Heaney and American Poetry: The California Narrative

By Laverty, Christopher | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, March-February 2020 | Go to article overview

Heaney and American Poetry: The California Narrative


Laverty, Christopher, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


In her 2012 study In Gratitude for All Gifts: Seamus Heaney and Eastern Europe, Magdalena Kay argues:

Heaney's critics insist on the American influence... with a tenacity 
that is surprising given the lack of evidence for many such claims. The 
search for echoes of Gary Snyder and Robert Bly does not yield much 
fruit; the mention of Louis Simpson in 'Making Strange' hardly invites 
one to an influence study; Heaney's great admiration for William Carlos 
Williams is certainly worth mentioning, yet Williams's short lines 
sound nothing like Heaney's drill-like stanzas of the 1970s. (131)

Kay's observations highlight that, for too long, criticism has looked for the American element of Heaney's achievement in the wrong places, due in large part to the dominance of certain theories that remain widespread in Heaney criticism today. The arguments Kay notes regarding Heaney and America are rooted in assessments of his 1970-71 residency as visiting lecturer in the University of California, Berkeley. Existing criticism tends to argue the Californian residency functioned in two ways: to awaken the political impulse of Heaney's verse and to liberate him from constraining Anglo-Irish formalism. It thus assumes the 1970-71 sojourn was Heaney's first major confrontation with American writing, overlooking much of his reading and writing in the 1960s which shows a strong fondness for many US writers. Michael Parker's assertion that "Heaney's work during the period in which the poems of Wintering Out (1972) were being composed was deeply affected by political and literary experiences in the United States" (16) is in line with the arguments of Henry Hart, Michael Allen, and Jonathan Allison, all of whom published commentary on Heaney's Berkeley residency in the 1990s.

The poets most often credited as formal exemplars in California by these critics (and by Heaney himself) are Gary Snyder and Robert Bly, the latter of whom is usually invoked in discussions of the prose collection Stations (1975) which, like Wintering Out (1972), was begun in California but not published until four years later. Heaney has contributed to this narrative of awakening and influence. His willingness to commentate on this period has resulted in a critical argument that relies heavily on his interviews, a selective reading of the two collections, and a virtual blindness to the work of Snyder and Bly. When Wintering Out and Stations are considered in the broader picture of Heaney and American poetry, a counter-narrative emerges. Rather than embracing fresh examples, the Irish poet, already adept in American verse and a confident formalist, elides most of what he encounters in Berkeley; far from alleviating the pressures of the home crisis, the West Coast brings them into painful focus without offering solutions. While this essay does not have the scope necessary to demonstrate how, ironically, it is a sense of form gained in large part from American writers read in the 1960s that causes Heaney to resist the experimental examples he is rumoured to have been influenced by in Berkeley, it is possible to show how unlike the examples of Snyder and Bly Heaney's 1970s poetry is, and why he may have wanted to exaggerate their significance.

Despite early assessments of Wintering Out as disappointing in its lack of risk-taking, later commentary was more favourable and praised Heaney's ability to draw on an expanding range of influences in an ambitious development. An early reviewer attacked Wintering Out as "unsatisfactory" and disappointingly "transitional" for failing to "tackle head on" the outbreak of political violence in Northern Ireland ("Semaphores of Hurt") while Seamus Deane, in a more mixed response, wrote that the poems of Wintering Out "express no politics" (203). This view of the collection as evasive--an accusation Heaney was vulnerable to due to his year spent abroad--is largely forgotten because of the reassessments of Wintering Out and Stations in the major studies of Heaney appearing in the 1980s and 1990s. …

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