These two collections of critical essays are by writers whose principal work is poetry. Robert Pinsky, who was born in 1940 in Long Branch, New Jersey, has written three full-length books of verse. Seamus Heaney, who was born in 1939 in County Deny, Ireland, has written eight. As one might expect, nearly all of the pieces in these two volumes are devoted to poetry. Heaney’s subjects include the verse of W. H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Osip Mandelstam; Pinsky offers essays on William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, George Oppen, and Seamus Heaney. Pinsky’s book also contains a few memoir-essays, which, like those in Preoccupations (1980), Seamus Heaney’s earlier collection of critical essays, enlarge upon the poet’s critical position. What unites Heaney and Pinsky as critics is an overriding concern with the relationship between art and life.

There is a distinct critical ambivalence running through Pinsky’s book, and it is perhaps best seen in the title essay. In this piece, Pinsky contrasts imaginative literature, which offers “a kind of metaphysical . . . hope, a sense of possibility” with our experience of the world, which tends to deny such hope. (The phrase “a kind of metaphysical hope, a sense of possibility” is used to describe an Isaac Babel story, “An Evening at the Empress’s,” but Pinsky has it stand for the metaphysical potentialities of all literature.) Acknowledging both despair and hope—hope understood here as the desire to persist in the face of calamities—is crucial for Pinsky. He argues that, in poetry especially, the attempt to go beyond worldly circumstances is less effective without the presence, in the poem, of some gritty reality; but any reflection of the world’s harshness that lacks an imaginative sense of possibility will lose some of its force. Hence Pinsky’s admiration for the note of hope in a Babel story that takes place during the Russian Revolution; and his approval of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, in which he perceives an acknowledgement of the “urgencies of the communal [i.e., worldly] realm.”

This dual outlook is nothing new for Pinsky.

This dual outlook is nothing new for Pinsky. One focus of his 1976 study, The Situation of Poetry, was what he described in that book as “the place of the human imagination in a world unlike itself.” The ambivalence that marks this early book is often the result of the paradoxical desire to honor the imagination (which can distort reality) and the world (which can muzzle the imagination). Thus, after making a case for a verse of unironic, unambiguous statement (spoken truly, i.e., from the heart), Pinsky asserts: “One need not reject all poems which are dramatic and figurative in conception in order to admire [confessional poems] for its being personal and literal.”

A similar ambiguity can be discerned in much of Pinsky’s own poetry, which is collected in Sadness and Happiness (1975 ), An Explanation of America (1979), and History of My Heart (1984). Though in The Situation of Poetry Pinsky dismisses a poem by Robert Creeley, a disciple of Pound and Williams, for being written in language “so chastened that it seems to aspire to some kind of non-language,” some of Pinsky’s own poems rely on a similar directness. “A Long Branch Song,” for example, from History of My Heart, owes much to the spirit of Williams:

Some days in May, little stars
Winked all over the ocean. The blue
Barely changed all morning and afternoon. The chimes of the bank’s bronze clock;
The hoarse voice of Cookie, hawking
The Daily Record for thirty-five years.

In presenting this slice of reality, Pinsky allows himself just one metaphor and no symbols. Yet this realistic poem about Pinsky’s New Jersey hometown is juxtaposed with the less real, more poetic beauty of the poem “Ralegh’s Prizes,” which begins: “And Summer turns her head with its dark tangle/ All the way toward us; and the trees are heavy . …”

Pinsky’s ambivalence is even visible within a single poem. In “Memorial,” from An Explanation of America, the poet remembers the dead in a series of emotional and intellectual checks and balances:

(J.E. and N.M.S.)

Here lies a man. And here, a girl. They live
In the kind of artificial life we give

To birds or statues: imagining what they feel,
Or that like birds the dead each had one call,

Repeated, or a gesture that suspends
Their being in a forehead or the hands.

A man comes whistling from a house. The screen
Snaps shut behind him. Though there is no man

And no house, memory sends him to get tools
From a familiar shed, and so he strolls

Through summer shade to work on the family car.
He is my uncle, and fresh home from the war,

With little for me to remember him doing yet.
The clock of the cancer ticks in his body, or not,

Depending if it is there, or waits. The search
Of memory gains and fails like surf. . . .

