Seamus Heany and 'Stern'
Friday, 10 June 2011 at 10:40
Web Log 4
The Critical Artifice
No 4 LITERARY POEMS
There is no parliament of literary critics; solitary and remote they internalise their view and then re-construct it and allow it to take an outing. They are essential because they are the closest approximation we have in the west to the perfect reader. Especially with poetry the reader is a rare creature.
There is a landscape to criticism that is immediately familiar: the absolution or condemnation of the history of the artist; the current position of the artist in the cultural firmament; an intimate knowledge of the artist, always used to throw a mordent light and cultivate readership,
an infamous one was Al Alvarez on Sylvia Plath, A Savage God: A study of Suicide; secondary cultural concerns regarding existing mores and looking over the shoulder at what others have said.
Naturally not all readers are able to be critics and some critics are notoriously bad readers who deliver on achievement and gossip when feet of clay are spotted, especially sexual slitherings. The writer suffers much at the hands of these (not so much nowadays as all publicity is deemed profitable) but can then be elevated by another mature audience; who the king, who the one pleading for justice?
For the following poem by Seamus Heaney from District and Circle (Faber and Faber 2006) I shall attempt two quite contrary readings.
in memory of Ted Hughes
‘And what was it like,’ I asked him,
‘When he looked at you’,
He said, ‘it was like standing on a Quay
Watching the prow of the Queen Mary
Come towards you, very slowly.’
Now it seems
I’m standing on a pierhead watching him
All the while watching me as he rows out
And a wooden end-stopped stern
Labours and shimmers and dips,
Making no real headway.
Virtually every word in Stern points to another meaning. A codified literary assembly of phrases and syllables about literature, the poet who observes and the poet who is observed talking about a poet who’s influence both poets have had to find their own escape route from. Nothing, it seems to me, in this poem is as it appears and as an example of a literary device to discuss a literary critique I can’t think of a better example.
The first reading takes the usual form of a skim to feel for the door handle. Heaney tells the story in the first stanza of Ted Hughes meeting T.S. Elliot. This is recounted in the Letters of Ted Hughes ( ) when TH met T.S. Elliot for the first time at a Faber and Faber party after the publication of his first book of poetry A Hawk in the Rain. Ted Hughes described Elliot’s hands first in a letter to his sister Olwyn Hughes ‘He has huge thick hands - unexpected‘ and then on another occasion to William Scammell the description which Heaney recounts in the poem. Heaney seems to be eager to hear this story ‘And what was it like?’ as if the monumental moment was the most important thing, not the man himself, otherwise he would have surely asked what was he like? Elliot was of course not only the pre-eminent poet of the era and the most famous contemporary poet of the time (a fact that cannot be ignored since both Hughes and Heaney are the most famous contemporary poets of their time) but also poetry editor and one of the directors of Faber.
‘When he looked at you….’ recounts Hughes it was like the prow of the largest ship in the world coming toward you. When he looked at you. As if Ted Hughes was projecting his own future fame onto T.S. Elliot’s current fame. What other words could describe this look: poise, majesty, confidence and above all a superior curiosity about this new prince in the Elliot kingdom. The Hawk in the Rain had won The Galbraith Prize and been highly acclaimed. Not a fear of usurpation or an annoying rivalry but rather a benevolent wish to understand the new poet’s poetry, perhaps to give encouragement, perhaps to curry friendship. Elliot looked down from his massive height, stooped to bestow his blessings and Hughes caught the look, held the gesture and gave it a vaguely mocking analogy.
Heaney remembered being told. A decade or more after Hughes’ death Heaney recounts it again for us. For Heaney too, Elliot, the great English/American bard, cast a long shadow, The Waste Land and the Quartets defined modernism in English poesy. All poets struggled to emancipate themselves from Elliot’s grip just as many poets of today struggle against the influence of Hughes and Heaney. So in this respect Heaney is also making a memoriam for Ted, his friend, ( Heaney said the following of Ted Hughes’ death No death outside my own immediate family has left me feeling more bereft) and also himself. He is saying we are Elliot’s heirs.
