Carmen Bugan. 2013. Seamus Heaney and East European Poetry in Translation.
The older ESSE members will remember the portrait of Seamus Heaney on the cover of the Autumn 1991 issue of The English Messenger (I, 1), published in the wake of the inaugural ESSE Conference (Norwich, 4-8 September), at the very time when the USSR was going through the throes of its final collapse and the nations of Eastern Europe were in quick succession recovering their independence and sovereignty. When 10 years later Heaney appeared again on the front cover of our newsletter, the world had changed, and practically all the countries of the former Communist bloc had joined ESSE. For the Nobel laureate, however, the Iron Curtain, when still in place, was porous, and poetry from Eastern Europe had been filtering through, notably thanks to the magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, the Penguin Modern European Poets series, for which Al Alvarez was advisory editor, and Milosz's Postwar Polish Poetry (Penguin, 1970). Though "poetry is what gets lost in translation", as Robert Frost once famously declared, it is undeniable that Eastern-European poets were important to Seamus Heaney during the years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He was later to declare that their poetry "was at once and the same time a viaticum and a vade mecum. It was nurture, but it was also an injunction: it enjoined you to be true to poetry as a solitary calling, not to desert the post, to hold on at the crossroads where truth and beauty intersect." (1) The inspiration he drew from such exiled poets as Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, Czeslaw Milosz, and Zbigniew Herbert helped him to find and define his position as creative artist in relation to history and politics. Thanks to their example and guidance his own poetry succeeded in maintaining a balance between aesthetics and ethics, art and life, and it can be placed in the tradition of the Horatian arspoetica, being of the sort that equally "delights and instructs".
Though many critics have mentioned their influence, Carmen Bugan's monograph is the first to offer a detailed, in-depth study of Heaney's relationship with East European poets. The subject, by the way, appears to be gaining importance in Heaney studies with Magdalena Kay's In Gratitude for All the Gifts: Seamus Heaney and Eastern Europe (University of Toronto Press), duly given as forthcoming in Bugan's bibliography and now published. Bugan, however, started her own study of the subject as early as 2000, working at Balliol College, Oxford, on a doctoral thesis which she completed in 2004. When in late 2010 she set about to prepare it for publication the bibliography she had to take into account had been considerably augmented, and Stepping Stones had notably been published--that mammoth 524-page-long book of interviews given by Heaney to Dennis O'Driscoll (Faber, 2008).
The introduction is far from being merely perfunctory. It has plenty of substance. In it Bugan clearly exposes the need there was for the book she has written and highlights the fact that Heaney has come to consider the four exiled poets under study as members of a "poetic family" which, an "inner emigre" himself, he claims kinship with. Methodological questions are raised and key concepts, like that of influence, examined. The importance of biography in the working out of a poetics of exile is stressed, and a brief and lively account given of Heaney's personal, historical and literary background. Exile, in his case, was perhaps more metaphorical than physical, but it represents a special "stance towards life" which Bugan interestingly relates to the self-chosen exile of Stephen Dedalus, intent on forging "in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race".
The first of the four chapters, "Writing 'for the joy of it'", is devoted to Osip Mandelstam, by no means a contemporary of Heaney since, arrested and sent by Stalin to the gulag in 1938, he died in a transit camp near Vladivostok some four months before the Irish poet was born. He is, however, a major reference in Heaney's reflections upon the nature and role of poetry, singularly so in two important of his prose pieces: "Faith, Hope and Poetry" (Preoccupations) and "Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam" (The Government of the Tongue). In "Exposure", the concluding poem of North (1975), the poet accounts for his migration from Northern Ireland to Wicklow, in the Republic: now an inner emigre, but having regained his "inner freedom", he can weigh his "responsible tristia", and thus makes an explicit reference to Mandelstam's Tristia (1922) and to Ovid in exile from Rome. Of this poem and of its "complicated palimpsest-like intertextuality", Bugan gives an excellent and detailed analysis. She also convincingly shows that Sweeney, the exiled king from Sweeney Astray, is a sort of "portrait of the artist as an exile" and comments on the "Mandelstam--Sweeney--Heaney triad". Dante is another meeting ground for the two poets, both concerned with "phonetics and feelings", and they find in the poet "singing at his work in the dark wood of the larynx" a confirmation of the "diamond absolutes" of poetry. Heaney sees in Mandelstam "a furious devotion to the physical word, the etymological memory bank, the word as its own form and content", and this corresponds to his own emphasis upon the sensuality of language in lyric poetry, "the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion [...], the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza", as he puts it in his Nobel lecture, "Crediting Poetry" (1995). Listening to and trying to render "the music of what happens", Heaney professes "the pleasure and surprise of poetry, its rightness and thereness" in a way which to Bugan echoes Barthes's formulation of the pleasure of the text, of its orality--"the grain of the voice". But in Mandelstam, Heaney also finds an example of how a poet can remain free and at the same time "bound to the crowd", and relate the Keatsian notions of truth and beauty to the violence of tumultuous history. Heaney's stance as a poet and his poetics of exile are confirmed in Station Island, when what Bugan calls "the compound ghost of Joyce and Mandelstam" tell him to go on his own: "The main thing is to write/for the joy of it."
