Christopher Norris



Performatives (Yeats/Heaney)

I will arise and go now,

   And go to Innisfree . . . .

                       W.B. Yeats

 

Some day I will go to Arhus

    To see his peat-brown head . . . .

                        —Seamus Heaney

 

Lake isle or peat-bog? One the sort of place

     You'd want to visit once you'd made the pledge,

The other more the sort you'd go to face

 

Whatever demons drove you to the edge

     Of some brute reckoning or dread surmise

Worse than the worst you'd ever hope to dredge

 

Up from the blood-choked seam that underlies

     Our thin civilities. Let's think that Yeats

Fared forth as prophesied ('I will arise

 

And go now'), since mere honesty dictates

     The words should have some future-binding force

Beyond the test of euphony that rates

 

Word-music of that Yeatsian strain the source

     Of such deep truths as poetry conveys

By redirecting language from the course

 

Of dull quotidian sense to what obeys

     A higher law. Still, if he then arose

And went, his heading off at least displays

 

A decent understanding of what goes

     With what if promises and other kinds

Of speech-act in a poem still impose

 

Some illocutionary force that binds

     The utterer straightforwardly to mean,

Intend, or purpose just the act that minds

 

More literal ascribe to the routines

     Of common usage. Granted, some are junked

Or relegated to the might-have-beens

 

Of good intent derailed, or will defunct,

     Or else (more often) speech-acts reconstrued

In consequence of some big test we've flunked

 

The first time round and so completely screwed

     Things up that our last hope's to redefine

What sets the pass-mark so as to exclude

 

All chance that the examiners assign

     A second test by which our efforts fail

To make the grade. Truth is, you might incline

 

Or disincline to think that Yeats set sail

     For his fair lake-isle since the mythic spot,

Like the verse-music, works so to regale

 

Our fancy that we tend to lose the plot

     Commitment-wise, or simply to forget,

While swept along, that finally there's not

 

So much to choose between the way we let

     That music work its charms on us, and how

We make our peace with challenges unmet

 

In ways that self-forgivingly allow

     A generous reckoning with the fact that we're

Just transient dwellers in the here-and-now,

 

And therefore not so much to blame if mere

     Post-facto change of circumstance or mood

Be cited to account for acts that veer

 

Far wide of first intent. These might include

     (Just might, since we're encouraged not to dwell

Too much on this) what factually ensued

 

When need for travel-planning broke the spell

     Of that impassioned vow and let him weigh

The risk his boat might capsize in a swell

 

Against the risk that, should he long delay

     The visit, or decide to call it off,

Then local gossip might at length betray

 

The tale to some grant-hungry US prof

     So that it did the academic rounds

And gave the cynics ample room to scoff

 

At how that old-school rhetoric rebounds

     On its past master. Not at all his style,

Our second mental voyager, who sounds

 

A note unheard on Yeats' enchanted isle

     Since here the trip in prospect offered none

Of those fine consolations that beguile

 

The dreams or idle fantasies of one

     In whom the Wanderlust might well be laid

To rest once the poetic work was done.

 

That is, the trick was simply to persuade

     Poet and reader that the sorts of act

Most vital here were speech-acts that gainsaid

 

All trivial concern with truths of fact

     Or questions such as: Did he make the trip?

And opted rather for the mutual pact

 

That made it easier for both to skip

     Such tedious inquisitions for the sake

Of prising loose brute fact's tenacious grip

 

And thereby giving poets room to take

     Whatever liberties their muse required

By way of mock-performatives that break

 

Those humdrum rules. Not so what later fired

     The travel-yearning of a poet bred

In times less grand-heroic that conspired

 

With his own sense of all those mighty dead,

     Like Yeats, whose power to move he held in awe

Yet resolutely kept at bay for dread

 

That any word of his should help to draw

     Whole cartloads of fresh victims to the shrine

Of some blood-boltered goddess. Whence the law

 

That, then as now, said killing should define

     The tribe's true lineage or placate its gods,

And so decree no end to the malign

 

Enchantment that impelled the restless squads

     Of killers to take out 'the cap, the noose

And girdle' without reckoning the odds

 

That some day they or theirs would reproduce

     The scene with roles reversed. That's why he makes

No song and dance about it: though Aarhus

 

Is where he means to go, this time the stakes

     Are pitched much lower, like a flattened note

To signify that even if he takes

 

Time off to make the trip just as he wrote

     In promissory mode, still those words lack

The force of perlocution to promote

 

The word-turned-deed. Else they might point us back

     To atavistic killing-rites that link

With headline news, and so demand we track

 

The old blood-craving through that merest blink

     Of hindsight suturing the gap between

Ourselves and everything we choose to think

 

Primeval, savage, brutish, or obscene.

