William Oxley: The Shoulder of Pelops

A brief reminder of the myth. Tantalus, beloved of the Gods, invited them to dinner: determined on a meal with a difference. Every host will know the feeling - hostesses perhaps even more so - but none are likely to go as far as Tantalus who killed his son Pelops, cut him up, boiled and served him as a ragoût extraordinaire. The Immortals - heavenly palates untitillated - knowing all things, refused to touch the meal; all save Demeter that is who, distracted with grief at the recent loss of her daughter, inadvertently tucked into the meal before the other Gods could stop her, and ate Pelops' shoulder. Then Zeus had Tantalus arrested and jailed forever among the immortal dead. After which the Olympian chief ordered Hermes - with whom Pelops' soul now was - to collect the dismembered pieces and place them in a cauldron, re-heat same, and thereby bring Pelops back to life.

When this remarkable process of re-heating was over, Clotho - she of the three Fates whose job it is to spin the thread of a man's life - took the restored Pelops out of the cauldron and, as one shoulder was missing, fitted him up with an ivory replacement. Thereafter, all his descendants, the Pelopidae, as a mark of their origin were supposed to have one shoulder as white as ivory. Which mark became known as the curse of the Pelopidae. And it was a curse that was to have a profound influence on shaping the destiny of Ancient Greece and, by implication, that of us all.

Now, like any myth, that of Pelops operates on a number of levels; has many strands. For example, it is not difficult to interpret this myth in `historical' terms, it being easy enough to trace the influence of the curse (which the ivory shoulder symbolises) down through the House of Atreus to the fall of Troy, and beyond to the death of King Agamemnon by the hand of his wife at Mycenae. It is central, in fact to the aetiology of a number of misfortunes that afflicted the Greece of the ancient world: and was obviously of such significance - or, rather the Pelopidae were - that the afflicted gave their name eventually to the whole Peleponesus.

Certain features of the myth, however, clearly indicate that this is also a myth of process. A deep structural representation of the process of poetic creativity: the key to which interpretation lying in the use of the cauldron of re-birth or inspiration. This subject I have dealt with at greater length in my book The Cauldron of Inspiration (1), where I trace the recurrence of the cauldron motif in many different literatures and myths. For example, its appearance in the Celtic myths as recorded in The Mabinogion, whereby the men of the Island of the Mighty (Britain) use it as a means of restoring dead warriors to life, clearly signifies it as the cauldron of re-birth. Then its use by the witches in MacBeth as a means of prophecy or inspiration indicates another mythological dimension of it. But most of all the cauldron operates in these literatures of myth as a symbol of poetic creativity.

For every poem is a re-birth of the poet's self in words; which is why poetry - indeed every art - is regarded as creative. A poem is not born - only poets are born - but is a ritual re-birth out of the imagination. The story of the transformation of Gwion into Taliesin, again in The Mabinogion, is a further and very precise myth of the process, and involves a cauldron. In Celtic literature the cauldron vies easily with the fountain as chief symbol of inspiration and the imagination. In Hellenic literature the fountain is the more frequent symbol; but as the myth of Pelops shows, the cauldron does occur as well. It is even possible that this, among the most ancient of all the Greek myths, shows a direct Celtic influence; for it is an established fact that, in the third millenium B.C., the great Celtic migrations began in Eastern Europe - possibly in the region of the Caucasus - so that the original Pelasgian inhabitants of Greece, which included the tribe of the Pelopidae, may well have been Celtic. Consequently, it may be historically true - or mythologically correct, if it is preferred - that the cauldron is actually older than the fountain as symbol of the imagination.

