Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney

Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney

Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney

Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney

Synopsis

What is the relationship between poetry and power? Should poetry be considered a mode of authority or an impotent medium? And why is it that the modern poets most commonly regarded as authoritative are precisely those whose works wrestle with a sense of artistic inadequacy? Such questions lie at the heart ofShades of Authority,prompting fresh insights into three of the most important poets of recent decades: Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, and Seamus Heaney. Through attentive close readings, James shows how their responsiveness to matters of political and cultural import lends weight to the idea of poetry as authoritative utterance--combined with the each poet's cultural marginality and sense of the limitations and liabilities of language itself.

Excerpt

The title of this book holds in tension a number of competing ideas. At its simplest, it indicates that various kinds of authority, according to differing shades of implication in the term, are considered in the works of Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. Yet it also offers metaphorical possibilities for describing the relationship between poetry and power: in one sense, it conveys the impression of these three writers as admonitory shades passing judgement, like Shelley's 'unacknowledged legislators', upon matters of political or cultural control — with the attendant suggestion that their verse might be said to constitute a shadow-form of authority. in another sense, it intimates that the poets are mere pale shades, masters of an impotent medium that offers nothing but unsubstantial reflections of a world in which poetry exercises no real influence. the following chapters suggest that the works of the writers under discussion may be characterized in terms of an unresolved negotiation between these conflicting paradigms.

The question of how much or little authority a poem possesses is as irresolvable as the connotations of the word are irreducible. If one conceives of authority merely in terms of direct agency in the public sphere, then the poem is liable to be dismissed as irrelevant. However, as other shades of meaning in the word illustrate, the poem's strength of command may inhere in qualities quite distinct from political or practical force — in moral or intellectual persuasiveness, for instance, or in the gravitas achieved through resonant and compelling rhetoric, as when one is judged to write or speak 'with authority'. While such possibilities may not amount to a decisive refutation of Auden's famous claim that 'poetry makes nothing happen', they do indicate how it nonetheless remains 'a way of happening', and how that 'way' might possess the capacity to inspire assent. Yet in the case of many poets this capacity risks seeming slight, even delusive, when their work is tested against the examples of ostensibly more authoritative . . .

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