The preeminent regionalist.
THE RETROSPECT AS PROSPECT: SEAMUS HEANEY'S REGIONS
UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME PRESS, 2014
RICHARD RANKIN RUSSELL'S Seamus Heaney's Regions has the advantage of being the first comprehensive book published on the great poet's body of work since his death. As such it offers the reader the possibility of a broad retrospective of this essential poet's work, as well as the opportunity to formulate a new prospect on Heaney poetry, critical prose, and plays.
As Wordsworth said, "Archimedes said that he could move the world if he had a point whereon to rest his machine. Who has not felt the same aspiration as regards the world of his own mind?" In his early prose poem "The Unacknowledged Legislator's Dream," Heaney ruefully parodies Wordsworth's aspiration even as the poems of North collectively seek imaginative leverage into and over what Heaney elsewhere called the "Ulster of the mind." From this perspective, one can read Heaney's project in North and in his early work as a plumbing of his artistic, psychic, and complex cultural inheritance, a radical inquiry into the local, regional, and the historical as a way of making passage to the global.
Heaney's work over some nearly forty years before his death in August 2013 at the relatively young age of seventy-four, still in harness to his art, should be read as something more than an elaboration of early themes--it is fair to say that in the poems from Field Work onward to Human Chain Seamus Heaney continued to master "new rungs of the air" beyond the home ground without ever losing touch with that ground. That paradox forms the central dynamic axis of Heaney's oeuvre, the imaginative warp drive that conditioned and positioned and repositioned the restless machine of his work and his consciousness and endowed both simultaneously with intimacy and vantage.
As his title announces, Russell's critical and theoretical sightline into Heaney's work is through the lens of regionalism. "Notions of the region," as Russell affirms in his introduction, "lie at the heart of his concept of poetry, but also his understanding of politics, culture, and spirituality." There are three key sources for the decision to frame Heaney's work through the lens of "regionalism." The first is Heaney himself, in his important essay "The Regional Forecast." Heaney's persistent concern with matters of place and displacement in Northern Ireland, in Ireland generally, and in other locales from Scotland, Jutland, Britain, and Greece, both ancient and modern, elaborate this source. Heaney's home region of Ulster remains Russell's focus throughout most of the book, though he ventures to apply the concept more broadly to what he calls "the spiritual region."
The second is the importance of the idea of the regional, and its politically and historically contentious nature, for Northern Ireland itself, especially through John Hewitt's conception of the subject which exerted an influence on Heaney but which Heaney likewise found limiting if not exclusionary. Russell also helpfully places what he calls Heaney's regionalism in the context of the regionalisms of other poets, among them principally Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Edwin Muir, Sorley MacLean, and to a lesser extent Robert Frost.
The third source of Russell's approach arises from regionalism having become a focus in recent literary theory. Clearly he draws from theorists whose work supports his own assumption that Heaney's regionalism developed over decades during which time it accrued "an imaginative, propulsive character." In this way, Russell seeks to position regionalism as the leveraging theoretical machine that would enable us to view Heaney's entire imaginative project from a newly incisive and encompassing perspective. The danger of the approach is to limit Heaney to the idea of the regional writer when he is obviously a writer of world-class standing, or at least to delimit the passage of Heaney's work beyond its initial center in the home ground, the region as "original point" as he defines it in "The Regional Forecast." The advantage is to give Heaney's readership broader access to the seminal context of regionalism for his work. In Seamus Heaney's Regions, Russell's regional retrospect aims to visualize a global prospect.
In building his case for viewing Heaney's work as preeminently regionalist in conception and the basis for its eventual global scope, Russell offers keen insights into the development of Northern Irish regionalism over the course of the twentieth century with particular attention paid not only to John Hewitt, but also to Robert Gracen and Heaney's early mentor Michael McClaverty. The discussion provides a useful and important context for Heaney's work. Even more considerable is Russell's treatment of Heaney's early BBC broadcasts such as his "Explorations" radio script, which was broadcast on May 1, 1968. Russell makes a strong case for seeing these broadcasts, particularly the dramatic pieces, as important harbingers of Heaney's later plays, especially The Cure at Troy. They also provide a helpful context for the poetry, beyond the usual discussion of Heaney's rural background and his early days as a young poet in Belfast with Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and the other members of The Belfast Group. Central to the discussion is Russell's focus on Heaney's efforts to negotiate the volatile political situation of Ulster as well as his complex sense of Catholic and regional identity.
