Sunday, May 31, 2015

poems for enhancing fiction, and reflections on Seamus Heaney

Color may enhance art - a poem may enhance fiction
In earlier posts we've discussed the enhancement of writing long works of fiction with reference to artistic design principles for a good painting: value contrasts, shape arrangements, a balance in complementary spectrum of hues, and the planned arrangement of soft and hard edges, to name an important few, translatable topics for art or fiction.

In this post we'll contemplate potential multi-art enhancements for writing fiction, using brief poems and the works and writing philosophy of the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, for a guide.  Heaney, who died in 2013, and whom we've admired for his books of poems in North, and in Station Island, and his translation of Beowulf from old English, was the subject of a recent reminiscence by Thomas Sleigh.  The article was titled A Man of Care--Seamus Heaney's Primal Reach into the Physical (The Writer's Chronicle, May-Summer, 2015).  Sleigh is a widely published author of books, has won many literary awards, and works as a journalist in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, and Libya.  In other words, the hot spots of the world today.

Heaney is no stranger to hot spots of the world, himself.  His early books of poems, North, and Field Work, include the poet's agonized, interior response to the Troubles, that armed conflict between Republican and Unionist militias in Northern Ireland.  In Heaney's words:
Pure poetry is perfectly justifiable in earshot of the car bomb, and it can imply a politics, depending on the nature of the poetry.  A poetry of dramatic wit, of riddles and flips and self-mocking ironies, may appear culpably miniaturist or fastidious to the activist with his microphone at the street corner, and yet such poetry may be exercising in its inaudible way a fierce disdain of the activist's message or a distressed sympathy with it.
Thankfully, there has now been a long ceasefire in the Troubles, but the quoted passage may give some idea as to the temperament of Heaney.  We might now move on to a focus theme, regarding the short poem that could be incorporated into a longer work of fiction to good effect.  One of the more basic concepts of Heaney's approach to constructing poems, gleaned from reading some of his works and from the discussions given by Sleigh, is the attention Heaney gives to acute, subjective observations of earth's surfaces, human activities thereon, the meanings they ascribe to what they are doing, the uninterpreted words they use in telling it.

Heaney accomplishes this from his habitual practice of observation, "an activity which is averse to overwhelming phenomena by the exercise of subjectivity, content to remain an assisting presence rather than an overbearing pressure."  As he said of Pound's work, which he admired, "Pound's strictures--"the natural object is always the adequate symbol," "Go in fear of abstractions," don't use phrases like "dim lands of peace" because it mixes "an abstraction with the concrete" and "dulls the image."

For instance, Sleigh has Heaney say, about the imaginative powers conferred by sitting in the basalt throne of "the wishing chair" at the Giant's Causeway (a long line of upraised basaltic columns stretching out into the Irish Sea, toward Scotland), not only should the rock make "solid sense" against the small of your back, it should also freshen "your outlook/beyond the range you thought you'd settled for."  I'd visited the Giant's Causeway during a two-month bicycle tour of that Northern Ireland region.  I didn't occupy the wishing chair, but I can feel the physical sensation of the poetic image, occupying not only the now of time, but the vast, geological age of time, and without any need of interpretation by the poet.  It's perhaps something concrete to strive for.

Following is a working draft of a poem that I was considering using in my introduction to a YA novel, to be titled "The Young Molly Maguires," set in the coalfield labor violence of the late nineteenth century in Pennsylvania.  It has allusions and similes, but I'm thinking it has concrete, non-abstract points of reference most readers' imaginations will readily grasp.

A Lament


God lifted noble man from earth 
crowned him lord of all creation
until a stunning fall from grace
banished him to a life of toil and sweat

Impoverished men reentered earth
pillaging black coal so they might live
The miners toiled mightily to earn their bread
How so, earth’s new owners demanded more

Till the miners raised up a young prophet, Union, 
to lead a way from slavery,
but Union could not strike water from a rock,
and the miners withered in despair 

An ancient Joshua rose up to besiege the owners,
when the Molly Maguires entered the fray 
and smote the owners’ captains from ramparts and wall,
until undone by perfidy of state and church

Who struggle for justice, sing a lament for the Mollies,
though brutal men rode horseback from both  camps
it is forever the victor who writes history,
and cartloads of Mollies swung in the air 

J. O'Rourke

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