Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Meditation on Elegies by Seamus Heaney A PAPER BY PETER GEBHARDT

A paper by Peter Gebhardt read to the Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 23rd of April 2015

There is a sense in which all Heaney’s poetry is elegiac, in that it celebrates,
rejoices and embraces. Heaney’s poetry is a sustained series of acts of reciprocity for living, thankfulness for lives, gratitude for the words that
he could weave together. All his volumes are sprinkled with poems of dedication.

I want to concentrate on four elegies. Three of these are European poets who suffered under Eastern Europe’s repression.

In memoriam Francis Ledwidge
killed in France 31 July 1917

To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

From Out of this World
in memory of Czeslaw Milosz

in memory of Joseph Brodsky

I want to concentrate initially on Ledwidge. There is a small biography of him by Alice Curtayne. More specifically there is a small ‘Selected Poems’ introduced by Seamus Heaney and containing, at the rear, his elegy for Ledwidge. Ledwidge embodies all the conflicts and complexities of the Irish throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Back, also, to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

And, of course, long before there was the subjugation, the colonization of the country into the anglicized system of assimilation. No wonder, historically, so many Irish fled to Australia leaving behind famine and, as they hoped, the rigor mortis of the monarchy. Sadly the neo-colonists have brought new air to the deadening body.

“In you our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium.
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum……”

Strains, useless equilibrium, confusing drum – our dead enigma. A haunted Catholic face pallid and brave. And so the Easter Rising 1916 – one hundred years next year, and Ledwidge is in a British uniform as his very compatriots in uniform desecrate Dublin and murder the Irish leaders.

Lament for Thomas McDonagh

He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.

Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.

But when the Dark Cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

(In Barracks)
Francis Ledwidge

It’s when we turn to the Milosz elegy that we taste Heaney’s ambivalences about the Catholic Church, not about the spiritual, but the church as an institution which has done historically so much ill in Ireland and has been as guilty of subjugation and impoverishment as the English. Heaney was very fixed on the idea of the individual being capable of and free to make moral choices. You don’t have to read too many poems to find that imperative. At the same time the saturation of the Catholic faith upon his growing up is abundant.
“ There was never a scene
when I had it out with myself or with another.
The loss occurred off-stage. And yet I cannot
disavow words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’
or ‘communion bread’. They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down.”

Heaney loved wells. Who said it – “Truth lies at the bottom of a well”? Heaney’s poetry is riddled with ambivalences – historical, cultural, spiritual, personal and domestic. Resolution is never a formula. It’s all in the reading. Generous man, he takes you with him in the generosity of the special and unique voice. The digging, planting, ploughing voice.

“Our road is steaming the turned up
breath. Now the good life could be to cross
a field. And art a paradigm of earth
new from the lathe of ploughing.”

“Vowels ploughed into other open ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.”

He is a participant in the roll-over of life and devoutly wishes to have other participants if they so choose.

It is not surprising that Heaney wrote the elegies for three Europeans – Brodsky, Milosz and Herbert. The complexities and conflicts, the ambivalences and cross-currents of post-war European history mirror for Heaney the experiences of Ireland. He says this:

“In the course of this book, Mandelstam and other poets from
Eastern bloc countries are often invoked. I keep returning to
them because there is something in their situation that makes
them attractive to a reader whose formative experience has been
largely Irish. There is an unsettled aspect to the different worlds
they inhabit, and one of the challenges they face is to survive
amphibiously, in the realm of ‘the times’ and the realm of their
moral and artistic self-respect, a challenge immediately recognizable
to anyone who has lived with the awful and demeaning
facts of Northern Ireland’s history over the last couple of

Or is it legitimate to ask: why write elegies? Loss, of course, is one very good reason, but I think that there is more to it than that. Think of the great elegies – Lycidas (Milton), In Memoriam A.H.H. (Tennyson). There is an underlying continuity between the living and the dead that is animated and preserved. Further Heaney was a remarkably generous man. I know that having been a recipient of his generosity as a student (“A” for Poetry Workshop) and a guest in his Strand house.

Then there is, as clear from the poems chosen, a sense of similitude, a conjoint enterprise, that characteristic of sympathetic identification with
another’s life and works. And, above all, the preservation of the continuities of languages and voice. It is not simply anguish and tears at loss, but also, a celebration of those elements and values that make living joyous and embracing, and hope to make death so in its own way.

One of Heaney’s many and life-asserting attributes is his emphasis on hope, the surprise of hope. “Faith, hope and charity”. Hope is a very close relative
of faith.