Russell takes pains to place Heaney's widely commented upon sense of place within the broader context of other regional writers. His discussion of Heaney's essays on Kavanagh, Montague, MacCaig, MacDiarmud, Hughes, Larkin, and Frost further establish the broader context for seeing Heaney as a writer for whom the region of Northern Ireland is the necessary starting point for the evolution of his work and thought. It is important for Russell to read Heaney's prose as more than a sidelong commentary on his own poetry. Rather, he seeks to read Heaney's prose, rather, in its own right as part of the poet's evolving project. Michael Cavanaugh's Professing Poetry: Seamus Heaney's Poetics (2010) does just this to a much more substantial degree, and through Seamus Heaney's Regions Russell appears to break with his own directive and uses Heaney's own masterful critical insights as vantages into the work. The fact is, of course, that the poetry, the prose, and the plays are all part of Heaney's singular project and achievement. Not to view Heaney's prose in dialogue with his poetry and plays is to settle into a dubious binary, a questionable distinction.
One other area where Russell might have probed further is in his discussion of Heaney's "religious understanding of his countryside where he grew up," which forms in his view, "an essential component of [Heaney's] rural regionalism." Despite the essential place religion holds in Heaney's entire imaginative project from its earliest expressions, the discussion of the importance of religion for his sense of place in his prose and poetry is given rather thin treatment and insufficient critical context here. That said, the first few chapters of Seamus Heaney's Regions do manifest a depth and breadth of scholarship that enables Russell to build out a portrait of Heaney's work vitally within the regionalist paradigm.
Russell's keen scholarly abilities likewise afford his subsequent chapters on Heaney's poetry during the seventies in Wintering Out and North and in the prose poems of Stations. The same is true of his discussion of the "independent regionalism" of An Open Letter, and the Northern Irish context of The Cure at Troy. Both of these chapters offer archival readings and incisive juxtapositions (such as a discussion of Heaney's "Linen Town" in context of his verse play Munro, discussed in an earlier chapter) that provide added nuance to poems that have already received substantial critical attention over the years.
Other critics have discussed the bog poems in Wintering Out and North that go deeper into the volatile imaginative nexus of Heaney's investigations in these volumes, but Russell's attentive readings remind us of the regional context and sources from which the poet drew and in which the work established its urgency and idiom. Russell's expansive examination of Heaney's sonnet "Strange Fruit" and its connections to the American Civil Rights Movement--Heaney titled the poem after the song made famous by Billie Holiday--is particularly strong, and demonstrates how the regional imagination optimally ventures into transnational territories beyond its defining borders. His discussion of Heaney's book of prose poems, Stations, along with his discussion of An Open Letter written by Heaney for the Field Day Theatre Company, offer welcome portraits respectively of Heaney at work with the materials of childhood and the adult poet at large with the duty of claiming his identity as Irish within the charged literary and political climate of Ireland and Britain. Russell's treatment of inter-textual connections in The Cure at Troy is also enlightening and serves to exemplify how Heaney's regionalism opens doors to global and universal contexts beyond the inherited locale.
Throughout these chapters and much of Seamus Heaney's Regions the interpretive and theoretical "lever" of regionalism enables the author to gain substantial critical purchase on his subject's imaginative project. Less convincing is the author's extrapolation of the regionalist paradigm to what he terms "the spirit region." Here, again, the book fails to provide sufficient context within Heaney's oeuvre to establish how "the spirit region" emerges so to speak out of the poet's other formative regional contexts.
Russell's discussion of "the spirit region" in Heaney's work unfolds over the course of chapters covering Station Island, The Haw Lantern, Seeing Things, and the late poems, especially those in Human Chain. His focus in these chapters fixes on Heaney's use and development of the tercet form out of the example given by Dante in The Divine Comedy. His consideration of the spiritual and hence religious aspect of Heaney's poems from Station Island to Human Chair rests entirely on the discussion of this formal application, and because of that narrow grounding, the concept of Heaney's "spirit region" obtains little overarching critical leverage. The discussion would have been stronger with greater acknowledgment given to the place of the spiritual in Heaney's work from the outset, as a central aspect of the regional vision present, or (as, again, Heaney's reflects in "The Regional forecast,") from "the original point," and not just over the last twenty-five years, as the author claims. Positively, Russell's analysis of the tercet form in Heaney's poetry makes for enlightening reading on its own terms, as well as illuminates the growing importance of the tercet for his work as he aged, and the significance of Heaney's formal innovations. Russell is at his critical best in his treatment of poems such as "Chanson d'Adventure" and "Route 110" in Human Chain, Heaney's final volume of poems before his untimely death.
In the end, Richard Rankin Russell's Seamus Heaney's Regions is a welcome and vital contribution to what is now a very populated field, a field that can and should be called Heaney Studies. While at this stage no single critical volume can be transformative of how Heaney's work is read and considered for years to come, in its exploration of the poet's regionalism Russell's astute, readable, and insightful book provides an important, clarifying vantage from which to view Seamus Heaney's remarkable achievement.
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|Title Annotation:||The Retrospect as Prospect: Seamus Heaney's Regions|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 2, 2015|
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