One particularly important aspect of [Seamus Heaney’s] work, which I have begun to understand more recently, is his critical defence of poetry. […] Poetry is its own ‘vindicating force’, Heaney wrote in ‘The Government of the Tongue’, his T.S. Eliot memorial lecture. Poetry is its own ‘reality’ and its own raison d’etre. The poems of authors are therefore (where they are the genuine article) granted authority:
‘In this dispensation, the tongue (representing both a poet’s personal gift of utterance and the common resources of the language itself) has been granted the right to govern. The poetic art is credited with an authority of its own.’
Of course Heaney’s stance here is that of a poet implicitly given permission to speak by his own achievements. As such his lectures and essays have been called into question as self-serving, or soft-focus and celebratory rather than analytical. Heaney’s critical discussion tended to be, as Peter McDonald memorably put it, ‘a poet’s hour in the warm sun of [his] admiring attention’. Nevertheless, I think it awe-inspiring now that Heaney never lost sight of his sense of a poet’s ‘authorship’, insisting on the vital human and social function performed by genuine poetry, even while (or because) its mechanics lie beyond our intellectual grasp. Moreover, this poet’s understanding, justified by the authority of the work, is notably absent from any public debate today, at a time when it is vitally necessary. Due to his ‘sunny’ public image, Heaney’s concept of poetic autonomy is sometimes mistaken for a fuzzy mystical thing, just as his commitment to the ‘human subject’ meant that his poetry was sometimes viewed as old-fashioned, or lacking in innovation. (Indeed, at a symposium in Magdalene College in May 2014, one participant suggested that Heaney’s legacy was likely to be ‘a conservative one’ – and I write this in part to atone for being inarticulate, through violent disagreement, at the time). But when properly considered this apology for poetry is probably unacceptably sharp and uncompromising for contemporary consumer-friendly tastes. At a time of rapid technological and social change, when almost everything is for sale, including University degree subjects, Heaney’s refusal to say that poetry is something it isn’t, or does something it doesn’t, looks increasingly radical.
What does it mean to say that poetry is its own autonomous reality? For Heaney it meant, in part, that poems are their own form and content: they are neither the reflection of some other thing, a pretty little decoration on top of experience, nor to be pressed into the service of some other agenda – even, it should be said, if that agenda is something worthy like ‘outreach’, ‘inclusivity’ or the ‘celebration’ of poetry itself. Within the poem, autonomy or self-sufficiency is that mysterious something that makes a poem more than the sum of its parts, which gives it direction, movement and surprise. It is the sense, too, in which poems impose themselves on their authors, unfolding in accordance with a set of internal demands; poems do not simply bend to a writer’s will, or desire for self-expression. […] Poetry, by this account, is essentially free – even, in a way, from its author, on whom the rigors of the form make often unreasonable demands. It invents its own rules for the sake of it, pleasing and surprising itself.
If I think about what is putting poetry under pressure now, I think both of the internet and the various kinds of social and professional bodies whose networked communications it has transformed. Certainly, the advances in digital technology, and the profit-obsessed, mass-market mentality underpinning digital culture, are at least capable of exerting a very negative influence on the reading and writing of poems. Novelists, of course, have been banging on about this for some time. Cyberspace, with its multiplication of a billion private pathways, has sounded the death-knell for the novel as a zone of communal experience, so the argument goes. In a society of diminished attention spans, forever refreshing the page and clicking the next link, the space of interior contemplation and sustained reading will wither away entirely– and be replaced by something entirely different. Given that poetry has never had much of a popular readership to begin with, it’s hard to know whether to feel it’s suffered less of a loss, or to join the artistic chorus of how do you think I feel? with a greater sense of injury. If, as Will Self suggested, the ‘Guttenberg mind’ of the traditional reader will rewire itself, and the highly satisfying forms of communication heralded by Facebook – both instantaneous and to very large numbers – become the way to communicate, will it one day seem strange for someone to spend a month (or even ten years) writing ten lines of poetry that only a handful of people read – and then rarely ‘like’?