Be that as it may, the cauldron of re-birth is certainly the key to the poetic interpretation of this particular myth. But what of the ivory shoulder? This is equally interesting and suggestive, for two reasons. Firstly, because of the idea of its being a curse. Secondly, because earlier Tantalus had been expelled from Phrygia in Asia Minor and had settled at Pisa in Elis on the Greek mainland. At first sight these two factors may not seem to be linked; but if it be recalled that Greek philosophy was born in Ionia, the coastal strip of Phrygia, and if one reads the following passage from The White Goddess of Robert Graves, the connection should become plainer:

`What interests me most ... is the difference that is constantly appearing between the poetic and prosaic methods of thought. The prosaic method was invented by the Greeks of the Classical age as an insurance against the swamping of reason by mythographic fancy. It has now become the only legitimate means of trnsmitting useful knowledge. And in England, as in most other mercantile countries, the current popular view is that "music" and old-fashioned diction are the only characteristics of poetry which distinguish it from prose: that every poem has, or should have, a precise single-strand prose equivalent. As a result, the poetic faculty is atrophied in every educated person who does not struggle to cultivate it ... From the inability to think poetically - to resolve speech into its original images and rhythms and recombine them on several simultaneous levels of thought into a multiple sense - derives the failure to think clearly in prose. ... This simple need is forgotten, what passes for simple prose nowadays is a mechanical stringing together of stereotyped wordgroups, without regard for the images contained in them. The mechanical style, which began in the counting-house, has now infiltrated into the university, some of its most zombiesque instances occuring in the works of eminent scholars and divines.' (2)

What Graves is clearly hinting at in this passage is the curse of Pelops - the ivory or mechanical shoulder of Greek and, by implication, of Western poetry (I leave aside the further twist of the decline of prose as well, with which the latter part of the passage is concerned). It is Graves' view that the philosophical and `prosaic method' of thought is a blemish on the otherwise perfectly created corpus poetica. Furthermore, he traces the continuance of this blemish, as the passage indicates, down to the present day. And the very choice of phrases he uses in the passage, even when speaking of prose (though prose he says should be poetry-nourished), like `mechanical stringing together', the `most zombiesque instances', have a remarkable affinity with the idea of the mechanical or false shoulder of Pelops. But I will stretch the point no further.

Now, while I am convinced that there is a distinct tendency - when it suits them - on the part of poets to discount the role of philosophy; just as there is an equal tendency for poets to play up the importance of prose (c.f. Eliot: `To have the virtues of good prose is the first and minimum requirement of good poetry'); I am, nevertheless, convinced that Graves is basically right in what he says. Except for the fact that I am of the opinion that philosophy is the necessary sister - or perhaps I should say brother - discipline of the Muses, I agree that prose is the ivory shoulder of Pelops, as far as poetry is concerned. For there is only one subject - which, in truth, is not so much a subject as an attitude - that has no part in poetry and that is prose. Prose is the curse of poetry that runs through all the ages down to the present. The Pelopidae live, and have perhaps never been more prevalent than today - as Graves suggests.

Having said that prose is the only subject that is unfit for poetry, I think I should add that poetry, or the poem, is no fit subject for a poem either. To adopt a particularly unpleasant image coined by that lovely lyric poet Patrick Kavanagh, poems about poems are `masturbations in ashes' beside true poems. Why? Because poems about poems, or more correctly about the poetic process, are inevitably in some degree prosaic speculations. And, as Graves has demonstrated, such involve a way of thinking that is different from that required for the making of true poems. In brief, poems about poems are too necessarily self-conscious to ever be more than versified prose. So that any age abounds in such `poems', as does ours, is an age in which the shoulder of Pelops is clearly visible.

Another indication of the curse is the invention - or I should say, the particular prevalence today - of the academic poem (which does not necessarily mean a poem by an academic). That is, the perfect, or professional, imitation poem. A poem very difficult to distinguish from an original; a poem which as I.A.Richards, in his book Science and Poetry, says,: `By every intellectual test may succeed. But unless the ordering of the words sprang, not from knowledge of the technique of poetry ... but from an actual supreme ordering of experience ... a closer approach will betray it. Characteristically its rhythm will give it away'. (3) Even so, such as poem is easier to isolate in theory than in practice.