Though Russian like Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky's is a totally different case. He was almost the exact contemporary of Heaney and, having run afoul of the Soviet authorities, he spent years of "internal exile" near Archangel in Northern Russia. He was eventually banished from the country in 1972 and soon settled in the United States where, already famous as a dissident and a cause celebre among literary circles, he was to make a very successful career as a poet and academic. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and installed in 1991 as United States Poet Laureate. The first coincidence to be noted is that 1972 is also the year of Heaney's self-chosen migration from Northern Ireland to the Republic and the year both poets met for the first time. They were later to become close personal friends. But why is this second chapter entitled "'Audenesque': Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky"? And why is Bugan trying very hard to demonstrate that Auden-Brodsky-Heaney constitutes a significant poetic triad? Of course we know that among the English poets Brodsky read during his exile, Auden, MacNeice and Spender became his "mental family", and that he was warmly supported by Auden when he arrived in America. But the true answer is to be found in another, more exceptional, coincidence: Brodsky died of a heart attack on 28 January 1996, exactly the same day as W. B. Yeats in January 1939. "Audenesque" (the word was first used by Gavin Ewart in 1930) is the elegy Heaney wrote "in memory of Joseph Brodsky" with explicit reference to Auden's famous lament "In Memory of W. B. Yeats", using in "Quatrain by constrained quatrain" the same trochaic beat as Auden in the third section of his own poem. Bugan implicitly argues that Heaney's "Brodskian stance", keeping poetry and politics strictly apart (Brodsky once declared that all they had in common was the "p" and the "o"), is the same as the one he learned from Auden who, after the "low dishonest decade" of the political Thirties, developed a form of "po-ethics" in America. Brodsky and Auden are to be viewed as kindred spirits, sources of inspiration for Heaney, who have helped Heaney to find for himself his sense of artistic freedom and responsibility to the language. "The proper concern of art", he writes, "is with the naming of things rather than with the espousal of causes." What the poem is about is more a matter of "the erotics of language" than the "politics and polemics" of the moment. To be noted--the long and remarkable analysis Bugan gives of Heaney's work on the medieval Irish of Buile Suibhne, and of how he finally freed himself from the "political extensions" related to the matter of Ulster and reached a sort of "verbal asceticism" in the final version of Sweeney Astray.
After Mandelstam and Brodsky, both Russian, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) is the first of the two Polish poets whose influence is examined next. Heaney's first contact with Milosz' poetry was in 1973, when the latter's Selected Poems were published, translated into English. By that time, the Lithuanian-born Polish poet was already settled in California, teaching Slavic languages at Berkeley. He had known and survived German occupation in Warsaw, served the new Communist regime for some years as Cultural attache in Paris and Washington, and defected to the West in 1951. Later to become a US citizen and to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, he was for Heaney a formidable example, "the greatest [poet] alive among us today", "a Giant at [his] Shoulder". From him he learned "How to be a responsible poet" (the title of Bugan's third chapter), how to balance the jouissance of language and the historical realities of his community, aesthetic and public obligations, the pleasure of poetry and the "[d]urable, obstinate notions" of truth and history. Rejecting Adorno's dictum that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric", Milosz showed that a poet could serve both language and the people, and though it would be absurd to compare post-1969 Northern Ireland with pre-1989 Eastern Europe it is certain that Heaney's poetics of exile owes a lot to the man who felt "stretched between contemplation [.] and the command to participate actively in history", so much so that the sentence is integrated by Heaney into one of his poems of Station Island.
The life of Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was marked by the experience of Nazi occupation in Lwow, followed by the imposed Stalinist aesthetics of Socialist Realism. The poet's response was to remain silent, and silence (no book of his was published before the 1956 thaw), as he puts it in "The Power of Taste", was his own metaphoric exile: "the princes of our senses proudly chose exile." He later travelled extensively in the West, but never broke away from his native Poland. To Heaney, Herbert is a "keeper of civilization" in the way the Irish poet declares, in his Preface to Finders Keepers, that "poets themselves are finders and keepers [...], discoverers and custodians of the unlooked for". Herbert is not only a "citizen of the earth" and an inheritor of civilization, but as Heaney writes in "Atlas of Civilization" a man who "shoulders the whole sky and scope of human dignity and responsibility", and keeps "a trustworthy poetic canopy, if not a perfect heaven, above our vulnerable heads". From Heaney's "A Daylight Art", Bugan draws the second key notion of Socrates' "examined life". For Herbert poetry must "salvage out of the catastrophe of history at least two words [.]: justice and truth", and his work is a "twentieth-century poetic version of the 'examined life'". Although by temperament Heaney is first and foremost a lyrical poet, the seriousness of Herbert's poetics of responsibility has admittedly played a part in the shaping of his "stance towards life". And so he joins Mandelstam, Brodsky and Milosz who, along with Auden, Walcott, Kavanagh and Yeats, constitute Heaney's "poetic family".
This is a very good book, a massively and precisely documented scholarly study, written by someone who has a consummate knowledge of her subject. Carmen Bugan obviously put her heart and soul into it, and there are at least two reasons for this. She is a poet herself, with a first collection of poems, Crossing the Carpathians (Oxford Poets, 2004) and a second, The House of Straw, ready to be published. And she knows what she is talking about with the notion of poetics of exile: she was born in Romania in 1970, and she and her family emigrated to the USA as political dissidents in 1989, just before the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. In 2012 she published Burying the Typewriter, a memoir about growing up in Romania, which has been widely reviewed and highly praised. In more ways than one she too deserves to belong to Heaney's "poetic family".
p.s. At the time when this review of Carmen Bugan's book was written, there was no knowing that Seamus Heaney was going to die. He died in a Dublin hospital on 30 August. In the tribute he paid to his father at the funeral service, in Donnybrook, Dublin, Michael Heaney reported that the poet's last few words were a text message sent to his wife Marie minutes before he died, and they read: '"Noli timere', don't be afraid. " He is buried in his home village of Bellaghy, in the same graveyard as his parents and other members of his family. (A.H.)
(1) Dennis O'Driscoll, 1997. Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. London: Faber, 297.
Universite Lumiere-Lyon 2, France
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|Publication:||European English Messenger|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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