By Thomas O’Grady
Special to the BIR
Recently, I happened upon an interview with Seamus Heaney published more than thirty years ago in the literary journal Ploughshares. Having read countless other interviews with Heaney over the decades, most of them involving variations on the thematic territory of his poetry’s relationship to the political and sectarian divide in his native Northern Ireland, I wondered if I would find much new in this one.
True to form, Heaney is thoughtful, thorough, and articulate in responding to the questions posed by interviewer James Randall—and some of his answers have a conversational freshness suggesting that in 1979, still a relatively early point in his lengthily illustrious career, he had not proffered them literally “countless” times already.
One of the answers that I found particularly intriguing, in part because Heaney has his defensive hackles up, involves the poet’s reaction to the skepticism that some critics expressed toward his engagement, in his landmark volume North (1975), with the photographs, reproduced in P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People, of unearthed bodies that had been buried sacrificially in Scandinavian bogs during the Iron Age. “I’m very angry,” Heaney admitted, “with a couple of snotty remarks by people who don’t know what they are talking about and speak as if the bog images were picked up for convenience instead of being, as I’m trying to take this opportunity to say, a deeply felt part of my own life, a revelation to me.” The most notorious critique of Heaney’s focus on Glob’s images was yet to come: David Lloyd’s essay “‘Pap for the Dispossessed’: Seamus Heaney and the Poetics of Identity.” Published in 1985, this provocative piece took Heaney severely to task for a general romanticizing of Irish culture, including the culture of violence, that culminated in the bog-centered poems in North. “This is effectively to reduce Irish history to myth,” Lloyd wrote, “furnishing an aesthetic resolution to conflicts constituted in quite specific historical junctures by rendering disparate events as symbolic moments expressive of an underlying continuity of identity.”
In “Feeling Into Words,” a lecture presented to the Royal Society of Literature in 1974, Heaney recounted how he happened upon Glob’s book at the very time that he was casting about for some way by which his poetry might have a voice in the conversation and debate related to Northern Ireland’s political predicament. Invoking Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65, which asks what force might withstand the ravages of time—“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”—Heaney, like Shakespeare (who answered his own question with “in black ink my love may still shine bright”), put his faith in words, hoping that “befitting emblems of adversity” (a phrase he borrowed from Yeats’s poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War”) might help to illuminate the nature of the predicament. That is, those “befitting emblems” might help his community to recognize that the conflict is more “archetypal” than the mere religious differences, themselves emblematizing social and economic bigotry, between Catholics and Protestants. For Heaney reflecting on this matter in 1974, “the religious intensity of the violence” was more complex than a simple Catholic Nationalist / Protestant Unionist “sectarian division”: it was “a struggle between the cults and devotees of a god and a goddess”—a struggle between the “territorial piety” of those loyal to a tutelary goddess (Ireland conventionally feminized) and the “imperial power” (embodied in the British monarch) of those who have “temporarily usurped her sovereignty.” For critics like David Lloyd, Heaney’s engagement with Glob resulted in mere “pap,” a verbal stirabout cooked up for an audience content with being spoon-fed vague sentiment and watered-down rhetoric.
Yet, while Heaney might have been merely disappointed in the failure of certain readers to appreciate what Robert Frost refers to as the inherent “ulteriority” of poetry—poetry as “metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another”—he seems to have taken altogether personally the stance of those skeptics (including Lloyd, eventually) who discredited his immediate reaction, literally visceral, when he first looked into The Bog People. Describing in “Feeling Into Words” how “the unforgettable photographs of these victims blended in my mind with the photographs of atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political and religious struggles,” Heaney adds that when he wrote “The Tollund Man,” the first of his poems to engage directly with Glob’s book, “I had a completely new sensation, one of fear.” For Lloyd, this fear that Heaney felt in imagining a personal pilgrimage to Aarhaus in Denmark to view the most famous of the exhumed bog bodies—“Out there in Jutland / In the old man-killing parishes / I will feel lost, / Unhappy and at home”—gets reduced by its “metaphoric frame” to “a writing whose dangers have been defused into pathos.”
But in dismissing Heaney’s engagement with The Bog People as a matter of “convenience,” do Lloyd and company actually underestimate—or fail entirely to understand—the very manner in which, as Heaney explains in his interview with Randall, the images in Glob’s book were “a revelation” to him not just as poet but as person? I think so, especially in light of the extent to which Heaney’s initial response to the photographs in Glob’s book might be understood in terms articulated by philosopher and cultural critic Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Iconoclastic when first published in French in 1980, Barthes’ study has become iconic, and his terms studium and punctum, used to describe how certain photographs catch the eye of the viewer, have become widely accepted in photography circles.
In fact, Heaney’s account in the Ploughshares interview of how he was captivated specifically by the first photo in the book, a close-up of the head of the Tollund Man, resonates fully with Barthes’ defining of punctum as an element of a photograph that “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” (In contrast, a photograph’s studium involves simply the basic subject matter, not the impact of the image on an individual viewer.) Remarking how the head of the Tollund Man “has had an enormous effect on anybody who ever looked at it,” Heaney admits outright the poignant connection he felt with the shriveled but remarkably well-preserved two thousand-year-old figure excavated from the Danish bog: “The Tollund Man seemed to me like an ancestor almost, one of my old uncles, one of those mustached archaic faces you used to see all over the Irish countryside. I just felt very close to this.”
That is not to say that Heaney’s discovery of The Bog People was pure accident: no doubt he was drawn to Glob’s book by his deep-rooted fascination with his native Irish bog—his “genuine obsession,” as he put it to interviewer Randall—whose sensuous mystery he had expressed in “Bogland,” the concluding poem of his volume Door Into the Dark, in 1969: “The wet centre is bottomless.” But his turning the page to the photograph of the Tollund Man seems truly to have involved what Roland Barthes calls “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Recalling his initial response to the images in The Bog People, Heaney tells interviewer James Randall: “This wasn’t thought out. It began with a genuinely magnetic, almost entranced, relationship with those heads.” Indeed, a first line of defense against charges that Heaney’s “bog poems” were part of some cynically conceived program proffering the “pap” of “aesthetic resolution” to his “dispossessed” readers might be the fact that his punctum-prompted poem “The Tollund Man” was included utterly inconspicuously in the middle of his volume Wintering Out (1972).
In an interview with Seamus Deane in 1977, Heaney described how the poems in North “arose out of a necessity to shape and give palpable linguistic form” to the “urgency” he felt regarding Northern Ireland’s political complexity in the mid-1970s. Inspired (or “wounded,” as Barthes would say) by the literal lens that preserved on film the bodies preserved in the Scandinavian bogs, Heaney offered in his poems not a “resolution”—aesthetic or otherwise—to that complexity but rather an alternative lens (as it were) through which his readers might view its “religious intensity”: this was the lens of poetic “ulteriority”—of “saying one thing in terms of another.”
Thomas O’Grady is Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He will be offering a course on Seamus Heaney’s poetry in the Spring semester of 2011.