     So dig a few feet down and what's revealed

Is nothing other than the truth that's been

 

So long if intermittently concealed

     By all our fine contrivances to keep

The peat-bog victims in the killing field

 

So that they won't disturb the restful sleep

     Of us fine specimens whose self-esteem

Depends on letting no such image creep

 

Into the depthless mindscape of our dream.

     This leaves room for returns of the repressed,

But only on condition they should seem

 

Just like-ourselves enough to pass the test

     Of human motivation by our own

More civilized criteria or best

 

Idea of what should fall within the zone

     Of claims to shared humanity, and what

Can't by the utmost mental stretch be known

 

In that empathic way since simply not

     Us-like enough to count as having started

On the long uphill trek whose master-plot

 

Of Geist and its Geschichte Hegel charted.

     So we enjoy the moral alibi

Of having out-evolved and far outsmarted

 

The ancient savagery of eye-for-eye,

     Or (worse) the even more contagious kind

Of pure mimetic violence that we try

 

To thrust down deep beneath what comes to mind

     By digging since it's apt to skew the aims

Of Hegel's progeny and those inclined

 

To lend an ear to such uplifting claims.

     That's why his poem finds no need to flout

The speech-act rules, and why its music shames

 

Our chronic inability to doubt

     Those well-intentioned narratives whose gist

Concerns how not to rub our tribal snout

 

In the harsh truth that one big thing we've missed

     From this self-favoring vantage-point is just

The thing that, if we'd hope to coexist

 

Henceforth on half-way civil terms, we must

     Take well on board. It tells us there's not much

To choose between that peatbog victim trussed

 

In cap, noose, girdle suffering the clutch

     Of ritual strangulation and the sorts

Of violence that at any time may touch

 

The lives of all alike. This then comports

     Quite nicely with the paramount donée

Of modernist poetics that exhorts

 

The poet not to let clock-time betray

     Their vision but have all times in review

By treating them as if sub specie

 

Aeternitatis. Let them then eschew

     The comfort-zone of factual guarantees

And have a better chance of staying true

 

To an elect vocation that decrees

     They spurn such vulgar truths-of-fact as chance

Just happens to throw up, but rather seize

 

Those truths that rise above mere circumstance

     And make a mockery of what the slave

To vie quotidienne stoops to advance

 

As his sole verité. Still we should save

     Some plaudits for those others of a less

Prophetic turn of mind who think that they've

 

Their work cut out just trying to redress

     Some small part of the ancient wrong that weighed

On every word and syllable whose stress

 

Fell in with that crude metric to persuade

     The killing squads that no accentual shift

To milder tones distract them from their trade

 

Or new-found gentleness of diction lift

     The spirit in a way unknown to those

Old tribalists. For them the poet's gift

 

(As Plato taught) was one that should disclose

     Strict martial discipline and so ensure

The errant soul's not tempted to suppose

 

The arts of peace more likely to procure

     Its health and strength than arts of war that long

Accustomed strife showed fittest to endure

 

And find their call-sign in the poet's song,

     Such as that stirring music which (Yeats feared

Or boasted) may have sent out some among

 

Those men the English shot. Perhaps he cleared

    His conscience by reflecting how the sense

Of speech-acts wasn't quite what it appeared

 

Once versified, since shorn of the pretense

     That they have any consequence beyond

The artifice that holds them in suspense

 

As between 'meaning' = what the bond

     Of word, intent and purpose has the thing

Expressly mean, and what the magic wand

 

Of quasi-illocution bids us bring

      Up short of that intent-fulfilling stage

Where acts ensue.  For otherwise they'd sing,

 

Those poets, songs whose promise to assuage

     The killer's itch came of their power to stoke,

Not lay to rest, his long case-hardened rage

 

And use whatever words might best provoke

     New blood-lust under cover of an old

Speech-covenant with the word-ways of the folk.