The poem begins with the fact of death: “Here lies a man. And here, a girl.” This blunt statement is immediately qualified, however, by the phrase “They live . . .” at the end of the first line. This shift is itself modified in the next line by a reference to “the kind of artificial life we give.” The sense of distance from the dead is reinforced in the next four lines, in which the poet declares that all he can do by way of remembrance is to imagine “what [the dead] feel,” or call upon imagery to invoke this imagined feeling, or invent a “gesture that suspends/ Their being in a forehead or the hands.” These sentiments leave us with a profound sense of the inadequacy of poetry; and yet there follows an apparently successful appeal to memory: “A man comes whistling from a house.” Memory is no sooner invoked, however, than it is revealed to be something of a fraud: “. . . there is no man/And no house . . . . ” Despite this, the remembered man is sent “to get tools/From a familiar shed” so he can stroll “[t]hrough summer shade to work on the family car.” The poet then identifies the man: “He is my uncle, and fresh home from the war.” This emotional peak is quickly deflated by the revelation of another of memory’s flaws: that there is in fact “little for me to remember him doing yet.” This switch leads to another equivocation: “The clock of the cancer ticks in his body, or not . . . .” The next image is of memory—it “gains and fails like surf”—which is also a metaphor for the poem itself.

Only the first half of “Memorial” has been quoted, but its process of gaining and failing continues to the end. There is a playful spirit here; yet the goal, which is to scrutinize the procedures of both the memory and the intellect, is serious. Such relentless questioning may not be appropriate for all the subjects of poetry, but it seems justified in this case. At any rate, it is not Pinsky’s intention to undermine memory or metaphor completely; he simply hopes to show how misleading and presumptive they can be. In The Situation of Poetry, apropos some poems by Robert Lowell, Pinsky laments "how the dead possess our remembering, the small good it does them.” Pinsky’s possession of the dead in “Memorial” doesn’t do much for them either; but it does help give shape to the quandary the dead have created for the poet.

Pinsky goes to commendable lengths in The Situation of Poetry to strike a balance between the hopeful and despairing (i.e., the imaginative and realistic) aspects of poetry. Near the end of the book, however, he praises the verse of Frank Bidart in a way that almost capsizes such a balanced view. Much of Bidart’s poetry is as mortifyingly unpleasant as “realistic” poetry tends to get; it lacks what Pinsky calls, in the title essay of his new book, the requisite “decorum” or “limiting boundary” of the transforming poetic imagination. It would seem that Pinsky has momentarily surrendered to the side of unvarnished realism.

It is interesting in this connection to note that in “T. S. Eliot: A Memoir,” from the new book, Pinsky recalls how his youthful mix of submission and resistance to Eliot (Pinsky refers to his early Eliot imitations as “allusive rubbish”) has evolved into a solid respect. Pinsky once perceived Eliot as too wrapped up in art, too symbol-choked; what he now admires in Eliot is what he finds so appealing in Bishop and Babel: the attempt to embrace both “the inward and outward life, the life of experience and of some imaginary ideal.” Pinsky finds in Eliot’s verse “the clangorous, barely-harmonized bringing together of the sacred and the profane.” He then continues:

Because he identified and penetrated this dualism in the rhythms and noises and smells and surfaces of modern life, without simplifying what he saw into false ideas of squalor or perfection, Eliot remains entirely essential for us.

Bidart’s poetry is riddled with “false ideas of squalor” even if it looks as if Pinsky is himself nowadays less tempted by it.

This slight but significant shift, from assenting (occasionally) to a poetry of flat realism to hardly ever assenting to it, can also be inferred from the essay entitled “Responsibilities of the Poet.” Here Pinsky criticizes Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” in which O’Hara implores the “Mothers of America” to send their sons to the afternoon movies so that they may be preyed upon by homosexuals lurking in the dark. The poem, Pinsky writes, is “irresponsible,” “repugnant,” “unacceptable,” “regrettable,” and a “violation of social boundaries.” This is one of the few times in Poetry and the World when Pinsky repeats himself, but the repetition is justified, given that in some dark theater of an English department there lurks a deconstructionist who will attempt to defuse O’Hara’s poem. The poet’s “need to answer [the world] by transforming is primary,” Pinsky declares in the same essay. There isn’t enough “transforming” of reality in O’Hara’s poem; it remains totally hostage to the poet’s private fantasy world; it therefore does not succeed as verse.

In a memoir entitled “Salt Water,” Pinsky traces his interest in poetry’s “dual concern, bodily and conceptual,” to his early years in Long Branch.