In stanza two one poet watches the other. One no longer alive but struggling to leave the shore of his precursors and join the other’s, the Elliot’s and the Frost’s and the Shelly’s and Milton’s etc., a very full burial ground of illumination and extravagant brilliance, yet still homaged by contemporary poets, unable to leave, his influence settling but not yet settled, Hughes struggles to leave his legacy and be at peace.
Seamus Heaney is saying, ‘Hughes like me can never leave the shore, the mainland of poesy, for he is immortalised by his work, like Elliot before him. He watches me unable to put any distance between us, for inevitably I shall follow him in my Arthurian death boat, tethered to history.’
And the title ‘Stern’ is all about farewells. As a ship sets from the safety of the harbour its stern is the last thing seen; the part of the ship that carries the rudder, the means of direction. Also the Stern is the opposite of the Prow that Hughes saw coming toward him when he met Elliot. Undoubtedly, although Hughes and by association Heaney have been the Prow’s to many poets, their farewells will be the slowly disappearing reversal of ascendant fortune and excellence. In this poem Heaney is preparing for his own departure.
On the other hand Stern can be read as follows. His meeting with Elliot is overwhelming, the poetic ship of Elliots Waste land moves relentlessly towards him; overpowering him. Thomas Sterns Elliot is an unmovable object whose presence defies him.
Heany watches Ted Hughes row out, his wooden stiffness, shimmering and labouring to make headway, his exhausting abundance of work, making no real impact.
It is indeed a stern critique about his friends inability to answer the poetic masterfullness of Elliots genius.
Monday, 6 June 2011 at 11:52
The ambiguous in poetry has been covered convincingly elsewhere most notably by William Empson in ‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ published in 1930 when he was only 24 years old.
Interestingly I’ve noticed that metaphor in poetry tends to peter out as the poet ages. Ambiguity creeps in as the final piece of machinery available for saying the unsayable, which is one of poetry’s functions, both politically and spiritually. Similar to Matisse or a painter of genius, or any painter, whose late work becomes sparser, more colourful which it seems to me is the equivalent of ambiguity in paintings.
Let us watch this for a moment as it turns from one thing to another with very little alteration.
She gave birth to him when he was 19 years old.
(This is definitely ambiguous grammatically but can only mean one thing since the other is impossible)
She gave birth to him when he was already 19 years old.
(This is less ambiguous because ‘already’ stabilises one sense but doubles the confusion in another.)
She gave birth to him and he was born, 19 years old.
(This clears the matter up.)
Here we see ambiguity transform itself into metaphor. The meaning of No: 3 becomes clear but unworldly, alien, surreal and anguished. The writer must clearly mean something else.
In the late work of the American poet Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), ambiguity and the use of colour (in this case the words used for colour), became a steady motif, a kind of heliograph that flashed the same message again and again, we cannot understand this existence all we can do is discern it.
Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight
Say that it is a crude effect, black reds,
Pink yellows, orange whites, too much as they are
To be anything else in the sunlight of the room,
Too much as they are to be changed by metaphor,
Too actual, things that in being real
Make any imaginings of them lesser things.
And yet this effect is a consequence of the way
We feel and, therefore, is not real, except
In our sense of it, our sense of the fertilest red,
Of yellow as first colour and of white,
In which the sense lies still, as a man lies,
Enormous, in a completing of his truth.
Our sense of these things changes and they change,
Not as in metaphor, but in our sense
Of them. So sense exceeds all metaphor.
It exceeds the heavy changes of the light.
It is like a flow of meanings with no speech
And as of many meanings as of men.
We are two that use these roses as we are,
In seeing them. This is what makes them seem
So far beyond the rhetorician’s touch.
He starts with an almost casual injunction to agree with him that the colours are crude, ‘…black reds, pink yellows, orange whites….’ and continues to argue that one can say very little about these flowers and their colours except that they are themselves. ‘Too actual…’ and then makes the hidden visible by suggesting that to imagine these would be to make them less than what they are. Clearly imagination usually amplifies what things are. Not in this case. Is there another condition available to us where imagination is less than the reality?
Wallace Stevens suggests, in the next stanza, ‘feelings’ as a possible conscript. Very real things cannot be advantaged by imagination yet they are only a consequence of how we ‘feel’ about them; so is our ‘sense’ of reality greater than our imagination of it? Is it that our senses make reality real?
This is his question. Now he has to answer it as a rhetorical device, he acknowledges this, as you will have noticed.
