Can a Poem Stop a Tank?
Editor’s Note: After leaving China at the end of 1988, Bei Ling was named writer-in-residence at Brown University, and in 1994 he made his home in Boston, where he founded Tendency, one of the most important Chinese publications of literature and cultural criticism. In 1999, Bei Ling returned to China, and in August he was arrested and his magazine was confiscated. After an international protest was mounted on his behalf, he was released and expelled from the country. The offending journal, which focused on poetics and politics, prominently featured the following interview with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.
BEI LING: You have said that poetry is its own vindicating force. But in the face of the onslaught of history, poetry hardly seems a force to be reckoned with. Poets must confront political repression eventually; their work cannot escape constraints of reality. However, as poets need to realize, poetry is after all a cultivated exercise, weak and emotionally vulnerable. One way or another, history will make its demands upon a poet. I have been grappling with how poetry can reveal its own self-vindicating force. In your book of essays on poetics, “The Government of the Tongue,” published in 1988, you have a piece of the same title which says, “In a sense, the effect of poetry is nil--a poem has never stopped a tank.” Undoubtedly, you have come under political pressure during your writing career. I have noticed a gradual development in depth of imagery and strength of language, which brings a certain internal expansiveness. I am thinking here of the poem “Sweetpea” in “Station Island” and “The Sound of Rain” in “Seeing Things.” The deepening of imagery gives a sense of moral or perhaps emotional weight.
SEAMUS HEANEY: One simple answer is that the purpose of poetry is to engender more poetry. My anxiety is not about politics or not about moral truth when I am writing, my anxiety is a writer’s anxiety.
The first function of a poet is to allow poetry to happen again, to make it continue. But that is a defensive answer. I think there must always be two things at work. The sine qua non is to have some form of excitement or inner energy, inspiration or nervous need and then to have a subject which houses--and unhouses--all that in words. Often, however, the poet has a feeling that he is ready to write but doesn’t have a subject. And on the other hand, quite often he has a subject but doesn’t have that vivid, immediate readiness to get started.
I would say that the pressures on me have indeed been to some extent political, but I don’t think of politics as my subject. I think of some form of response to the surrounding conditions as being my responsibility. I don’t know whether one can play with this in Chinese, but there are these two words in English, “responsibility” and “answerability.” Robert Pinsky, the American poet laureate, points out that they both have the same meaning, so that the responsible poet is the poet who is answering to whatever is out there in the world. Answering with his whole being. I think, in other words, that the poetry of personal journey, which can seem to be self-enclosed, is often an answer, often even a cry back at circumstances. Maybe it is a cry of pleasure at the sight of still water or a cry of anger at the sight of atrocity. But what’s important is the answering energy. That is the fundamental responsible thing at the heart of poetry.
BEI: Your “Singing School” from the book “North,” and especially “Summer 1969" and “Exposure” in this series, stand out in my mind for depiction of the upheavals in Northern Ireland. In the aftermath of the British army’s vindictive Bloody Sunday, directed at Catholics in the Northern Ireland county of Derry, your self-reproach, internal struggle and deep pain due to being absent from the scene can be seen in your phrase “my responsible tristia.” It reminds me of the emotions I experienced after the Tiananmen Square crackdown on the 1989 Beijing democracy movement: self-reproach, intense pain and internal struggle, even self-abandonment which lasted several years. As you put it, I “missed / The once-in-a-lifetime portent” even as I “escaped the massacre.” How does one reach a kind of equilibrium between this kind of “diamond absolute” and a poet’s function?
HEANEY: I have developed an answer to this in English that pleases me but I cannot express it in Chinese because it depends upon a pun in English. There’s the word “herd” like a herd of sheep, or a herd of goats, or a flock. And then there’s the word “H-E-A-R-D,” that which has been heard. So I say real poetry is “H-E-A-R-D” by the inner being and by the language. Fake poetry is “H-E-R-D,” it’s kind of a mating call, or a slogan. It is for the herd. It courts a stock response.