 

He played a safer game, if truth be told,

     Our Yeatsian ephebe whose verse-music found

No room for such fine promises or bold

 

Assertions of a will expressly bound

     To follow through on its avowed intent

And see its noble protestations crowned

 

With actions truly and sincerely meant,

     Whether the lake-isle visit or those lines

The rebels might have uttered as they went

 

To face the English guns. What best defines

     The change is how he puts it: that 'some day'

He'll make the visit, learn to read the signs,

 

See Tollund Man, consider how this may

     Connect with tribal passions nearer home,

Evoke (not re-enact) the scene, and pray

 

That their connection stretch through some rhizome-

     Like spread of tangled tubers to embrace

Those fresh-laid corpses in the Irish loam

 

Whose intimate revenges leave their trace

     On each new victim killed to antedate

The uncreated conscience of their race,

 

So that the singling-out of those whose fate

     It was to ride the tumbril let them lie

Unmarked in peat while others lay in state.

 

Still let's not think he's out to justify

     That ancient, now state-sponsored lie that tells

The victims words like 'justice' don't apply

 

In cases where a blood-sealed pact compels

     Some reckoning more primordial than pertains

To any sense of due desert that dwells

 

On individual merit and complains

     If, by some brute impersonal decree

Of fate, the most excruciating pains

 

Are borne by those least guilty. What we see

     In his aversion to the Yeatsian style

Of speech-act is his striving not to be

 

A poet of the sort who might beguile

     His reader with performatives that bend

Sense, sound and context to their purpose while

 

Perfecting means to sort out foe from friend

     By all-or-nothing speech-acts that require

Unquestioning assent since they depend

 

On mustering the muscle to inspire

     Such faith as will admit no move to check

The force of that inveterate desire

 

That leaves its votaries wholly at the beck

     And call of every two-bit tribal bard

Whose words decide who gets it in the neck

 

And who directs the squaddies. So the tarred

     And feathered girls conspire with Tollund Man

To catch him momentarily off-guard

 

Out there in Jutland, as the travel-plan

     So cautiously drawn up ('Some day I'll go')

Now brings him out amongst the peatbog clan

 

Of killer-victims whose remains bestow

     At least the sense that he'd done right to make

A virtue of the need to turn down low

 

That old-style Yeatsian rhetoric and take

     A duly chastened view of what his art

Might manage once delivered from the lake-

 

Isle dreamworld. For its darkside counterpart

     Enabled some performatives to work

A magic that could captivate the heart

 

Then turn it stony through a lethal quirk

     That cast its potent spell so as to leave

Small cognizance of all those threats that lurk

 

Beneath their overt sense. Yet we deceive

     Ourselves most gravelyso he has the skill

Obliquely to suggestif we believe

 

Ourselves or him quite blameless for the ill

     That comes of that collusive entre nous

By which we readily allow the poet's will

 

And way with words to execute a coup

     Of trompe-l'oreille by crypto-Cratylist

Word-magic where fortuities on cue,

 

Like rhyme and rhythm, constantly insist

     On how, despite all caution to surround

His speech-acts with those hardly-to-be-missed

 

Quote-marks of hesitation, still the sound

     Of strong precursors echoes through the verse

And tells another tale. That's why we're bound

 

To hear his vow as if the lines rehearse

     Afresh, though in a muted tone, the same

Key-shift by which the blessing turned to curse

 

So that as seasons changed the peat-man came

     To make the scapegoat switch from one elect

Amongst the horde to one they deemed fair game

 

For that time-cancelling ritual of unchecked

     Yet calculated bloodshed that's once more

Evoked by picturing the rail-tracks flecked

 

With four young brothers' blood. What they ignore

     In rightly praising all that skill and tact  

Is how the very things they praise him for

 

Are such as always come discreetly backed

     By the spell-worker's gift to perlocute

From nascent wish to word and thence to act,

 

Their own or others', that can serve to mute

     All doubts, misgivings, second thoughts, or fears,

Or else persuade us not to follow suit

 

And, like him, wish away a thousand years

     Of social evolution. Then the strife

Seems something that in consequence appears

 