Not unrelated to the previous, and the latest manifestation of the Pelopsian curse, is the invention of what is known as `sub-texts'. This is largely an importation from France; and it is the first, perhaps the only, fruit of the Structuralists' theories. It has affinities with certain scriptural commentaries - especially in the Hindu and Islamic religions - where the commentaries of theologians have acquired a status on a par with original scripture. So, likewise, among critics of an academic and structuralist persuasion (and also now among post-structuralist or even de-constructionist critics) there is a movement towards the elevation of certain commentaries on poetry and on other forms of literature, to an equal status with their ostensible subject. I say `ostensible' because it is clear that the poem or novel is no longer being criticised so much as being used as the point of departure for the critic's own supposedly `creative' theorisings.

All these things have come about, are a consequence of the curse of Pelops in literature. And have been immeasurably aided in our century by the blurring of the distinction between poetry and prose, as, again, Graves has rightly suggested.

One of the most interesting and perhaps influential books of criticism bearing on our subject, of the last thirty years, has been Donald Davie's Purity of Diction in English Verse. I repeat, one of the most interesting works of criticism; it is also, I suspect, one of the most subtly subversive. In it Davie speaks of what he terms `strength of statement'; which quality, of course, is absolutely central to good prose. He says: `This strength of statement is found most often in chaste or pure diction ... it goes together with economy of metaphor'. (4) He then adds: `The poet who tries for such chastity and strength will never have his reader's love, but he may have his esteem'. A recipe for the psychology of the academic poem, if ever I heard one.

In my notebook for 1969, the year I first read Purity of Diction in English Verse, I included further quotes. For example, just about the first thing that struck me was where Davie says (and it should be remembered that he was writing in about 1950): `With most of my contemporaries, I thought that the surest sign of poetic greatness was the ability to organise experience by apt and memorable metaphor'. He then goes on to urge a move away from a poetic diction relying on or making much use of `apt and memorable metaphor' (a process which he terms `refining'): `We are saying that the poet who undertakes to preserve or refine a poetic diction is writing in a web of responsibilities'. What a fine metaphor is that `web of responsibilities' - strange not to have to take it as a sure sign of poetic greatness?

Apart from the minimisation of tropes, such refining of the poetic diction was to be achieved by the aforementioned lean towards statement; by the avoidance of neo-Wordsworthian fashion-mongering: `There are fashions in words for poetry, as in words for conversation, and out of these words that are fashionable every age constructs willy-nilly its own poetic diction which the bad poets (unconsciously) adopt' (the logic of this is totally self-contradictory: it seems to be saying that every age constructs its own poetic diction in this way, but only produces bad poets by so doing!); and, lastly, by a reconsideration of the question of `taste': `The word Imagination has been overstrained, from impulses honourable to mankind, to meet the demands of the faculty which is perhaps the noblest in our nature. In the interest of Taste, the process has been reversed; and from the prevalence of dispositions at once injurious and discreditable, being no other than that selfishness which is the child of apathy - which, as Nations decline in productive and creative power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of judging'. A further and incidental criticism of this last is that it appears to proceed from a confusion of the habits of the Augustan period in English poetry, when `taste' was, indeed, both a valid and exalted concept, with the England of the late Forties, early Fifties, a time of nations declining `in productive and creative power'.

But what Davie appears to be really saying is that although an age's poetic diction is fashioned `willy nilly' from `those words that are fashionable everyday constructs', that is to be avoided because it leads to bad poetry. In other words, unlike with the Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads, the adoption of the demotic is out, as being an impure procedure. Yet, how can this be squared with the second quote: the implied attack on the notion of an aureate diction - such as all `poets of taste', as it were invariably adopt?

Michael Schmidt, himself a poet and critic somewhat influenced by Davie's ideas, has defined the `diction' in `purity of diction' to mean: `The selection of words and deliberation behind that selection'; which I think a fair enough definition in context. The only question is: what sort of diction does Davie leave available to poetry, if he has closed off all traditional `poetic' avenues to traffic? Frankly, I don't know; and I don't think Davie did either, in this monumentally ambivalent - but immensely stimulating - book of his. Though to be scrupulously fair there is a sort of clue to be had in two further quotes from Purity of Diction in English Verse.

