In “Crediting Poetry,” his speech on accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, Seamus Heaney makes the following main points:
- When he began writing poetry, Heaney wanted his poems to seem concrete, reliable, and direct representations of the world as it really was.
- Growing up and living in Northern Ireland helped encourage him to distrust mere rhetorical flourishes, extravagant aspirations, and the unusual language in which they are sometimes expressed. Because of this distrust, he failed to fully appreciate such poets as Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and T. S. Eliot.
- Although Heaney, when younger, often admired the symbolist idea that it was the artistry of poetry that mattered most (not its meaning), he also sometimes wanted poems to convey profound and significant meanings as well.
- At one point it looked as if peace and compromise might be possible in Northern Ireland, but in 1974, and for twenty years thereafter, such hopes seemed unrealistic.
- The harshness of reality often makes people suspicious of optimism. Nevertheless,
a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous.
- There is value in local and national cultural traditions, partly because they can help us to resist violence and tyranny, as Yeats (an earlier Irish recipient of the Nobel Prize) had suggested in his own acceptance speech. Yeats himself wrote poetry that could acknowledge the darker aspects of reality while also inspiring hope.
- Lyric poetry can often convey truth in language and sounds that seem especially rich. Heaney seems to imply that ideally, rich artistry and real significance are combined in the best poems.
- The detailed artistry of poetry is
crucial to poetry's power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry's credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
In other words, great poetry keeps us in touch with both the inner and outer worlds, neglecting neither hope nor realism.
Something extra:Heaney's speech is as much about the cultural conditions that inspire (or inhibit) poetry as it is about the nature of poetry itself. Having grown to maturity in a country full of conflict and violence, Heaney often found it difficult to write poetry that would satisfy people with divergent political and religious expectations. He also sometimes found it difficult to write the kind of poetry that would seem of value to himself. He has come to believe that poetry can capture, preserve, and nurture what is most valuable in humanity. It can often do so in language that seems especially artful -- language that must not, however, prize mere verbal artistry over engagement with the "real" world. The best poetry, and the kind of poetry that Heaney himself aspires to write, is poetry that is both beautiful and meaningful, both artistic and thoughtful, both inspiring and utterly in touch with reality, especially social reality.