Essay on The Importance of Exile in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

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The Importance of Exile in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney

To be a poet in a culture obsessed with politics is a risky business. Investing poetry with the heavy burden of public meaning only frustrates its flight: however tempting it is to employ one's poetic talent in the service of a program or an ideology, the result usually has little to do with poetry. This is not to condemn the so-called "literature of engagement"; eye-opening and revealing, it has served its purpose in the unfinished story of our century, and now is certainly no time to call for the poet's retreat into the "ivory tower" of the self. Preserving the individual voice amidst the amorphous, all-leveling collective must be the first act of poetic will, a launching
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It is this distancing, this voluntary flight from the political community of the moment, that I propose to examine here. The importance of exile goes well beyond Heaney's poetry and the Irish experience altogether, and the following discussion will place it in the global context of the late twentieth century, thus underscoring the significance of Heaney as a truly universal poet.

In order to understand the role of exile in Heaney's poetry, we must not take that exile literally (for in that sense he is an exile only part of the year) but rather comprehend it as a form of categorical imperative mandating that the poet "stay clear of all procession," as Heaney's alter ego is told by Simon Sweeney in Section I of "Station Island." Heaney did indeed move out of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, and there were those vehement enough in their nationalism to see his move as an act of betrayal. That these critics failed to realize the most basic thing about Heaney, and poetry in general, should be obvious enough. In one of the essays included in his Government of the Tongue, Heaney wrote about Mandelstam in terms that could well define his own poetic creed: "the essential thing about lyric poetry . . . was its unlooked-for joy in being itself, and the essential thing for the lyric poet was therefore a

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