More like an emanation of bare life

     Or force that through the peatbog drives the juice

And so keeps Tollund Man, the killer-wife

 

Of Heaney's vision, girdle, cap, and noose

     There at the poet's mythopoeic call

And summons up for time-negating use

 

Rhyme, rhythm, symbol, metaphor and all

     The sound-and-sense accoutrements that chime

So nicely with his purpose. These forestall

 

At source the very notion that mere time,

     Change, history, or politics might need

Attending to before some ancient crime

 

Or some primeval, god-placating deed

     That's meant to fit our here-and-now yet bids

Us take the point through an imagining freed

 

From reason's grip since here remembrance skids

     Clean over such constraints. So we might ask:

Why summon 'the mild pods' of those eye-lids

 

As if behind the fen-juice fretted mask

     Some errant Buddha or his avatar

Assumed once more the old unending task

 

Of teaching by example how we mar

     The soul's perfection when our thoughts revert

To mere particularities. These are,

 

The image has us feel, a cause of hurt

     More grievous than the instruments devised

For his dispatch since apt to reassert

 

The claim on us of all those human-sized

     Conditions, circumstances, changing modes

Of love and war, and social detail prized

 

By fact-informed decipherers of the codes.

     Here that prosaic stuff seems quite beside

The soul-perfecting point because it bodes

 

No good for such ambitions to provide

     A failsafe alibi by which the past

Might yet be called to memory, not denied,

 

And those old killing parishes at last

    Allowed to show up plain in survey maps,

Just on condition that the tale's recast

 

With proper care to suture all the gaps

     In its selective record by appeal

To mythic time. Then centuries elapse

 

And nothing alters save the changing styles

     Of ritual, weapons used in due accord

With those, andwhether uttered on lake-isles

 

Or far off in the bogs beneath the sward

     Where nations mingle bloodthe exact strain

Of pulse-attuned verse-music that the horde,

 

Primal or present-day, allows to gain

     A wider resonance or rhythmic power

To sway the motions of some tribal brain

 

To lethal deeds. So Guyon in the Bower

     Of Blisse created havoc and laid waste

To all about him, every tree and flower,

 

Because (or so the myth-debunking taste

     Of current exegetes tends to conclude)

The whole catastrophe's best seen as based

 

On Spenser's deeply felt though deeply skewed

     Sense of a late-come colonizer's guilt

At Ireland's grief. Yet that's an attitude

 

Where any tears the poet may have spilt

     As witness to events were far outweighed

By the material benefits long built

 

Into that grievous state of things. This made

     Those hard-nosed New Historicists apply

The best tricks of their intertextual trade

 

To taking down a peg or two the high-

     Romantic claim that poets only dealt

In such transcendent truths as scorned to vie

 

With plain-prose literalists whose readings dwelt

     On just the kinds of detail Spenser strove

To hold beyond the frail protective belt

 

Of platonizing allegory that drove

     Clean out of mind all fact-related thoughts

Or wrinkles in the cloth that fiction wove

 

From its delusive thread. These are the sorts

     Of strategy deployed by those, like Yeats,

Who grasp whatever doctrine best supports

 

Some latest fake mythology that skates

     So close to eccentricity or sheer

Stir-craziness that then the case mandates

 

A counter-strategy by which to steer

     Things back on course. This bids us take a view

Less tolerant of any cavalier

 

Myth-driven resolution to construe

     All history as slung between the poles

Of just those mythemes which, as Yeats well knew,

 

Would easily take over the controls

     By countermanding reason, then direct

The folk to track their lineage back through soul's

 

Metempsychoses rather than inspect

     That claim against the myth-averse demands

Of plain good sense backed up by intellect.