The ‘liking’ is a problem. Social media celebrates popularity: the counting of followers, the holy grail of things going viral, and, implicitly, the possibility of monetizing this. Poetry has not had a mass audience for centuries now, but since it is usually written by people who are socially isolated and prefer the company of books, has survived anyway. John Berryman noted once that Robert Lowell spent maybe 100 hours on the ‘Ovid stanza’ of ‘Beyond the Alps’, only to delete it; in the counter-economy represented by obsessive devotion to poetic craft (there is no one to invoice for this time), in the first instance the poet doesn’t care whether lots of people ‘like’ it, only whether they themselves are satisfied. Social media might not stop people wanting to write poetry, but its logic – and this is evident to me every time I log on – will make everyone feel a lot worse about forms of writing with ‘minority’ followings. It may be hopelessly idealistic to say that poetry doesn’t rely on the quantity of its readers, but on the quality of their response – hoping to find a home in the mind of an idealized or Ur-reader, who hasn’t taken the dauntingly specific form of itemized followers – but it is, nevertheless, what I believe. Ironically, of course, Seamus Heaney was popular, and his poetry collections sold in large numbers. But the tenor of all his arguments about poetry’s freedom, its refusal to cow to an agenda, runs contrary to a cultural climate obsessed with both profit and audience figures. If poetry can’t be written towards a conscious design, it likewise can’t be successfully written for financial incentives, nor are there necessarily any great financial rewards when it is. (Needless to say, anyone seeking deliberately and quickly to mobilise the vast audiences apparently available on the internet by appealing to ‘ready-made’ or ‘easily-assimilated’ sentiments, or lowest- common-denominator viral appeal, will produce poetry which isn’t worth the paper it is no longer written on).
If the internet and social media pose a threat to the integrity of poetic form in offering an alternative, opposed model of communication – a world which is always ‘on’, always in agreement, immediate and decisive; which isn’t sitting in the corner chewing its nails wondering if it really does ‘like’ or dislike something right now – a stranger problem is posed when digital communications are used as a vehicle for messages about poetry. […] Many publishers, promoters and arts organizations are now required to tweet, or create pages. In this they join the proliferation of smaller, DIY literary feeds which post links to poetry-related news stories, articles and blogs – not to mention the many individuals who fulfil this function informally. […] Yet these endlessly renewed and updated feeds perpetuate a culture of speeded-up ephemerality, without a sense of scale or centre, whereby news about writers or their publications are announced with a bang and then disappear in a puff of smoke. In fact, many bodies which previously have been poetry’s custodians now appear to regard ‘promotion’ as their chief concern, with some arts organizations substituting Twitter activity for genuine engagement with poetry to a degree which is frankly sinister. And when social media is used as a promotional tool, the linked ‘content’ is usually secondary to the medium, and the message of the medium is that everything is ‘exciting’ and wonderful and happening now and everyone feels strongly about it and it is all ultimately the same. It might seem like a nice act of integration to find a tweet about poetry arriving between updates from the PSNI and Il Pirata’s photo of the Chef’s Special, but this contributes – even unconsciously, even if it is only an impression – to a hectic, depthless relativism whereby a sonnet and plate of spaghetti are ultimately the same too.
It’s worth noting this, because it’s how many of us live now (readers and students whose first stop for information about authors is the web, writers who have not yet disabled the wifi or succumbed to despair), and the web focuses and intensifies a literary culture which is both fragmented and relativist. And (to get back to the point), in understanding how poets and poetry are affected by all this sound and fury, and how poetry may survive it, Seamus Heaney is also wonderfully instructive. What I attempted to articulate at the Cambridge symposium, is that Heaney’s insistence that poetry is not to be put to some other use – the way, say, Facebook quickly put its communications to commercial use – makes it a force for freedom rather than conservatism. I had not at that time read Stepping Stones, Heaney’s 2008 book of extended interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll; I wish I had, and I wish it had been out when my first book was published ten years ago. […] In a series of asides and responses to O’Driscoll’s questions, Heaney notes the drift and spin of contemporary poetry into shallow, separate enclaves, in which opposing, and often highly subjective ‘professionals’ cannot bring to their readers a sense of poetry as ‘a coherent inner system or order or understanding’ – nor communicate this understanding to the ‘wider world’. Of contemporary reviewing culture, he writes: ‘The main disadvantage of being a poet anywhere at the minute is that there is no strong sense of critical response which has lived and loved that which it is responding to. Reviewing has turned into something more piecemeal and, in the main, lightweight…’. And indeed, many poetry reviews are now extending ‘liking’ – ‘I liked this’, they say ‘You know, I thought it was really good…’. (And this is without even considering the hair-raising topic of Amazon book reviews).
