poem index

Free Bloody Birds?: Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, Seamus Heaney

Written by

Tom Sleigh
Contributor Page

Year

2005

Devotional poetry is rare nowadays, especially if it springs from traditional religious faith. For Philip Larkin, it came off as old-fashioned guilt, a cultural relic which the lucky younger generation dismisses with a shrug:

     ...That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds...

But the recent books of poetry by Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, and Seamus Heaney are proof that Larkin's juniors aren't all free bloody birds. Their religious upbringing (Bidart and Heaney are Roman Catholic, Pinsky, an Orthodox Jew) has so shaped their sensibilities that they've been unable or unwilling to push aside, like Larkin's "outdated combine harvester," the bonds and gestures of their inherited faiths. They've re-tooled the old machinery to serve new freedoms: among the three of them, they seem to have constructed the newfangled lineaments of a contemporary divine comedy.

Frank Bidart's In the Western Night is really one long poem, an inferno of the body's hungers at war with the spirit's ideals. In "Ellen West" an anorexic is torn between her longing to make her body the image of her soul and the ordinary consolations of food, sex, and love. This driven, open-eyed, strangely heroic and terribly helpless woman is a spirit in revolt against "givens" of existence: identity, gender, matter itself. She may sound like a case history—but Bidart invests her with the reality of the most fearful inner voices of our dreams. The suicide note she leaves is a mixture of dignified pathos and resignation, but underneath, Bidart injects a tone of...is it triumph, even revenge? Only a superbly honest writer, at once generous and exacting, would be keyed to such complex nuances of feeling.

Bidart's use of extreme personalities to dramatize conflicting forces in the self takes on historical dimensions in "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky." In the poem, Nijinsky's struggle with his own contradictions becomes emblematic of the spiritual catastrophe of World War I. Few self-consciously political poets have Bidart's ability to convey the sense of how personal dilemmas transform by degrees into such historical nightmares as machine guns, gas, and trench warfare. Through the course of the poem, Bidart lays out Nijinsky's chain of reasons for the war: "All life exists//at the expense of other life..."; therefore "GOODNESS and BEING/ are incompatible,—"; therefore "The War allowed me/...to EMBODY,—// an ultimate 'aspect' of the 'self'..." Stated so baldly, this seems nothing but paranoid oversimplification. But Bidart's power to dramatize Nijinsky's mind as it defends itself from these conclusions—qualifying, rejecting, hedging before finally giving into them—makes us feel with Nijinsky the full terror and sadness of the war: not just a social phenomenon with economic and political roots, this disaster rises from the very nature of our being.

Some readers ask, "Aren't there enough real problems to occupy a poet—domestic life, ordinary bumbling existence—without piling mountains on top of mountains? Bidart's punctuation. Those screaming capital letters. Isn't this eccentricity parading as profundity?—a sort of metaphysical circus in which ideas are the dancing elephants?" And there may be an element of theatricality in such proceedings. But what of Rilke's angles, or Melville's white whale (surely Moby Dick is a prose poem), or Baudelaire's skulls and crepuscular flowers? Every poet who permanently redefines the boundaries of the art is liable to provoke headshaking, handwringing groans. But Bidart's demands are worth the reader's trouble: his is a radical mind, original and representative at the same time.

In the book's final poem, "The First Hour of the Night," Bidart writes an elegy about his desire for an all-inclusive metaphysics. In the poem none of the speakers goes mad or kills himself or anyone else—the tone is particularly chaste, though always dramatically modulated between emotional highs and lows. And though some readers will prefer the immediacy and intensity of "Ellen West," "Herbert White," or "The War of Vaslav Nijinsky," "The First Hour of the Night" pushes beyond the spiritual impasse of these earlier poems and achiees a momentary sense of beneficence. Links among priestcraft, power, and the wars of religion may cloud the result, but Bidart has discovered that a personal sense of grace can exist side by side with the horrors of history.

The struggle among competing claims makes Bidart's poems into actions: unlike Auden, who crankily insisted that poetry makes nothing happen, for Bidart poetry is an event, a drama of self-transformation. This is the great appeal of "The First Hour of the Night," the wellspring of Bidart's individuality and power.

But his concerns are so basic that they extend well beyond the self: having fathomed our longing for certainty in the world, Bidart reveals why such certainty is impossible. He is a poet in love with sacred orders as a ground of being, who nevertheless suspects that such orders become imprisoning. A truly religious spirit, a deeply skeptical one, he sees his paradoxical task as a struggle to desacralize his imagination.

