Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Anti-Modernism of Seamus Heaney and Philip Hobsbaum

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 2 October 2005

I've been reading a Boston Globe article called 'Heaney Ponders the Powers of Poetry' by Robert Taylor, which praises Seamus Heaney's 1995 apologia for descriptive poetry, The Redress of Poetry. In the article Taylor writes:

'Seamus Heaney's recent Nobel Prize coincides with the publication of The Redress of Poetry, the lectures he gave over five years as professor of poetry at Oxford, ranging from the Elizabethan audacities of Christopher Marlowe to the bleak void of Philip Larkin, and illuminates a point of view of poetry as a force capable of transforming culture and the self'.

Yet from reading The Redress of Poetry, what I find is that far from advocating 'poetry as a force capable of transforming culture and the self', Heaney argues for a neo-Georgian descriptive poetic aesthetic that, if anything, can only inhibit supposed cultural transformations.

In The Redress of Poetry, Heaney's aversion to experiment and formal innovation, and his bias for a poetry consisting of obvious subject matter is evident in his criticism of Dylan Thomas. For Heaney Thomas has a 'too unenlightened trust in the plasticity of language'.

Heaney also has reservations about poetic artifice. Of Thomas’s use of it, he says that 'the demand for more matter, less art, does inevitably arise'. Elizabeth Bishop, however, has his approval because 'she never allows the formal delights of her art to mollify the hard realities of her subjects'.

In Seamus Heaney: From Major to Minor, R. Caldwell rightly criticises Heaney by saying:

'There is too often the feel with his poetry that the paraphrase is the end of the matter: there is little of the multifaceted richness of suggestion that invites one to probe further'.

Heaney, of course, was a protege of Philip Hobsbaum who made it possible for Heaney to get a publishing contract with Faber & Faber. Hobsbaum was also a founder of the 1960s British poetry clique, The Group. Originally based in London, The Group founded a wing in Belfast when Hobsbaum had to relocate there to take up a teaching post at Queen's University. Heaney met Hobsbaum while studying at Queens, and was invited to take part in Group meetings.

Hobsbaum was an anti-modernist - especially of the American variety. In his Tradition and Experiment in English Poetry he writes:

'Whitman’s abstractions and random collocations have a raw life of their own, a form even through their formlessness; and this has remained highly characteristic of American poetry ever since. The Waste Land is, indeed, a heap of broken images: this is its meaning, and, to some extent, its distinction. But that kind of writing has never worked well in England'.

His criticism of Eliot extends to what Hobsbaum sees as the negative influence on English poetry of Eliot’s use of the American idiom:

'Some damage was done to English verse by too close an imitation in the 1930s of the American idiom as evidenced in such poets as Eliot and Pound'.

Hobsbaum also sees a disparity between Eliot’s American writing style and traditional English poetic writing practice. Although Hobsbaum does not see this in itself as necessarily negative, the implication is that American modernism is largely a geographical and cultural entity, unable to successfully function within an English milieu:

'Again, Eliot’s work exhibits the characteristic American qualities of free association or phanopoeia and autobiographical content. English verse, however, has been at its best as fiction: an arrangement of what is external to the poet to convey the tension or release within'.

The approbation of Heaney is truly a retrograde step in the historical development of international poetry.