Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Sean O'Brien and Seamus Heaney Redefining the Mainstream

Originally posted on my old Tripod blog on Sunday, 15 January 2006

In Sean O' Brien's piece (‘Rilke and the Contemporary Reader’) in Poetry Review (issue 95-3) he rightly acknowledges that much contemporary poetry in Britain is 'indulgently anecdotal'. He sees this anecdotalism as traceable to Philip Larkin (for older exponents) and Frank O'Hara (for younger ones). He says that these influences,

'trade on an attachment to authenticity which is felt to outbid both technical reach and thematic scale. Both serve a misconceived 'democratic' notion of poetry as entertainment, in which equality (a notion misplaced in this context) emerges not in diversity but as sameness'.

This seems strange coming from a poet whose career could be said to have embraced and championed realist tendencies in poetry. Indeed, he seems to have won every mainstream poetry prize going (including the Cholmondeley Award, the Somerset Maugham award, the E.M. Forster Award, and the Forward Prize). And Poetry Review (with typical hyperbole) describes him as 'the poet-editor-critic of his generation'. Peter Forbes in issue 91-1 of that publication reasserts O’Brien’s mainstream credentials:

'The members of this group of mainstream-poets-who-are-currently-making-the-running (they need a handy name but we'll come to that later) have been winning the prizes in the last few years: Carol Ann Duffy (virtually everything); Sean O'Brien (Forward), Don Paterson (Eliot and Forward First), Michael Donaghy (Forward), John Burnside (Whitbread), Jamie McKendrick (Forward), Jo Shapcott (Forward), Ruth Padel (National Poetry Competition), Ian Duhig (National Poetry Competition), Paul Farley (Forward First Collection). Prizes may not sell many extra copies of books but they play an important role in the consolidation of poetic reputations'.

Peter Porter in his review for Poetry Review (issue 91-1) of O’Brien’s Downriver includes O’Brien with, among others, Don Paterson, Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage as poets who 'bring back intellectualism and populism to British Poetry'. Porter sees these poets as 'delivering us' from 'the hermetically sealed Old Experimenters in J. H. Prynne's Cambridge'. Of these "saviours" of British poetry, Porter says that they 'cared enormously about versification' and that their material was 'sharply observed' and (echoes of the anecdotal?) 'wittily presented'.

Porter notes that O’Brien 'writes with the ease and assurance of a poet so at home with the real world'. This need/desire for realism is further expressed in O’Brien’s entry under the academic staff biographies list of Sheffield Hallam University:

'His poetry often combines demotic and more literary language and is strongly aware of its northern location - a poem such as 'Cousin Coat' creates an angry presence of historical injustice, closed mines and cenotaphs, by enhancing the rhythms and rhymes of ordinary speech. This means that when a more extravagant word is used, it feels necessary'.

Thus, we see realism (as geographical location and linguistic functionality) emphasised and esteemed. For Porter, such realism is preferable to what he sees as O’Brien’s former less-functional language, which 'sometimes tended to be strangled Laocoon-wise by their ramifications, their lineation and syntax tangling like roots in a pot'.

David Wheatley, in his Guardian (October 5, 2002) review of the mainstream poet John Fuller’s Now and for a Time, notes that O’Brien, in The Deregulated Muse, sees Fuller as a postmodernist poet. This is a designation which, says Wheatley, 'must have left readers of Jeremy Prynne and the Conductors of Chaos poets scratching their heads in disbelief'.

Given all this, I fail to understand why, in recent years, mainstream poets such as O’Brien have been willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Could it be that they sense the Hand’s "imminent" demise, and are preparing for the time when they will have to jump ship and adequately explain themselves to their new crew in terms of a redefinition of their poetic lineage?

Something of this can be glimpsed with Seamus Heaney in his The Redress of Poetry where he appears to want his cake and eat it. He says:

'Poetry cannot afford to lose its […], joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world'.

His empiricism is unavoidably evident in this statement. However his about-face on the nature of poetic language is puzzling. Could this turnaround perhaps indicate that Heaney realizes that his poetic modus operandi is beginning to lose currency in the more progressive circles of academic poetic discourse, and that to fully safeguard his posthumous poetic reputation he has to enable future critics of his work to capably defend his reputation against charges that he is a merely descriptive poet?

Yet, his continual wariness of the linguistic and formal properties of a poem is still very much evident. This can be seen in his cautious praise (also in The Redress of Poetry) of the descriptive poet Edward Thomas:

'Thomas came through with a poem in a single, unfumbled movement, one with all the confidence of a necessary thing, one in which again at last the fantasy and extravagance of the imagery and diction did not dissipate themselves or his or his theme'.

Here, Heaney can be seen elevating poetic content over poetic language. This would seem to bring in to question his sincerity in saying that poetry cannot afford to lose its 'joy in being a process of language'.