One lesser avenue still available, apparently, is that followed by certain `... minor modern poets on both sides of the Atlantic (who) have employed succesfully for their limited ends a personal diction deliberately impure, eccentric and mannered. Robert Graves, Marianne Moore and John Crowe Ransom are examples.' The other is not so much an avenue to be followed, as an inference of one that has been followed and a statement of its consequences: `Finally, of course, one cannot avoid the fact that the poet's churches are empty, and the strong suspicion that the dislocation of syntax has much to do with it'. The phrase `dislocation of syntax' leads us stright to the matter of prose.

Prose is the antithesis of traditional poetic metres - in fact, is the antithesis of all metre. Indeed, this phrase has to mean the dislocation of metre because it is only in poetry that syntax is markedly ordered, and that according to prosodic strictness. The principal ordering of syntax in prose is semantic; in poetry rhythmic. Consequently, as Davie suggests, many modern poets having broken the rhythmic mould of poetry - which is true - have thereby availed themselves of the chief virtue of prose which is, of course, fluidity or absence of form (save in the widest sense).

I believe that the `subtle perversity' or ambivalence of Purity of Diction in English Prose, sprang from the fact that principally Davie could not solve the contradictions which his chosen mentor Ezra Pound - the first to preach the doctrine of `break the iambus' - had set up. The unadmitted resolution to which conflict, of course, being to turn poetry into prose - or make the shoulder of Pelops yet more visible in our time.

It is curious that Davie should have described Robert Graves as one of those `minor modern poets' who had employed `a personal diction deliberately impure ... etc'. Because Graves, in his turn, in an essay of his entitled `Dame Occupacyon' has this to say of poetry: `Personally, I expect poems to say what they mean in the simplest and most economical way; even if the thought they contain is complex. I do not mind exalted language in poetry any more than I mind low language, but rhetoric disgusts me'. (5) A statement that certainly would seem to incline towards some `purification of diction'.

More important, however, is the further question raised of `rhetoric'; more important because all good poetry employs some sort of rhetoric, no matter how personal. And not a rhetoric of inflation - such as one must presume Graves to be hitting at - but the operation of a rhetor that enables the elevation of the poem's feeling experienced (its primum mobile) into some degree of aural `visibility'. Also, it is this quality and functioning of rhetoric which is one of the factors that both unites and distinguishes poetry from prose. However, while it is sometimes difficult to avoid calling a passage of prose `poetic prose'; and while `poetic' poetry is a tautology; and prosy poetry a non-existence, being merely a label for bad poetry: the problem of distinguishing poetry from prose can always be overcome by remembering a simple rule. And this is: that while prose can sometimes evince feeling, hence poetical prose; poetry must always be the product of feeling and not of the intellect - which latter is what prose is mostly an expression of.

It is in the discouragement of all forms of rhetoric (and not just of the inflated rhetoric of argument, persuasion or sentiment) that modern poetic practice has erred. Has let graze on the slopes of Parnassus a cart horse of prose, in place of the traditional Pegasus. So that, again, we see poets - even one so aware of the dangers as Graves - unwittingly falling under the curse of Pelops.

`Rhetoric disgusts me', as also did the Augustan poet Alexander Pope, whom Graves termed `that sedulous ape'. Yet speaking in Pope's defence this is what Lytton Strachey had to say: `That Pope's verse is artificial there can be no doubt. But then there is only one kind of verse that is not artificial, and that is bad verse'. One understands, in its context, that Strachey draws no distinction between verse and poetry; yet one suspects it is a statement which would have horrified more or less equally Wordsworth, Pound, Graves or Donald Davie. But it shouldn't. For a good poem - a true poem - is very much a verbal artefact: something that is at a considerable remove from either the casual utterance of speech or even the most deliberative passage of prose. And it is precisely differentiated by its artistically worked-up rhythm and its carefully chosen phraseology: the latter so chosen as to aim to be the sole particular way, the unique way of saying or expressing something. But no such musical monumentality is aimed at in speech or prose: even if, occasionally, they may create just such a durable verbal event.