In a way, this is all the result – as Heaney also notes in Stepping Stones – of the entrepreneurial turn in universities, and the profit motive which has turned the teaching of poetry into the vocational subject of ‘creative writing’. Such students coming through the system, quite naturally, seek ‘ratification’ in the form of publication. They also sometimes seem to believe – and this is very alarming as well as misleading – that a successful career path lies in them rising up the ladder within the sealed world of the university system to become, in turn, tutors of creative writing. Yet this leads to an ever-shrinking sphere for poetry’s cultural authority. It can be profoundly disorientating for poets (and other writers) to find the universal audience they dream will read their work replaced by the four or five students who actually do. To this social, face-to-face distraction (and it can otherwise be a pleasant distraction), are added other coercive pressures by the university. The most obvious of these is the diabolical REF (see Paul Muldoon on this subject in the Times Higher Education Supplement), which can shortcut the self-delighting impulses of poetry by providing more pragmatic incentives to complete work. More vaguely, but equally damaging, is the increasing sense that a poet’s ‘output’ is for the university: that is, as universities increasingly adopt a more corporate ethos, management – who often haven’t the faintest idea what writers are really for– seek to translate their activity back into business terms they understand. Again, these are quantitative: ‘beneficial numbers’, ‘Impact’ and so on. The result is a poetry culture which is more worldly, literal-minded, and localized. Heaney writes in Stepping Stones:
‘… a poet in the United States can have a relatively big reputation in the relatively hermetic world of writing programmes. He or she can live sustained by the regard of peers in the guild, without ever stirring reaction or attracting attention beyond that particular circle of afficionados.’
In a self-validating sphere, where readership is ready-made and measured mechanically, expectations and ambitions are lowered. […]
The sense [is] that this kind of broad impact is not being made by poetry now –or even, outrageously, that there are no good celebrity poets in a celebrity culture – is presumably behind Jeremy Paxman’s rather sinister comments in 2014. As judge of that year’s (increasingly badly-judged) British Forward prize, he stated that poetry has ‘connived at its own irrelevance’, and that poets should be called to account for their work before a panel of the public. And yet, so different and conflicting are the expectations of this ‘public’, and, moreover, so at odds with meaningful debate are the media by which it might take place, that it’s doubtful that any two people can even hear the same thing let alone agree on it. This is surely a major factor in poetry’s ‘irrelevance’ – along with the tendency of the best poets who followed Heaney not to reach through postmodern fragmentation, drift and dissolution of the self to communicate with a public, but rather to suggest a complicity with this condition in language. At root, then, what is perhaps really putting pressure on poetry today is the very reconfiguration of our ideas of ‘public’ and ‘private’. On one hand, poetry seems to have adopted the structures of public life, as poets’ careers begin to mirror the conventional stages of professional advancement, rather than reflect the sudden leaps and flights by which imaginative work is accomplished. […] Likewise, the language of ‘Public Relations’ has overtaken poetry, with public ‘consensus’, in one way or another (including those often surprisingly homogenous Amazon reviews), usually aimed at getting the product to as many readers/consumers/customers as quickly as possible on the weird basis that we have already endorsed it. At the same time, authority, or simply authorship is increasingly hard to establish. When an individual’s newsfeeds or Amazon recommendations are personally tailored by computer algorithms, or the limits of their social network, it’s hard to know the real extent of an audience, or even if you are the author or the audience. […] At times it seems that the only conceivable response to this is silence.