Still, every poet in a situation of political crisis will feel the need to honor human solidarity, as it were, solidarity with the group. They will maybe even feel it as a sacred duty at certain moments--think of W.H. Auden during the Spanish Civil War. And yet it is an orthodoxy of my tradition, the Western lyric tradition, that too much solidarity is bad for poetry.
Poetry comes from the first person singular rather than the first person plural. It comes from “I” rather than “we.” So, your question arises from an anxiety that’s felt constantly. And it is true that at moments of big crisis in their culture, many poets have gone from the first person singular to the first person plural and have spoken for the collective. The moral pressure has exceeded the aesthetic orthodoxy.
There are ways of doing this. For example, in Russia, or say in Eastern Europe, one of the ways that the individual spirit has spoken for the group is through parables or through historical parallels. You pretend to be writing about Ovid in exile from the court of Augustus but you are really writing about the exile of the intellectual in your community. Or you write perhaps about gladiators in the arena in ancient Rome, about savage games put on for the populace, but you are in fact writing about the demeaning of the people in the present circumstances.
It becomes in the end an artistic problem for a poet, as almost everything does. The moral dilemmas and the moral pressures are insoluble in a way, except momentarily through the loophole of a poem.
No poem solves life. But there is this wonderful old definition of a poem by Robert Frost: he called it “a momentary stay against confusion.” The whole artistic enterprise is a kind of holding action, it’s a little bridgehead for the spirit. These victories are very frail. Yet the frailty doesn’t prevent them from having a big effect. They can become popular, like the poem about the train that you showed me, “Beijing at 4:08 a.m.” by Guo Lusheng [Shi Zhi] or the poem about the sun being like a shield, “Skies” by Mang Ke. They can be taken up by and transformed into a common possession. And yet that train poem seems to me to depend upon the reality of individual experience to begin with. It seems like a poem that eventually became a resistance song but was not originally written as a public utterance. It set out to express an individual sorrow. And that seems to be what is called for, some personal impulse to start with. There’s nothing wrong with political anger, of course, as a motive for work. I mean, that can be a totally pure motive. But the anger must be personally felt, it mustn’t just be slogan anger.
BEI: Yes. I have noticed that you have discussed in many essays written over many years the life and poetic craft of poets writing under dictatorship and totalitarianism: poets like Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and others from the former Soviet Union and East European bloc. You have mounted a vigorous defense of Milosz’s poem “Incantation” in your “The Impact of Translation.” The translation of “Incantation” into Chinese also seems stiff and rhetorical, just as you noted about the English translation. Your essay does not seem to defend the literary merits of the poem, but rather it seems a moral defense through which you pay respect to the courage and uprightness of a poet under a totalitarian regime. But I worry that poets like myself suffering under oppressive regimes have developed such a strong repulsion, such heightened concern for social realities, that these things might negatively affect our poetry.
HEANEY: Well, Milosz is answering a world. And Milosz does write quite often like that, in large rhetorical gestures. But tone is so important in poetry, and even in translations of Milosz I am susceptible to the tone. Tone is a guarantee of something. It’s a guarantee that the statement is not just copied out from the quotation dictionary but is earned through the lived experience of the writer. And what I feel with Milosz, even in English, is the tone of wisdom. So I can only make that plea.
But “Incantation” remains problematical. It sounds convinced but that could be the irony at work. The first line, “Human reason is beautiful and invincible,” makes your heart leap up, and yet you can muster a lot of evidence to prove that reason is often perverted and quite often defeated. Nevertheless there is a radiance to the poem, an afterglow from the humanist ideal, and my point was that its embrace of the ideal contradicts the world it came out of. It too is an answer of sorts. A holding action.
BEI: I was extremely impressed by the last sentence of your essay “Feeling into Words.” There is a sense of calling and the imperative of conscience that reminds me of your predecessor W.B. Yeats. You wrote, ". . . to forge a poem is one thing, to forge the uncreated conscience of the race, as Stephen Dedalus put it, is quite another and places daunting pressures and responsibilities on anyone who would risk the name poet.” Undoubtedly, this is a tall order for poets, one that an ordinary poet could hardly live up to.