 

Still it's a point he fully understands,

     Our cautious non-subscriber to the tribe

Of Yeats' epigones: that language hands

 

Down some performatives that may prescribe

      Those deaths enacted in the peatbog seams,

As well as speech-acts that more aptly jibe

 

With all the high-toned literary themes

     Whose safe rendition nonetheless requires

An ear alert to how the poet's dreams

 

Of freedom, love, or anything that fires

     His ardent soul is just as prone to spark

Far different passions once the dreamer tires

 

Of non-fulfillment and so turns to dark

     Imaginings of what might bring about

The wished-for end. Yet should we now embark

 

For Jutland, haunted on the voyage out

     By those remembered lines, then it may strike

Us suddenly that there's some room for doubt

 

Whether this far from tourist-favored hike,

     This quest for what unites our tribe with theirs

In consanguinity, might yetjust like

 

The lake-isle travelogue of Yeats that shares

     Its vagrant wishcast doubt on our intent

To make the trip and see how it compares,

 

That killing-field, with others that he went

     There partly to erase, partly to fix

In memory. Then maybe it's the bent

 

Of one bred up in word-ways that would mix

     The will to act with a will to suspend

The act itself or, if the process kicks

 

In earlier, let action-time distend

     To thought's own measure as events unfold,

And so allow the poet's words to lend

 

Some deeper meaning to the story told

     By opting, Hamlet-like, this time to let

No firm decision exercise its hold

 

So mind can recognize its endless debt

     To mere contingency. Then Tollund Man

May seem to pose less of an outright threat

 

To what's laid out in reason's master-plan

     For civil concord, and instead become

The very prototype of what began

 

As thought's dull stirring to a tribal drum

     Before it set out on the age-long trek

To just that point where finally the sum

 

Of knowledge and experience served to check

     Those atavistic cravings. Then the rate

Of human betterment goes neck-and-neck

 

Not just with nature's fumblings to update

     Our gene-pool but with poetry's long haul

From far-off times, when epics might narrate

 

Acephalous heroics yet enthrall

     The listening throng, to this more nuanced phase

Of consciousness when speech-acts may forestall

 

Such deeds as way back then the ancient craze

     For sacrifice just left to run their course.

So it may be that poetry displays

 

A counter-perlocutionary force

     Whose special gift it is to slow the rush

From speech-act to enactment, and endorse

 

Such wavering thoughts as go against the crush

     Of mob-desire and by example show

The native hue of resolution blush

 

At its crass lack of forethought. Still there's no

     Ignoring how the very urge to meld

Wish, word and speech-act in his 'I will go'

 

Betrays a kinship with the acts that spelled

     A tale of victimage from Viking times

To the near-present of those laborers felled

 

By deeds of war the state once titled crimes

     But now inclines more tactfully to deem

'Political' since this description chimes

 

More sweetly with both sides. Then it might seem

     That, after all, the peat-bog's not so far

From the lake-isle since both invoke a dream

 

With denouement distinctly below par

     Since aptest either to go way off track,

Or fade away, or conjure acts that are

 

So utterly remote from what might stack

     Up to the consequence a vow decrees

That the poetic way of hanging back

 

From perlocution and the fatal squeeze

     Of present fixed intent on future choice

Might well appear the greatest gift that he's

 

Enabled to afford us through a voice

     Subdued and tentative. Yet there's a sense

That nothing here gives reason to rejoice

 

On this account since then the best defense

     Of poetry's still that which makes a chief

Merit of its preferring to dispense

 

With all the props of resolute belief,

     While the most favored apologia's one

That happily adopts the stock motif

 

Of poets anxious to ensure that none

     Of their more topical or risky bits

Come back to haunt them. So they choose to run

 

Some variant of Sidney's point that it's

     The poet's gift and privilege to feign

(Meaning both 'wish' and 'make-believe') what fits

 

A vision far transcending such mundane

     Or factual truths as tally with the drive

To drag it down by those whose dull refrain

 

Insists no healthy order can survive,

     In soul or body social, where ideas

Like this exert their word-spell to deprive

 

Truth's homeland of the critical frontiers

     Drawn up against encroachments from the realm

Of idle fantasists or vision-seers.

