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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Literary immunity: on pretentiousness

Fifteen years ago, John Bayley opened his short essay marking Seamus Heaney's 50th birthday (1) like this:

"Maurice Blanchot, the most pretentious if also at time the most suggestive of poet-type critics, has observed that la negation est liée au langage. A word is the memorial to what it signifies. Death is implicit in the distinction between sign and self. Clever, eh? Well, striking at least."

It is out-of-keeping with the rest of the essay which is a perceptive overview of Heaney's achievement, which is, according to Bayley, that Heaney's poetry in itself is able to "take cognizance"” of the distinction "between Romanticism – the spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings – and the much wider, more perennial notion of poetry as the Sprachgefühl of civilisation, the repository of intelligence, perception, personality, in its highest linguistic form."

Pretentious, lui?

Whatever, I tend to agree with the assessment. Bayley talks about Heaney’s strength in dealing with issues even after Blanchot’s "observation" has been accepted. So I wonder why Bayley distances himself from Blanchot with such haste? I know Anglo-American critics have always been afraid of appearing pretentious, even if they make use of the ideas of those who are not so afraid. Yet what is pretentious in Blanchot that is not in Bayley's impression that "[Heaney’s] poetry is continually aware that it does not live in its own area of discourse, but only visits it. His poetry is a pilgrimage to its own subject."?

Bayley contrasts Heaney’s "sophisticated, referential, and highly group-conscious verse" with poets who did not embrace the pretentions of Modernism, such as Philip Larkin, who, Bayley says, lived inside poetry "with the confidence born of total solitariness". This distinction seems to come from Bayley's assumption that Modernism's first lesson is "think before you write; study before you do so". It suggests that Larkin's poetry is more Romantic; more spontaneous than the more illustrious Irishman. Whereas for Heaney, death’s presence in language is a subject for "historic reverie in verse", for Larkin "death was a holy terror"” and affected the very possibility of writing poetry at all. This would mean that spontaneity would be the first freedom denied, which perhaps explains why Larkin published very little toward the end; there was no expression in poetry that had not also negotiated its way past the violence of language.

So while it is surely correct to say, as Bayley does, that Heaney lacks a "central emotional obsession that wells up in the verse of a Larkin", it would also be true to say that this welling up actually reaches its peak when Larkin faces language:

but why put it into words?
Isolate rather this element
That spreads through other lives like a tree
And sways them on in a sort of sense
And say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity
.

Love Again ends with subtle disgust with poetry's implication in the suffering it had expressed in the first part of the poem. The welling up here is detachment internalised to the degree that it becomes part of the "central emotional obsession"; the poet's inability to live fully is because he has lived only in literary negation; the violence done by words to life. In this way, Larkin wrote poems true to his experience, which is, I would say, the first lesson of Modernism: write true to your experience. Yet by 'experience' I mean the confrontation with that which takes you beyond your nature. Writing would then become a genuine challenge.

For a critic like Bayley, the implications of Larkin's poem and Blanchot's criticism, remains a tool of commentary, and thereby also a tool of marginalisation. But criticism should not be immune to what it discovers, just as Larkin's poem isn't (which is perhaps why he never published Love Again). Pretentious or not, Blanchot's criticism is not immune; this is why he is "a poet-critic type".


Note
1: In Agenda magazine Spring 1989

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