The ambivalence at the heart of Davie's book appears in his apparent condemnation of both the Wordsworthian dictum of fashioning poetry from common speech (not that I misunderstand his point about the making of a `fashion' of common utterance, but think it subordinate to his main point), and the `splendid diction' that is the product of Augustan eras. But it is an ambivalence arising from a certain misconception. Poetry, like language itself, like anything living requires nourishment. That nourishment poetry draws from a number of sources. From active or common speech: the customary or fashionable way of saying at any time; from traditional, even outmoded forms of expression - especially other poetry of the past; indirectly from other disciplines like philosophy and science, as well as from the more nebulous knowledge of myth: all of which sources form its fund of shaping-ideas; and, lastly, from actual experience of life itself in both its sacred and profane aspects. But the mistake - small at first and big later - is to narrow one's appetite, so to speak, to any single source of nutriment. This is Davie's error; and there has been a distinct tendency among poets to do this - Pope was maybe one, Wordsworth another - with the result that poetry, like Pelops, is impaired or in constant danger of being so.

Before moving on to consider individual poems, one thing should be firmly stressed. There is no exhaustive test of poems other than that they be proved to be alive. Poems must have some quantum of genuine life in them, otherwise they are simply dressed up corpses: the sort of academic or pseudo poems that I.A.Richards referred to earlier. But a sound critical tuning-fork should be able to detect the inner vitality that every poem must possess. Beyond this single requirement, the argument begins. Though it is not an argument that is furthered by imposing limited stylistic concerns or notions of a personal philosophy upon. For example, a reader may prefer Larkin's outlook on life to that of Dylan Thomas, but such is not a sufficient test of the respective quality of their poetry. Though that such an `imposing upon' is an ingrained critical habit of our times, the continuing debate between Romanticism and Classicism, for example, is sufficient proof of.

Let us now, following those remarks, consider briefly three celebrated and fairly well established Twentieth Century poems. Each, in its way, is a minor masterpiece: Yeats' `An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'; Dylan Thomas's `My Craft And Sullen Art'; and Larkin's `At Grass'.

The Yeats' poem begins thus:

`I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor...'

The tone is wistful; the diction straightforward; the measure fluent but not facile; the effect to convey a feeling of sad wisdom, as it were:

`A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.'

It is perfectly expressive of the `lonely impulse of delight' which `drove to this tumult in the clouds'. It meets at most points Graves' demand for poems to `say what they mean in the simplest and most economical way; even if the thought they contain is complex... etc.' Yet it has a rhetoric; not just one of its own; but one that employs traditional rhetorical devices of parallelism:

`My country is Kiltartan Cross
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor

and, later, in the oratorical sweep of the driving negatives:

`No likely and could bring them loss...
Nor law nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds...'

As a result one must suppose that the anti-rhetoric lobby would view this poem with some suspicion. Though for me the rhetoric acts as a binding agent in the poem's chemistry, to control rather than to exaggerate the airman's feelings. And an exquisite balance is struck throughout the poem.

A similar rhetoric emerges in Dylan Thomas's `My Craft Or Sullen Art';

`Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Not for the towering dead... etc.'

Here the rhetoric is more emphatic, more `gesture' than in the plainer, less romantic Yeats; but it serves the same technical purpose of rhythmic agent. True, the poem is more lush with imagery than the `purer dictioned' Yeats' poem; but its meaning is still efficiently conveyed, beautifully conveyed, not despite the cluster of imagery but because of those images:

`When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light'.

Such images provide a remarkable concretisation of both abstraction and feeling, giving such intangibles as `griefs' or `light' a greater immediacy. In fact the rhetoric is less criticisable in this poem than in the Yeats, for the greater `plainness' of `Those that I fight I do not hate' and `Those that I guard I do not love' makes them, such lines, more open to logical rebuttal (e.g. how can one fight without hate, protect without love? etc.) and the charge of rhetorical hollowness. So that, in a sense in Thomas's `sullen art' Davie is effectively answered. Diction may well be purified by hacking away metaphor and imagery, but it is also made more limited thereby.

