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American Amnesia

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Donald Fanger on Seamus Heaney

Posted on Feb 26, 2009
book cover

By Donald Fanger

(Page 3)

In his own case, the discovery of vocation replaced the revelations of belief, and it did so by embracing the need that prompts belief: “Poetry is a ratification of the impulse toward transcendence. You can lose your belief in the afterlife, in the particular judgement at the moment of death, in the eternal separation of the good from the evil ones in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, but it’s harder to lose the sense of an ordained structure, beyond all this fuddle. Poetry represents the need for an ultimate court of appeal. The infinite spaces may be silent, but the human response is to say that this is not good enough, that there has to be more to it than neuter absence.” 


book cover


Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney


By Dennis O’Driscoll


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 560 pages


Buy the book


“The human response” is what this book is all about, half record and half meditation, indissolubly mixed. When asked whether, despite his Catholic observances having lapsed, he still approves of the ceremonial aspect of church obsequies, Heaney replies: “I do. I think it’s the right moment for ceremony. The funeral pyre is one thing, the crematorium something else.” By the same token, funerals are different from memorial services. “Funerals are closer to the bones, as it were; they have to deal with the rent in the fabric. The memorial service has more to do with the recompense of reputation, sometimes maybe with its retrieval. It’s closer to the obituary notice than to the eternal questions.”

These distinctions, the retentions that persist alongside the disavowals, the grounding of generalization in the irresistibly convincing (and hence transferable) specifics of one man’s experience, the extraordinary intelligence, the precision and eloquence of the writing—all make this prose what Milosz called poetry: “a dividend from what you know and what you are.” There is no urging here, but only the quiet draw of example and the reader’s answering exhilaration at being allowed to contemplate so extensively what Seamus Heaney knows and what he is—and what he can do, for this book embodies the inevitability it repeatedly ascribes to successful poetic utterance, and sees in “those incontrovertible paintings [of Cézanne’s], so steady in themselves they steady you and the world—and you in the world.”

Not least of the rewards on offer here is what amounts to a whole anthology of memorable characterizations of other poets and their work—Hughes, Milosz, Yeats, Lowell, Bishop, Kavanagh, Hopkins and dozens of others. Here is one illustration of Heaney’s virtue and the reviewer’s dilemma: Heaney writes, “Kavanagh walked into my ear like an old-style farmer walking a field.” This is eminently quotable and surely suggestive. But see how its expressiveness compounds when replaced in its context. Heaney is speaking about the effect on him in his early days of Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger”:

[It] was to me the equivalent of wrap-around sound in one of today’s cineplexes. It had the wham of big-screen cinematic close-up, an amplified language that could knock you sideways. Head-on, as cold-breathed and substantial as the stuff the potato digger was kicking up from the drills. Kavanagh walked into my ear like an old-style farmer walking a field. He had that kind of ignorant entitlement, his confidence contained a mixture of defiance and challenge. You were being told that you would never hit your stride if you didn’t step your own ground, and would never hit the right note if you didn’t sound as thick as your own first speech.

In the same way the 400-odd pages that precede it saturate with meanings Heaney’s answer in the closing pages to the question, “What has poetry taught you?”

That there’s such as thing as truth and it can be told—slant; that subjectivity is not to be theorized away and is worth defending; that poetry itself has virtue, in the first sense of possessing a quality of moral excellence and in the sense also of possessing inherent strength by reason of its sheer made-upness, its integritas, consonantia and claritas.

This is not only a radically original book; in its own quiet way it is also a great one.

Donald Fanger, formerly Harry Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard, is the author most recently of “Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.” 

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By Christopher, February 16, 2011 at 8:48 pm Link to this comment
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I love reading Donald Fanger. Thanks for this review.

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By Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, March 13, 2009 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment
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What an exhilarating review of what is evidently an exhilarating book!  As someone drawn to both poetry AND prayer, I find Fanger’s (and Heaney’s) reflections on transcendence enlivening.  This review was a wonderful read.  Thank you, Professor Fanger.

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By Ed Harges, February 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Poetry is best read to oneself, whether alone or aloud.

The practice of public poetry reading as performance is mostly an inferior form of music or drama, inflicted on gullible audiences by people who can’t really act, sing, or play an instrument, but who hope that merely by reading a well-written text aloud they will garner for themselves some of the glory that properly belongs only to the writer.

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