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74 Chapter 3 In the Shadow of Possum T. S. Eliot & Seamus Heaney Seamus Heaney has written eloquently in the past decade about Yeats, suggesting several reasons why we should see Yeats as the greatest influence on his poetry after midcareer. Most prominently, Yeats is the focus of “Crediting Poetry,” Heaney’s Nobel Lecture of 1995, in which Yeats’s work is represented as embodying qualities of self-pleasing and realism that Heaney thinks essential to poetry. The Nobel Lecture also pays passing tribute to other poets who have influenced Heaney: Hopkins, Keats, Bishop, Owen, Lowell, Rilke, Mandelstam, MacLeish, and T. S. Eliot. Heaney associates Eliot’s influence with a single quality, which he encapsulates in the phrase “visionary strangeness” (OG 418). To judge from the Nobel Lecture, Eliot would seem to be merely another writer in Heaney’s formation , in this case a writer associated with the nonmimetic, “pure” side of poetry that Heaney began, in midcareer, to accept as legitimate . Eliot is not, however, merely another writer in Heaney’s career . From nearly the beginning he is prominent as a poetic voice, an attitude, a provocation, an authority, a standard, an intimidation. If Yeats becomes for Heaney a sponsoring older brother, Eliot is the closest thing Heaney has to a literary father, for it is Eliot who forms Heaney’s literary sensibility and whose influence can be said to be longest-lasting. It is with Eliot, moreover, as with no other writer (Lowell being a close second), that Heaney’s feelings as a postco- 75 T. S. Eliot and Heaney lonial come into play. Heaney does not consistently acknowledge the magnitude of Eliot’s influence, but when he does so, he is extravagant . When he resists Eliot, his tone can turn hostile. In sum, Heaney’s relationship with Eliot is rarely straightforward. In a lecture called “Learning from Eliot,” given at Harvard in 1988 on the centenary of Eliot’s birth, Heaney utters something that makes sense to many who received a literary education in the 1960s, even if they didn’t share Heaney’s feelings: that Eliot represented to him “the way, the truth, and the light, and that until one had found him one had not entered the kingdom of poetry” (FK 29). What seems expressed perfectly here is the note both of theology and of authority. By Heaney’s own account Eliot had great authority, an authority that was connected to his poetic obscurity or “otherness,” by which Heaney was “daunted” (28). Heaney speaks in this lecture of “[t]he cheese-wire exactness” of Eliot’s poetry “that revealed to you the cheesy nature of your own standards and expectations” (30). Heaney rarely speaks of Eliot without alluding to this aura of authority in his work, and mainly in his prose, its subject matter and magisterial voice. With respect to poetic influence it can be said that, initially vexed and intimidated by Eliot because Eliot’s obscurity seemed to point to his own intellectual limitations, Heaney, teaching at Queens, came to feel better about Eliot when the critic C. K. Stead’s The New Poetic (1964) argued that Eliot’s poetry, for all its apparent intellectuality, is “intuitive,” irrational, self-referential; it has no paraphrasable meaning, and Eliot is no teacher but a voice, a poet of “words alone” (39–40). This view of Eliot made Eliot both easier for Heaney the teacher (for Heaney tells of the difficulty of teaching Eliot) and an inspiration for Heaney the poet, who, after Stead’s explanation, felt less constrained to write a poetry of explicit statement . Actually the matter is more complicated than Heaney represents it as being, for Heaney’s fear of poetic explicitness is not so easily put to rest, but it is important to record Heaney’s sense of relief here. As Heaney puts it, “The Waste Land,” in Stead’s reading, “is the vindication of a poetry of image, texture, and suggestiveness; of 76 T. S. Eliot and Heaney inspiration; of poetry which writes itself” (GT 92). In this one respect alone, the composition of nonparaphrasable poetry, Eliot’s example is of signal importance. Heaney’s debt to Eliot as a man of letters is extensive. It started , also while he was teaching at Queens, with his reading of Eliot’s criticism, “all assembled and digested by John Hayward in a little purple-covered Penguin book, the particular tint of purple being appropriately reminiscent of a confessor’s stole” (FK 36). As a...


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