In a memoir entitled “Salt Water,” Pinsky traces his interest in poetry’s “dual concern, bodily and conceptual,” to his early years in Long Branch. The rupture between poetry and the world that Pinsky would later place at the center of his work was prefigured by the gulf between the inwardly focused boy and the social world around him. Another intimation of this split was to be found in Pinsky’s Jewish family, which was characterized by opposites: a certain “cerebral timidity,” on the one hand, and the “thuggish swank” of Pinsky’s bootlegging, pugilistic grandfather, on the other. In the final essay of the book, “Some Passages of Isaiah,” Pinsky also reflects on his grandfather’s rough, bawdy appeal, which was tempered by the synagogue’s pure “colorless light of observance.” Perhaps the most memorable contrast is between the restricting provinciality of the small town and the adventurous possibility of the open sea. Those “dangerous, productive waters,” Pinsky writes, suggest “so much of heroic risk or gaudy pleasure that the imagination is nudged by [their] presence in extravagant directions.”

These are Pinsky’s autobiographical versions of Babel’s vision of hope in a world of pain: take away the seedy shore town, after all, and the ocean’s appeal is diminished. The same may be said of poetry, the transformations of which are less compelling without a vivid sense of what has been transformed.

And yet it is not only Pinsky’s poetry that benefits from an infusion of life; his critical observations benefit as well. His claim to freedom as a poet, in the essay “Form and Freedom,” is persuasive in part because the reader is convinced (after reading Poetry and the World) that the sentiment is the fruit not only of thought but of lived experience:

I am claiming that my idea of learned culture in general, and the rhythms of English poetry in particular, as modes of freedom, comes from inside me. I feel convinced that it is not merely or simply an ideology assimilated by the upward-striving, English-speaking descendent of ambitious steerage immigrants from Eastern Europe. Though I know what is meant by “control” in a work of art, and respect the idea, my main response to the idea of control is that it is something external, from which the artist profits by resisting it. Control is not the same as form.

The tension between art and life—between “Song and Suffering,” in Seamus Heaney’s phrase—is also the central thread in Heaney’s latest book of essays, The Government of the Tongue. It is tempting to assert that Heaney, who taught at Queens University in Belfast until 1972, comes by his obsession with the life side of the equation (“Suffering”) more involuntarily than Pinsky, given the violence Heaney has experienced firsthand. (In a 1971 essay, reprinted in Preoccupations, Heaney wrote of how the residents of Belfast “survive explosions and funerals and live on among families of the victims, those blown apart and those in cells apart.”) Ironically, however, as willing as Heaney is to admit the inclusion of “Suffering” in poetry, he is almost always an equally strong proponent of “Song”—what he calls, in the book’s first essay, the “untrammeled,” “joyful affirmation of music.” He doesn’t deny that telling the bitter truth about real events can be of some social use; but he realizes that such acts tend to dull the poet’s imagination. Thus, as respectful as Heaney is, in the first essay, of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry—he acknowledges its “moral substance”—he seems to be more impressed with Osip Mandelstam’s private, symbolical, “self-justifying” poetry. What he especially likes about the kind of poetry Mandelstam wrote is that it is, as Heaney writes in another essay, “its own vindicating force,” the expression of which “verif[ies] our singularity . . . [in the face of] the brutality of the historical onslaught.”

In only a few of the essays of The Government of the Tongue does Heaney state explicitly that poetry is best when left unstained by political rhetoric. For Heaney, politics are not the only enemies of the poetic imagination. They are only the most visible. To write of any of the objects of the world without taking aesthetic control of them and imaginatively transforming them is, for Heaney, to impose a straitjacket on the poet’s sensibility. Thus his admiration for the later poems of Patrick Kavanagh is explained by what Heaney calls the “sites where the mind projects its own force.” These later poems, he maintains, have a “visionary intent” and “spiritual daring” that distinguish them from Kavanagh’s early realistic verse, which, in Heaney’s view, lacked the poet’s own visionary presence. “What is important,” writes Heaney of Kavanagh’s later work, “is not so much that the world is there to be celebrated, more that the poet is at hand to proceed with the celebration.”

In the essay on Philip Larkin, entitled “The Main of Light,” Heaney focuses on that part of the poet’s oeuvre—admittedly small—in which Larkin momentarily stops reveling in the meanness of middle-class English life and lets his imagination soar. “[T]here survives in [Larkin],” observes Heaney, in what is no doubt a candidate for one of the best sentences ever written on the poet, “a repining for a more crystalline reality to which he might give allegiance.” Similarly, what excites Heaney in Derek Walcott’s poetry are those moments when the poet “modulate[s] to the visionary.” “The best poems in The Star-Apple Kingdom” observes Heaney, “are dream visions; the high moments are hallucinatory, cathartic, redemptive even.”

