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Head-on and Dead-on

Magdalena Kay

Seamus Heaney as Aesthetic Thinker: A Study of the Prose, by Eugene O’Brien, Syracuse University Press, 336 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0815634485

In his most recent book on Seamus Heaney, Eugene O’Brien commendably situates this prolific, mutable poet’s prose in the canon of conceptual thought that some call theory and some philosophy; more specifically, within the European aesthetic tradition after Kant and Hegel. Given Heaney’s reputation as an accessible writer, O’Brien’s justification is not self-evident. Given Heaney’s corpus of prose writing, it is not easy. It spans his whole writing life and ranges widely over a territory that O’Brien nominates “aesthetic thinking”. Aesthetic, because Heaney is concerned not just with poetry but with the place of the arts in the socio-political world, and indeed, the sort of thinking and feeling that we associate with creativity; thinking, because Heaney’s essays represent many stages of thinking about (not through, because there is no obvious terminus) art’s place in the world, and should not be seen as a single thought.

The book’s first task is to justify the concept of poetic thinking. We commonly separate the poetic and the rational in everyday life, opposing “poetic” ways of speaking with normal, comprehensible ways. We also commonly value intellect (allied with rationality) over emotion (allied with irrationality and unreason). Of course, such opposition diminishes the poetic, which can and does easily encompass the rational, the intellectual, even the quotidian, as well as the emotional. O’Brien pushes this argument further. Thinking in prose can itself be “poetic” in its character. Any discussion of Heaney’s aesthetic thinking must criss-cross from one side to the other in a continual dance between binary terms.

This is what O’Brien wants to clarify, to justify, and to expand. He points out that for Heaney, structures are dynamic, not immovable. Heaney repeatedly asks us to consider how many of the binaries structuring our lives could be rethought, and puts his life forward as an example: in O’Brien’s words, Heaney is often “displaced from a confidence in a single position by his disposition to be affected by all positions, negatively rather than positively capable”. In other words, Heaney listens as well as speaks, and allows himself to change in response to the opinions of others. One who can put aside the claims of identity and ego in order to be affected by others is “negatively capable”, to apply John Keats’s famous phrase about poets; would that this were a more common quality.

O’Brien uses the phrase in a political context, which is obviously central to understanding Heaney, a Catholic from Northern Ireland. Indeed, his discussion of Heaney’s politics and understanding of place is admirably nuanced, yet never unclear. He does full justice to Heaney’s complex understanding of “locations of writing”, places enlivened by association with literature, and his related understanding of his own home, which situates it in a broad spatial and temporal context. O’Brien carefully teases out several of the “rhizomatic” connections that link Heaney to other writers and philosophers, but by doing so, he also reveals the extent to which Heaney is not, finally, an academic.

This becomes an issue to consider when reading a scholarly study of Heaney’s prose. The poet’s humorous, idiomatic, and, often, deliberately casual phrases are well situated in a rigorously intellectual context by O’Brien, yet also proclaim their unacademic nature: the bodily, felt dimension of poetry, for example, is described by Heaney as “the dead-on and the head-on-ness”. There is surely a reason he does not call it somatic and haptic, and this is where all of us scholars run aground. Paraphrase one must. The academy demands erudition as well as clarity, and Heaney’s type of erudition is different from that sought by scholars. Let us remember that even when teaching at Harvard, he occupied an unusual professorship, of rhetoric and oratory, and taught creative writing. His academic intelligence is formidable but he does not try to write, or think, like a typical academic. His connections to other thinkers often seem idiosyncratic and personal, not made to build a rational intellectual structure. This is certainly not meant to suggest weakness – one of the great pleasures of reading Heaney is to watch his mind make connections, and his ear hear echoes, that we may have never considered. But his muse is the muse of poetry. Might poetry sometimes resist philosophical speculation as well as invite it? O’Brien’s fine study dares us to ask a question that pushes us to contemplate a further binary, that of invitation and resistance, which has immense implications for the study of aesthetics.


Magdalena Kay has written books about Seamus Heaney as well as the relationship between Irish and Polish poetry. She is currently writing a book about Philip Larkin and Charles Tomlinson entitledPoetry Against the World. She teaches British and Irish literature at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where she is an associate professor of English.