Saturday 31 August 2013

What to think of Seamus Heaney?


I hear that the writer Seamus Heaney has died - someone who won the Nobel Prize for literature, and who was regarded by some as a great writer.

My tutor at Durham University was Dr DKC Todd, and he had taught Heaney at Queens University, Belfast - and the apocryphal story went around the department that the undergraduate Heaney had shown him some poems, but after reading them Dr Todd had advised him not to bother continuing on that line...


Well, the joke was understood to be mostly about how hard it was to discern promise in apprentice work, and how judgment may come back to bite us - but I have to admit that I do not regard Heaney as a poet.


It's not that he was a bad poet, but that he just wasn't a poet at all - I have read quite a lot of his stuff over the years, and so far as I understand poetry, this isn't it.

That sort of reaction only really became possible from the mid-twentieth century; until than there was no problem about who was a poet, but only about how good a poet.

But now, by my judgement, someone can be the most respected poet in the world - but not a poet...



Bill said...

How would you define "poet"?

dearieme said...

I happened to be reading some of his stuff a few weeks ago. At one point he talks about holding a pen like a gun. But the way you hold the two objects is entirely different. It was a very poor image: what can he have been thinking of?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - it's not the kind of thing that can be defined. It is more a matter of recognizing - like recognizing lyrical musical phrasing, or the fluidity of line in a drawing.

Luqman said...

Based on that I am inclined to agree. There is nothing expressed, they are mere discordant phrases. Not surprising that such work could win the Nobel prize after modernism and post-modernism though.

Anonymous said...

Every one of us is a bad poet. Every one.

Nicholas Fulford said...

What is a poem--I know it when I read it.

So let's see if I can write one in real time as I type.

Words, words, words, as gossamer thin veils,
Are winsome spirits fluttering on ethereal sails.

The ship upon sea at night,
Alone and solitary sight:
Has no surety but thee,
oh silent dark and lonesome sea.

Leviathan from deep beneath,
a whirlpool or a hidden reef:
Disaster always right at hand,
No sight or sound or smell of land.

But steady 'n sure the captain's weathered face,
T'will steel the crew and guide to harbour safe.

Through thunder, sleet and hail,
No faithless unto the Fates do wail.
Nor is any Andromeda to Poseidon an offering made,
or Lot's daughters to a lustful crowd betrayed.

But faithful ever to the day soon to arise,
Relinquish fearful phantom's horrific lies.

Imagination's tempest thinning in the sunlight yields,
to a promised land of plush and fertile fields.

Probably not a grade "A" effort, but as much as I can muster at midnight after a long day. Is it a poem? It has the form of one, so from a technical perspective it is. Is it a good poem? That is a different question. I have written a lot better. But it is a poem, just not a great one.

Bruce Charlton said...

I am not trying to persuade anybody else about SH - merely noting that I read poetry in hope of finding a particular quality that poetry (and only poetry) sometimes provides - and this is not found in SH, indeed it is clear that he is avoiding it.

Poetry can only be defined in such a minimal fashion that the definition is over inclusive (and exploitable) - but poetry is certainly minimally about *rhythmic* speech, speech underpinned by regular patterns of stresses.

Heaney deliberately avoids this (iambic-pentameter-phobia) and is instead doing something with consonants and vowels and what not. In the process, the special quality of poetry is subtracted.

Incidentally, I could not detect this special quality of poetry until I was about 21, and had been reading poetry for about 8 years; until then I felt at sea reading poems, since then I have a sense of 'getting it' (when it is there to 'get')

Bruce Charlton said...

No idea about this chap's judgement, but this article is pretty much in accordance with my own opinions (including about Larkin)