Roman Jakobson, one of the chief representatives of the Russian School of Formalism, described the language of poetry as “organized violence committed on ordinary speech. ” Thus, according to Jakobson, the aesthetic quality of a poem could be explained by means of linguistic analysis. As literature is an art that employs words to convey its message, the language of poetry or fiction is the point of departure for a thorough analysis. Therefore, the language of poetry is notably different from common language.
While the common language is a means of communication, the language of poetry is a violent break with accepted use of words. In poetry, the words themselves suffer transformations becoming almost as material as the images they represent. This linguistic load is especially effective in the work of Seamus Heaney, one of the most original contemporary Irish poets. His poetry is often disputed among critics who claim him as either a late modernist or a postmodernist poet. Overall, his work is probably best described as an original creation leveled on the borderline between modernism and postmodernism.
One of the most remarkable qualities of Heaney’s poetry is his use of language as a means of weighing down the images in his poems. The language in his poems is more than a mere vehicle for the message of the work or a tool for representation. The words themselves are loaded with substance. As most of the modernist authors, Heaney grounds the most important part of his message in the language of the poem. There is no need to transcend language therefore and search for the meaning of the text; instead, language itself is meaning.
The language of Heaney’s poetry is almost organic and the images that spring from it are firmly anchored in the words themselves. Heaney employs rare words and unwonted linguistic combinations to support the messages in his poems. A writer that often addresses realistic and political concerns in his poems, Heaney nevertheless abounds in imagination. The force of his poems is due to a great extent to the imaginative use of language. North, one of his collections of poems, treats of subjects for which the employment of original language is essential.
Heaney evokes Ireland and its ancient history through rich imagery. The poems in the collection swing from glances to the contemporary affairs in present time Ireland to virtual excursions into the past of the country. Quite a few of the poems in this collection are written under the fascination of the “bog people”, as the unusually preserved remains of people in bogs are usually called. The corpses of these people represent a point of departure for the substance in Heaney’s poetry. The almost whole bodies of the bog people have acquired an earthy consistence and color.
The people thus preserved are reminiscences of the past and of the life of an ancient Ireland. Many of the poems of the collection focus therefore on descriptions of the partially decomposed bodies and on the reconstruction of the violence that was done to the bodies in the past. By poring over the past, Heaney also reflects on the future. The violence of the past is a mirror for current violence among people, and the recurrent appeal to the image of the bog people is done with the purpose of finding the skeleton of the Irish culture.
In the poem entitled The Grauballe Man for instance, Heaney elaborates upon the image of a corpse found in the bog and seen by him in a photograph. The images employed in the poem are extremely plastic and evocative. The man from the bog is almost materialized through the effective language use. Distancing itself from ordinary speech, the language of the poem overflows with substance. The linguistic and stylistic devices break the barriers of common speech, while allowing for a novel organization of words to take place.
The uniqueness of Heaney’s poetry lies precisely in his ability to break the old linguistic circuits and invent language anew in each of his poems. In the first part of the poem, Heaney meditates on the repulsive but at the same time enticing image of the bog man. In order to describe the curiously preserved body, the writer has to make appeal to unwonted word associations. As such, the man seems to have been “poured in tar” and to “weep/ the black river of himself”: “As if he had been poured/ in tar, he lies/ on a pillow of turf/ and seems to weep/ the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists/ is like bog oak,/ the ball of his heel/ like a basalt egg. / His instep has shrunk/ cold as a swan’s foot/ or a wet swamp root. ” The body is so merged with the substance of the bog from which he has been taken out, that it has begun to resemble the plants in the mire. Through a series of comparisons, metaphors and linguistic innovations therefore, Heaney represents the image of the cold corpse. First of all, Heaney employs the liquid images and allusions to flowing matter that has the consistency of the mud in the mire.
The man is no longer a solid body but rather a substance that can “weep/ the black river of itself. ” The language denotes the image of the body whose flesh has taken on the same consistency as the mud. The man and the mire have acquired an indefinite relationship with respect to the interior and the exterior.
The image in itself is shocking as the body is too intact to pass for a corpse but at the same time its consistency does not make a body anymore: “Who will say ‘corpse’/ to his vivid cast? / Who will say ‘body’/ to his opaque repose? What is interesting is that the author declares that his image is taken from a photograph of the man that he has once seen but at the same time that this representation was at one point “perfected in the mind” and developed with the aid of imagination: “I first saw his twisted face/ in a photograph,/a head and shoulder/ out of the peat,/ bruised like a forceps baby,/ but now he lies/ perfected in my memory,/ down to the red horn/ of his nails,/ hung in the scales/ with beauty and atrocity:/ with the Dying Gaul/ too strictly compassed/ on his shield,/ with the actual weight/ of each hooded victim,/ slashed and dumped.
