Monday, 23 August 2010

Tóibín on Heaney

Colm Tóibín reviewed Seamus Heaney’s new volume of poetry, Human Chain, in The Guardian, Saturday 21 August 2010.

Here’s an extract:

...the poems themselves have been more hushed in the presence of mortality, more open to the idea of loss as something pure. His poems have offered consolation or transformation only because they contain tones and phrases that are perfectly tuned; they are true to memory and loss, and thus somehow, at times miraculously, they offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them.

I want to take this sort of writing seriously. I believe Tóibín is a good reader of poetry and has antennae that pick up subtle and deep things that are really there in it. But I can never rid myself of scepticism.

Take the first sentence:

‘...the poems themselves have been more hushed in the presence of mortality’: I can see what that means and can imagine what it refers to and that it no doubt reflects an awareness with a firm basis in a comparison between these and earlier poems.

But, ‘more open to the idea of loss as something pure’: what does that mean, what would it mean for an idea of loss to be more or less ‘pure’; and how would you begin to demonstrate it?

Then: ‘they [the ‘tones and phrases’ in the poems] are true to memory and loss, and thus somehow, at times miraculously, they offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them’.

Grant that there’s a real sense in which tones and phrases can be true or less true to experience (they could for instance bluster or sentimentalise), what’s the force of that ‘thus’? What’s the logic in the claim that therefore the tones and phrases ‘offer a vision of what is beyond them or above them’? and what might that something be? does the final phrase have any meaning at all?

I'm reluctant to dismiss it. I think this is a reference to a real experience of Tóibín’s, and potentially perhaps of me if I were a better reader. But there seems no way in which, if you’re not already having such an experience, this sort of writing can help you get it. Perhaps to get it you have to learn to filter and shape your experience in a certain (obscure and esoteric?) way, to add a certain colouring and significance to what you read. But of course we’re never not ‘adding’ to what we read, so why not be deliberate or trained in the business?

And I acknowledge that for me, too, poetry can do things that perhaps aren’t that different in kind from what Tóibín experiences and that it’s hard or impossible to write about such effects without seeming mystical.

But at the same time I want to challenge people like Tóibín on lines like this: ‘Are you seriously claiming that there is something “beyond and above”? If so, that seems rather important, like claiming the existence of God. If it’s right, shouldn’t we be teaching it in schools alongside science? But if you don’t seriously maintain that there’s ‘something there’ and that you just value the experience of that non-existent something, is it really right that we should indulge ourselves in such illusions? And if it’s that sort of experience, that spurious knowledge, that’s the point of poetry, is it justifiable to attach such importance to it in education?’

Encountering this sort of writing confirms the sense I often get that whatever is to be had from art is to be had only by almost joining a cult and learning a way of seeing that has no necessity about it, that isn’t dictated by the works themselves, except in that their producers were members too and spoke the same language, as is clearly the case with much contemporary visual art. Buying into the cult may indeed produce not just the satisfactions of membership but access to things in the works that only a trained perception can provide.

But I resist the idea that you have to ‘join up’ in order to get what poetry and art have to offer. For one thing, it’s so daunting. How much time and study will it require for me, now, at nearly 70, to acquire the ‘insight’ that my whole life as an expensively educated and artistically interested person has in all these years failed to bring me? and we’re talking about an initiation into all the arts I’d like to have a fuller appreciation of, namely music, art and architecture as well as literature?

Moreover, is it right that there’s so little that can be objective (awkward word, I know) in literary education? Does English have to be so radically different from the other key disciplines that revolve around knowledge and reason, like physics and history? Is it really, of necessity, so seemingly irrational? or, more precisely perhaps, does it need to be an activity to which rationality and what we normal think of as study and thinking are so irrelevant?

I'm in a muddle and had better stop.

Other bits I at first thought I’d comment on but enough is enough for a blog:

He uses a poetic line which sometimes seems complete and whole in its rhythm, and at others is stopped short, held, left hanging. It is as though to allow the rhythm its full completion would be untrue to the shape of the experience that gave rise to the poem, untrue to the terms of the struggle between the pure possibility that language itself can offer and a knowledge of the sad fixtures which the grim business of loss can provide.


Sometimes, it seems, it is enough for Heaney that he remembers. Throughout his career there have been poems of simple evocation and description. His refusal to sum up or offer meaning is part of his tact, but his skill at playing with rhythm, pushing phrases and images as hard as they will go, offers the poems an undertone, a gravity, a space between the words that allows them to soar or shiver.

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