HEANEY: This was written in 1974. I was quoting Stephen Dedalus, who is the hero of James Joyce’s book, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Stephen says at the end of this story of the birth of an artistic soul: “I go to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of the race.” It’s a very resonant, very large, very Promethean statement. Up to that point, my essay had been all about the technique of poetry and all about the strategies of writing, so at the end I wanted to raise the stakes. I wanted to remember that writing is about making a difference as well as making a thing. Joyce set out to castigate, to chastise, to criticize, to satirize his race. That’s the way he created a conscience.
BEI: In the same essay, you wrote, “We stray from the realm of technique into the realm of tradition.” I am not sure I understand the background of this statement. What is the status today of the Irish renaissance which started with Yeats?
HEANEY: All poetry, even the most forward looking, experimental poetry, the poetry that makes new things happen, all poetry is in some way linked to all previous poetry. I can’t imagine something called a poem not belonging with all the rest of poetry. So what I was saying was something very obvious: that we’re in new conditions in Ireland, we are in a new and violent situation, but we’ll still have to make sense of it. For a writer, making sense means, among other things, bringing all his or her knowledge of previous literature and previous history to bear on present experience.
The form of expression which we call poetry always involves memory, some sense that a sacred truth is being kept for us, some sense of a civilization having been won, and then valued and then made alive again each time. If you banish a cultural heritage, then the human creature is denuded, stripped of a lot of resources. The vanguard and the rearguard belong on the one march.
BEI: English is perhaps the most powerful language in the world. As an English poet, or rather, as an Irish poet whose mother tongue is English, you must feel very much at home using English and living in an English-speaking culture. This contrasts markedly with the isolation of Chinese-speaking poets who choose to live abroad simply for the sake of freedom, or who were forced into exile.
HEANEY: The thing is always to have a true impulse that will actually set you writing. And to be true to whatever is out there. The easiest thing in the world is untruth in poetry, especially as you get older. You get a style or a set of preoccupations and you’re afraid to stray beyond your artistic limits. But I don’t know how to advise you. You have to follow the direction of your inner compass.
BEI: Thanks for your advice. My focus is poetry, but aside from poetry you write very insightful essays as well. From the example of contemporary poets in the West, it is clear that an outstanding poet often makes a good critic. What is the relationship between your essays and your poetry? Do they have an effect on one another?
HEANEY: They’re two different things entirely. To write poetry you have to somehow be ignorant. Well, let’s state it the other way. To write an essay or a criticism, you have to take possession of your matter or of your subject with a very definite intention. You have to have a clear purpose and be ready to persuade the reader. When I’m writing an essay, my eye is on the audience, on telling them something. But when I am writing a poem, my eye is not on the audience, it’s here [pointing to self].
Just to speak autobiographically, I am a scholarship boy. I am someone who learned poetry through being taught by teachers. I taught myself partly by reading and then I was taught by others. I was always grateful for good illumination about poetry. So, I have always believed in positive appreciation, not so much the accusation or condemnation of work but taking good work and helping people to see why it is good.
BEI: In my experience, my wish to write was spurred by reading great works of literature, yet at the same time my impulse was curbed out of reluctance to produce literary trash. I taught myself and was taught by others. The 1980s were probably the best time for poetry because of the university students who were reading underground magazines and poets who gave readings at colleges and other open venues. But in the ‘90s, poets could no longer read openly because the government thought of them as a “source of upheaval.” A lecture or discussion, even with no more than 10 participants, was out of the question. Without such venues, there was no longer direct contact between poets and their audience. How do you think that such contact affects the writing of poetry?
HEANEY: The fact is that in Western culture, in English-speaking culture, in America surely, and in England and in Ireland too, people are a little shy of the word poetry. I was a schoolteacher to begin with, not a university teacher, so part of my impulse has always been to make them less shy of it, to help. This is also partly because I am the eldest of a family of nine. Some of my brothers are not book people. They’re workers on the land, builders, farmers. They don’t have any particular literary skills and I have always been mindful of people like that, outside the charmed circle. You want to make them feel safe and not afraid. And yet all that is part of the educational venture. Giving lectures is the education of an audience. Writing poetry is a completely different thing. But I don’t know how to answer your question about how one thing affects the other. I do know, however, that young poets get great energy from being bonded together in small, passionate cliques. Their essential audience consists of their peers. And there’s also evidence that if you drive poets underground, you may be actually strengthening the poetic impulse. As long as they can stay in touch in twos and threes and fours. It happened in Irish-language poetry in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Russian in the 20th.
