Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seamus Heaney and the Cliches of Public Talk

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Seamus Heaney and the Cliches of Public Talk

Article excerpt

IT HAS OFTEN BEEN SAID THAT POETRY that does not simply succumb to cliches will seek to "reanimate" or "revitalize" them. Donald Davie, in Purity of Diction in English Verse (1967), says that "the function of pure diction in poetry is to purify the language by revivifying dead metaphor." (1) Christopher Ricks, arguing for the difficulty of avoiding cliche altogether, defends those poets who "use" cliches rather than allowing themselves to be "used by them." (2) Pat Rogers praises Jonathan Swift on these very grounds, while positing that "the restoration, or the revival, of cliche, or cant, or dead metaphor" is "a widely active technique in literature." (3)

In this essay, I would like to examine the work of a poet whose attitude towards cliche differs notably from these standard accounts. In his 1975 collection North, Seamus Heaney famously took up (and took on) the platitudes used in everyday conversations about the Irish Troubles. To him, these phrases represented the failure of a divided society's attempt at rational public discourse, trading substantive debate for easy evasions. Though the poems themselves have been widely discussed, critics have yet to outline the precise technique Heaney developed and deployed onto these phrases. To say that he "reanimates" cliches would not be quite right, since "reanimation" implies restoring value and interest to a language that has become rote. Instead, Heaney follows two distinct procedures. First, he singles out specific stock phrases and uses juxtaposition, contrast, tone, and rhythm to put pressure on them and provide a direct or indirect commentary. In doing so he refocuses our attention onto phrases that are easily glossed over because they have become embedded in public discourse. His goal is not to restore cliches, but to subject them to critical analysis, draw out their implications, and weigh their motivations. Second, Heaney invents what I call "near-cliches": namely, phrases that are in the neighborhood of commonplaces, but that have been carefully modified so as to call attention to their nature as near-cliches. Far from reanimating platitudes, these coinages are a way for Heaney to remain vigilant in his own susceptibility to cliche when discussing public matters.

Before looking at the poems of North in greater depth, I would like to begin with a key passage from the poem "Whatever You Say Say Nothing" to illustrate the kinds of stock phrases Heaney had in mind when he reacted to the public discourse surrounding the Troubles. Here is the stanza that brings the first section (of four) to an end:

"Oh it's disgraceful, surely, I agree."
"Where's it going to end?" "It's getting worse."
"They're murderers." "Internment, understandably."
The "voice of sanity" is getting hoarse.
                               (21-24) (4)

The phrases quoted here are recognizable as platitudes, and we are clearly meant to identify them as such. Yet it is difficult to pinpoint what makes them cliches. The OED defines a "platitude" as "the quality (esp. in speech or writing) of dullness, insipidity, or banality." (5) This provides three synonyms, but no real clarification. It cannot just be that the sentences are overused, though the word "hoarse" does suggest excess repetition as well as excess volume, and certainly overuse is implicit in any accusation of cliche. Heaney's point is not that the ideas contained in the phrases were valuable at some point in time, and have simply been corrupted by iteration. The poet finds himself in the situation of talking back to a habit of speech that, while easily identifiable, appears to resist analysis and critique. One might very well mock the phrase "Oh it's disgraceful, surely, I agree" for being platitudinous, but then again few would deny that the violence of the Troubles was very much "disgraceful." In fact, these phrases get much of their power from seeming to be inarguable.

Heaney faced a double paradox in this poem. …

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