Poetry and politics: A conversation between Seamus Heany and Joseph Brodsky

Seamus Heany was born in County Derry in 1939, and published his first poems while working in Belfast in the early sixties. Since then he has published six major collections of poetry, including Death of a Naturalist, North and Station Island. He now divides his time between Dublin and Harvard where he directs a writing workshop in the spring of each year.

Joseph Brodky was born in Leningrad in 1940 adn began writing poetry in the late fifties. From March 1964 until November 1965 he was exiled to the Archangelsk region of Northern Russia, having been senteced to five years in exile with hard labour for "social parasitism". In June 1972 he was effectively forced into exile from the Soviet Union and after brief stays in Ireland, Vienna, London , he went to the United States. Most of his poems have been published only in the West, including his Selected Peoms published by Penguin in 1973 and his acclaimed collection A Part of Speech published in America in 1980.

Edited by Fintan O'Toole.

Joseph Brodsky: The only thing politics and poetry have III common is the letter p and the letter o. Seamus Heaney: I think you begin hoping that you can write a poem, and if that happens the next thing is that you think that you might sometime have the' right to call yourrself a poet. You can't just annex the word poet but you hope you might sometime have the right to shelter under it, without too much presumption. In my case that was a very slow development. And you get a bit older and you begin to wonder what's the relationship of what you're doing in your art to your life as a citizen and so on. Obviously, art is finally self-justifying, but I think that if self-justifying art forgets the challenge of life and all that is not art, it goes into self-indulgence. On the other hand, if art becomes too anxious about accounting for itself it becomes hampered and not pleasure-giving and not free.

Of course there is an interdependence because you really can't divorce anything from anything in this life, let alone in speech, in words that stand for some sort ofreality. And it depends on the society in which you live whether you have to pay close attention or not to this connection. But it's difficult to be asked this question about poetry and politics because I really don't think there's enough legitiimacy to the question. Because you really don't think of yourself as a poet. What you do is you start to write and it's terrific fun, it has terrific qualities, but still it's sort of an amateurish enterprise, a reaction to life, a response. It's like you've been pinched and you scream; you've been tickled under the arm and you smile. Then they print-some of your work and you get reviews and responses and someehow it starts to accumulate, and then you get let's say, teaching jobs. You're always called a poet by somebody else. Robert Frost said that to call yourself a poet is about as indecent as to call yourself a good man, because it's almost synonymous.

Would you ever put "poet" on your passport?

I certainly wouldn't. Lecturer, teacher, translator. You know what Auden said, when people on the train asked him what he did he said "medieval historian" because it effectively shut them up.

Auden of course formulated a lot of set orthodoxies about all this, on poetry and politics. And a lot of it has been abused. "Poetry makes nothing happen .... "

Yes the line has been cut in half: Poetry makes nothing happen, it survives. It doesn't move stones obviously, but sometimes it moves minds or hearts. The only obligation a poet, or somebody who became a poet in the eyes of the public, has to the public, is to write well. That's all there is to it.

Of course, the verb "to write" covers a multitude of other imperatives too.

Of course. But I think it's the other way round. The poet doesn't have an obligation to society; society has an obligation to, or a need of, the poet, or at least it would be much better off if it read the poet. He is just doing his job, he just offers the stuff. The poet is simply for society to heed.

I think it is possible also for a writer to engage in politics, but that's a different thing. I think everybody had a sense of both excitement and mistake when they heard that Gunter Grass was on the hustings. It was thrilling but it also made you somehow uneasy.

That's very interesting because society is much more willing to listen to the politician than to the poet and that's weird because, to begin with, in poetry demagoguery or cliche is much easier to detect. And this is more or less what's good about poetry, this is its social function: it teaches, educates the public, how to employ the language, how to articulate. Reading poetry helps a lot to avoid the catchphrase and that sort of thing.

Well, here's a poetry/politics example. I was approached by Amnesty International to write a poem for them, and the inimediate instinct was to stand clear of it. It is such a good cause that attaching yourself to it is immediately like saying "Hey, here I come .... " ,

"I'm a good guy."

And yet it is patently urgent and necessary that the silenced voices, the oppressed voices be witnessed. But I still wrote to Amnesty and said I didn't think I could do it, and then - freed, having created the space offreedom `I did do a poem. But it's not political, it's a fiction, which pleases me. And another thing that I liked was that the reequest didn't come from headquarters, it came from Sandyymount, you know, so there's some kind of human scale to it.

