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Shame us, Séamus (or at least say something genuine)

Heaney sold out, with almost pornographic accessibility

When I was a young man, I managed various used and rare book stores for a company based in Washington DC. As part of this book ‘empire’, we leased a large warehouse across the Potomac River in Arlington, VA. It comprised several cavernous rooms. In one of these rooms stood a veritable Everest of books. Further, the entire heap comprised a single title – undustjacketed, misbound and/or damaged US editions of Seamus Heaney’s Poems 1965-1975.

Ironically, close by squatted a larger mound of equally misshapen copies of a later printing of the Complete Poems of Robert Frost. To recoup some of his loss, an unscrupulous binder, rather than honouring his contract and pulping the volumes, had sold them to us for a price that would importune a covert cash payment.

Kevin Kiely’s bluntly titled, Seamus Heaney and the Great Poetry Hoax, (Areopagitica Publishing, 2018), opens with a comparative appraisal of these two milk bucket obsessed northern agrarians, Frost and Heaney. Kiely focuses on Heaney but neither poet is to his taste. He finds Heaney’s incessant reliance on rural themes disingenuous and out of touch. Certainly, Kiely has a point. What else but nostalgia and bathos could steer anointment and garlanding of the award-winning poet by ensconced academics, wealthy potentates and entertainers who writes lyrics which extol the virtues of peat and cow shit? As Kiely so admirably and doggedly points out, as a consequence, there is nothing honest in Heaney’s work.

I think we can agree that Ezra Pound, though for the most part a fine judge of poetry, was a spotty judge of character. Though he called his birthplace of Hailey, Idaho, half savage Pound initially misconstrued Robert Frost’s New England Yankee ‘plain speak’, an intrinsic characteristic of Frost’s work, as providing some sort of spare, down-on-the-farm expression of the American ethos when in reality it was just a faux homespun ‘higher hokum’. Yet I and, in his lukewarm assessment of Frost, Kiely would agree that the folksy American’s snake oil and illusory tales are more genuine than Heaney’s. This even though Frost was little more than a gentleman farmer and Heaney was, at least at one time, a genuine farm boy. If, as Kiely states, and I concur, Frost’s fancies ring truer than Heaney’s what does that say about Heaney’s oeuvre generally?

In Heaney’s infinitely tired reprises of farm life – the damp, the smells, the stoic heroism, the sentimentality – one hears faintly the same sort of bombast one gets from America’s ‘Good Gray Poet’, Walt Whitman, who most certainly lived in a country that never existed and never will. If it’s not naïvete, both Whitman’s and Heaney’s approaches manifest sheer cunning.

Kiely is correct and, given Heaney’s stature, courageous to tilt at Heaney’s legacy. Whitman was constrained sexually by the very culture he bloviated about. Thus his product was a cry for acceptance which he somehow thought he could gain by pandering to the existing order. And to a frightening degree, it worked – for all the wrong, nationalistic, jingoistic reasons.

As Kiely does, let’s assess one of Heaney’s most famous lines from one of his most read and ‘beloved’ poems, Digging. Heaney writes:
“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it”.

The poem has about it a lassitude as though Heaney himself had grown tired of his subject matter. He opens with a wholly inept and personally disingenuous image which compares two wholly different utile appendages, a pen and a spade — reworking Bulwer-Lytton’s famous quote of pens/swords. Then, after a 22-line instructional on how to use a spade, he resorts to the murky bathos of comparing his pen to that shovel.

Kiely, by now frustrated with Heaney’s metaphorical fuzziness, queries “how much earth can you dig with a pen”? But it’s worse. At first, though still painfully sentimental, the shovel-incised blocks of bog, of dead (yet organic) matter, serve the living by providing heat and fertiliser. But what is the bog? History? Tradition? Heaney’s mind may have done some digging. But his pen can only record the process. Within reason and art, the pen does not do the digging. And Heaney is no André Breton, no surrealist, as Kiely points out, so the mental image flounders and flops.

Kiely trounces Heaney’s stances on Irish history, international politics, Nobel, institutional pandering and how these factors influenced his poetry. Kiely demonstrates that to avoid the convulsions Ireland faced, especially from 1968 to 1988, Heaney, more often than was tolerable, wrote nostalgia about farm life or buried his poems’ relevance in a miasma of prehistory.

Heaney’s stance reminds one of Yeats’ position on Northern Ireland before the Easter Rising. Though Yeats continued to generally support non-violent solutions, he was shattered by the brutal treatment at the hands of the British inflicted on the Irish nationalists as evidenced in his superb poem Easter, 1916. However, Yeats solution of a non-violent literary rebellion with nostalgic Celtic roots reminiscent of Heaney’s bathos, smacks of wishful thinking. As is well known, the far more pragmatic James Joyce would dub Yeats’ and Lady Gregory’s Celtic Twilight the ‘Cultic Twallette’ in his masterpiece, Finnegans Wake.

Further, as an individual living the bloody hypocrisy of American foreign policy, I’m certain that palling around with a war criminal like Bill Clinton, as Heaney did, does not speak well of one’s character. And, Seamus, the same went for the Nobel, which the poet Ed Dorn referred to as the Dynamite Prize. The Nobel was in recent years given to yet another American mass murderer and apologist for the very Wall Street that bankrupted Ireland, Barack Obama. And there is some foul whiff that our current golden-domed Baboon-in-Chief should be foisted with Stockholm’s much tarnished award.

Kiely also points up another insidious influence on Healey’s ascendance from ‘the Land of the Fee and the Home of the Knave’ — literary critics Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler. It’s bad enough that across the pond, these two old literary fossils have erred so much toward the ‘I’ centered, solipsistic lyric that our current poetic product has all the depth perception of a Cyclops with a cataract but unfortunately their reputations precede them.

‘Approachability’, as Kiely illuminates it, is currently the quality that will you buy you a ticket on today’s Irish poetry publication tilt-a-whirl. Over here in my local home town, the Washington Post requires that its poetry of choice possess what it calls “accessibility” (On occasion, Kiely also uses this term). ‘Accessibility’ is defined much the same way that pornography was in the US in the 1950s. Like pornography, poetry must be able to arouse in the most sentimental and self-absorbed citizen among us feelings akin to masturbating in a public theatre. As Kiely demonstrates, no matter how you say it, “approach” or “access”, Heaney’s ditties have the ability to affirm everything you already believed about yourself, with no unpleasant experience, and without learning anything of note or having one of your revered shibboleths questioned.

Thus, Kiely writes apropos of an early review he penned on Heaney’s poetry:
“I couldn’t approve of H.’s “Digging” when I quickly realized that it was such a genre of counterfeit that would make my own situation as a poet ‘difficult’ faced with this school of fraudulence”.

Indeed, Kevin Kiely has unmasked a ‘fraud’ that as he predicted years ago has burgeoned into an institutional conspiracy to honour the mediocre and the sham. We would do well to finally heed Mr Kiely’s alarm.

Seamus Heaney and the Great Poetry Hoax by Kevin Kiely. 167pps, Areopagitica, Paperback.

Carlo Parcelli