 

Not that such dreams were apt to overwhelm

     This poet-traveler who, once Jutland-bound,

Keeps facts, not fictions, firmly at the helm

 

And so ensures the Danish killing-ground

     Not figure as a handy substitute

For grim truths nearer home and so compound

 

The wrong, buton the contraryrefute

     All such mythologizing ploys to blur

The vital line between those truths of brute

 

Reality and fictions that incur

     A higher long-term cost. That's why he brought

So forcibly to mind how grievous were

 

The wrongs endured not only by those caught

     Directly up in it but by the more

Extended company of those who thought

 

That mythic analogues could help restore

     Some sense of shared humanity despite

All the hard evidence of myths that tore

 

Their world apart. Yet while his poem might

      Keep this point clear in view, still it's inclined

To angle or deflect the line of sight

 

So that our soft perspective's prone to find

     Those analogues a handy way to kid

Ourselves that violent actions of the kind

 

Here graphically portrayed are such as bid

     Us heed their rootedness deep in the soil

Of age-old ritual, and so keep the lid

 

On questions that might otherwise embroil

     Us in those local histories whose claim

To factual reconstruction tends to spoil

 

Their image given back within the frame

     Of some enchanted glass. Maybe the case

Is general, and poetry's the name

 

For just the sort of discourse that, by grace

     Of feigning, offers truths beyond the scope

Of history, so doesn't have to face

 

The standard tests for whether thought can cope

     With such myth-busting facts, or words confront

Those stubborn details that the master-trope

 

Of peatbog-man is liable to shunt

     Aside and seek more myth-productive ways

In which to write things up. These spurn such blunt

 

Fact-digging implements as else might raise

     Spectres or mud-caked body-parts more apt

To fix dates and locations than liaise

 

Mytho-poetically between the strapped-

     Down hooded victims of primeval rites

And those whose deaths might yet be roughly mapped

 

By color-code across the various sites

     Marked off in any atlas up-to-date

Enough with every zone-change that re-writes

 

The thanatography to correlate

     With new facts on the ground. The point is not

So much that mythic parallels create

 

A self-protective tendency to blot

     Clean out of working memory what jars,

Like Yeats's 'certain men the English shot'

 

Or such things that a queasy conscience bars

     From its tribunal since they'd otherwise

Amass a detailed inventory that, pars

 

Pro toto, would most likely compromise

     Then topple that whole mythic house of cards

Whose facade bids us elevate our eyes

 

From mere contingencies. These it regards

     As no more than a means to keep our minds

Fixed stupidly on the fragmented shards

 

Of a symbolic truth that better minds

     Discern entire since no such details stand

Between themselves and a high truth that binds

 

The company of victims in a band

     Where differences of time like those of place,

Creed, politics, and all we understand

 

The better for a bit of detailed case-

     Historic grasp is airbrushed from the scene

And we're induced to view the human race

 

As unified deep down by acts that mean

     Its killing-sprees are what most typify

The species and annul the gaps between

 

Such diverse lives-and-times. Still we'd best try

    To get our heads round those since they're the stuff

We'll need to let our thoughts be guided by

 

If we're to stock our memories with enough

     Non-mythic truths of history to make

That grim scenario seem more like a snuff-

 

Movie-addicted view of things and break

     Its hold by simply getting us to see

How truths like this can jolt the mind awake

 

From lethal dreams like that. Let's all agree

     With what quiet dignity he kept his nerve

Through murderous times, maintained a rhetoric free

 

Of Yeatsian rant, wrote poems that deserve

     Our gratitude for coaxing darkest deeds

Unflinchingly to light, and didn't swerve

 

From memories such that anyone who reads

     And pictures them will realize what it took

To find the words, or what the poet needs

 

To bring those words effectively to book

     In verse-forms that communicate the shock

Of their engendering. Not his way to look

 

For facile consolations or to block

    Its impact by some well-approved technique

Of tasteful euphemism from the stock

 

Worked up by serviceable bards who seek

     The church's, chief's, or state's approving nod

For this or that convenient verbal tweak

 

Of proven use to keep the killer squad

     From their front door. Yet, these fine things apart,

We might wish to avoid the path he trod

 

In Jutland following the victim's cart

     And meditating how those deaths composed 

A timeless ritual of the kind that art

 

Alone brought to remembrance and disclosed

     As that which (so the myths would have us think)

Stayed constant while all else metamorphosed.