My third poem, Philip Larkin's `At Grass', is also characterised by directness and simplicity. But it is perhaps the least `direct' of the three, having little actually to say. Unlike the Yeats' and, to a lesser extent, the Thomas' poem, it lacks philosophical content or paraphrasable `message'. Essentially it is a poem of mood, with a touch of nostalgia:

`The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane;
- The other seeming to look on -
And stands anonymous again.'

Such is `descriptiverse' of the very finest kind:

`Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.'

Actually, the theme of `At Grass' - two horses eating in a field - cannot be made other than fairly trivial; but Larkin employs all his considerable resources - i.e. many of the traditionally accumulated resources of English poetry - to convert a simple scene into an immortalised moment. This poem is less about the poet and more about externality, than either of the other two. The poet's voice tends to hover more in the background than Dylan Thomas's foregrounded personal pronoun, or Yeats' disguised ego in the mask of the airman.

Also, the language of `At Grass' is much closer to prose - the rhetor being absent. But the solid turns of phrase, the deft measurement and movement so smooth and inevitable from the first two lines:

`The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in'

to the last:

`Only the groom, and the groom's boy
With bridles in the evening come.'

make it a most distinctive and pleasing poem. Indeed, one could expatiate at some length on this quietly subtle technique - which only falters in the line `The other seeming to look on', which is a trifle clumsy - but to no purpose: it is as firmly a poem in its own way as the other two. And it is so because it employs music and imagery which, however low-key, easily distinguish it from prose.

The first lurch into prose by English poetry in our century came, in fact, with Pound's breaking of the iambus; and it caused such a shock that there was an immediate retreat into imagism.

That, of course, as is the way with all critical generalisations, is something of an oversimplification. But I find it a remarkable co-incidence that Pound could publish something like `Near Perigord' and, virtually simultaneously, people like T.E.Hulme, H.D., Amy Lowell, etc., should have founded a school (ironically, with Pound's active help) to produce poems many of which, like Hulme's for instance, consisted of nothing but single or multiple images. So, I repeat, it does appear an inevitable, if unconscious, reaction to Pound's `prosyfying' of poetry. Especially, if one remembers that any poem hinges on imagery (which can't be `broken', as such) and sound (which Pound broke), does this seem a plausible theory.

Despite, however, this recurrent curse of Pelops, good poetry continues to be written and good poets persist. It may well be true that often these poets prove better practitioners than their theories might suggest: Eliot I consider one such; but, still, the list of Hopkins, Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Eliot, Yeats, Auden, Dylan Thomas and, somewhat grudgingly, Philip Larkin, plus several others, is an impressive list. Even so, they were and are always flanked by a number of lesser outriders for whom prose was and is poetry: men with one shoulder whiter than the other.

That this curse is now very much a settled feature of the poetry landscape, a glance at any current and representative anthology will confirm. However, it would be invidious to select any of the recently emerged younger names for especial condemnation: for all but the most outstanding young poets in any generation need time to properly emerge from the chrysalis. So that just as it can be fatal to call young poets `promising' (as Cyril Connolly said: `Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising'), equally, it is a mistake to condemn too soon. But I would like to conclude this essay by drawing attention to just one of the most recent generation of poets who, as the author of at least seven widely-reviewed books of poetry over the last dozen years or so, ought to be able to bear closer scrutiny by now.

Seamus Heaney as a critic is very sound in my view; cautious perhaps, careful certainly, but most perceptive in his analyses of poetry and the creative act. But his poetry itself, I find a more mixed achievement. This principally because of the hyper-concrete nature of much of his poetry.

In Heaney's work, two strands are now distinct. One strand, and the earliest and most persistent, is that of a rural Irish bog-praising equivalent of the American William Carlos Williams. A poem like `Widgeon', from his collection Station Island, I would class with such well-known pieces of Williams' as `A Red Wheelbarrow' and `Fine Work In Pitch and Copper'. `Widgeon' is as plain a piece of objectivist description as it is possible to come by.

