- Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry by John Dennison
John Dennison’s Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry offers a detailed and thorough examination of what the author identifies as Heaney’s “prose poetics,” rather than of the poetry itself: that is to say, his focus is largely on the poet’s prose statements about his chosen art, his elaborate defenses of it, and his increasingly insistent claim that poetry alone offers solace and a quasi-salvation in a world in which revealed religion has lost its credibility. In that sense, Heaney is in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, who famously declared that poetry would replace a Christianity that the higher criticism of the bible had brought down to earth and found factually wanting. In Dennison’s view, an unbelieving Heaney goes even further, vainly striving with “missional” fervor to preserve attributes of transcendence derived from his Catholic upbringing, even as he is aware of their necessary immanence. This, then, is a book that has a tangentially religious theme. As such, it will be of interest to many outside not only the orbit of Heaney scholars, but also far beyond the confines of departments of English; its relentless pursuit of that theme, however, may require a keener interest in the mechanics of Heaney’s “prose poetics” than most potential readers are likely to possess.
Dennison is indeed relentless as he examines the advancements in Heaney’s learning from his “College Note Book” at Queen’s—its cover here reproduced with its naming of names—and his exposure to Arnold, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and F. R. Leavis (not to mention Sir Philip Sidney and William Wordsworth) in their various adjudications of the function of poetry. From there—or rather, from Charles Hart’s The Student’s Catholic Doctrine, Heaney’s religion text at high school—he follows the trail through “Feeling into Words,” his essay on Osip Mandelstam, the Oxford lectures gathered, and significantly revised, for The Redress of Poetry (1995), his Nobel Prize lecture “Crediting Poetry,” and, finally, to Heaney’s more casual affirmations in subsequent talks and interviews as the poet reluctantly, but comfortably, transmogrified into a beloved cultural guru both at home and abroad.
Dennison has read more widely than most in the relevant scholarship, and—like nearly all current Heaney commentators—he has interviewed the poet and has carefully perused the manuscript materials now available in the collections at Emory, the National Library in Dublin, and elsewhere. He also has a sophisticated familiarity with received critical theory without being bogged down by it. In a move that makes for difficult reading in places, Dennison repeats some of Michael Cavanagh’s observations on Heaney’s prose from Professing Poetry (2012), but with greater detail and a narrower focus. The minute distinctions Dennison arrives at, the many contradictions he finds, and the severe cautions [End Page 147] he advises when reading Heaney’s multiple articulations on the subject are commendable and a wake-up call to more casual readers. After all, the poet has by now achieved such eminence that his work can be expected to draw the same meticulous scrutiny as that to which other equally eminent writers have been subjected. Even so, Dennison’s is an unusually critical—in every sense of the word—study; at times the author appears almost annoyed with the poet’s intellectual errancies. His investigation legitimately finds Heaney’s defense of poetry as an adequate replacement for religion to, in fact, be itself inadequate, but the author’s “dissenting, theological, and confessing” assertions of religious belief—his book is “Soli Deo Gloria”; Heaney’s pronouncements are in the tradition of “a cultural transcendentalism predicated on the refusal of Christian orthodoxy”; the Incarnation, “marvelous and actual, is the ground of Heaney’s pure verb” even if the poet did not recognize it as such—do not have the sophistication, or undergo the same scrutiny, as the rest of the narrative. Neither is Dennison especially alert to the nuances of Heaney’s late...