Nostalgia for world culture

THE REDRESS OF POETRY: Oxford Lectures by Seamus Heaney, Faber pounds 15.99

SEAMUS HEANEY's third volume of prose consists of 10 of the 15 lectures he gave over five years as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Yet because everything he has had to say in public about the poetry of others stems from his own deep convictions about the art he shares with them, it reads as a coherent single work of something more vital than we usually mean by criticism. (For the same reason, he has avoided reviewing, except as an occasion for celebration: one who has felt Osip Mandelstam's "nostalgia for world culture" will not be inclined to local disparagement.)

The keynote of the lectures is a remark borrowed from George Seferis's notebooks about poetry being "strong enough to help" - a considerable statement of faith disguised as a small claim. But as often in these pages, the generous precedence Heaney gives to the saying of another is soon overtaken by the subtlety, charm and humane force of his own formulations.

By the "redress" of his title, he means one definition in particular: "Reparation of, satisfaction or compensation for, a wrong sustained, or the loss resulting from this." His subjects, broadly speaking, are thwarted individuals made good by poetry, those who have mastered, in Elizabeth Bishop's ironic phrase, "the art of losing". Hence Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistles" figured as wresting artistic victory from the defeat of his political ideals, achieving "something equal to and corrective of the prevailing condition". "Poor" John Clare, whose loss amounted to nothing less than himself ("I am - yet what I am none cares or knows") is celebrated for his exemplary rejection of any official version of how poetry should behave; the measured enthrallment of Heaney's essay continues the reclamation of Clare, a task which has been accomplished - with respect to the editorial work of Geoffrey Summerfield and others - less by academic critics than by the impassioned advocacy of poets like Heaney and Tom Paulin.

Elizabeth Bishop returns Heaney's close artistic sympathy by supplying him, in "One Art", with a perfect enactment of another, obsolete meaning of "redress"- "to set upright again":

It's evident

the art of losing isn't hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Says Heaney, "The pun in that final nick-of-time imperative - 'Write it!' - is in deadly earnest ... the poem is asked to set the balance right". Heaney is in his element with poets as watchful (for all the apparent gulf in sophistication between them) as Clare and Bishop, whose "attention to detail" - Clare's "one-thing-after-anotherness", Bishop's engagement with the movement of a sandpiper's toes - "can come through into visionary understanding". His own sense for the weight of the unconsidered magnifies their successes, and wittily, too: "I am reminded of a remark made once by an Irish diplomat with regard to the wording of a certain document. 'This,' he said, 'is a minor point of major importance.' "

Heaney concludes of Bishop, in perhaps the plainest statement of the principle behind these writings, that "she does continually manage to advance poetry beyond the point where it has been helping us to enjoy life to that even more profoundly verifying point where it helps us to endure it". Which you would not easily say, whatever his virtues, about Philip Larkin. The lecture in which Heaney's convictions lead him closest to disapproval deals with Larkin's late poem "Aubade", that supremely bleak admission of the terror of being dead. Heaney proceeds to his position through a gracious appreciation of the poem's "heartbreaking truths and beauties"; he notes the reappearance in harrowed form of words like "unresting" and "afresh" from earlier poems by Larkin, less, perhaps, to stress the new hopelessness of "Aubade" than to allow that the poet has after all been more affirmative elsewhere. But finally, following (this time) Czeslaw Milosz, he objects to the poem's central proposition that "Death is no different whined at than withstood".

One of the recurring ideas in this sequence of lectures is that poetry exists on the frontier between the world we know and "the domain of the imagined"; whatever the balance of its movements, its work is to go to and fro. In such a dark night as Larkin's, W B Yeats looked up and "Suddenly ... saw in the cold and rook-delighting heaven"; Heaney notes, in contrast, how "when Larkin lifts his eyes from nature, what appears is a great absence". "Aubade" is accused, not for its loss of religious faith, but for its lack of faith in poetry's redress. Heaney is a believer. The force of his book is as much spiritual as critical; there is a priestly glow beneath its intellectual sparkle. No one who has absorbed its reverence for consolation, its steadfast attachment to possibility, will succumb quite so readily again to the seductions of Larkin's No.

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