s defense of the gifts or claims of poetry, he comments that: “We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work in most original and illuminating poetry is the mind’s capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity.”[/private]

About Carol Bere

Carol Bere, a freelance writer, taught English literature and writing at New York University (where she attended graduate school), and at Rutgers University. She was also an officer in a New York investment bank. Her articles and reviews have been published in several venues including the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Review, The Literary Review, Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, Ariel, and in many international finance magazines.
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