The other strand in Heaney's poetry, and more recent development, emerges in things like the `Glanmore Sonnets' or the `Station Island' sequence, and is an attempt to break away - principally through narrative - from the exceedingly restrictive practice of `tactile' descriptivist pieces which form the fundament of his earlier achievement.

However, I would add - so as not to be thought to deliberately undersell Heaney's technique in, say, most of A Lough Neagh Sequence or Door Into The Dark - he strains hard most of the time to give a tellurien and mythic gloze to his descriptions: endeavours to make his readers feel the rooted livingness of things. The trouble is the process doesn't fire properly: many of the pieces come out of the kiln either not properly baked, or overdone and unsaleable, like perfectly finished cups without handles. It is alright in theory to insist that a poem should never `state' but only `suggest'; but the best poems are really a subtle interplay between statement and suggestion: and many of Heaney's poems are so involuted by their preoccupation with things, objects, that the `suggestion' never arises, the music lies dormant. There is no real sense of going beyond the immediate. Lines like these from `Sloe Gin':

`When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry'

could have been written by any one of the New York objectivists. True the lines take one `beyond' the immediacy of the kitchen; but when I read a poem like `Sloe Gin' (even noting the pun of its title), I am still left with a distinct sense of `Yes - but so what?' One needs to be taken from the obvious to beyond the obvious, and not from bottled gin to its obvious source in a bush ... as in this poem.

Equally, a poem like `An Ulster Twilight' is a boring reminiscence of childhood to everyone save the poet, who is unable to make it less boring to anyone else precisely because of the fact it is prose masquerading as poetry:

`The bare bulb, a scatter of nails,
Shelved timber, glinting chisels:
In a shed of corrugated iron
Eric Dawson stoops his plane...

Where is he now?
There were fifteen years between the two
That night I strained to hear the bells
Of a sleigh of the mind and heard him pedal

Into our lane, get off at the gable,
Steady his Raleigh bicycle
Against the whitewash, stand to make sure
The house was quiet, knock at the door...

A doorstep courtesy to shun
Your father's uniform and gun,
But - now that I have said it out -
Maybe none the worse for that.'

The whole tone of that is prose; the last line of it `Maybe none the worse for that' is prose; the exact, the indifferent, the boringly dull scene-setting of the opening `The bare bulb... etc.', is prose; the stanza beginning `Into our lane, get off at the gable' is visibly prose in its awkwardness; even the feeling that motivated the piece (if `feeling' is not too grand a word for it), is so insufferably dull that one wishes Heaney had risked becoming properly sentimental ... So, yes, this is scarcely a real poem at all - even `bells/ of a sleigh of the mind' don't redeem it.

One needs only to compare `An Ulster Twilight' with Patrick Kavanagh's `Inniskeen Road, July Evening' - a poem which, incidentally, Heaney discusses in a fine essay called `From Monaghan to the Grand Canal' - a poem composed of just as ordinary materials, yet with so different a result, to perceive the sort of distinction I am driving at:

`Inniskeen Road, July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes -
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight,
And there's a half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
O Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.'

In Kavanagh's ordinary down-to-earth piece the glow of the ember is clearly visible: and the quotidian is transfigured. Great art converts the colloquial prose of `every blooming thing' into poetry's `language of delight' and `half-talk code of mysteries'. Whereas all I see in `An Ulster Twilight' are a few strips of prose transfixed to a page - a page that is as white as Pelops' ivory shoulder. And the presence of such `poems' and such pages in Heaney's volumes - indeed in many more books besides - seems to me not so much eloquent as boringly irritating proof of the working of an old and rather unpleasant myth.


1. William Oxley, The Cauldron of Inspiration, 1983, University of Salzburg.
2. Robert Graves, The White Goddess, 1956, Faber and Faber.
3. I.A.Richards, Science and Poetry, 1935, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubnor.
4. Donald Davie, Purity and Diction in English Verse, 1952, Chatto and Windus.
5. Robert Graves, The Crowning Privilege, 1955, Penguin.