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The Power of Concentration

Gerald Dawe

Seamus Heaney and Society, by Rosie Lavan, Oxford University Press, 208 pp. £55, ISBN: 978-0198822974
The Letters of Denis Devlin, Sarah Bennett (ed), Cork University Press, 224 pp €39, ISBN: 978-1782054092

“I fear the death of Tolstoy,” wrote Anton Chekhov in 1900. “What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature ... He is the one person whose moral authority is sufficient in itself to maintain so-called literary fashions and movements on an acceptable level.” (Chekhov needn’t have worried because he predeceased Tolstoy by six years.” For many in Ireland and elsewhere Seamus Heaney embodied that kind of (in Heaney’s case, unsought) “moral authority”’ and many feel that with his death in 2013 the civic and public “cover” poetry, as an institution, could call on, in today’s clickbait culture, was in some way or other, compromised. Whether this is true or not, Rosie Lavan’s magisterial Seamus Heaney and Society will prove to be a priceless work of research.

In a neatly produced volume in the excellent Oxford English Monograph series, Lavan has unearthed large swathes of Heaney archive material, from notebooks and correspondence to radio scripts and film documentaries, alongside an intensive yet lightly rendered commentary of his poetry and prose – all of it. It is hugely empowering to read such a critical text and rare as it is to say so, that like a first-rate novel, I could not put this study down. (I should also say that I was a one-time colleague of Dr Lavan at TCD.).The sweep of her narrative never loses sight of the poetry and the scholar’s frame of reference is never called upon just for appearance’s sake. When some questions have to be asked or positions challenged, Dr Lavan has, level-headedly, done this with objectivity and pertinence and her commentary on the development of Heaney’s thought is always apt and connected. Take for example her gloss on Heaney’s important essay “The Government of the Tongue” originally delivered as one of the TS Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in 1986. Heaney, Lavan explains, “borrowed from the Gospel of John, recalling the story of the woman taken in adultery, and the words Jesus writes on the ground. There, [Heaney] said:

The drawing of those characters is like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it. Poetry, like the writing, is arbitrary and marks time in every possible sense of that phrase […] in the rift between what is going to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.

The five chapters of Seamus Heaney and Society – “Publishing in London”, “Images of Belfast”, “Education and the Radio”, “The University and the Canon” and “Responsibilities” – build towards an overarching authoritative view of Heaney as a poet who, having been boosted by critics and journalists alike in the UK and North America, broke through to the hearts and minds of the general reader globally, precisely because his poetic instincts were formed by the full resources and range of the English language, both historical and present-day, demotic and, as in the above case, biblical. This was an extraordinary achievement, and justified without question the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995; surely one of the most popular decisions the Swedish Academy has made in the unfolding quarter of a century since. Lavan’s study is the real deal and hopefully Oxford University Press will produce a paperback in due course at a decent price for the general reader and student alike.

As I read both of these books together, I could not help thinking how different were the fortunes of Denis Devlin’s life and letters and the great democratic outdoors of Heaney’s world and achievement. Lavan’s reading reveals how intellectual veracity can sit alongside natural flair without any fanfare required whereas Devlin’s European and transatlantic life from the 1930s to his death so tragically young (at fifty-one) in 1959 makes for a startling contrast in terms of recognition and legacy. One can imagine a historical study of the social and cultural contexts within which Irish poetry has managed in a post-Yeatsian world as the changes and transitions between the culture of Denis Devlin’s generation and that of Seamus Heaney. Sarah Bennett’s edition of the letters would provide an indispensable source.

The sheer effort to draw worldwide attention (be that in England, Italy, France or North America) to poetry (and visual arts) from Ireland underpins much of the Devlin letters. Whether that is collaborating with Niall Montgomery, a UCD contemporary, to edit an anthology of French poetry translated into Irish, plans to establish a review, trying to organise an exhibition of Jack Yeats’s paintings at the Venice Biennale, or “curating” a supplement of Irish poetry for an American magazine, Devlin was during his life as a diplomat, hugely invested in Irish culture.

It is clear that the coterie which formed itself around Beckett in the 1930s were keen to get their work “out there”. Referring to his volume of poems Intercessions, published in August 1937, Devlin remarks of the famous Dublin bookstore: “I happened to be at Combridge’s, Grafton St, and to mention the book which is not displayed. The manager got very indignant.” Indeed, Dublin was a source of both complaint, vexation and comfort; a contradictory nostalgia as Devlin’s travels took hold. “It’s good here [Paris]. Come over.” “I can’t imagine my ever becoming reconciled to Dublin. What a shabby town!” And to his good friend Thomas MacGreevy: “I wonder how in God’s name you can imagine anyone living here in interest or calm.”. Later he remarks: “this place is so dreary and spiritless, like an old man with weak eyes.” However, writing from Rome to his sister Shiela (sic) back home, a hint of yearning comes into play: “I sympathise with you for I sometimes wish terribly to be in Dublin, vigorously and unreasonably telling myself that only our ways and our countryside and food are right and all others incomprehensively hostile.” Some local inherited antagonisms slip by too. “I met the foulest Protestants the other night with Brian [Coffey] who provoked one of them very amusingly, saying to him as the climax of [a] piece of abusive repartee ‘You are a classified geological specimen!’ Everyone was relieved and laughed …” While in a letter to George Reavey on the publication of his poetry collection, Quixotic Perquisitions (1938): “I hope it will have success – from the publicity angle as well; there shd. be some chance of that now that the Auden ramp has died down a bit – when his followers are being invited to Dublin to Trinity inaugurals it must be near the end.” There is also a neat reference to the Five Nations Championship of 1948, which Ireland won, beating England.