Basically, Lwas talking about the tempering effect of poetry on the reader. A reader who has a great experience of poetry is less likely to fall prey to demagoguery on the part, of the politician. And the reason I'm more or less questioning the legitimacy of this question about politics and poetry is that art, to which poetry belongs, is a much more ancient and much more' inevitable thing than any state. The Greeks were making those little sculptures long before anything happened, including our beloved Chrisstianity or anything like that. Obviously art can lend itself to building a cathedral, to composing a suitable national anthem, or designing a mausoleum, but it's often misconnstrued and regarded as being at the service of some sort of reality. It's a parallel reality.

Well, most people would grant that whatever the transscendent is; it's not something there on an upper storey sitting looking down at us. Whatever's in us that relates to yearning for the transcendent is related to the possibility of poetry and to the necessity of it. It's opening skylights of some sort as well as sinking shafts. I think it is funda-

mentally religious in that way. '

It can also be said that the poem starts with the same emotion, the same mechanism, as that of a prayer, or someething to that effect.

That's too soothing or something, but it could be true.

Inevitably one is involved in the political weather, and in the specific context of Northern Ireland, just by being called one thing or another you are a group possession to some extent. The thing about poetry in the North in the sixties, when that group of poets got going, is that you couldn't expose anything. You didn't have to bear witness to the existence of injustice, it was obvious there all the time. And yet there was a notion forced on poets that they had to bear witness to that awful situation. But the awful situation was bare. Also I don't think that the Northern conditions were so fundamentally awful; it wasn't Nazi Germany. It was demeaning and conditions for the minoority obviously had to be protested and changed but I don't think it was a situation of human desolation. I think there probably comes a moment, and Milosz writes about that, when he's talking about the Warsaw ghetto, when the brutality of the mastadon thing that's coming down is so awful that all you can do is grunt and start yelps of protest, and at that point a poem would fulfill its function inevitably by yelping or protesting.

But the pure scream can be even better. It doesn't call for poetry. When the oppression is so terrible, like the ghetto, it's much better to grab a machine gun or shout.

That doesn't require a form of art. There is a terribly danngerous thing here, for a poet to side even with the oppressed. Because when he sides with the oppressed, then he thinks "I have done my duty" which makes him even more jaded, if not cynical. Because of the nature of the poet's gift he can't really harp on the same tune all the time. If you are in the middle of oppression, and the language dictates you to write something about forget-me-nots or daisies, what should you do? Forget about forget-me-nets and daisies? If you produce the poem about daisies, are you regarded as a traitor, do you think yourself a traitor?

There is that feeling of betrayal. The spirit of the age is so strongly towards identifying with the oppressed, and when we were talking at the beginning about the rights and the freedom and the independence of art, that sense of freeedom is always haunted by a sense of betraying the beggar at the gate. Even as you insist on that proper realm of art,» some other illiterate part of yourself says "Oh come on ... "

There is also the whole business of genres. It is quite possible that that poem about the daisies will be so laden with grief, that it will be much more effective than any placard slogan type of job.

Frost again - he's very good on the one-liners - he said poetry dealt with griefs not grievances.

That's the end of it, everything.

Also there's the temperament of the writer: take someebody like Brecht, who read the world politically, inevitably stripped it down for its oppression quotient and its exploiitation quotient. His fundamental emotional responses to both the daisy and the down-and-out were organised by the same sensibility. He just couldn't help seeing the world in a certain way.

Yeah, but in general even the most apolitical poet, like for instance Rilke does a lot more to build your personal defences than the most outspoken Brecht poem. The point IS that it's really the temperament, the timbre of the voice, the tremelo that you produce that matters. When someebody is dying in a prison cell or in a hospital, it's unlikely that he'll mumble some slogan. He's more likely, if he's to say anything, to repeat some type of nursery rhyme.

Yeats is another interesting creature. When he directs himself to matters public, he actually subsumes them. Yeats was a natural boss of the world. And Robert Lowell had that haughty command too. Nothing subservient or pleading in either of those voices. They affirmed justice.

