I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Head-on and Dead-on

Head-on and Dead-on

Magdalena Kay
Seamus Heaney as Aesthetic Thinker: A Study of the Prose, by Eugene O’Brien, Syracuse University Press, 336 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-0815634485 In his most recent book on Seamus Heaney, Eugene O’Brien commendably situates this prolific, mutable poet’s prose in the canon of conceptual thought that some call theory and some philosophy; more specifically, within the European aesthetic tradition after Kant and Hegel. Given Heaney’s reputation as an accessible writer, O’Brien’s justification is not self-evident. Given Heaney’s corpus of prose writing, it is not easy. It spans his whole writing life and ranges widely over a territory that O’Brien nominates “aesthetic thinking”. Aesthetic, because Heaney is concerned not just with poetry but with the place of the arts in the socio-political world, and indeed, the sort of thinking and feeling that we associate with creativity; thinking, because Heaney’s essays represent many stages of thinking about (not through, because there is no obvious terminus) art’s place in the world, and should not be seen as a single thought. The book’s first task is to justify the concept of poetic thinking. We commonly separate the poetic and the rational in everyday life, opposing “poetic” ways of speaking with normal, comprehensible ways. We also commonly value intellect (allied with rationality) over emotion (allied with irrationality and unreason). Of course, such opposition diminishes the poetic, which can and does easily encompass the rational, the intellectual, even the quotidian, as well as the emotional. O’Brien pushes this argument further. Thinking in prose can itself be “poetic” in its character. Any discussion of Heaney’s aesthetic thinking must criss-cross from one side to the other in a continual dance between binary terms. This is what O’Brien wants to clarify, to justify, and to expand. He points out that for Heaney, structures are dynamic, not immovable. Heaney repeatedly asks us to consider how many of the binaries structuring our lives could be rethought, and puts his life forward as an example: in O’Brien’s words, Heaney is often “displaced from a confidence in a single position by his disposition to be affected by all positions, negatively rather than positively capable”. In other words, Heaney listens as well as speaks, and allows himself to change in response to the opinions of others. One who can put aside the claims of identity and ego in order to be affected by others is “negatively capable”, to apply John Keats’s famous phrase about poets;…

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