What Heaney rejoices in, in short, is a poet’s resistance to a world that continually threatens to smother him with a blanket of ideology and facts—including biographical facts. In the essay called “The Indefatigable Hoof-taps: Sylvia Plath,” Heaney remarks that a “poem like ‘Daddy’. . . [is] so entangled in biographical circumstances and rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy.

But more hazardous than autobiographical facts, perhaps, are political ones.

But more hazardous than autobiographical facts, perhaps, are political ones. Much of the verse of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub, Heaney remarks, “has in it all the worn-down truth-to-life of the disillusioned man.” Yet even this disenchanted, politically saturated writer reserves for himself and his readers those moments when “the kaleidoscopic glamour of chemical process” intervenes and politics are left in the dust. Although what Heaney labels the “bounded condition” of life in Eastern Europe often results in a verse “too skeptical to be entranced,” this restricted state also paradoxically “makes [Holub] all the more anxious to preserve his inner freedom.” Heaney is particularly eloquent on Holub because Holub’s dilemma would seem to reflect his own. It is a dilemma that could be described this way: how does one manage to pursue a “poetry of inner freedom” when it is incumbent upon the poet to respond to political events with the appropriate rhetoric? Heaney also may be writing half-autobiographically when he notes, in an essay on Auden, that Walter Raleigh’s sonnet to his son was “written . . . under the shadow of public danger.”

The Czeslaw Milosz poem that Heaney discusses in “The Impact of Translation” forgoes any and all “visionary intent.” Instead, there is a great deal of “unembarrassed didacticism,” “speech truths we had assumed to be previous to poetry,” and the wish to “deliver what we had once long ago been assured it was not any poem’s business to deliver: a message”—all elements that would normally add up to a poem to which Heaney could never grant his assent. Yet Heaney does admire it; he locates the reason for his admiration in an extra-literary consideration:

It counted for much that this poem was written by somebody who had resisted the Nazi occupation of Poland and had broken from the ranks of the People’s Republic after the war and paid for the principle and pain of all that with a lifetime of exile and self-scrutiny. The poem, in fact, is a bonus accruing to a life lived in the aftermath of right and hurtful decisions. . . .

What Heaney seems to be suggesting in this remarkable quotation is that, if you are a poet, you had better have an unassailable reason for suspending the individual, imaginative side of your work. This lesson, if indeed it can be extracted from Heaney’s words, would probably apply particularly well to American poets, politically the world’s most indulged, so many of whom desperately seek extraordinary events to respond to in the manner of a Milosz or an Owen. The price of writing in what Heaney refers to as a “civil tongue . . . is a certain diminution of language’s autonomy, a not uncensorious training of its wilder roots.” As Heaney strongly implies, the only excuse for such a severe form of poetic self-denial is an overpowering political catastrophe.

All this having been said, however, it should be noted that Heaney is no extraterrestrial aesthete cut off from life’s rich and varied pulse. Like the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, whose “‘chanting of the air’” does not, as Heaney writes, “extend so far as to constitute a betrayal of the human subject,” Heaney’s defense of “Song” in no way diminishes his attachment to the world. What invigorates Zbigniew Herbert as a poet—and here, too, Heaney could easily be writing about himself—is a willingness to be “thrown back upon his native earth.”

A “brusque domestic approach,” which keeps the writer “close to the grain of the ordinary,” is what also enhances the poetry of Osip Mandelstam for Heaney. Mandelstam’s observation, in Journey to Armenia—quoted by Heaney in the essay on Osip and Nedezhda Mandelstam—shows just how much the Russian poet, whose greatest fidelity was to a highly metaphysical art, could learn from those who felt an aversion to it:

The Armenians’ fullness with life [Mandelstam wrote], their rude tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to anything metaphysical and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all of this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.

Perhaps the fact that a poet as devoted to the imagination and to literary art as Mandelstam could be so moved by “the world of real things” emboldened Heaney to place at the center of his own poetry and prose an identical, and paradoxical, embrace of both “Song and Suffering.”

In the criticism of both Seamus Heaney and Robert Pinsky we are in a world of constant shifts, as both poets move between distraction and disintoxication, between the uncanny and the real, between the rhythms of the mind and the furniture of life. Heaney’s remark about Herbert is something with which Pinsky (and most of us, in fact) would probably find applicable to all true poets: he “is constantly wincing in the jaws of a pincer created by the mutually indifferent intersections of art and life.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 10, on page 68
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