Seamus Heaney and Poetry - a question of taste

Poetry is such a personal thing. I remember maybe twenty years ago I bought an anthology called The Nation's Favourite Poems, which was linked to a BBC series on the same theme. I knew it was likely to have English / British bias, and another bias in favour of non-British English language poems, predominantly American, because there are more well-known American poems and poets than Canadian, Australian and New Zealand for example.


After reading some of the poems I noticed a huge variation in my reactions to the poems. Some I loved. Others I didn't like at all. This piqued my interest. These were the best-loved poems, voted for by the British public, not just a general anthology, and I was finding that I felt absolutely no effect on reading more than half the poems.


So I decided to try an experiment. I had, and still have, another anthology, published by Faber & Faber, by sheer chance in the same year, 1996, as The Nation's Favourite Poems. It was edited by three people highly-respected in the literary world, including Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Harold Pinter. The book was called 99 Poems in Translation.


I decided to re-read all the poems in the book and give them a score out of ten. The range of poets was breathtaking, as was the period covered, from one of the psalms in the Old Testament through Dante Alighieri, Francois Villon, Martial, Li Po, Sapho and Virgil right up to the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, Neruda, Pasternak, Rilke, Mandelstam, Brecht and Andre Breton.


Opening the book at random as I write this, here are the first ten scores that appear scrawled at the top of each page I opened:

0

5

4

3

8

3

5

7

4

6


I flicked my way through all the pages to see if I had any scores of ten out of ten. I did. In fact I had: Bertolt Brecht's "War has been given a bad name", C.P. Cavafy's "The city", Nazim Hikmet's (whose name or work I had never come across before) "A sad state of freedom", Lady Ki No Washika's "No", Henri Michaux's "Simplicity" and a few others, bringing the total up to a little less than ten out of ninety-nine. Not bad I thought.


Then I counted how many zero scores I had. Total, eighteen. Almost one in five of these poems, written by world-renowned poets of all ages, and chosen by a future Nobel Prize winner and two publisher-editor-poets.


I'm not an academic or specialist but I have studied literature, know my poetry both technically and through widely varied reading, and have read collections from the early Taoist and Zen masters, the classical Greek and Roman poets up to living poets from all continents. Therefore I conclude that it's all a matter of personal taste, no matter how great the poet, nor how lofty the recommender of particular poems.


This blog was inspired by a lovely short dialogue I had on Twitter with the Cambodian-American poet and academic, Bunkong Tuon, whose two poetry volumes, And So I Was Blessed, and Gruel I have and admire greatly. He had shared Seamus Heaney's poem Valediction, written for Heaney's wife, which has a running metaphor on the sea, explaining that his dependence on her in his life was the thing that kept him afloat (admittedly my description is a simplistic description of Heaney's intentions but it's more or less right).


Never having come across it, and having enormous respect and admiration for Bunkong, I read it for myself. I have read some, though not a lot, of Heaney's poems, maybe around twenty to thirty poems, and like a lot of his work. But this one didn't affect me at all.


I tweeted back to Bunkong, " I know it's heresy but this does nothing for me. Purely personal taste but for me in this poem it seems he's trying too hard at times, too clever: the use of "anchored" and "unmoored" to tie into the "at sea" theme, as with "mutiny" and other words. I like him better when simpler."


Bunkong duly replied. " Not heresy to me. I understand. Check out “Twice Shy.” That is one of Marie’s favorites. Hope you are well."


So in turn I read this one, another that I hadn't read before.


My response to Bunkong, " Yes, Twice Shy is a lovely poem. Gentle, subtle, nuanced but paradoxically also simple and crystal clear. Hadn’t come across it before so thank you for it."


What are we to make of this exchange and my previous two-bookful scorings of my preferences for this poem but not that poem? It's not even about particular poets as I found that some of my "favourite poets", as designated in my mind, had poems in one or both anthologies that I gave very low scores to.


The same point arises every January when here in Scotland there is Burns' Night where many people go to what are called Burns' Suppers. These involved a traditional dinner of haggis, neeps (swedes) and tatties (potatoes), lots of alcohol and speeches or toasts, and a couple of recitals of major poems by Robert Burns.


Truth is, like maybe more Scots than those who would admit it publicly, I'm not a fan of Burns' Suppers nor of more than a dozen of so of Burns's poems. Most of the ones I like I only really enjoy as lyrics when sung (as was the original purpose of many of his most famous poems).


Again, this is personal taste. No matter how hard we try to teach literature and create theories of what makes "good" poetry, and what is "poor" it really comes down to "does it affect you in a deep way?". If so, in your mind it's good. If not, in your mind it's not.

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© 2019 by Martin Stepek.