Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The Dissembling Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Avant-garde

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Saturday, 21 March 2009

I came across an interesting interview with Seamus Heaney (a recent recipient of the David Cohen prize for literature, being awarded £40,000) by Dennis O'Driscoll (‘Beyond All This Fiddle’ ) where Heaney says about the avant-garde:

‘It’s an old-fashioned term by now. In literature, nobody can cause bother any more. John Ashbery was a kind of avant-garde poet certainly and now he’s become a mainstream voice. The work of the “Language Poets” and of the alternative poetries in Britain—associated with people in Cambridge University like J. H. Prynne—is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be; however, these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence. There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W. H. Auden and I like the sound of it: somebody said that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent. I’m not sure the criticism applies to Auden, but the gist of it is generally worth considering. Even in T. S. Eliot, the big, normal world comes flowing around you. Robert Lowell went head-on at the times—there was no more literary poet around, but at the same time he was like a great cement mixer: he just shovelled the world in and it delivered. Now that’s what I yearn for—the cement mixer rather than the chopstick.’

Several things about this statement need to be addressed, so I will go through it step-by-step to do so. When Heaney says that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned, what does this really say regarding the term’s significance in relation to his own poetic ideals? Indeed, many critics have accused Heaney’s poetic, itself, as being distinctly old fashioned, a sort of neo-Georgian retrogressive “poetic” utterance. It is as if Heaney recognises the accuracy of this criticism, and in an effort to deflect its force feels the need to reflect it back at his detractors. That he is sensitive on this point is suggested by his saying (as if an afterthought) that ‘in literature, nobody can cause bother any more’. This is a curious thing for a man of letters to say in the absence of a defensive posture. What does he mean by “bother”, anyway? Is he referring to poetic innovation as being troublesome, or simply referring to personal “bother” caused by negative views of his poetry by observant critics? Whatever the case, to say that the term “avant-garde” is old-fashioned is beside the point, as Heaney, practised in casuistry and dissembling, knows all too well.

His citing of Ashbery as a belated mainstream voice also makes little sense outside of Ashbery being published in the UK by Carcanet. Certainly, he can’t be referring to Ashbery’s poetic which has yet to receive unreserved approbation by mainstream criticism, at least in Britain. Regardless of the truth of the matter, even if Ashbery was now part of the mainstream this does not demonstrate the emasculation of avant-garde concerns, which is the stated thrust of Heaney’s argument. Interestingly, if Ashbery is a mainstream voice this would imply that he and Heaney are both writing poetry. To re-position Ashbery within the boundaries of mainstream verse, all Heaney seems to be doing is to flatter his own poetic practice by association.

When he says of the alternative poetries in Britain that it ‘is not the charlatan work some perceive it to be’, who are the “some” he is referring to? No doubt, the main body of the mainstream, but I think, also, Heaney himself. His acknowledgment of Prynne, here, seems to be little more than an attempt to distance himself momentarily from the “some” he alludes to. If it were not this, then his saying that, ‘these poets form a kind of cult that shuns general engagement, regarding it as a vulgarity and a decadence’ recoups the generosity he grants Prynne. It seems not to have occurred to Heaney that any “cult” status these poets have acquired was, perhaps, the consequence of being marginalised by the mainstream. It is certainly not true that they shun “general engagement”, if he suggests by that term an aspiration for their work to be read and for it to communicate with a significant readership. In this respect, there is very little dissimilarity between mainstream and avant-garde poets.

Heaney’s appropriation of the criticism he sees as inappropriate regarding Auden (‘that he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent’) and conferring it upon the avant-garde, implies that major talent can only be an outpouring of an unadventurous character. If the history of art tells us anything, it is that this is categorically not the case. That Heaney uses Eliot, of all poets, to argue his point is another instance of his use of misdirection and redefinition, similar instances of which can be seen littered throughout his The Redress of Poetry. Whilst it is certainly true that Eliot was a conservative figure in both temperament and ideology, and that his later work was not as effervescent as that of his major period, Heaney’s suggestion that Eliot’s poetry evinces the ‘normal world’ is only accurate regarding content, the treatment of phenomena in Eliot, however, is seldom “normal” and usually problematical.

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