Finders Keepers

by Seamus Heaney
ISBN: 0571210805

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A Review of: Finders Keepers
by Geoffrey Cook

"[P]oetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet's being as the ripples that ripple in and ripple out across the water in [a] scullery bucket [bestirred by a passing train]... An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections...[Poetry makes] possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind's centre and its circumference. "
- Crediting Poetry, Seamus Heaney

This image of poetry as the wave-effect in a bucket-where the waves move repeatedly out from a centre to an edge then back in again, where origin is blurred with destination-encompasses much of what Heaney has to say about art and life, and how, as far away from home as they may travel, the two are always reflecting back on their place of origin. The ripples-in-a-bucket image is typical of other motifs Heaney uses to examine his own and others' work-typical, that is, of his poetics, specifically the notion (which is surely one of Heaney's most sustained and mature reflections on his art) of poetry as liberating destiny. "[I]n lyric poetry of the purest sort," Heaney writes, "suddenly the thing chanced upon comes forth as the thing predestined: the unforeseen appears as the inevitable." A great artist's work reveals a coherence and his life a unique destiny: for art consummates a life; and the artist's labour is to close the gap between contingent event (the thing itself, experience) and transcendent form (beauty, vision) by constantly transforming the accident of birth into a significant, inevitable, coherent and consummate fate. The more consistently and comprehensively a life is transformed into art, the more coherent and legitimate the entire oeuvre. Thus in Heaney's succinct preface to Finders Keepers-his most recent book of critical prose comprised mostly of cullings from his last three essay collections-he quotes the preface to his first book of criticism Preoccupations: "The essays selected here are held together by searches for answers to central preoccupying questions: how should a poet properly live and write? What is his relationship to be to his own voice, his own place, his literary heritage and his contemporary world?" Austere as these questions sound, however, Heaney's answers seek to take us back to a "home" where place, self, and language seem self-sufficient, self-delighting, and self-justifying-without denying all that may be riven in self, place and language.
In "Mossbawn", where his life and Finders Keepers begin, Heaney's lush, indulgent description of his omphalos is a symbolic geography of the individual soul, a people and poetry. The images of water (sea and river), bogs, fields, small mountains, and light, which reappear thoughout Heaney's poetry, evoke a secure, pleasing, womb-like at-homeness. Heaney describes the first rupture in this unity of self and world, which generates the aesthetic impulse, when he discovered a "secret nest" in a hollow tree: having crawled into it and looked out, the young poet saw, "the familiar yard as if it were suddenly behind a pane of strangeness." The temporary reconciliation of the familiar and the strange will become a model for his poetry, what he describes as "the capacity to be attracted at one and the same time to the security of what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us." Heaney understands this "double capacity" as the creative state that "poetry springs from and addresses." The young poet also comes to recognize divisions in the lay of the land, the "lines of sectarian antagonism and affiliation" that threaten a poet with self-censorship. Instead of finding grounds for conflict, however, Heaney seeks to transcend the divisive discourse of property rights: "Each [place] name was a kind of love made to each acre. And saying the names like this distances the places, turns them into what Wordsworth once called a prospect of the mind." Again, there are many examples of "place-name" poems in Heaney's early poetry which exemplify this approach to place and history. In "Burns Art Speech"-one of the new essays included in Finders Keepers-Heaney recalls that in 1972, when "trying to coax a few lyric shoots out of the political compost heap of Northern Ireland," he wrote "Broagh", the purpose of which was to bring English, Irish, and Scottish languages

"into some kind of creative intercourse and alignment and to intimate thereby the possibility of some new intercourse and alignment among the cultural and political heritages which these three languages represent in Northern Ireland...It all came down to the ability to pronounce Broagh, to pronounce that last gh as it is pronounced in the place itself. The poem...was just one tiny move in that big campaign of our times which aims to take cultural authority back to the local ground, to reverse the colonizing process by making the underprivileged speech the normative standard."