Unlike Bidart, whose sense of the sacred springs from his interest in Western metaphysics, Robert Pinsky's divine is radically fluid. His fourth book of poems, The Want Bone, is a purgatory of pure potential. In poems like"The Refinery" and "The Uncreation," his gods are wonderful highs of imagination and rhetorical skill rather than sacred presences sanctioned by tradition. Aesthetic projections, their existence is contingent on language, on the peculiar resonances that ring inside the creating self.

But what if that self is also fluid, one wave of desire cresting into another? Then the metaphysical "givens" of Western culture (which so haunt Bidart and partly structure his revolt) dissolve and shift as the self shifts: for Pinsky, this dynamic engenders possibilities of self-revelation but not certainties of divine order.

In "Window," the self is a "bright confusion," an energizing free-for-all of accents and cultures, of immediate sensory experience and the legacy of tradition:

My mother Mary Beamish who came from Cork
Held me to see the snowfall out the window—
................................................................................................
We took their language in our mouths and chewed
(Some of the consonants drove us nearly crazy
Because we were Chinese—or was that just the food
My father brought from our restaurant downstairs?)
In the fells, by the falls, the Old Ghetto, or New Jersey,
Little Havana or Little Russia—I forget,
Because the baby wasn’t me, the way
These words are not...

Of course the speaker’s assertion that his mother came from Cork is only meant half-jokingly: it’s as if a poem for Pinsky is a way to shift identities, so that he can be Jewish, Irish, Chinese, and even the baby Mary Beamish holds, though he refuses to be pinned down in his identity by words, even if they are the words of his own poem. But with this liminal sense of identity comes the possibility that the self is only ceaseless flux, one half-remembered story or snatch of gossip or fragment of culture washing up against another. The pinwheeling sources of identity in "Window" keep threatening to fly apart: "...you opened your small brown fist/...to hold the reflection/Of faces.../...a cold black sheen of shapes and fires/Shaking...."

In need of re-creation at every moment, the self as a center is really nothing more than airy shimmers and gleams, mere "flakes that crissed and crossed/Other lights in lush diagonals..." in a kind of ghostly emanation.

Radical uncertainty about the self in part accounts for the desperate formal ingenuity of a poem like "Lament for the Makers": underneath Pinsky's eloquence, one senses him straining to weld multiple perspectives into a single frame, a sort of provisional center from which to tell "the truth." The near impossibility of this imbues the words with a sense of risk and explains why the poem, like William Dunbar's, is a lament:

What if I told you the truth? What if I could?
The nuptial trek of the bower apes in May:
At night in the mountain meadow their clucking cries,

The reeking sulphur springs called Smoking Water,
Their skimpy ramparts of branches, pebbles and vines—
So slightly better than life, that snarl of weeds,

The small-town bank by comparison is Rome,
With its four-faced bronze clock that chimes the hours,
The six great pillars surmounted by a frieze

Of Cronus eating his children—or trying to,
But one child bests him because we crave to live,
And if that too means dying then to die

Like Arthur when ladies take him in his barge
Across the misty water...

The swift shifts from the apocryphal bower apes to the small-town bank to Rome to Cronus eating his children to the dying Arthur; this almost willful pleasure in linking disparate traditions, high and low culture, animal and human, human and divine recalls not only Pound's methods but much of the subject matter in the Cantos. Pinsky's constructions are more modest than Pound's, less irascibly obscure, more open and tentative in their attitudes toward history and other cultures. Of course Pinsky's Jewishness is his main cultural marker, but it serves more as a trope than as a creed: to read this book as partly an endorsement, partly a critique of Orthodox Judaism; to read it even as fundamentally concerned with Jewish tradition is to miss the spontaneous intuitive action of an intelligence unaligned with any traditional way of thought.

This ambivalence about certainties is also the source of Pinsky's anguish, an anguish embodied in "In the Childhood of Jesus." As the title suggests, the poem is a projection of both omnipotence and utter helplessness. Scolded by his elders for violating the Sabbath by making images of sparrows out of clay, the child Jesus takes revenge by causing another boy to "wither down to the root," and then prophesies his own fate. But even as he does so, he is in tears—still a boy, years distant from his destiny.

With even more fierce wit, Pinsky reveals the anxiety all makers feel about what they have made: even though the sparrows come to life and fly away at the child Jesus's command, the boy is helpless to control them after their creation or even to know their whereabouts: "...Unknown even to Jesus/ The twelve new sparrows flew aimlessly through the night,/ Not blinking or resting, as if never to alight." While the couplet imparts a sense of elation that the sparrows may be not ordinary birds but immortal ones, the capping irony is that their flight is aimless, its duration ambiguous, its ultimate end unknown.