Direct protest in a very short while amounts to the oppoosite side of the oppressive coin. It's as short lived as that. The writer, unconsciously to himself, has to use the language in such a way as to ensure the longevity of his phrase, his idiom, his line, because he has so many predecessors. In order to do so he arranges words in such a fashion that they are unique, appealing, memorable, you name it. His desire is to get himself a reader, to have his work sold, if you will, and for that he ought to be strange, different. A politician sells himself. He needs unanimity, that's his goal, so thereefore it is in the interest of the politician to have language as uniform as possible. And this is where they come to loggerheads. The latter is interested in unanimity, the forrmer in diversity, and they are at cross purposes. And it is a bad position when either of them is in a position to legisslate.

Fintan 0 Toole: But there are many poets, both here and in Russia, who have tried to speak for the nation, to take its sufferings onto themselves.

Of course everybody wants to play-the role of the conscience of the nation, but I don't think anybody succeeds.

Joyce started out very deliberately in that area but he proceeded by moving crabwise away from public themes. He refused connection with the actual political movements in a way that Yeats didn't. Yeats played footsie with various actual political organisations, he punted the current of the Gaelic league and Sinn Fein. He had a fastidiousness but he punted along. Joyce, since he belonged to those currents in a more tribal way, had to refuse any political affiliation. His refusal of the prophetic role was a self-authentication. Nevertheless, I think finally Joyce, in terms of an Irish nation, is much more politically potent, because Joyce, in a way that Yeats does not, creates a Sinn Fein situation, he creates a language for us, he subverts the English novel, he subverts both of his masters, the state and the church, and in the end, sixty years later, you read Ulysses and you're reading yourself. Almost every sneaking secret is laid bare. You're walking into yourself and you're walking into a language that isn't describing you from the outside.

Obviously, that sort of diction, that sensibility, that Joyce offers, simply physically prevents you from being able to swallow any kind of crap, any appeal or call to flock through that door because it says "Paradise", or whatever. That's the role and nobody can prescribe it for an artist. Nobody can tell an artist or advise an artist how to do it. It's a product of the inner dynamics of an individual and of the material he's dealing with. One evolves according to one's aesthetics, not according to one's ethics. Aesthetics is primal. It is the mother of everything. Every child operrates on the basis of saying "I like this place, I don't like this place"; only subsequently will he develop some sort of morals. It's the language that takes you to a stance, a possture, a view Of things. Art, unlike life has one mechanism built into it, one device, the notion of cliche. In real life you can tell the same maxim or the same joke all the time and raise a great deal of laughter or a great deal of support; in art repeating the same joke for the second or third time is called cliche. What art hates most of all is to repeat itself, to do something again. Life operates only in cliches, art never does. This is why an artist frequently fmds himself in a position which is subsequently described as ahead of his time. It is not that he has been ahead of his time; it is simply that the material, the stuff, the sense of harmony, of aesthetics refused to be repeated. If we were to translate political life into terms of art, a great deal of politicians in either country belong solely in the middle ages.

Does the poet's attempt to look after the personal in life and to seek what is new threaten the political order?

It doesn't threaten the political order; those who are in charge of the political order feel threatened. Look, it's very simple. In undemocratic politics, if we can call those poliitics, we have the situation where the politician in one way or another senses his own illegitimacy. So therefore he reegards everyone who has a sway over people's minds as a challenge. His goal, so to speak, is to ensure the unanimity of action, the status quo, and he feels challenged by anyybody who speaks the language better than he does. This is a simple animal insecurity. And if he has the machinery for removing an opponent, why not-remove a poet, why not remove a writer? The idea is obviously to silence the challlenging voice. None of those poets who perished in Russia during the first half of the century, during the thirties and forties, none of them ever said anything even remotely. resembling "Down with the Soviet regime." It simply was the pitch of the voice, the tonality, the beauty of it, which couldn't really in the eyes of the politician, contribute to their own stability, to the mindlessness or the low plane of regard that they were imposing on the people. My personal argument would be that the undemocratic society commits not a political crime against its people, but it commits an anthropological crime. It reduces the human potential, which is what the poet stands for. He stands for the greater ability of an individual to create mentally or spiritually or whatever - linguistically. And when you cut that off you simply rob the populace of the notion that there can be a greater or a more optimal way of articulating themselves.

And that's in my view a much more grave and much more serious way to approach it. ..

That's why the psychiatric treatment of dissidents is a terrific image of it, the final image. "This is mad." It could be said that in a way no regime is against poetry explicitly, they love it, they want it, but on their own terms. Even in democratic societies, I would say that in Reagan's America, one of the great dangers and failures to some extent of artists, poets, whatever, is that they do not want to see that they are being chloroformed with security and grants, that the human condition has now become the American conndition for a lot of them. You can't blame people but you can expect more, I think.

