Seamus Heaney’s second collection of critical essays follows many of the themes and further examines many of the individual subjects of his first volume, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1980). The initial collection was loosely organized around three themes: deliberations on Heaney’s developing poetic philosophy, explorations of the work of poets he admired, and personal recollections and observations about his growth as a man and a poet. Heaney’s strong voice unites it all, but there is still a sense of randomness, of discovery through the process of composition, and of the somewhat ragged excitement associated with the initial appreciation of those poets who matter most to him. In the second volume, the essays range over the same basic ground but their interlinkage is much stronger, the ideas about poetry deeper and more compelling, the appreciative discussions of other poets less pure celebration and more an analysis built on a close kinship of sensibility. Heaney’s reputation as one of the stronger poets writing in the English language in the latter half of the twentieth century has already been established, but the essays here form a part of an argument about the value of poetry that is among the most graceful and persuasive in Anglo/Irish letters. His insistence upon the relevance of poetry in an age whose horrors have produced a numbness akin to despair at the center of consciousness is especially timely, and his argument by arrangement through his ordering of the essays is forceful and convincing even for the reader who may disagree with specific aspects of it.
Hovering around everything Heaney writes is his ancestry—the inescapable history of the Irish colonial struggle against the absent English rulers and their agents. He knows that he cannot escape his country’s wounds, but he is disinclined to be a spokesman for any of the warring sects. Surely and strongly committed to the desperate hope that the madness and killing will stop, Heaney has taken as one of the central themes of his political philosophy the passionate conviction that poetry, his art, can have some meaning and be of some value on the battlegrounds of human history. This is the controlling idea which he develops in the title essay, where every form of government of and by “the tongue” —here used as a figure for the power of poetic imagination in active speech—is examined and tested for validity and effectiveness. This essay, located at the heart of the book, is like a drawing together of the threads, the strands of his thesis, that he has been setting out.
Many of the essays here were originally conceived as lectures which Heaney delivered on various prestigious occasions (such as the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures delivered at the University of Kent in 1986), and the mode Heaney has chosen is that of the carefully composed, closely reasoned presentation offered to an audience that is both well-educated and thoroughly interested in his subject. The sense of a man talking is critical; the sound and rhythm of the words create the mood for response he hopes to evoke, and much of what he has to say is supported and extended by his very apt use of quoted material—that is, by his appropriation of other voices. Like Randall Jarrell, Heaney has a gift for locating lines representative of a poet’s finest writing, and like Jarrell he is able to place those lines in a context of his own discussion which frames and highlights them. In addition, the conversational tone Heaney uses is part of an attempt to turn the reader into a listener and encourage him to reproduce the words in the mind’s sound chambers.
As he introduces himself in the intriguingly titled preface, “The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker,” the range of Heaney’s views becomes apparent. Reaching back through time, covering multiple cultural landmarks, often using a particular facet of his Irish experience to emphasize and localize a point, Heaney does not avoid the directly personal. He begins by chatting amiably: “In 1972, in Belfast, I had an arrangement one evening to meet my friend, the singer David Hammond. We were to assemble in a recording studio in order to put together a tape of songs and poems for a mutual friend in Michigan.” And then, abruptly, inescapable external reality brutally intrudes; “the air was full of the sirens of ambulances” following a number of explosions. Heaney uses this intrusion to state his most basic question. How can one begin to sing “at the moment when others are beginning to suffer?” He and Hammond pack the guitar and drive off “into the destroyed evening.” The essential duality of modern existence is framed by the apparent opposition of dedicating oneself to art or life, or, as Heaney puts it, “to Song or Suffering.” This is the central problem he faces as a man and as a poet. Using Nero as an example of one whose artistic dabbling was “frivolous to the point of effrontery and useless to the point of insolence,” Heaney states his basic quest as the reconciliation of the demands of Song and Suffering. He argues that unless one is able to understand and accept the responsibilities of a citizen for the survival of the community, art will be empty; and unless one can recognize the necessity of art for the survival of the soul, politics will be pointless.
Heaney develops this idea further by celebrating the sheer joy of creating poetry in lyric language, moments when a person is able to feel free and untrammeled, knowing the “sensation of liberation and abundance” which is “at the heart of an inspiration.” In recalling the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, sent to exile and death by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s, Heaney speaks of Mandelstam’s poetry as...
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