The religious conscience is notable too throughout the letters: Referring to Lough Derg, upon which he wrote a long and largely successful poem, Devlin described in Ireland “a sort of Catholic puritanism, a restricted, contracted puritanism, at that”. There is a worrying reference to “German Jews” as refugees in London but otherwise little is reported on the political crises of WWII and its aftermath, though the Irish position on the Turkey and Cyprus conflict emerges tantalisingly in the next decade. In the year of his death Devlin was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Sylvester by Pope John XXIII.

But it is the range of his contacts and connections which these letters reveal that strikes the reader today. Publishing with William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and WH Auden in 1940 and reading at the “Y” in New York he remarks “how glad [he is] for the chance of becoming better known”. Notwithstanding his inclusion in many of the leading European and US journals and his friendships with Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Robert Fitzgerald, Alexis Leger (Saint-John Perse), Theodore Roethke, Ignazio Silone, Eleanor Clarke, Robert Fitzgerald, James Loughlin, John Frederick Nims and Brian O’Nolan, there is an abiding sense of his not being recognised. “I have noticed that people who know me invariably like my poetry, whereas those that don’t know me do not invariably do. Does that mean that the interesting thing is I + my poetry?” Elsewhere he remarks: “My poems are not very fashionable for the English market now.” This situation was to remain until the late 1960s and early 1970s when poet-critics such as Michael Smith and scholars including James Mays and Stan Smith started to revisit the Thirties generation of Devlin, Coffey and, of course, Beckett to explore what had happened to their work and poet-publisher John F Deane at Dedalus Press started the process of republishing their poems in collected editions. (Perhaps now is the time to see a properly [privately?] funded Library of Ireland classics series of volumes dedicated to issuing selected editions of these and other poets – Blanaid Salkield, George Reavey, John Lyle Donaghy, Mary Devenport O’Neill, Freda Laughton, Rhonda Coghill, Brian Coffey and Donagh MacDonagh come to mind.)

In letters to the actor Ria Mooney, with whom he had a relationship, and later on in the handful of letters to his fellow civil servant Máire MacEntee (the poet Maire Mhac an tSaoi) there is a mini-history of social life in Dublin for a middle class emerging out of the bloody decades of national conflict and crisis. Devlin’s family, like that of many others of his correspondents, lived in the secure and in some cases wealthy world of south county Dublin, the Devlin family home being in The Slopes of Dun Laoghaire, Niall Montgomery in Wellington Lodge, Booterstown, and, cross-border, George Reavey in “Stramore”, Chichester Park, North Belfast. Not quite the picture usually ascribed to mid-century Irish poetry.

While significant missing voices, women and men, continue to echo around the canon, Bennett’s edition of Devlin’s letters and Lavan’s study of Heaney open up new ground for an understanding of the literary past from the mid-1930s to the early decades of this century. By the time Heaney was taking off in the early 1970s that earlier generation had done some heavy lifting, particularly in the US. Curious to see how certain names recur in both publications, such as Robert Fitzgerald, the world-class translator of Homer, a friend to both Devlin and Heaney. Another important figure, Eleanor Clark, the American short story writer and activist who so beguiled Louis MacNeice, became with her husband and young family, an abiding source of friendship and support to Denis and his wife, Caren, and their son, Stephen. As a mark of tribute to his mediating presence between Ireland, Europe and North America, the Denis Devlin Memorial Award was established in 1961, and first awarded in 1964 for the best book of poetry by an Irish citizen in the previous three years.

We get a clear sense of how these “international connections” meant so much to Denis on a personal, non-professional level in the following concluding sentences from a letter to “My dear Eleanor” of August 1956: “I had a beautiful time with you, in the air of friendship which it’s true one breathes rarely. With good talk and poetry, by no means forgetting the sharp, delicate lobster and shiskabib [sic]. Nor the fine air when we had drinks at evening. I hope your work is progressing, and Red’s [Robert Penn Warren] as well. Give my respectful bows to Ro’posy and a wink to Gabriel Penn [the Warren’s two children]. With love to you both. Denis.” Sarah Bennet states in her lucid introduction that “[o]ne of the ambitions of this edition is to encourage further scholarship on Devlin’s work and this period of Irish cultural history”. I think she can take that as a job well done. As with Rosie Lavan’s Heaney monograph, Bennett’s book is clear-eyed and ideologically untrammelled; both are essential reading for anyone interested in the history of poetry and Ireland.

1/11/2020

Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection is The Last Peacock. With Eoin O’Brien he co-edited Ethna MacCarthy Poems. His memoir Looking Through You has just been published by Merrion Press.

 

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