Participation without belonging: apostrophe and aberration in Seamus Heaney’s North

Brewster, Scott (2011) Participation without belonging: apostrophe and aberration in Seamus Heaney’s North. In: Aberration in Poetry: Essays on Atypical Works from Yeats and Auden to Larkin, Heaney, Gluck and Others. McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, pp. 63-76. ISBN 9780786462957

Participation without belonging: apostrophe and aberration in Seamus Heaney’s North

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It is a testament to Seamus Heaney’s immense popularity that readers keep coming back for more. Just as Heaney’s poetry draws on endlessly generative energy sources (memory, place), so his critics tend to find his work a renewable source of fascination – a mutual confirmation that has sustained his international reputation, and has ensured his canonisation by the academy. To come back to Heaney ‘once again’ suggests a desire to find more of the same, to reproduce the terms of his poetics, and yet the notion of returning ‘another time’ also implies the possibility of a new or unanticipated encounter. This double temporality of reiteration and spontaneity continually marks Heaney’s poetry, but it is a characteristic that runs counter to the image – established not least by Heaney’s own critical writing - of a poet returning to the marvels of the homely and familiar.
In tracing this aberrant poetics of return, the chapter will focus primarily on Heaney’s collection North (1975). This collection, the culmination of Heaney’s early mythopoetics, established him as the representative, paradigmatic Irish poet. For some, North was a compelling chronicle of the times, a writing to the moment that anointed Heaney as the true successor to Yeats within Irish poetic tradition. To others, the volume presented Heaney as ‘an apologist for “the situation”, in the last resort, a mystifier’ (Ciaran Carson). North established a critical climate, both affirmative and hostile, that has shaped Heaney’s subsequent reception. The book was anything but aberrant or problematic in certain respects; it enhanced Heaney’s reputation, and has proved a recurrent point of reference in critical accounts of his work. The collection does mark a turning point in Heaney’s aesthetic, since his later collections have reflected a progressive shift away from its programmatic reading of history, and its volatile mix of blood and soil. Yet this phase of Heaney’s work has come to seem a limitation rather than an aberration, a developmental stage that had to be negotiated and overcome, a moment of realisation and exhaustion. The ‘transitional’ nature of the bog sequence seems to be validated by the subsequent course of his career: the cherished topography and place-lore have remained, but the etymological politics has given way to ethical reflection, and a preoccupation with the aerial and numinous. In North, too, we discern the typical Heaney of anguish and fidelity, of solving metaphors and ambiguities, a persona that anticipates the Laureate of scrupulous tact and grace who presides over future collections.
My argument is not that the mythic schema in North has been unjustly neglected, nor that it might be rehabilitated; rather, the collection should be read in terms of what remains latent. The book’s latency here is to be understood in a temporal rather than spatial sense, as involving anticipation, suspension and hesitation, rather than burial or concealment. It is this latency in North that constitutes the radical, aberrant direction that Heaney’s poetry could never, or could not consistently, follow. Thus North can be treated as a compromise formation, symptomatic of the ‘criss-cross’ strands of his poetic: on the one hand, transcendence, harmony and the ‘responsible tristia’ of the artist and, on the other, the encounter with an incalculable history, and writing as an act of (and in) crisis.
The discussion of North will centre on perhaps the most ‘aberrant’ and controversial poem in Heaney’s entire oeuvre, ‘Punishment’, which at once supports and challenges the dominant perception of the poet. It is a text where detachment seems to give way to partisanship, evasion is transformed into commitment, and history collapses into mythic continuum; and yet at the same time it declares the failure of its aesthetic politics, and we witness the undoing of that familiar poetic persona. The very apotheosis of the ‘authentic’ Heaney voice is simultaneously the moment in which that voice sounds hollow, its conviction faltering. This essay contends that the indefinition, irresolution and strangeness that accompanies the act of return performed in ‘Punishment’ represents a constitutive aberration in Heaney’s poetry more generally.

Keywords:Seamus Heaney, Irish Poetry, Apostrophe
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q320 English Literature
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
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ID Code:14992
Deposited On:18 Sep 2014 10:22

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