But that's the measure of the talent always, or measure of individual temperament; mediocrity is the mass characcteristic.

I think that John Ashberry, the poet who is somehow tapping the current and expressing something that they're about, that his poetry is a centrally heated daydream. And it's also sorrowful, it knows that it's inadequate. Taking it to a much smaller corner, Northern Ireland, it's also poliitically important there that art maintains the myth of wholeness and goodness in the society. Hence the Arts Council, which is a state body, is there to encourage the arts as a conservative, or at least a helpful, social force.

Well actually it would be really legitimate to talk about this, and to go into all those subtleties, if art had as many outlets as the state, but we're talking about politics and poetry as though poets had the same access to the public as politicians.

They don't want it, of course, though, that's the probblem.

Well they do. This argument would be sound within the context of the authoritarian state. In the Soviet Union you can really get a reading that would be attended by tens of thousands. The question is who is reading there and what kind of stuff he is reading. I have read so many travel pieces by western writers where they are so impressed that everyybody in the Soviet Union is reading on the train. But for what purpose? hi my view you don't read a book of poetry in order to kill time between this bus station and that bus station. Of course it doesn't really matter under what circumstances you do the reading, but as we know a great. part of the reading is for escapist considerations, simply to kill time. The other consideration is what type of thing. you're reading. We have all heard of the Germans burning books but there are far greater crimes vis-a-vis books than burning them. Printing bad books; not reading books; not doing anything about what you read; reading bad books.

The obverse again is to go to the other Empire, America, and to say that the writer is taken too seriously, the bad writer. There is an equal puffing of writers who are bad, writers who are concerned only with the best-seller list. Leon Uris is really taken seriously. And I have been at a couple of those Soviet-type readings and it's like a poliitical speech. It's hooray. It's all very near to home. It makes me think about a poem called "Requiem for the Crappies" which I wrote in 1966, the subject being the 1798 rebels: it's an entirely acceptable nationalist praise poem. But I don't read it anymore, because somehow it's easy. When I wrote it I read it in the North and in that place at that time it was somehow forbidden to speak that language. I rememmber in 1968 going round on a reading tour with Michael Longley and David Hammond and I read it in Armagh in a very Unionist, civil place; we actually discussed whether it should be read there. But it was speaking the forbidden and once that forbidden is spoken, things have changed. If poetry offers an image and houses attitudes and values, things are helped. But when the violence came into being again and that violence was in some way sponsored by the men of '98, the poem took on a completely different colouring, it was then punting the current rather than openning the path. And my relationship with it has changed beecause the conditions have changed. I like the poem but I think the act of reading it to an audience in Ireland in the 1980s is a completely different thing from reading it in the sixties.

Is it better then for the poet to have a current to swim against, to work in a state which at least takes poetry seriously rather than one which doesn't?

Joseph Brodsky: You regard the state's arm as the crude I extension of providence.

I think the answer is quite clearly no. Because the best that has been produced in this century (at least by poets) has been produced both in the countries where there are oppressive political systems, where the current is running against you, as well as in the countries where there is no oppression. Frost is an American, Auden is a British author. Obviously the Russians can offer Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, to a lesser degree Pasternak, but I don't think it has to do with the current against which you swim beecause the political injustice and oppression on one plane of regard is the existential ae rigeur. Life is bad anyhow; we know how it's going to end. That's enough to fill your voice with some kind of trembling notes. I'm terribly against what almost amounts to an ideology in the criticism of today that the art in the East is so good precisely because of the oppression. It's pure garbage. Oppression is not such a good thing for art anyhow, it dulls your senses. It makes you take up sides which you wouldn't have done; it's a terribly wasteful thing. It may even kill you, you see. There is a great deal of oppression within yourself, you see, which is much harder than anything a state can offer. In fact when the state crosses your threshold, grabs you, puts you behind walls, behind .. bars, maybe, you think, they are right. Beecause you are guilty anyhow, yeah? So you regard the state's arm as perhaps the crude extension of providence. It seems to be an agent of providence. This is the way I regarrded it. You've been so many times dishonest in your life, you didn't side with this or that, you've been so egotistical, that when they grab you, no matter how innocent you are under the law, you know that you are guilty. And the state knows that your reaction is going to be like that. The state is fairly devilish. So it's a pretty neat interplay. •