Concerning Instant Delight
Maybe I’m just irritable, but Craig Raine’s recent review of Seamus Heaney’s two-volume selected poems rubs me the wrong way. It’s hardly that I take exception to Raine’s high estimation of Heaney’s poetry. My concern is with the aesthetic doctrine that underwrites Raine’s laudation and its overbearing triumphal tone.
Raine holds up what might be termed Heaney’s gift for mimesis as the poet’s singular virtue: “He can describe things.” The “ready pleasure” and “obvious likeness” of “A rowan like a lipsticked girl” is one example of the poet’s deft descriptions “pleasurable because they are accurate and irrefutable.” Heaney’s work displays other achievements—”an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music”—but, “[u]nless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight …, the poetry is automatically of the second order.”
Raine opens his review remarking how one kind of latter-day mime, “the impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience” that results in a “release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins,” of a kind with that “drench of dopamine” produced by the “ungainsayable instant delight” that is the sine qua non of poetry.
However rhetorical the appeal to the brain’s “primitive pleasure centre” might be here, it is one with Raine’s consistent affirmation of the immediacy of the well-wrought poetic image: where the description is “obvious” the delight is “ready,” “instant,” and “ungainsayable.” Happily, one need not right away allude to two centuries or so of philosophical reflection on the untenability of Raine’s assumptions here as the review itself can’t toe the line it draws.
However much “Heaney records things as they come, democratically, unaware of hierarchy” not all such things are democratically given. Raine has to expend over a quarter of the review glossing Heaney’s poems that deal with Irish or Greek myth in order to make clear how they expose what is “immovably rooted in us.” This example of overt intertextuality reveals that Heaney not so much “gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark / As he pulls it to’”—how could I appreciate the description if I hadn’t already heard such a gate being opened or closed?—but rather represents things whose representation is striking only if I’m already acquainted with them. Raine himself refers to how Heaney’s poetry “can describe things in a phrase…the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped / but it sang too, / a kind of dry, ringing / foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?”
It’s not just that the instant delight of poetry’s descriptions arrives only by means of a detour through other texts or experiences. Raine calls the endorphins unconsciously released by our perception of imitation “brandies of the brain,” a variety of spirit, like any, whose appreciation is hardly reflexive but must be conscientiously cultured, unless Raine is likening the pleasures of poetry to sheer inebriation. Indeed, our brains are “flooded with endorphins” only through our “connivance,” imaginably what Coleridge termed the suspension of disbelief, the mental process that mediates the seemingly natural, reflexive immediacy of the kind of poetic mimesis Raine values so highly.
It’s a moribund, simplistic empiricism that underwrites Raine’s aesthetics here and that leads him to disparage so roundly the kind of poetry that to his mind is only
an endless marathon of ambiguity, a joyless game of patience for adepts. The Cambridge School of Poetry, in fact, turning its back on pleasure, snubbing the audience, withholding the endorphins, proffering perpetual difficulty, disparaging ‘descriptive decadence’.
His own review bears witness to the schooling, shared experience, and connivance that admit one to a cognoscenti, that club of connoisseurs capable of appreciating the refined delicacy of Heaney’s phanopoeia. Indeed, this sneering dismissal of others’ pleasures tears the mask from the undisputed naturalness of his own and shows the logic of his review to be little more than an argumentum ad nauseum.
One could continue the dispute, along various lines. Leaving aside for the moment the reflections that might imaginably be offered in support or explanation of the poetic pleasures of the Cambridge School and its audience, one might wonder what value Raine’s aesthetic would place on the “endless marathon of ambiguity, [and] joyless game of patience for adepts” that is Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. (The briefest research turns up Raine’s high regard for Hill’s poetry, too). More pointedly: is one to infer from Raine’s assumptions that the much more discursive and clearly less musically sophisticated poetry of Emily Dickinson is “second order”?
There remains, nevertheless, as there must be, an arguably truer value remarked in Raine’s review, albeit the one he esteems lower than imagery, “an ear, a feel for syllables and rhythm, for verbal music.” The irrefutable charm of poetry’s music transcends even understanding a poem’s words. Another poet whose work can often seem a game for adepts is Dante, whose Canzone “Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete” testifies to the eminence of sound over sense, concluding famously
Canzone, io credo che saranno radi
color che tua ragione intendan bene,
tanto la parli faticosa e forte.
Onde, se per ventura elli adivene
che tu dinanzi da persone vadi
che non ti paian d’essa bene acorte,
allor ti priego che ti riconforte,
dicendo lor, diletta mia novella:
“Ponete mente almen com’io son bella!”
My song, I think they will be few indeed
Who’ll rightly understand your sense,
So difficult and complex is your speech.
So if by chance it comes to pass
That you should find yourself with some
Who do not grasp it well at all,
I pray you then, dear newborn song,
Take courage again and say to them:
“Consider at least how fair I am!”
Here, Dante, the learned poet he is, knows what the ancient Greeks meant by mimesis: “not only the portrayal or description of visible and tangible things, but more especially the expression of a mood or feeling, hence the (to a modern) paradox that music is the most imitative of the arts.”