The representation becomes itself vivid in the imagination and acquires weight. Heaney feels the violence of the fights represented on the design of the man’s shield. The language of the poem encompasses therefore the development of the image in the imagination. In fact, the role of language is here to serve as the ground for the developing of the imagination rather than for the mere representation of a dead image. This is evident in the poem, as the photograph is the symbol of a static image or representation, while the imagination and the poem are active mediums where language infuses everything with life.
In another poem from the same collection, Strange Fruit, Heaney represents the image of another corpse, this time that of a girl who had been beheaded. The images that the author chooses to depict are obviously challenging. He thus portrays the head of the girl through a powerful effect: by linking the act of violence that the girl had suffered, with the act of violence performed by the singular head. The head is like an “exhumed gourd”, representing the bodiless head. The reference to the gourd materializes the image of the severed head: “Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd. /Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth. The details of her image are also important: the prune color suggests the congestion of death that reigns over the body. Moreover, the image seems to be described while it is in the very process of discovery or unearthing.
The limits of language are tested in the next poetic sequence, as the hair emerges from the earth “unswaddled” or disheveled and unbound. The prune colored face with the hollow orbits for eyes and the broken nose are now the prey of air that touches the “leathery beauty” of the girl: “They unswaddled the wet fern of her hair/ And made an exhibition of its coil,/ Let the air at her leathery beauty. Pash of tallow, perishable treasure:/ Her broken nose is dark as a turf clod,/ Her eyeholes blank as pools in the old workings. / Diodorus Siculus confessed/ His gradual ease with the likes of this. ” The expression “leathery beauty” captures the mummified aspect of the head, on which the skin is no longer apparent.
The most powerful effect comes however at the end of the poem, with the description of the head as having a cutting and destructive property in the empty stare: “Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible/ Beheaded girl, outstaring axe/ And beatification, outstaring/ What had begun to feel like reverence. The stare of the girl is now as strong as that of the axe that had mutilated her in the past. By using dead matter in his poetry in the proper sense, Heaney manages to prove the power of the language of poetry that is able to capture even the spirit of a buried and forgotten past. The girl has no name and is probably entirely forgotten, yet through poetry she almost comes back to life. A similar theme is treated in Punishment, another of Heaney’s poems in North. The past is again evoked, only this time the focus is on the event itself rather than on the image of the dead body.
This poem reenacts the execution by hanging of a young girl who was guilty of adultery. Once more, the story unfolds from the image of the corpse. The simple image nevertheless is transformed a whole story of the girl’s death and a meditation on violence itself. As it becomes obvious, the girl has received the death punishment for adultery. The poem opens with a direct sensory reference rather than a simple image: “I can feel the tug/ of the halter at the nape/ of her neck, the wind/ on her naked front. / It blows her nipples/ to amber beads,/ it shakes the frail rigging/ of her ribs.
The author creates a palpable image of the violent act that had taken place. The images follow the same pattern for the rest of the poem, as the representation is not merely horizontal and sketchy but complete and weighty. The hanged girl is thrown in the bog that will afterwards ensure her preservation. The hybrid form of the girl is reiterated, as she is loses a part of her humaneness and becomes one with the bog: “I can see her drowned/ body in the bog, /the weighing stone, / the floating rods and boughs. Under which at first/ she was a barked sapling/ that is dug up/ oak-bone, brain-firkin: /her shaved head/ like a stubble of black corn, /her blindfold a soiled bandage, /her noose a ring/ to store/ the memories of love. ”
The ending of the poem brings a reflection of the poet on his own art: he declares himself an “artful voyeur” who is fascinated with the anatomy of the old corpse preserved by the waters of the mire: “Little adultress, /before they punished you/ you were flaxen-haired, /undernourished, and your tar-black face was beautiful. My poor scapegoat, /I almost love you but would have cast, I know, /the stones of silence. / I am the artful voyeur/ of your brain’s exposed/ and darkened combs, /your muscles’ webbing/ and all your numbered bones. ”
This close look upon death and the return in the past require great visionary powers, as the author himself notices. He bears witness therefore to the remains of the life that had passed in a total different time from his. The function of language in this poem is therefore to emphasize the very structure of life. By focusing on the past, Heaney evidences the way in which our present will look at a certain point.
The fact that civilization does not seem to have corrected the poet’s tribal inclinations is another proof of this fact: “I who would connive/ in civilized outrage/ yet understand the exact/ and tribal, intimate revenge. ” Thus, in his poetry, Seamus Heaney employs a plastic language that can materialize the images and not only represent them. It is not accidental that he chooses as the subject of so many poems the ancient corpses preserved by accident in the bog. Through this, Heaney demonstrates the function of the language of poetry which is able to capture the past and bring it back to life.