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Monday, 30 March 2009

No Bother At All

Jacket's lately been publishing articles and letters defending or questioning Heaney's legacy and poetics. There is even a letter from poet Jamie McKendrick. I can't help but feel the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot. There is a bigger picture, and a bigger struggle, and using Heaney as strawman/ punching bag (or Holy Grail) is just not on. Jeffrey Side, who knows his stuff, has set up a rather obvious Movement vs. New Romantic/Apocalypse historical binary. Histories of modernism are more various and complex than that, as Robert Scholes has shown us. Empson defended Dylan Thomas; Larkin adored Yeats (that sort of thing).

The problem is, when poets get stuck into arguing about 50-year-old grievances, it becomes as intractable as The Middle East - with the difference that the ground has shifted. The real problem, which Heaney typifies for critics like Side, is that there does seem to be a smug, conservative establishment at work in certain parts of the British poetry publishing world - and it is tedious and unilluminating to constantly see the same faces and positions marketed as "mainstream" (and therefore rather safe) to the general public. Side is also correct to observe that this Tradition tends to dislike stylistic excess, poetic artifice, and avant-gardism - though it often represent aspects of High Modernism. But much else is currently going on in British poetry, well-between the poles of extreme-Prynnism and ultra-Faberism.

Side should really be critically reading Peter Porter, if he wants to examine the High Priest of Neo-classical Empiricism. Porter, now 80, is a master craftsman and crafty interlocutor of all things not-quite-right, and also has a new Picador book out, called Better Than God - which makes Don Paterson's immodest title God's Gift To Women appear almost, well, Christian. The mistake that those, like Side, make, when they start exposing Heaney's "poetic" as being conservative, or old-fashioned, or whatever, is that they forget two things: a) most people who read poetry think Seamus Heaney is a wonderful person and immensely talented; b) Heaney writes brilliantly crafted poetry that is some of the most aesthetically and politically subtle of the last 40 years - perhaps the most so. Puzzling over Heaney, as if he was a sham, or a hoax, won't do. His criticism, I agree, is notoriously parsimonious, and full of odd decisive mandates - like a clenched Ezra Pound's A Few Dos and Dont's.

But Heaney's poetry is bigger than that. His poetry is far more stylish, even ornate, than he might care to admit (but which Alvarez observed). I think Heaney is not as great as Yeats or Kavanagh, but clearly, one of the four or five best Irish poets of the 20th century (Muldoon would be there too). He's clearly the major British/Irish traditional "lyric" poet of his generation, and won't be budged from that canonical seat by smug potshots from the lollipop brigade - but nor does he need smug defense either. Heaney needs to be made less canonical, by reading him strangely. That may happen, in 20 or 30 years.

Meanwhile, less ad hominem, from all sides, would be useful. And I do agree with Side - poets needn't be rooted in normality to be excellent - and, for that matter, how many ever, really, were and are?
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