RIP Seamus Heaney 31 Aug

I was at an intimate reading Heaney gave at Sydney University probably early in the 90s, his voice was poetry, he was warm and approachable and a poet who had meant much to me.

As someone who studied philosophy at university at a time when the most modern philosopher on the course was Wittgenstein (and early Wittgenstein at that) and symbolic logic was 20% of the marks, I turned to poetry. This was the mid-seventies and after reading the Wasteland it was the mix of history and myth conjured up in the early seventies by Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ then ‘North’, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘Crow’ that excited. Such a mix is incommensurable yet each provided its own wonder.

Ted Hughes wanted a nature poetry where, ‘The descriptions will be detailed, scientific in their objectivity and microscopic attentiveness.’ Geoffrey Hill showed the possibilities of mixing a continuing history with a topography. His collection of prose poems, Mercian Hymns, jigsawed the Mercian King Offa (8th C) with Hill’s childhood in modern Mercia of the Midlands.

I loved the rugged Anglo Saxon of Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’, which opens with ‘Digging’ a poem Heaney claimed was the first in which he found his voice, a Catholic in Northern Ireland, ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.’ Heaney did a huge amount for the world of poetry.

Montage of Seamus Heaney Reading “Digging” Over the Years:

 

 

Poetry concrete and philosophy abstract?

Part of my alienation was the grand systemising, philosophers of the past attempted with hubris I thought, and part was the opposite, the nit-picking arguments of the Anglo analytic tradition. Yet once interested in philosophy, it is impossible to shake off, even though from Plato on, it has consistently denigrated poetry.

The notion that poetry is concrete and philosophy abstract is widely established and can be unhelpful. Sidney used it as a defence of poetry. He supposed poetry to be in competition with philosophy and history (following Aristotle); Sidney claimed that philosophy deals solely with the universal, and that history is preoccupied with the particular, whereas literature is superior in dealing with the same abstract concepts as philosophy, but using concrete examples (though fictionalised). Literature exists between and above history and philosophy, because the knowledge it conveys (knowledge of the good) is useful knowledge.

And yet . . . Even thinkers as flexible as Nietzche (who used genealogy to subvert foundationalist claims for powerful institutions and discourses) and Foucault (who used structuralism for an archaeology of knowledge and ordering of epistemes bedded to particular world views) are relatively universal and abstract compared to a poem by John Clare. Poems can be as abstract as philosophy (symbolist poems), or as concrete as William Carlos Williams’ `Paterson’.

And in Search for a Method, Sartre condemns Marxists, philosophers and structuralists like Levi-Strauss who use abstract categories, undermining any argument. Sartre demanded historicity and concrete examples, hence his use of the novel form.

Sartre, Nausea

Sartre, Nausea

I think the more interesting difference is in what is produced rather than the process or area of the world addressed. Sidney recognised poetic genre but insisted that the true poet is not defined by the use of rhyme or verse, but by the images he makes. He was excited that the English word `poet’ derives from the Greek for `Maker’, noting the etymology, Poiein `to make’: `wherein, I know not whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks in calling him a “maker”.’ (As had Scaliger before him). George Puttenham begins his The Arte of English Poesie (pub 1589: `A Poet is as much to say as a maker. And our English name well conformes with the Greeke word: for of poiyin to make, they call a maker Poeta.’ Shelley took a similar view.

Poets are artists rather than philosophers in that they create original things in the world. `All philosophers (natural and moral) follow nature, but only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, does grow in effect into another nature.’ Sir Philip Sidney.

Poets make poems and poems are artefacts that float out of the poets possession and exist in the world as independent entities. Is this a useful distinction?