The integrity of the local tongue-its "earworthiness" and "aural trustworthiness"-is a persistent theme in Heaney's poetics. "The plough of the living voice," Heaney explains, circling round again to the notion of destiny, "gets set deeper and deeper in the psychic ground, ... until finally it breaks open a nest inside the poet's own head and leaves him exposed to his own profoundest foreboding about his fate." A phrase like "psychic ground" only confirms how essential the concept of "place" is to Heaney, and, typically, in several essays ("Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry from Northern Ireland", "Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh", "The Place of Writing", "Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain") he exploits the word's various meanings in articulating another major motif in his poetics, one related to his thinking on language. "Place" is, on the one hand, all noun, or vowel: it is the home turf, Ireland, nature; the land is conceived of as feminine, sensual; it is an intuitive, secretive, emotional realm; it is rather passive yet nurturing. On the other hand, the verb form, to "place" something, to "put something in its place" is to establish its worth, to judge it, culturally and politically. This meaning is associated with a masculine tendency: English, decisive, intellectual, active, consonantal, a willful "quelling and control of the materials." Heaney has been criticized for the simplistic and biased opposition of genders (as was his pivotal volume of self-consciously myth-making poetry, North), and he has cut most of these references and discussions from Finders, Keepers. The motif, however, was clearly generative of much poetry and was fundamental in shaping his poetics. Heaney has written, "I suppose the feminine lament for me involves the matter of Ireland, and the masculine strain is drawn from the involvement with English literature" (Preoccupations). Yet the clearest representative of a masculine style in Heaney's canon is an Irish poet, Yeats, and that of a feminine style is an English poet, Wordsworth-by far the two most significant and equally important figures in Heaney's poetics. In the marvellous "The Making of Music" (from-Preoccupations, but not included in Finders Keepers unfortunately), Heaney compares Yeats' and Wordsworth's styles:

"[T]he quality of the music in the finished poem has to do with the way the poet proceeds to respond to his donn. If he surrenders to it, allows himself to be carried by its initial rhythmic suggestiveness, .... we ... have ... Wordsworth's [music], hypnotic, swimming with the current of its form rather than against it. If, on the other hand, ... the poet seeks to discipline [the original generating rhythm], to harness its energies in order to drive other parts of his mind into motion, then we... have...Yeat's [music], affirmative, seeking to master rather than to mesmerize the ear, swimming strongly against the current of its form."

Heaney's poetry and poetics, appreciative of both strains of music, can then be seen as a fusion of the masculine-English-Yeatsian with the feminine-Irish-Wordsworthian. And yet, while Yeats has clearly been a spiritual example for Heaney, the domineering character of Yeats did not seem to suit Heaney's sensibility: there are surprisingly few echoes of Yeats in Heaney's verse, and the younger poet's voice couldn't be more different-predominantly diffident, passive, humble, gentle and wistful.
Enter Patrick Kavanagh, in whose work Heaney discovered "permission to dwell without cultural anxiety among the usual landmarks of [a] life ... which I had always considered to be below or beyond books." Kavanagh's unique poetic language "linked the small farm life which produced us with the slim-volume world we were now supposed to be fit for." In earlier essays on Kavanagh (in Preoccupations, not Finders, Keepers), Heaney focused on Kavanagh's relationship to a specific place, and how "he necessarily composes himself, his poetic identity and his poems in relation to that encircling horizon of given experience" (as Heaney had). In the later "Placeless Heaven" (included in Finders, Keepers), Heaney reconsiders Kavanagh's relation to place and how his poetry "does arise from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, but the overflow is not a reactive response to some stimulus in the world out there. Instead, it is a spurt of abundance from a source within and it spills over to irrigate the world beyond the self." Such a recognition of the need to move on (away from the limits of a particular place) and to move in (to the "placeless" spiritual and symbolic realm ) is reflected in Heaney's own move away from Derry, away from Northern Ireland, and away from Ireland itself to absorb the wider world of literature and experience the deeper world of vision.