BEI: English poets in the 20th century generally lack direct experience of living under totalitarianism. Yet a great poetic heritage was produced by poets who had this experience. At the same time, English-speaking poets have taken an increasing interest in former Soviet Union and East bloc poets such as Milosz, Brodsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak. But in order to pay attention to this poetic heritage, one most likely relies on translation. What is your opinion of these translations?
HEANEY: Well, in my experience with the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, I had difficulty reading it in English because I knew I was missing certain things--the music of it perhaps, whatever richness there was in Russian. However, when I read his prose, I knew I was in the presence of genius.
BEI: Joseph Brodsky is one of the poets who concerns me the most. Whether under the communist system or under capitalism, his work was always aroused, courageous and full of insight. I particularly like the material he wrote in Russia. One of my favorites is his “Elegy for John Donne,” written just before he went into exile. His voice in that poem is so precise, solitary and full of pathos. I don’t know if the translations of his poetry into English give you this kind of feeling. The poems I read were translated into Chinese from the Russian. I also remember that most of his essays were written in English, but his poetry was still written in Russian, which he translated himself. Can you feel a difference between the two? In my mind, the poetry written while he was still in Russia is more powerful than that written after coming to the States. His long dramatic poems do not render well in Chinese. Much of the poetic quality is diluted by the dramatized dialogues and scene-setting.
HEANEY: Joseph was exciting, that’s the thing. Joseph’s experience up there in Siberia made him ready for anything, I think. There’s a very wonderful essay about it called “A Commencement Address.” It’s about a man--himself, obviously--in a labor camp, exposing the repression of the system by using his punishment as a means of self-expression or a form of vengefulness. It’s a wonderful essay about going the extra mile, about not turning the other cheek.
Joseph’s poetry is very difficult, very complicated. Very little of it is straightforward. But when it is, it can be devastating, like the first poem in “To Urania,” “May 24, 1980,” it’s the date of his birthday. That is a good example of Joseph’s head-on style.
I miss him, simply. When you were in Joseph Brodsky’s presence, you felt you were close to a fountain of energy, first of all, and secondly, a fountain of truthfulness. He was never afraid to speak the truth. You were also beside a fountain of arrogance, but that too was fine, that was OK.
I think he changed the literary culture in America. What Joseph did was to insist on the importance of memory. Teachers of poetry at universities in the United States now quite often make their students learn poems by heart. Joseph Brodsky was almost single-handedly responsible for that. He came in to the United States in the early ‘70s when the literary memory was almost gone, nobody learned poems by heart. Not even at Harvard. And then he came in and made these undergraduates learn poems and recite them. I suppose he was slightly tyrannical, having been brought up in a tyranny. But I think that he brought people to realize the joy of utterance in poetry. Poetry as spoken, oral art.
Also he was very, very dogmatic about formal poetry, about rhyme and meter. He gave a great boost to traditional forms. But most important--and this is why he mattered to poets--he never doubted for a moment that poetry was an essential part of the human equipment. He manifested that certainty in his personality, in his writing and in his readings also. When he read it was as if you were in the presence of a natural force, you know, he just came forth. He consciously represented the grandeur of poetry. Not himself, he had no personal grandeur, but he believed in representing poetry as a grand and important thing. That is not common in either Britain or America.
Something was always at stake for Brodsky. This was a matter of life and death--the reality of poetry. So he changed the pressure, he increased the urgency. And there’s nobody like that now. I would say one of the definitions of a poet, well not one of the definitions, but one of the functions of a poet is to give poetry a good name in the world, to stand up for it. Not every poet can do it, but Joseph could.
BEI: What you say is moving, and it helps increase my understanding of Brodsky. I regret that I did not visit him earlier, have a conversation. He left this world too soon. Tendency magazine had a special issue to mourn his passing: We published translations of his important essays, including “A Commencement Address.”
