LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Seamus Heaney “Stern”

in memory of Ted Hughes

‘And what was it like,’ I asked him, / ‘Meeting Eliot?’ / /‘ 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 pier head 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.

from Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1988-2013.

FRAME OF REFERENCE Deeper than the self-division is the fork in the soul as a between. Is the issue just between the soul and itself, or between the soul and what is more than itself? The second, since the deeper we explore the immanent resources of self-creation, the more the wonder grows concerning a secret companioning power that is not one’s own. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 75.

The resources of the slightest genre of poetry, the lyric, are profound and penetrate the foundations of the self. Hopkins’s use of the noun self as a verb points to one dimension. In this fragmenty-looking text Heaney in the ripeness of his selving exposes some of the framework that opens the lyric to a simultaneous deconstruction and porosity toward its other beyond conceptual grasp. (Sorry about that flourish!) Put it this way: The figure of the dinghy receding into the beyond has a kind of subdued, not quite ironic sublimity.
The sharp ambiguity of the title anchors, as it were, the multiplicity of the ‘subject’ of “Eliot.”

One proposition I follow up in these Investigations is Lyric’s self-defeating figural complexity. Self-defeating in a good way, as “emergent form in a kenotic” way. Every move in a lyric reframes the self of the voice of the poet. Here Heaney talks to Hughes about Eliot, then reframes that from his own point of view. In the end it does seem Heaney is saying that Eliot has him in view as he departs the scene. Lyric poets have various ways of snatching the laurel from their masters, but the slow fade here has its own cultural moment. Heaney/Eliot/Heaney: a career long chiasm that continues to influence how we think of our poems, ourselves.

For all it’s grandiosity this figure is grounded not by the will-to-power of the emergent king of the hill but in the equivocity of the language. Starting with the almost tired expression of Hughes (a fiction/remembered dialogue) that sets up the opening, the middle “now” is alive with verbal energies: repetition in “watching him watching me,” a Narcissus image; and the increasingly dense image of the rowboat Eliot must drive through wave and current only to reach the departing Queen Mary. Is this a cruel joke? And it is “wooden end-stopped,” and that verbally split phrase “Labours and shimmers and dips.” Eliot’s craft breaking up mid sea? Since it’s Eliot we are talking about that image sets a new horizon while struggling to reach the old.

“Making no real headway” suggests, in the idiom “no real” that Eliot’s hegemony is sinking fast.

We are not used to arrogance from Heaney but the poem stands as more than a gesture. It’s a lyric that makes superb use of its resources without overdoing it (?).

One question lyric can’t settle is how it creates a new communicative space (porosity) by exhausting a whole set of figures in the process. Lyric deploys authoritative concepts like dialogue and metaphor and analogy (ships fading into the fog of the past) only to transform them into new creative energy. The deeper we go into the fertile void, it says in the FRAME OF REFERENCE, the more we are aware of a companioning power that is not oneself. So what is it? Say for now the intimate, not conceptually determined, universal.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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