Among the interesting critical texts to which I have had reference is by
Bernard O’Donoghue:

“On the face of it, these figures of the ‘unsaid’ and the
Inarticulate sound paradoxical in a book dedicated to the liberation
of the poetic voice. But Heaney’s poetic voice is, in a way,
one of Foster’s ‘professional intermediaries’, giving a voice to the
voiceless. After all, what elegy does is to give voice to the
terminally voiceless. There are two senses in which this book is
elegiac: first the obvious one, that it contains some of the finest
elegies in modern English poetry (in an area, incidentally, where
modern Irish poetry is particularly strong: for example, Longley,
Muldoon and Michael Davitt); but the book is elegiac, too, in its
homesickness for Ulster. The figure of the homesick Ulster poet,
Sweeney, has been in Heaney’s head throughout the 1970s, and
the translation of his deracinations will be his next literary project,
Sweeney Astray.
But the poet homesick for the North is already manifest in a
number of ways in Field Work: obviously in the vernacular usages
quoted above, all of which are as foreign to Southern Irish English
as they are to Standard English. But there is also a celebration of
Ulster consonantalism, of the kind quoted above from W.R.
Rodgers, especially in the poem ‘The Singer’s House’, written for
Heaney’s friend David Hammond, who is one of the best
Contemporary Ulster folksingers:
When they said Carrickfergus I could hear
the frosty echo of saltminers’ picks.”

What Heaney does show and tell us is that you have to work hard with the pen . A poem is not a spontaneous overflow. Words have, like lozenges, to be sucked for the very core of their meaning (grammatical, syntactical and etymological meaning). Shaping is like sculpting – hammer and tongs. Read “The Forge”, a poem of practical spirituality, a refutation of historical irrelevance and an acceptance of the community that has put an end to a blacksmith’s existence.

Heaney is a wonderfully embracing man who wants us all to be morally responsible and independent participants and sharers in an egalitarian society. He is, among other things, the poet of the demos, the Prospero of the kingdom of poetry whose revenge is directed at those who would deny poetry, relegate it, treat it as irrelevant, subjugate and deny the moral individuality of the person in the paddock or in the suburbs. His poetry was for everywhere and everyone not just for you and me.

Talking of stations, Henry Hart says,

“Where unambiguous assertions of faith issue from one militarized camp or another, a judicious ‘faults-on-both sides tact’ can be a politic alternative. Heaney takes an ethical stand against the self-righteous arrogance that destroys writers as well as nations. His ideal of organic unity provides a model for a democratic state in which different factions work in creative proximity, just as contrary sympathies do in his mind and poems. As the sequence of prose poems crosses back and forth between these differences, Heaney repeatedly returns on himself, bringing his highest hopes for peaceful coexistence down to earth for candid analysis and raising his deepest fears and biases up for lofty moral scrutiny. Doggedly self-reflexive, Heaney in Stations offers a spiritual and autobiography that amounts to a self-crucifixion. By stressing natural and supernatural analogues of his artistic development, he makes his story both biological and biblical and contributes an intriguing self-portrait to the many-roomed house of autobiographical fiction."

If you’d like to turn to a poem which is lyrical, pastoral and elegiac, you could do worse than read the redemptive “At a Potato Digging”. (in Death of a naturalist) This is an elegy for the victims of the 1845 famine. Or  “Requiem for the Croppies” (the Wexford boys with cropped hair) This latter poem was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. Heaney turns to 1798 as being the seed bed of the rising. Next year is, of course, the 100th anniversary. You can still see the bullet holes in Dublin.

Guinness stout

for Lieutenant Michael Malone,
shot in Dublin in his home on Anzac Day 1916

When you see the Guinness boiler-barrel rolling along.
Masquerading as something armoured and strong,
It is not difficult to know
That desperation always masks a bravado show.

Easter ushers  a new birth,
Sadly, always after death,
Here death won Michael Malone
Shot in his home all alone.

I was silenced by the shadowed plaque on the wall,
It’s only now I can engage in a puny recall.

Here we, too, remember the red, white and blue,
As we had once danced to that tune too,
As our bodies rolled into the Turkish turf,
Shot down riding a distant, different surf.

Peter Gebhardt

In preparing for this offering I have

had regard to the following:

Preoccupations, Selected Prose 1968-1978,
Seamus Heaney, Farrar Straus and Giroux,
New York, 1980

Seamus Heaney, Nell Corcoran, Faber
And Faber, 1986

Finders, Keepers, Seamus Heaney,
Selected Prose 1971-2001, Farrar
Straus and Giroux, paperback 2005

Professing Poetry, Seamus Heaney’s
Poetics, Michael Cavanagh,
Catholic University of America Press,
paperback reprint, 2010

Seamus Heaney and the Language
of Poetry, Bernard O’ Donoghue,
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994

Seamus Heaney, Poet of Contrary
Progressions, Henry Hart,
Syracuse University Press, New York, 1992

Saturday, 4 April 2015

‘The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language’ by Rowan Williams

This review by Philip Harvey first appeared in The Melbourne Anglican, April 2015

Language is one of the attributes of being human. The spoken, heard and written word singles us out within creation. But how we use language, and what we mean by our words, varies extravagantly and is not uniform. While language’s purpose would seem to be to make common sense, our own ways of using it are subtle, complex and artful. Also, we are the inheritors of the Tower of Babel.