Lots of contemporary poets write very long poetry, like Brodsky or Derek Walcott. Sometimes this poetry loses its readers and is not very condensed. You do not seem to write long poems. Is that right?
HEANEY: That is right. I just can’t sustain it. I mean, Derek Walcott’s long poems are narrative poems on the whole, story poems; there’s something Homeric going on. He’s prepared to square up to Dante and the Greeks. But then Derek can also write “The Star-Apple Kingdom,” all lyric and monologue. That’s my favorite book of his.
Joseph was a very different kind of writer. Joseph was like somebody out of the 17th century in England, like John Donne. He was very inventive and driven. And of course, driven to rhyming; in Russian, the rhyming is like a trampoline.
BEI: Especially in classical Chinese poetry, rhyme is very important. For modern Chinese poetry there are no specific formal requirements, but there has to be internal rhythm, with a sensitivity to prosody. Perhaps this is similar to what you’ve written about William Wordsworth. I always read my poetry back to myself in order to listen to the internal music and the tone of the language.
HEANEY: William Wordsworth said that the poet’s subject was the workings of his spirit, of his own spirit, which is true. He said the poet delights to contemplate the workings of his spirit and to see those workings reflected in the universe.
I see that kind of link between the inner and the outer worlds in the poems you showed me. “The red rises / Blood is dripping in the sky / As if from a round shield. . . .” [“Skies” by Mang Ke]
BEI: Poetry in translation has been extremely important to poets of my generation. You may be surprised that almost a thousand poetry books have been translated into Chinese during the 20th century, mostly from English. It would be hard to overestimate the sweeping change this has caused in Chinese poetry. From form and content to modernist characteristics, from the revolution in imagery and language to direct continuance of poetic schools, from technical methods to poetic craft, we have all been influenced by Western poetry. In our experience as readers, Chinese translations of Western works are part of Chinese poetry.
To make an offhand comparison, in terms of importance of their work, Ezra Pound rivals Du Fu, Baudelaire rivals Li Bai, Emily Dickinson rivals Li Qingzhao and T.S. Eliot rivals Qu Yuan. The poetry of Yeats is studied as closely as that of Wang Wei. They have had a fundamental effect on the sudden evolution from classical to modern language. Do you read any works by Chinese poets in translation, classical or contemporary? When you read these translations, do you feel that they are distinctly Chinese or do they feel more akin to English poetry?
HEANEY: Well, translation has been important in the 20th century in English-language poetry, but our sense of Chinese poetry is defined really by a couple of writers from the early part of the century, Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. Because of their work, we have a sense of Chinese poetry broadcasting on a different frequency from English poetry. They established a certain mode. So we have a stereotypical notion of Chinese poetry. But it’s probably close to something true enough.
What happens in translation is that the original often loses its secret force in the target language, the second language. I imagine, for example, that it is still possible in Chinese for the word “water” to be water in some primal sense and not something that just comes out of a tap--since there are still very large agricultural spaces in China, the rice crop still grows in it in China. And I imagine that if you say rice in China, it still reminds you of the earth.
But if you say bread in this culture now, in the USA, it reminds you of the supermarket. And wheat is mostly television wheat, part of the advertisers’ imagery. But maybe that is true everywhere. Maybe in China too. That is what happens to language when the culture changes. It dematerializes.
In my case I can still say certain words and feel their reality. Like the word “well.” My memory is full of actual wells. But nowadays if you see a word like well in English, it belongs to stories, to “Once upon a time.” In fact, my whole childhood world belongs to “Once upon a time.” But then poetry, I believe, also belongs in some sense to “Once upon a time.” Although it is bad poetry if it belongs only to “Once upon a time.” What the most exciting poetry does is to put our own present time that we can only feel as confusion into the order of “Once upon a time.” That is why we are grateful for new poetry. It allows us to see things and hear things close to us in a clear perspective. But I was interested to read in your essay entitled “Underground Poetry in the Cultural Revolution” that people are writing in rhymed stanzas. So rhyme operates in your tradition also, does it? The poem about the train, “Beijing at 4:08 a.m.” by Guo Lusheng [Shi Zhi], that is like a song, is it, in Chinese?