Moreover all of it – the ‘vibrant’, ‘dynamic’ festivals, the ravenous marketplace, the confused public self of our online profiles issuing their conscious, direct, and literal-minded communications – is dramatically at odds with that entity it increasingly eclipses, the most private self from which poetry arises. Poetry is not written out of the social self. […] When writers log on to Twitter , the fragmentary, demystified person online is hardly the same person as the poet writing, and in some ways not really worth speaking to at all. Where social media is quick-fire and relentlessly upbeat, the processes involved in writing poetry are not only private but sometimes slow and often painful. And Seamus Heaney was clear too that ‘the growth of a poet’s mind is a solitary affair’. In this vein, Stepping Stones is a far-sighted reminder that the forces that drive us to write, and indeed inspiration itself, are self-governing, and not – in fact – commodities. Heaney’s comment on solitude was made by way of noting that the conditions by which poets have their best ideas, and the creative ways they reach out to each other, cannot really be replicated in seminars or workshops. And as someone with a vested interest here […] I should say that there are some ways of usefully teaching poetry in this context. Along with setting poetry which has stood the test of time, and emphasizing close reading, students should be made aware of how a poem creates its effects by movement as much as meaning. Likewise, there are good students and, doubtless, poets who don’t let the experience either fatally depress them or lower their expectations. However, when Seamus Heaney, that is, the former Nobel Laureate, writes that he never wrote poetry as part of a conscious program of instruction – indeed, that he feared this kind of industriousness would ‘drive poems away’ – at least part of the class should be devoted to discussing how the inner resources needed for poetry are not accessible on demand.
[…] It is my experience that nothing good is written without some crucial internal shift in personal understanding occurring first. Likewise, a lot has to be put on the line: poems start with a sense not just of what they might be about, but also how they might be written, and you pursue this blindly, without knowing whether it will pay off – not because you are scheduled or required to do so, but because it is suddenly possible. As the solution to a problem you have created for yourself, including the problem of yourself, poetry starts in privacy and solitude – but it is still for other people. Heaney described the transaction thus in ‘The Government of the Tongue’:
‘As readers, we submit to the jurisdiction of achieved form, even though that form is achieved not by dint of the moral and ethical exercise of the mind but by the self-validating operations of what we call inspiration …’
However, another part of the problem is that, as universities modify their business models, this is increasingly not how poetry is read or taught. Certainly, I know that if I tried to get a class to ‘submit to the jurisdiction of achieved form’, about half of them are likely to respond that this ‘jurisdiction’ is a matter of subjective opinion. This isn’t wholly their fault either. As students are increasingly treated as customers, teaching modules start to resemble those other ever-decreasing circles which seek to make individuals the centre of their own specially designed universe – to be fed a steady stream of what (it has been determined in advance) they already ‘like’. […]
Poetry and its readers alike lose out here. The freedom and the lovely uselessness of poetry is its whole point, and it can have ‘impact’ – not Impact – in the private minds of its readers, who don’t always shout about it. At the very least, in a digital age, it might just offer students the chance to read something that, for once, isn’t directly or indirectly trying to sell them something. That is, poetry can provide a rare connection with a private mind which is not the precursor to some other transaction (still less some great new literary product to be explosively launched and forgotten). Moreover, in offering a non-utilitarian reflection on their human experience, poetry – and literature generally– provides consolation amid what appears to be the otherwise continual pressure of being groomed and trained for entry into the workplace. Indeed in a world increasingly populated by (LinkedIn) professionals and experts, poems belong to a dwindling space which exists outside this. […] Poetry is written in an ‘amateur’ capacity, that is for love, with all the crazy, impractical, self-sacrificing standards that this implies. This is what sets poetry apart from the beady-eyed marketplace which has invaded every other aspect of private life. […] Over the last year, I have found myself nearly as grateful for [Heaney’s] defence of poetry as I am for his poems. It has helped me get out of bed in the mornings again. It reminds me that in a world obsessed with ‘liking’ things, poetry might just need someone who really loves it.
This essay is based on a talk given at a tribute event for Seamus Heaney at King’s Place in May 2014 and was published in the Irish Review Winter/Spring 2014/2015. This selection has been made by David O’Hanlon-Alexandra.
Berryman, John. The Freedom of the Poet. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue: The 1986 T S Eliot Memorial Lectures and Other Critical Writings. Faber, 1988.
McDonald, Peter. Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill. Clarendon Press, 2002
Muldoon, Paul. Interviewed by John Elmes. Times Higher Education, 5 April 2015. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/people/qa-with-paul-muldoon/2013671.article Accessed 01.07.2021.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Faber and Faber, 2008.
Self, Will. ‘The Novel is Dead (This Time It’s For Real)’. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/may/02/will-self-novel-dead-literary-fiction. Guardian, 2 May 2014. Accessed 01.07.2021.
Leontia Flynn published the pamphlet Nina Simone is Singing with Mariscat this year, and the pamphlet Slim New Book, versions of Catullus, with Lifeboat Press last year.