Unlike his earlier work, which was more overtly autobiographical, Pinsky now seems interested in creating masks and alter-selves to explore his own internal tensions. His shadow-like remove represents a triumph of self-abnegation, his book's personal concerns sublimated into "the monstrous overbuilding of the imagination."

Perhaps The Want Bone is best read as a bid for freedom from all contingencies of history and culture. Pinsky tries to realize a world of imagination limitless in its opportunities to self-renewal and transformation. What is artful and moving and lasting in this book is that he achieves this wildly fluid, intuitive appeal beyond the facts with the facts themselves, the properties and often painful preoccupations of our finite world.

Compared with Bidart's and Pinsky's provocative energies, in his Selected Poems: 1966-1987 Seamus Heaney writes with full-throated ease and natural concentration. Where they are self-conscious, he is self-forgetful. Instead of questioning his sense of sacred awe, he submits to the lyric impulse to frame his perceptions. However, his brand of paradise is not based on traditional notions of the sacred, but on states of feeling—the kind of feeling that infuses a person's birthplace, or the scenes of first love, or certain locales in the city or country visited in one's youth. These nodes achieve a numinous existence in Heaney's private universe. His Catholicism has been superbly adapted to describe these states so that no one can accuse him of not being sufficiently "modern."

Of course Heaney's struggle to realize his talents has been waged in cultural terms far different than Bidart's and Pinsky's. Unlike Heaney, who has had to jettison intellectual cargo, most American poets after Whitman have picked up assumptions whenever and wherever they could. In Leaves of Grass Whitman confidently asserted, "...what I assume you shall assume." Of course the Civil War put an end to Whitman's utopian fervor: America as the promised land, its citizens unified by shared cultural ideals, never materialized. (That Whitman's vision of Eros as democracy's cornerstone got him fired from the Department of the Interior because his books were judged obscene shows just how apocalyptic his optimism was only seventy-five years after the American Revolution.)

Later poets such as Eliot, Pound, and Williams tried to fill the historical vacuum created by our increasingly fragmented national identity—they resorted to such certainties as Christianity, Usury, or The Common Man. These attitudes invigorated their work but also marred it: Pound's and Eliot's anti-Semitism, Williams's defensive polemics about literary tradition and poetic technique have made the best poets of later generations walk wary, in Randall Jarrell's phrase, "of the monumental certainties that go perpetually by, perpetually on time." With the exceptions of their religious backgrounds, Bidart and Pinsky have preferred the pace of their own subjectivity: and though this has its dangers—Bidart's inferno and Pinsky's purgatory are linked by the insistence of their own self-regard—their integrity has kept their work open to the reader and to outside social forces.

But because of Seamus Heaney's Catholic upbringing in the Protestant north of Ireland, because of his schoolboy experience of Greek and Latin, because of the tight-knit mores of rural farm-life, Heaney has had a surfeit of assumptions. His career has been a puzzle of knowing how to be done with these without having to repudiate or denigrate them.

After his first three books, (rigorously cut in Selected Poems), Heaney jettisoned the pastoral for the historical and wrote North, which shed Protestant notions of Catholic inferiority. Following Stations (a set of prose poems), Field Work rode higher and lighter than anything he'd ever written. Not only was this buoyancy reflected in his style, which became less clotted and more colloquial, but one felt a relaxation and consolidation of his own sense of Eros touching and reforming the disastrous world of sectarian violence. A hostage to history in North, in Field Work Heaney threw off this collective guilt by setting alongside elegies for victims of the killing other poems that commemorated the pleasures and difficulties of married love.

In Station Island Heaney took on one of the more difficult tasks of his career: he cast off Catholic notions of Catholic inferiority. When he has Joyce say in the title poem's final section, "That subject people stuff is a cod's game,/ infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage"; and even more devastatingly, "You lose more of yourself than you redeem// doing the decent thing...," this tongue-lashing becomes its own profane revelation. Traditional religious forms (Heaney's "peasant pilgrimage") are inadequate to liberate him from his sense of belonging to a subject people; by participating in worn-out rites, he only reinforces his bondage. But Heaney succeeds in turning traditional religious notions against themselves: his casually secular use of "redeem" is a subtle and far-reaching revision of his Catholicism.

Even more crucial in this passage is Heaney's use of Joyce to dramatize his own anxieties about Irish Provincialism: Joyce's secular, urban, ironic intelligence as a foil for Heaney's rural, agrarian class loyalties and nostalgias subtly illuminates the split in the grain of Heaney's sensibility. Through the device of Joyce's intervention, the elegist makes a precarious truce with the ironist.