BEI: Yes, it has song-like characteristics. It is in a new rhyme pattern. Shi Zhi started writing poetry in the mid-'60s and the purity of his tone remains unmatched. His poems are straightforward, with an internal melody suited to reading aloud. He shows a strong influence from classical poetry and folk songs, and his layering of images has been influenced by traditional Russian poetry, particularly Pushkin. He is still writing poetry, though he has spent most of the last 20 years in an insane asylum.
HEANEY: By the way, I liked the other piece of your writing very much. The portrait of Zhao Yifan, the man who had all the manuscripts. The private library, all the material in his house--and then his relatives who threw it all away.
BEI: Zhao Yifan was a remarkable figure in the history of Chinese underground culture. He was truly a witness and culture-bearer for the underground. I can never forget this man even though he has been dead for so long. Without his work as a collector, our “tiny tradition” would be more decimated than it is. His death and the loss of his materials was our error, even our sin.
Harold Bloom has commented that the voice and tone of your poetry is different from any other poet who is writing in English. Indeed, listening to you read your poems, even if one doesn’t understand English, one can sense the rhythms in your Irish accent. Does the Irish language have a strong influence on your writing? Also, you often use Latin or other languages in your poems. Besides bringing a sense of freshness, does this also create specific effects when we read your poems or hear them read aloud? To a certain extent dialects create uncommonly used words. In this sense, we can say that one of the challenges a poet faces is to give new vitality to these words and perhaps even to create altogether new words and hence imagery. Does the unique tone in your poetry originate in the Northern Ireland countryside in which you grew up and your conscious effort to make use of that influence?
HEANEY: I wrote a little bit about this in that “Feeling into Words” essay. What goes into our poems and how do we write? Where does the sound come from? Does it come from previous poetry we have read? Partly. Stanzas, rhythms and meters are part of our formation and so there is the inclination to repeat those tunes. But then there are the sounds we make as biological creatures, creatures of our habitat, our grunts and yells and mating calls, you know, our equipment of barks and moos. Poetry is also involved with those primal speech acts. Robert Frost was very wise about these matters; he said that in poetry we hear what he called the “sound of sense.” If you are listening through a wall, for example, and hear a conversation going on, you can understand from the sound they are making whether it’s argument or intimate conversation or desultory chat or whatever. Even if you don’t hear the content of the speech, the posture of the voice is making sense, suggesting meaning. I am a firm believer in the undergraph, the graph as it were of our intent to speak. That is very important in poetry, in the cadences, in what affects the listener . It lets the thing be H-E-A-R-D.
I am indeed faithful to some aspects of the dialect of my childhood. There are bits of vocabulary that I like because they feel almost like prenatal possessions and because they have my personal fingerprints on them. Still, the danger with dialect words is that they become folkloric, picturesque. More important, I think, is the cadence and the pitch of my actual speaking voice. That is what Bloom was talking about, I think.
Northern Ireland was colonized by English and Scottish planters in the 17th century. The English in Ireland has an older feel than the English of modern Britain. It supplanted the Irish language, but it is haunted by the ghosts of Irish speech-ways. Our accents are slightly different. But to tell you the truth, I don’t think it matters what your accent is. You have to do something with it. Everybody has more or less the same equipment. It’s what you do with the equipment that matters.
When my book “North” came out, one of the reviews was simply a list of words that the English reader would not know. That was politically quite interesting for me. That was my post-colonial job, to teach them something new.
BEI: Post-colonial language can be a highly conscious kind of cultural resistance. [Two years ago], the Nobel Peace Prize went to the two leaders who made peace possible in Northern Ireland, and it’s said that one of them, John Hume, is a friend of yours and you grew up together. Did you grow up together?
HEANEY: We didn’t grow up together but we did go to school at the same time. John Hume was two years ahead of me. I was a boarder. I came from the country. He was a day-boy and from the city. Still, the boy I knew at school is the same man I have seen at work for 40 years. He has a trustworthiness, a single, steady psychic and moral weight. He would stand there in front of you and be reliable, or even obstinate. He started out on a steady keel, a steady moral and emotional keel, and it has stayed with him.