Undeterred, Rowan Williams has written this set of Gifford lectures to help identify the many different ways we use words, and in particular that most vital of words, that in English is ‘God’. He quotes Michael Leunig admiringly: “The word ‘God’ cannot be grasped scientifically, rationally, or even theologically without it exploding. It can only be held lightly and poetically.” Williams then asserts that his book is a “phenomenology of explosions.”

Everyone with a vocabulary has a word for God. In our society, whether we are orthodox believers, fundamentalist ideologues, atheist ranters, secular humanists, or just like going surfing, we know what we mean by God. Whether we mean the same thing is another matter, which may be one of the reasons for Williams’ deeper interest in language use at this stage in his intellectual career.

The Archbishop has steeped himself in philosophy of language and neuroscience, so that we have here a handbook of all the important contemporary theories. His intention though is to find how they help us with our God-talk, starting with the brilliant, back-to-front question ‘does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?’

Rather than launching into yet another round of proofs for God, Williams is interested in how the challenge of speaking about God is the challenge of “referring appropriately to what is not an object among others or a definable substance that can be ‘isolated’ and examined.” There is a register to how we speak about God that is not routine in the way we speak about much else: it is disruptive, even eccentric. Speaking about God has this disruptive effect and in so doing challenges our understanding of finite being itself, i.e. the subject of all our discourse.

Can we say what we like? George Steiner speaks of the “protean stability” of our speech and Williams picks this up when talking about truth and falsehood, the fact that relatively little of what we say is descriptive, that we make things up, and even lie as means to an end. He puts forward the Augustinian reminder that it is only through grace that we recognise we are liars and can only cease to be so when we let go of the ‘ownership’ of our speech and “surrender to the language of confession, testimony to the beauty of God.”

We are used to metaphor, error, fiction, and untruth, and cannot imagine language free of these factors. By so doing we recognise that the world itself is not a fixed object but a series of invitations, that things are open to reworking and change. Whatever language we use it is time-related: “speech refuses to work with deadlines for final representation.” At every step Williams hints at the similarities between language and our ways of explaining God, at how the limits of our language search out for the “imagination of a universal consistency.” 

Elsewhere he talks of Meister Eckhart’s paradox that God is both the end of all naming as well as being that which is incapable of being named.

Rowan Williams wryly describes the argument of one of his sources as “prohibitively difficult” and his own style here is at the heavy-duty end of his writing manner, but the book rewards those with application and a love of language and its propensities. It grows with re-reading. Each case for language is lucidly explained in its own terms, then examined in highly creative ways for how it forwards our quest for ultimate meaning. At every turn he offers new ways of thinking about God.

One achievement of the lectures is its proposals for new ways of doing natural theology. Yet I look forward to other literary manifestations of these ideas in his meditations and poetry. One of my favourite sections is called ‘Excessive Speech’. Ambiguity, absence and other kinds of awareness in the world require us to reach for paradox, poetry and parable, in other words to be innovative with language outside of what might be thought normal forms of communication and expression. The pressures placed on language by poetic rules (rhyme, assonance, stress &c.) force meanings into the open and cause us to see things in a new way. (Williams’ explanation of the classical Welsh cynghanedd form here is a treat for the buff.) Language, he is telling us, is not just a leisure activity or a way of cataloguing objects, but is something “shaped by the fact of the body’s participation in the ‘action’ of the world.” This links in usefully with the habits of liturgical language and our need to speak from an understood location in time and space.

The parables of Jesus show us that language about God can be “carefully calculated shocks”. Williams points out that they are intended to embarrass us, even confessing it is hard to know how to give a sermon based on the Unjust Judge. Parables confront us with ourselves, challenging us anew to learn how to continue on the way. They are not final definitions but means to knowing more about God wherever we find ourselves. He goes further and says that the life of Jesus is a parable, one that we play out in narrative form in ritual and the church’s year.

His concluding chapter looks at silence, whether as the frame around language, the meaning that exists between the words, the place we find ourselves in when faced with suffering or wonder. This book is filled with sensitive considerations of the many-sidedness of language, only a few of which are mentioned in this review, but some of the most exact expressions of spiritual depth are found in this chapter. When he says we reach for something beyond the “chatter and buzz of egotistical self-reflection” we sense he is talking not just about God the Unsayable in silence, but about our constant world of language in the here and now.