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46 Chapter 2 Defending Poetry Reading his Foreword to Preoccupations, one could easily argue that Heaney’s move to Glanmore in 1972 was the occasion that gave rise to so much later theorizing on the nature and value of poetry. It was this event that prompted him to question his direction in becoming a full-time poet and man of letters. Heaney claims that in 1972 a quotation from Shakespeare’s sonnets was his daily rumination: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” (P 33). Even so, as Heaney himself knows, origins can be elusive. Heaney’s specific preoccupation with defending poetry’s place in the world might have started even earlier, with the onset of the Troubles in Ulster in 1969. “From that moment,” Heaney writes, “the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament” (P 56). Recently, Heaney has taken this preoccupation with poetry’s rights back even into his upbringing and his first teaching job. Asked by two interviewers in 1999 how teaching informs his poetry, Heaney explained why he has felt the need in his prose to justify poetry so many times over. Heaney told his interviewers that his concern for poetry’s rights had much to do with the fact that, coming from a farm, where literature is not part of life, he had to be “in negotiation with a part of myself that’s completely non-literary. There’s a part of me that’s totally literary and that believes in these things completely; but there’s another part, a 47 Defending Poetry heckler in me.”1 As long as one is going backward in Heaney’s life for explanations, one might also cite the additional fact, just as fundamental , that Heaney grew up a minority Catholic in a Protestantdominated culture, and therefore developed defensiveness as a habit of mind. It isn’t an accident that one of his metaphors for the act of writing poetry, seen in “From the Frontier of Writing,” is the crossing of a checkpoint (OG 274). In the same interview, Heaney also cites as formative the experience of teaching secondary school in a poor part of Belfast where the students were barely above standard. The students at this school were Catholic, and many of them, Heaney recalls, went on to careers in the Provisional IRA. “So,” Heaney says, “you’re dealing with that kind of inner-city energy, which says ‘what the hell are we doing this for, sir?’ As a teacher in the humanities, you are from the start ‘on your mettle’ not only to defend what you’re doing to them, but also to yourself....... And as a writer, as you pass the pleasure stage of being able to do it, as you pass the sheer narcissistic delight, you pass into self-questioning, though some never pass the sheer narcissistic delight, and they’re lucky.”2 One notices how this comment begins as a half-humorous account of an episode in Heaney’s past and then crosses over in true Heaney fashion into a generalization—including a certain implied moralizing—about the growth of poets. Apparently, self-questioning about poetry is necessary to poetic maturity. Just as apparently, the questioning never ends. Heaney’s constant self-questioning for four decades has produced in him two fundamental defenses of poetry. One is that poetry serves reality in one way or another. “Serves” here takes in many meanings: to reveal, to illuminate, to enhance, to revivify, to improve, and so forth. In serving reality, poetry serves the community: these two ideas usually go together in Heaney. Poetry’s force is educative, though not necessarily in an obvious didactic way. The second defense is that poetry offers sheer aesthetic pleasure; it doesn’t serve 1. Heaney, “Interview with Heaney,” by Wylie and Kerrigan, 127. 2. Ibid., 126. 48 Defending poetry reality but is at war with it, or at least offers protection from it. It is a counterforce, a counterweight, not so much an escape from reality as a triumph over it—a “magical incantation, fundamentally a matter of sound and the power of sound to bind our minds’ and bodies’ apprehensions within an acoustic complex” (GT 109). Obviously, this poetry can also serve a community, but Heaney is not so inclined to talk about this aspect of its performance. The...


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