He knew this one thing all along, that there had to be some form of justice established, that there had to be some form of constitutional development for the sake of the nationalist minority. The danger of knowing one thing is that you will repeat it so often that people will get tired of hearing it. And I think he himself was getting a bit tired. Then finally in the last five years results have started to come. First there was the IRA cease fire and then the various Anglo-Irish agreements. This is an absolutely good and deserved award.
The Unionist leader, David Trimble, has not always been on the side of progress. But the most important thing is that he changed for the sake of the whole society. So we have to honor him for a different reason. And that is for making this courageous decision in the end. But his history is not as consistent as Hume’s. Previously, he appealed to the backward element in the society. He confirmed fear rather than saying, “Let’s make a move.” But, ultimately, he did move. So when someone like that comes round to the side of progress, that has to be saluted also. I liked something George Mitchell, the [former] American senator, said about them both. According to Mitchell: “Without John Hume there would be no peace process. Without Trimble there would be no agreement.”
BEI: In your sequence entitled “Station Island,” you expressed great admiration for James Joyce and you looked for the “inner emigre.” At the dawn of peace in Northern Ireland, can a poet, while devoting himself completely to poetry itself, “negotiate between the urgency of witness and the urgency of delight”?
HEANEY: Peace or no peace, there will always be what the Latin poet Virgil called (during pax Romana), “lacrimae rerum,” the tears of things. The poet has to take reality into himself and give it back naturalized, as it were. The world is always ready to become word. Peace or no peace.
BEI: Let me go back to your poetry. It seems that your diction is quite different from other poets; it contains dense, newly coined compounds or words from different dialects and even Latin. Let me ask you about the word “bullaun” in the poem “New Song” since it is a word that our translator can’t find in the Oxford Dictionary. Do you often use words like this? Are they often metaphorical? If so, what kind of special effects do you try to achieve?
HEANEY: A bullaun is an ancient standing stone that sometimes has a hole, or a hollow, in it. It should suggest an ancient, prehistoric, primeval stone standing in the countryside. “Rath” is also a word full of associations. It is an old hilltop earthwork, a fortress. That poem is quite difficult, you might even say it is coded. It talks about vowels and consonants. I see the consonants as the English presence in Ireland and the vowels as the native presence. It is a poem of the early 1970s, a civil rights poem in which the vowels are protesting against the control of the consonants. The poem speaks from the point of view of the native Irish people who lost their Irish language. They realize that they must take English into themselves and must make it as native to the place as original Irish words like “rath” and “bullaun.” But the colonizers too must agree to be naturalized and must start to dwell imaginatively in Ireland. To put it once more in Frostian terms, the land may have been theirs, but now they must start to be the land’s.
BEI: In your poetry, I find strongly cohesive imagery combined with a colloquial quality. I feel a prose-like steadiness together with poetic strength and tension. Such a balance must be hard to achieve, judging from how many poems by others lapse into mediocre prose.
Finally, let me tell you how I felt reading your far-seeing yet humble essay “The Impact of Translation.” As you observed, owing to the insight of Isaiah Berlin and the involvement of such poets as Joseph Brodsky, over the last 20 years the work of great Russian poets, such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva and Pasternak were introduced in English. In particular, Brodsky’s writings on their poetic art and their tragic fate under Stalin, for instance “The Weeping Muse,” “Children of Civilization” and “Poets and Prose,” helped further the great impact these poets had on the English-speaking literary world. In light of this you wrote, “So, subtly, with a kind of hangdog intimation of desertion, poets in English have felt compelled to turn their gaze East and have felt encouraged to concede that the locus of greatness is shifting away from their language.” Maybe some day English-language poets like yourself will willingly look a little farther east, to the cultural sphere of China. Through translation (and only through translation is this possible), you could perhaps get to know the outstanding poets there. In their courage to face darkness, and in their spirit of commitment to poetry, we can see a “driven brilliance,” or even what you call a “geologic occurrence” that may bring their impact, like that of great Russian poetry, into the Western field of view. In fact, you have already expressed such insight. Let met thank you for entering into this dialogue with me.