"Customary Rhythms": Seamus Heaney and the Rite of Poetry

By Bolton, Jonathan | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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"Customary Rhythms": Seamus Heaney and the Rite of Poetry


Bolton, Jonathan, Papers on Language & Literature


Ceremony's a name for the rich horn

And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

--W. B. Yeats, "A Prayer for My Daughter"

Near the conclusion of his Nobel Prize address, Crediting Poetry, Seamus Heaney speaks of two kinds of "adequacy" ascribable to poetry: "documentary adequacy" and "lyric adequacy." The former has to do with the impact and emotive power of description and is as old as Homer's account of the Fall of Troy. "Even today, three thousand years later," Heaney says, "as we channel surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but in danger of growing immune . . . Homer's image can still bring us to our senses. . . . [It] has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable" (49). The second kind of adequacy has to do with the poetic process itself, what Heaney calls " 'the temple inside our hearing' which the passage of the poem calls into being" (49). This interior space is the domain of national conscience and consciousness, a receptacle for personal and racial memory, the etymology of the tribe, the spirit of place, and the ground in which the dead, victims of the Great Hunger, sectarian violence, and the tragic accidents of life are interred. This "temple of our hearing" is exhumed and recovered through the rites or stations of the poem, where truthfulness becomes audible via intonation and cadence. "Lyric adequacy," Heaney adds, is something that he has always "strained towards" (Crediting Poetry 49), and this desire is borne out by the form and process of his poetic rites, which may begin with the empirical here and now but ultimately delve beneath the merely documentary, the photographic witness that is not the end but prelude to the rite of poetry.

My chief concern in this essay is with the manner in which Heaney's three to four part station poems have come to serve as the formal equivalent of a liturgical rite--a highly-structured, habitually-observed practice that, for him, enacts the temporal and ritualistic steps required to recover and articulate aspects of national consciousness. Although Heaney does not refer to such divisions as stations, nor to such short sequences as station poems, the idea of stations has, since early in his career, a crucial and resonant place in his work, and I believe that "station poem" should serve as a convenient and apt descriptive and critical term for this signature procedure and the religious, archaeological, and historical concerns it helps to formulate. According to Catholic liturgy, a station refers not only to the stations of the cross but also to a stopping point in a procession for the purpose of song, recitation, or ritual action.[1] This sense of the station as a stopping point or stage in a devotional rite is especially true of the Lough Derg pilgrimage Heaney imaginatively reenacts in Station Island. As Heaney describes this three-day vigil, "each unit of the contemporary pilgrim's exercises is called a 'station,' and a large part of each station involves walking barefoot and praying round 'beds,' stone circles which are said to be the remains of early monastic cells" (Station Island 122). "Stations," as Heaney would also be aware, refers to the rural Irish custom of celebrating Mass at the houses of parishioners on a rotating basis--a custom that conferred honor on each house and reflects a popular, egalitarian spirit of Irish Catholicism that is also evident in Heaney's work.[2]

In Heaney's work, the ecclesiastical significance of the performance of stations must be enlarged so as to include analogous experiences of discovery and devotion, such as the stages in archaeological excavation, funeral processions, pilgrimages, and other kinds of purposeful walking and doings. The station poem's element of mechanical, psychic action, typically executed in three stages, makes it formally distinct from Heaney's longer sequences, such as "Clearances" and the "Glanmore Sonnets," as well as unified thematic sequences, such as "Sweeney Redevivus" and Stations, both of which tend to deliver Heaney's discoveries without the procedure used to bring them to light.

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