The political implications of lyric art

Grand Street (The Fact That We Hesitated To Speak) ©MAIERMOUL
Grand Street (The Fact That We Hesitated To Speak) ©MAIERMOUL

He opens his own poetry notebook to remind himself again of the warning of the late French philosopher Gaston Bachelard:

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.”

As if fearing that silent hesitation, Heaney arrived in America this year like an itinerant carpenter, carrying to his easy cloister at Harvard a chunk of unfinished work, ‘Station Island’, a long poem that has haunted him for two years. He brought it forth to talk about it over a glass of bourbon, and even to read it, touching the words with his hands as his voice brought them up from the paper:

And I cried among the night waters, “I repent My unweaned life but I was ignorant How love and art exert their covenant…”

“I pretend I’m not part of the American scene,” Heaney says. But he responds spiritedly to the place, describing how it underlines his own “constant battle” between the urge to write lyric poetry, to “make beautiful things that are comforting,” and the parallel desire “to wreck that comfort” with the poet’s truth. He fears being grouped with “piped music, public radio voices, Mozart in the morning.”

“The political implications of lyric art are quite reactionary,” Heaney says. “You are saying to people, ‘Everything’s all right.’ And, in fact, one of the things America exposes you to quite radically is people’s hunger to be comforted. And it’s very moving, and it’s authentic, but somehow you get co-opted into a language of comfort that is quite bogus.”

Seamus Heaney, Poet of the Bogs, New York Times, Francis X. Clines