Shame on SEamus? or Really, Kiely?
The period following a poet’s death can be hazardous to his or her reputation. What seemed inevitable and necessary may come to seem ephemeral and what was considered minor seem essential. Tennyson is an outstanding case in point: considered perhaps second only to Shakespeare by many of his contemporaries, his work was a frequent object of scorn for the modernists. His regaining the status of a major poet, though not of a rank the Victorians considered him to be, is still a work in progress.
The English language has lost its three major living poets in the space of the last half-decade: Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Richard Wilbur. Heaney is the most likely to receive the Tennyson treatment; Hill was too demanding a poet to secure a wide audience, and Wilbur was criminally under-valued by the critical establishment. It was Heaney who was phenomenally popular for a poet; his fame began with his first book, published when he was 27, and grew to the point that he became known in Ireland as “famous Seamus,” and his name was used in Cockney rhyming slang for bikini. He was a celebrity poet, friend to personalities and presidents (back when presidents could still read), whose death made headlines around the world. He was born at the right place at the right time, was treated royally by major publishers and even committed the affront of having a winning personality. The fact that he also had considerable talent seemed too much to take for some.
But it is time to revisit his work. The constant acclaim he encountered for even his lesser efforts was probably harmful; the artist-as-celebrity faces obstacles that can be fatal to continued development that most poets can only envy, but they are obstacles nevertheless. That Heaney continued to change till late in his career is a testament to his seriousness as an artist. But there does need to be a winnowing that time and distance should bring.
Unfortunately, Kevin Kiely’s Seamus Heaney and the Great Poetry Hoax is of little use to the effort, except that it does serve as an example of everything a book of criticism should not be. The title should be an indication of the tabloid nature of the prose, but I continued anyway. If a critic seeks to deflate what he or she thinks is a writer’s over-inflated reputation, the least that critic should do is to write well. Kiely’s sentences meander across the page, their punctuation seemingly arbitrary and their goal imprecise. A typical sentence, chosen nearly at random: “It is often forgotten, or disregarded that Kavanagh hated his local village, well not hated one hundred percent, but if you read his poetry, the hatred outweighs the love of the countryside: he found refuge in the city, if inferiority as he was recognizably rural, unlike H who quit the farmstead for education and a progressively successful career in teaching at many levels where he could promote himself as Faberman.” Such sentences are like driving in Italy—one is rarely sure where things are coming from, let alone going to.
Kiely claims at the start that his argument is not ad hominem and is based on close reading. Yet time after time Kiely indicates Heaney’s pleasant personality was more politically correct than substantial. Notice the scare quotes in the following: “I met H on a number of occasions as a human being, in that one can evaluate people at random; he was a ‘good man’ but in the realm of verse as ‘bad’ as his admirers, forming a shallow collective if not protectorate, based on the end of an era at Faber & Faber. A sinking ship with sinking talents.” He asserts that Heaney was politically timid because he didn’t attempt to rally people to the cause of his “tribe” during the Troubles, a designation Kiely also rejects in favor of War. One of his repeated instances of this is his complaint that Heaney’s poem “Thatcher” is about, well, a thatcher and not Maggie. Kiely writes of Heaney’s meeting Conor Cruise O’Brien: “This establishes his conservative politics, associating with a coward like Cruise O’Brien the pro-Burkean who hated, dreaded and proselytised against the French Revolution.” Faber, the political establishment, and out-of-touch academics all conspire to promote Heaney, who reciprocates by serving up bog and farm poems.
Heaney’s move to the Republic during the Troubles was nearly as controversial as Auden’s to America just before WWII. Much like Auden’s critics, Kiely puts the move down to cowardice rather than an attempt at artistic growth. Kiely makes the grand, and clearly counter-factual, claim that “H has nothing to say about the war”; then Kiely declares from his supposed perch at the moral summit that “those who say he has, are defiling the memories of the dead.” Kiely has missed his calling by slurping at the literary well (certainly no omphalos); the man is a natural for politics.
Kiely’s other claim is to close reading; however, his usual approach (or should one say assault?) is to throw out quotes from various poems and then simply to infer that any right-minded reader can instantly see that the lines are obviously deficient. While Kiely does quote some weak passages, he is incapable of differentiating between them and strong lines. I’m sure he’d claim there are no strong ones.
When he does say something directly about his samples, Kiely betrays an odd comprehension of metaphor. He quotes from “The Gutteral Muse”: “I felt like some old pike all badged with sores / Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.” Then he issues the critical profundity the “comparison is unwieldy. A pike lives under water that is a pike’s life. H was not a fish.” This for Kiely is running on, in more than one sense.
A further instance is one that Kiely uses in published essays on Heaney, several of which he graciously reprints toward the book’s conclusion, though they say much the same thing. Kiely cites the opening poem, “Digging,” from Heaney’s first collection Death of a Naturalist. The poem famously begins “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” Kiely states ”This is simply inaccurate. A gun is not held between finger and thumb like a pen. A hand-gun is held properly using all fingers.” But this is surely not what Heaney is saying. Heaney is claiming the pen fits as snugly in the hand as a gun (or perhaps more appropriately vice-versa) not that they’re held the same way—there is more than one way objects may be held snugly in the hand. And Kiely goes on to make the earth-shaking pronouncements that “You write with a pen, shoot with a gun and dig with spade. As someone born on a farm, he should have known the difference.” Yes, and the hell with metaphorical language, the comparison of unlike things, similarity in dissimilarity. A strange position to take by someone who claims to be a poet. One is reminded of Plato’s banishment of poets as liars.
But Kiely’s narrow literal-mindedness causes him to overlook a genuine problem: the opening image, striking as it is, does not fit the rest of the poem which compares the pen with a shovel. Kiely dismisses the figure in his literal way—one can’t dig well with a shovel—but he is right that the poem is deeply flawed. It opens with an image that certainly does gain attention, but then the image disappears and the poem continues as extended metaphor, but a different one. The poem is a handy point of entry into Heaney’s work and was prophetic for the poet personally, though it is flawed, perhaps fatally. Kiely may sense this, but he misses the general structural problem because of his obsession with literalness.
Certainly, Heaney’s work needs to be examined from a more neutral critical perspective. Some of his late work seems to be a going-through-the motions (though not by intention) as if the old sources of inspiration had to be revisited one time too many for lack of new ones—and Heaney had been marvelous up through mid-career at remaking himself. His translations may be more revealing of Heaney than the original author. And there may the occasional prosodic lapses that are typical of our time. I do believe that Heaney will be considered one of the best of our time but, like most poets, may need substantial winnowing. As for Kevin Kiely—his book on Heaney is more revelatory of Kiely than Heaney. The author’s pettiness, rage, and jealousy impress themselves more than any critical point he may stumble across. This is a book that reads as if it had been written on Twitter. This book is probably best left unread (not only for the reader’s good but also to spare Kiely a further sense of what should be embarrassment) and left to find its way to join Dryden’s “reliques of the bum.”.
Robert Darling serves many roles, some at dinner, and others at Keuka College, where he has over the years been Chair of the English Department, and of at least one other, until the demands of committee work pressed him away from these honorable positions toward the more usual academic pursuit of misleading students while encouraging them to pay tuition promptly. He has not allowed a photographer near any living being within the frame of his life except his cats, so we don't have the usual complimentary photograph taken twenty years ago. There is however a fine cat movie of Dr. Darling's Wystan, who has become something of an Internet star by playing Robert's literary agent. Wystan often takes to tearing at Poet's Market for its unremitting and mostly unknown editorial position on cat poets. But the cat knows his stuff and has placed Dr. Darling's poems in some reputable and quite a few disreputable publications.