"To locate the roots of one's identity in the ethnic and liturgical habits of one's group might be all very well, but for the group to confine the range of one's growth, to have one's sympathies determined and one's responses programmed by it was patently another form of entrapment." Like Kavanagh, Heaney "had to break with the terms of the group's values.. had to lose [him]self."

Heaney's essays on his more immediate English and American precursors, those found in The Government of the Tongue of the 80s, single out the principle themes and fundamental tensions in these poet's works and carefully discuss the relation between the poets' visions and their language. His analyses of American poets Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath-two poets much in the news today-include explicit consideration of psychological factors (atypical, perhaps following Helen Vendler, who has argued that the Freudian/psychological myth has shaped American poetry more than most). A masculine, willful poet if there ever was one, given at times, in his work as well as his life, to monomania and excessive self-consciousness, Lowell manages, in Heaney's view, to consistently re-create his voice (in a very Yeatsian move) as the times and as Lowell's ambitions required. Ultimately, "Lowell succeeded in uniting the aesthetic instinct with the obligation to witness morally and significantly in the realm of public action;... [he] combined public dissent with psychic liberation." Plath also succeeded, at times, in transforming her psychological experience into poetry (through mythic allusions), yet

"the most valuable part of [her] oeuvre is that in which bitterness and the embrace of oblivion have been wrestled into some kind of submission or have been held at least in momentary equilibrium by the essentially gratifying force of the lyric impulse itself ... There is nothing poetically flawed about Plath's work .. [though w]hat may finally limit it is its dominant theme of self-discovery and self-definition...[T]he greatest work occurs when a certain self-forgetfulness is attained, or at least a fullness of self-possession denied to Sylvia Plath."

This reading of Lowell and Plath tempts bias and a too willful attempt to link life and art-Lowell, after all, survived, though the cost to others was at least as extensive as Plath's suicide.
While acknowledging the unique achievements of the poets he discusses, Heaney finds the triumph or failure of vision concomitant with a triumph or failure in language (and vice versa). Dylan Thomas and Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, are over-enchanted with the charm of language. Thomas represents "a longed-for, prelapsarian wholeness, a state of the art where the autistic and the acoustic were extensive and coterminous"; he needed "an almost autistic enclosure within the phonetic element" to proceed with a poem, and often "pursued a rhetorical magnificence that was in excess of and posthumous to its original, vindicating impulse." Here, Heaney's criticism of Thomas is imaginably motivated by awareness of his own need for restraint (as his critique of Plath's autobiographical work betrays a similar anxiety about his own work). But that Heaney edited out precisely these more chastising comments on Thomas- all of them are from "Dylan the Durable?" from Redress of Poetry but do not reappear in Finders Keepers-exemplifies, again, how Finders Keepers is designed for a more than usual "middle of the road" representation of Heaney as critic; that, beginning to appear in The Redress of Poetry, Heaney has adopted something of Yeats' "smiling public man." As for MacDiarmid, Heaney argues that he drowned out his haphazard genius in propagandistic doggerel: "the megalomaniac and the marvel-worker vied for the voice of the bard," whose work, under economic, psychological and ideological stress, collapsed, so that "what was fluent becomes flaccid, what was detail becomes data and what was poetry becomes pedantry and plagiarism." MacDiarmid fails where Clare, Burns, Kavanagh, Hughes, Marlowe, Lowell, and, implicitly, Heaney succeed in introducing the literary tradition to an individual voice, a local tongue, instead of being co-opted by either.
Larkin and Auden, on the other hand, are, in Heaney's view, over-disillusioned with the charm of language and the power of the visionary. Their work as a whole ultimately sought shelter in the reductive irony of realism, sacrificing Ariel's beautiful song for Prospero's controlling wisdom. Larkin, despite a perhaps unconscious hankering for the light and attractive common man' perspective, settles for an anti-romantic, defeatist "poetry of lowered sights and patently diminished expectations." Auden (like Edwin Muir) originally broke new ground in English lyricism through his unique linguistic structures:

"the doom and omen which characterized the strange' poetry of the early 1930s, its bewildered and unsettling visions, brought native English poetry as near as it has ever been to the imaginative verge of the dreadful and offered an example of how insular experience and the universal shock suffered by mankind in the twentieth century could be sounded forth in the English language .... But this unified sensibility fissured when Auden was inevitably driven to extend himself beyond the transmissions of intuited knowledge, beyond poetic indirection and implication, and began spelling out those intuitions in a more explicit, analytic and morally ratified rhetoric."

This vexed question of the political and social relevance of poetry, broached in his earliest essays, dominates the period of Heaney's criticism collected in The Government of the Tongue and the poetry of The Haw Lantern. In trying to find models to articulate his own, Irish, experience, Heaney turned to those poets whose political situations were even graver than his own, finding sustenance in their spiritual and aesthetic achievements. Indeed, the influence of Eastern European and Russian literature on Heaney has been greater than the essays in Finders Keepers suggest: only one of the five essays in The Government of the Tongue on Eastern European and Russian poets is included; whereas Heaney had been writing about Osip Mandelstam as early as the 60's in Preoccupations; and Mandelstam, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbiegniew Herbert, and Miroslav Holub reappear often in Heaney's subsequent prose. Heaney has also co-translated a volume of Polish poetry by Jan Kochanowski.
In one of the most interesting new essays in Finders Keepers, "Envies and Identifications: Dante and the Modern Poet," Heaney contrasts T. S. Eliot's and Osip Mandelstam's readings of the great Italian, coming down clearly on the side of Mandelstam. While Eliot, Heaney argues, was interested in Dante as "the mouthpiece of an orthodoxy" and a system-builder, Mandelstam reveals a Dante whose poetry was "the apotheosis of free, natural, biological process, as a hive of bees, a process of crystallization, a hurry of pigeon flights, a focus for all the impulsive, instinctive, non-utilitarian elements in the creative life." The same could be said, it's worth noting, about Heaney, particularly in his later work, Seeing Things and The Spirit Level. But while he has translated select Cantos of Dante (as well as snippets of Ovid and Virgil) and while he, perhaps better than most translators, captures the colloquialism and visceral sensuousness, the vulgarity and the high-mindedness, and the tense but steady narrative line of Dante's example-and while his "Station Island" sequence is perhaps the most successful of applications in English of Dante's technique-Heaney is not a narrative poet. Instead of writing epics, like his closest peers, Derek Walcott and Les Murray, he has translated them: Sweeney Astray and Beowulf are stories in which Heaney's voice is both at home and extended. He clearly needed the original narrative structures, though, for his is a diffident, humble voice-a voice whose "self-delighting" freedom Heaney has been at pains to defend from ideological criticism throughout his career. Poetry, Heaney argues,

"does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves."

This description of poetry recalls the ripples in a bucket and the notion of destiny mentioned at the beginning of this essay. "We 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." But this is not solipsism: "poetry moves things forward once the poet and the poem get ahead of themselves and find themselves out on their own." Through the experience of poetry, as writers or readers, "we can get farther into ourselves and farther out of ourselves than we might have expected."
Heaney's essays do not have the magisterial moral and metaphysical sweep of Joseph Brodsky's, nor the intellectual rigour and comprehensiveness of W. H. Auden's. Instead, like his poetry, they are commited to "not having to blind with illumination"-as he puts it in his poem "The Haw Lantern"-but are nonetheless committed to the light. They are more modest and generous: qualities that have no doubt helped make Heaney such a popular poet. These are reasons enough to read Heaney; another, it seems to me, is the peculiar resonance, for Canadians and our poets, of his motifs of the land, of borders, of dialectical tensions and transcendence, of the relation of the cultural peripheries to the centres of power, and of preserving the integrity of the local tongue while addressing the world.

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