The ambiguity of the poem now revolves around the use of the very duplicitous word ‘lie’.
‘…..In which the sense lies still, as a man lies,
Enormous, in a completing of his truth.’
Either our senses can lie (down, surrender) still (quietly) in the face of reality and just discern the truth of the colours, in this case, that lie within, as humans lie (down) when exhausted (enormous) by the realisation (completing) of the truth of things OR the senses with which we have been endowed have always lied (deceived) and still lie as men lie, enormously, to complete the truth as they see it. In the same way as our senses lie to us in order to complete the feeling for something that we desire. ‘Our sense of these things change as they change…..in our sense of them’ (our desire of them).Which?
In the end the answer has to hinge, as in all things, on love. Not on metaphor which he wants to bring to our attention in the 5th, stanza.
Our sense of and for others exceeds the metaphor inherent in the phrase ‘…heavy changes of the light’ Sense exceeds speech yet retains as many meanings as there are human beings. Especially us two who he includes in a sudden and breathtaking intimacy in the final stanza. It is as it is…beyond understanding, yet not beyond the discernment of love.
A Receipe for Disaster
Tuesday, 1 February 2011 at 10:35
A RECIPE FOR DISASTER
I would like to find an equation to express a situation in which Time and Space could operate independently. The word ‘situation’ is suitable because it implies a ‘state’ or ‘place’ that is human rather than applying an abstraction to the query.
As we are, significantly for us, the most conscious beings in the Universe (that are not merely speculative) then the matter of Time and Space are of the greatest importance.
One important matter for us, one of many such matters, is the question of what happens when the discreet space of the individual is extinguished?
Clearly, after death, the individual does not occupy a body (it may not occupy anything) the mind being extinguished with the corpus. Time and Space, being best mates, are central to the construction of this equation for two reasons:
Humans are obsessed with when things commence (Memory) because they are neurotic about when things cease.
Space can only exist if it takes an increment of time to traverse it.
The first is self evident and deals with human fallibility. The second is the reason for it. We shall now brood on Number Two.
Both physical Physics and theoretical Physics have, as yet, failed to discover a single thing. The Single Thing.
Everything that has been discovered has always contained other ingredients, sometimes, as with a photon, the other ingredient, although measurable, has no substance or no Mass. Nevertheless the First Thing has not yet been found. There is something, however, that has happened that has had a measurable result that aspires to those laurels.
The fact that its small doesn’t matter at all, because very small things always become very big, or contribute to bigness while the observable smallness of far away galaxies belie their vastness. Thus Space and Time were in the First Thing, which means that the First Thing had, at the very minimum, two ingredients. It had to for Space to exist allowing the increment of time to transit across it.
The old Hindoo at this point would laugh and wag his head and tell us that we are talking about duality. We are.
So the First Thing contained Space and that is where Time commenced. It couldn’t have started earlier than the birth of the First Thing because then there was no Space.
But perhaps this is not correct. Perhaps there is a way of looking at the First Thing (and the commencement of Time or the Beginning) which allows a situation to exist in which Time is present but Space isn’t.
The First Thing was created by the Big Bang (BB) but the BB itself has a certain anarchy that needs investigation.
First we have to separate the First Thing from the Big Bang. It is an island without a sea. It is a port for embarkation without a ship. It needs nothing to generate it yet there must have been a generator. It is but is not. That is its secret.
There must have been time before the Big Bang but the time can’t be measured and, for us, this is the problem. In exactly the same way as it is impossible to measure the time before birth. It exists but only as a latency that has an existence before it bursts.
This latency has, of itself, it seems an evolution. The evolution exists although the time measured, its memory of itself, is only of one moment and that is the best that can be said: it is measurement itself. It is a situation that will exist but is in this present moment, dormant. The seed is available but the egg has to be conjured. What happened before the Big Bang dissolves into poetry. Everything is correct. There are no flawed arguments.
Prior to the Big Bang, Time was benign, a whim, a caprice. Time it appears at that Time, could do without Space. It existed as a flow that required no passage. The latency of Time to describe itself and give itself a dimension in which it could be finite instead of eternal in which it could have movement, squeezed out Space in the Big Bang. Matter is the child of Time, and its children live within its immovable embrace.
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