Of course this truce is endangered by more than divided personal loyalties: violent sectarian rivalries (in part the product of the traditional "decencies" of Heaney's upbringing) further fracture his divided sensibility. But his ventiloquism in "Station Island" makes a provocative use of these divisions: culture heroes like Joyce aren't the only ones dispensing wisdom in the poem. In an earlier section, he impersonates a hitman. His identification with this voice "from blight and hunger" shows how deeply empathetic his mind is and, more generally, how contradictory and disturbing the sources of art can be: the possibility of his own redemption seems only to have sharpened his sensitivities to the historical conditions that make killers.

The Haw Lantern shows Heaney at an ever greater remove from "the decent thing"; he shook off the role of Irish poet for that of a poet who happens to be Irish. His sense of himself in relation to his country's landscape, politics, and people has become more meditative, more private—and paradoxically, more accessible to a non-Irish reader. Ireland is still his subject, but Ireland in a more emblematic, parablist frame of mind. And even when he writes autobiographically, as in "Clearances," a sonnet sequence about the death of his mother, his Irish context is so assumed that he never feels the need, as in Station Island, to annotate or explain it. This poem, one of his best, suggests the spaces that death opens in and between people. Though its circumstances are emphatically those of rural Ireland—a parish priest saying prayers, sheets sewn from flour sacks, peeled potatoes—Heaney's place is that of an insider who has become, because of his learning, an outsider: "I'd naw and aye/ And decently relapse into the wrong/ Grammar which kept us allied and at bay." The irony of language becoming the source of estrangement and of access to home is Irish in origin, but movingly human in consequence.

The Haw Lantern also reflects a flinty vision of history as a progressive cheapening of first-hand experience in favor of the post factum jabber of "experts." Heaney laments this inadvertently in a poem like "Clearances"; but in a poem like "The Mud Vision," he seems intent on wringing the neck of his own nostalgia. This rapid oscillation between elegy and irony demonstrates how far Heaney has come from his original equation, in his early poem "Digging," of his pen with his father's turf spade.

And yet underneath his disburdenings, Heaney's sense of nature as a window on the sacred has remained constant. He often expresses this in terms of a highly eroticized, maternal female body. In "The Wishing Tree" (he imagines his mother as "the wishing tree that died" and sees "it lifted, root and branch, to heaven"), the nails, coins, and pins driven "Need by need by need" into the mother-tree's penetrated body come "streaming from it like a comet-tail" as her unburdened body rises. In "Alphabets" the earth is a mother's egg, a "risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O/ Like a magnified and buoyant ovum." And in "The Milk Factory" Heaney conflates breast-milk and Christ's wounds: a milky water runs "from the pierced side/ Of milk itself..." until the "we" at the poem's end are "astonished and assumed into fluorescence." Again Heaney appropriates Catholic typologies—this time of crucifixion and resurrection—to impart his own sexually charged sense of the sacred.

In a lifetime of writing, how few poems spring from authentic sources, how many mark time until the advent of some new impulse: but in the years since The Haw Lantern (the last volume included in Heaney's 1987 Selected Poems—one could imagine Heaney falling prey to the weaker poems in that volume, now effectively cut to show its true shape), the poet has done what few first-rate poets ever do. Remarkably unassuming and self-assured, he has found new ways to write without turning his back on the old ones, especially in Seeing Things. Here, the elegist and ironist, so at odds throughout his career, at last meet: imagine a skeptic, homemade, stoically matter-of-fact, alert to feeling and sensation, who has metaphysical intimations like Henry Vaughan's, and you have a fairly representative notion of the creature Heaney has become. The series of twelve line poems called, collectively, "Squarings," are among the most powerful and uniquely strange that Heaney has ever written. Haunted by both the death of his father and mother, these poems suggest a spiritual world of memory and association that is at once an elegy for, and evocation of, the vanished Ireland of Heaney's youth. The book takes nostalgia and turns it into a spiritual vision of the continuities between the living and the dead, such that "a radiant pillar of house dust" becomes a spectral emanation from Vaughan's "world of light." More than elegies, these poems make the unseen presence of the other world an immediate, felt, and apprehensible reality. As Heaney well knows, this reality may last only as long as the poem lasts. But in a secular, technocratic age, that in itself testifies to the large ambition behind these quietly transcendent meditations.

Like Bidart and Pinsky, Heaney's idea of what makes for a good poem has never degenerated into mere writing or succumbed to aesthetic claims so specialized that they could sanction the thousand and one things such claims usually sanction. These books are powerful examples of their authors' lifelong commitment to poetry as an independent category of human consciousness. Ranged against the clichés of sectarian ideologies, poetry and the spirit find in each other a source and haven for their own wayward, evolving, tenacious powers. In the stark absence of God, hell, and all that, these three superbly individual writers share the desire to make a poetry from resolutely personal perceptions of transcendence.