Heaney Astray: the Importance of Not Being So Earnest

Reading the admonitions against earnestness from the old ghost that appears in Heaney’s “Station Island” part XII brings to mind Patrick Kavanagh. Whether or not Kavanagh was the conscious model for this character in Heaney’s poem, the by turns severe and antic nature of this individual has Kavanagh written all over it.

In his poem, “Prelude”, Kavanagh condemns “Card-sharpers of the art committee / Working all the provincial cities, / they cry ‘Eccentric’ if they hear / A voice that seems at all sincere.” (Collected Poems, 132) “Eccentric” was no doubt an epithet with which the iconoclast Kavanagh was familiar. Yet Heaney’s Kavanagh-esque figure, in arguing against orthodoxy, is not necessarily arguing against sincerity. He is arguing, instead, against earnestness. The difference is more than just an exercise in semantics.

Earnestness is a kind of sincerity, or endeavor toward sincerity, marked by gravitas. It is a determined manner, one that weighs consequences soberly. In this sense, earnestness finds itself at odds with mischief and irreverence. It is different, I think, than sincerity, which can include mischief, irreverence, and other forms of impolite honesty–modes Kavanagh embraced in his work. In differentiating, I would say earnestness involves a serious attempt, whereas sincerity involves a state of unvarnished being, and a willingness to look unflinchingly at what is.

Consider, for example one of Heaney’s most controversial poems, “Punishment”:

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
and your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

The Art of Seamus Heaney (Curtis, 1982) is one of the earliest collections of critical essays on Seamus Heaney’s poetry. As such, it offers insight into some of the early critical responses to Heaney’s work, and summarizes many of the pressures under which Heaney labored as an artist. In “North: ‘Inner Emigr√©’ or ‘Artful Voyeur’?”, Edna Longley sums up much of the controversy about “Punishment” by pointing out that “the moral and political ground beyond the self-contained emblem is boggy indeed.” (81) Curtis, too, opines that in this poem, Heaney is “sitting on the fence.” (100) I disagree. I would say, rather, that Heaney is painting the fence, and everything around it, in a manner of realism that is, ironically, more inclusive and compelling than supposedly more “realistic” forms such as journalism or political rhetoric.

Curtis later frames Heaney’s approach with a quote from his 1979 interview with James Randall in Ploughshares, in which Heaney says, “I think that what he [Yeats] learned there [in his poetry] was that you deal with public crisis not by accepting the terms of the public’s crisis, but by making your own imagery and your own terrain take the colour of it, take the impressions of it.” (125) Here the imagery and terrain of Heaney’s imagination is undeniably colored by contemporary sectarian violence. Yet it is a remarkable work of imagination as well, employing characteristic music and imagery which Heaney deploys with equal flourish in poems about landscape and childhood. Earnestness snuffs out such fertile imagination.

Were Heaney to attempt to write such a poem with more trying and less observing, with more earnestness and less sincerity, this poem might have been reduced to an essentially political message, sacrificing its larger, human message. It would not achieve the “total adequacy” which Heaney ascribes to The Divine Comedy in the title piece to his collection of lectures given while professor at Oxford, entitled The Redress Of Poetry:

Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated. The Divine Comedy is a great example of this kind of total adequacy… (7-8)

It is in this essay that Seamus Heaney describes poetry as “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” (1) He goes on to describe these pressures in detail, pressures clearly analogous to his own situation during most of his writing career:

… if you are an English poet at the Front during World War I, the pressure will be on you to contribute to the war effort, preferably by dehumanizing the face of the enemy. If you are an Irish poet in the wake of the 1916 executions, the pressure will be to revile the tyranny of the executing power. If you are an American poet at the height of the Vietnam War, the official expectation will be for you to wave the flag rhetorically. In these cases, to see the German soldier as a friend and secret sharer, to see the British government as a body who might keep faith, to see the South-East Asian expedition as an imperial betrayal, to do any of these things is to add a complication where the general desire is for a simplification. (3)

Simplification is a function of earnestness; inclusiveness is a function of imagination. It is in encouraging the imagination that the old ghost tells the poet to “let go, let fly …” and “strike your note.” (245) In this way, the antic Heaney, like the Fool in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, is able to speak a more complete truth by eschewing earnestness and sobriety–in favor of art.