Sir, - Desmond Fennell (March 18th) asks me to quote or "fairly paraphrase" what he wrote about Seamus Heaney in his pamphlet Whatever you say, say nothing - Why Seamus Heaney is No. 1. Perhaps you might give me space to do this?
He begins with a quotation from Alan Bold in Marxism Today, which sets the tone and the agenda for the rest: "Eliot is, in my opinion, a greater poet because his poems, finally, say more about the human condition than Owen's do."
With poetry encapsulated thus, he turns his attention to Heaney's oeuvre. With a keen eye for poetry as commercial enterprise, Heaney sold his poetry in an American marketplace, Fennell says. The Irish were never consulted when the Nobel Prize was being orchestrated for Heaney on the East Coast of America. There was a correspondence between New England prudishness and Heaney's taciturnity: "this world of theory, especially on the East Coast, accommodated his kind of poetry. If it wanted puritanism, the cool chastity, emotional restraint and guilty introspection of his work supplied it." Heaney's job as poet is "clear light thrown on the human condition, or a voice raised memorably to exhort, decry, console or celebrate".
"What good is poetry to people?" Fennell asks. "This, naturally, raises questions which will not go away. What good to people is this goodness of poetry? Has poetry, has the puritan lyric, any intelligible social function, and if so what? How can the poet who 'says nothing', and leaves the world in darkness, do good socially? In a civilisation which prides itself on its social concern and its democratic culture, these are pointed questions. They concern Seamus Heaney, not least because he would like to believe that his work does good to people, and in particular to those Six-County Irish whom he keeps looking back at over his shoulder and feeling guilty about."
Fennell imposes his view of what poetry is or should be and takes issue with what he believes to be Heaney's view of the poet's role:
"Heaney seems to me to envisage the poet's beneficent social action on the analogy of the monk in an enclosed religious order, who, Catholics believe, helps to atone for the world's evil - to assist Christ in the world's redemption - by his detachment from the world, his chastity, and above all his life of meditation and prayer. Heaney's repeated injunction that the poet must reflect the affairs of the contemporary world in his poetry - but in his own way and without intervening - corresponds to the monk's promise, much prized by the faithful when they receive it, that he will 'remember' or 'include' their worldly concerns and 'intentions' in his prayer.
"Given belief in God, in the efficacy of prayer, and in the sincerity of the monk's dedication, it is easy, and indeed logical, to believe that, through the processes of the spiritual economy, the monk's prayer effects good in the world, atones for evil, stays the punishing hand of God. It is not so easy to believe that, with no part in it for God or a spiritual economy managed by Him, a man of no proven virtue, perhaps even a bad man, effects social redress - corrects the world's imbalances - by meditating and delivering verses which 'contain the coordinates of the surrounding reality'."
Fennell is saying to Heaney: if you think you can get away with an irrelevant poetry of mutism which says nothing at all by persuading your friends in Oxford and Harvard that you are really a monk performing meaningful rites in the sanctuary, then I'm going to blow your cover. "In short, the poet par excellence becomes a sort of ruminating, groaning shaman, delivering oracles which his academic acolytes interpret to the students within the temple and the heedless multitude beyond the gates." This is charlatanism and/or hypocrisy, says Fennell - and don't quote Simone Weil at him as role model because "Simone Weil was a mystic whose mysticism was intellectually disciplined by Christian Doctrine". Here we have "a man of no proven virtue, perhaps even a bad man" (is this not "hectoring about religious belief and moral life"?)
If this is not what Desmond Fennell is saying, then let him disabuse me. If it is what he is saying then it can hardly be described as either "measured" or "humane" and it is part of what I am decrying in my book The Haunted Inkwell both as an understanding of poetry and as an assessment of Seamus Heaney. - Yours, etc.,
MARK PATRICK HEDERMAN,