 

Then violent death would constitute the link

     That quite eluded those more sanguine sorts

Of civic-minded thinker who might blink

 

At such regressive, atavistic thoughts,

     Yet whose great project for a world redeemed

From all in human nature that comports

 

With Tollund Man turned brutal as they dreamed

     And so (the myth conveys) more than sufficed

To show how dark the flipside of what seemed

 

Enlightenment's best chance. That message, spliced

     With chunks of Christian doctrine to enforce

The depth of our depravity should Christ

 

Not turn things round, then makes a ready source

     Of everything the myth-promoters need

To carry through their pitiless divorce

 

Between the shared humanity that we'd

     Much better cultivate if we're to get

Along at all and what their sullen creed

 

Requires. That is, it warns us not to let

     Mere loving-kindness, charity, appeals

To fellow-feeling, or some kindred set

 

Of clapped-out sentimentalist ideals

     Persuade us they're equipped to lift the curse

Of our condition by a dream that feels

 

Like absolution but then leaves us worse

     Prepared to face the horror-show that still

Defines our fallen state. You'll say: his verse

 

Provides the best short answer to such ill-

     Judged claims as I've made here, since any good

Or half-way sympathetic reader will

 

Be sure to recognizeor surely would

     If not in the response-distorting grip

Of some deep prejudicewhat's understood

 

Instinctively by him as partnership

     In the long tale of suffering he presents

Not from the victim's standpoint that would skip

 

The awkward bit and take the innocents'

     Uncomplicated view, but as perceived

By one who feels the pressure of events,

 

Home and abroad, with conscience unrelieved

     By any such too easy route to guilt-

Free retrospect. This leaves him less deceived,

 

You'll say, and never one to let things tilt

     So far one way as to lose sight of all

Those reciprocities around blood spilt

 

In ceremony, war, or drunken brawl

     That blur the fixed apportionment of roles

Like victim/executioner and call

 

For poetry, like his, that both consoles

     With its long views and leaves us more aware

How frail they are, the boundary-controls

 

Set up in those short intervals of rare

     Peace and lucidity to keep safe stowed

Below our civil decks the extant share

 

Of violence laid in store by an old code

     Whose unrequited eye-for-eye may burst

The bulkheads and at any time explode

 

To sink the ship. My answer: true, 'the worst

     Are full of passionate intensity', and his

(Heaney's, not Yeats's) poetry rehearsed

 

Some ways to calm those bad intensities

     Through wisely-tempered speech-acts that (against

The Yeatsian lure) communicate what is,

 

Quite audibly, conviction not ring-fenced

     By any prudent wish to hedge his bets

Nor count himself poetically dispensed

 

From calmer passionssorrows, fears, regrets,

     But also hopes, assurances, and shades

Of optimism ranged against the threats

 

And terrors. Yet this answer still evades

     The question squarely posed by mythic scenes

Of violence coupled with a style that trades

 

On those poetic speech-acts as a means

     To keep the other types of act at bay

Whilst still in mind, like superfine machines

 

Set up with fits so accurate that they

     Must perfectly self-regulate and curb

Every least tendency to go astray

 

From the fixed norm in ways that might disturb

     Their equilibrium and so induce

A Tinguely-like disaster. Such superb

 

Control means zero tolerance for loose

     Assemblage, whether of precision parts

That make the mechanism fit for use

 

Or of the likewise high-tec verbal arts

     That go into the making of a rhyme

Or rhythm that by just so much departs

 

From metrical convention or clock-time

     As perfectly to counter any hint

Of artlessness unless of the sublime

 

Since art-transforming sort. Say it's by dint

     Of such consummate mastery combined

With depth of insight that his words imprint

 

The sense of here encountering a mind

     Uniquely qualified to get beyond

That myth-engendered view of humankind

 

With which high priests and oracles respond

     Whenever we petition them to grant

Some sign how best to cultivate the bond

 

Of shared humanity or re-enchant

     Our bleak existence and the plea's returned

To sender with the same blood-curdling slant

 

That set the tumbrils rolling as they churned

     The Jutland soil. But there's another side

Worth noting where the sober lesson learned

 

By Yeats late on should also be applied

     In this case, not to ask if 'certain men'

The poet's words sent out to fight then died

 

At English hands, but whether the squat pen

     That Heaney dug with, as his people had

With spades in heavy earth and juice-dark fen,

 

Could all the same have done its share to add

     A muted voice-part to the strident choir,

Albeit stirring no such mad or bad

 

Primeval passions as might yet inspire

     More peat-bog deaths. Still it's a tricky call,

Like Yeats's wondering if the speech-act 'Fire!'

    

That felled those men should yet be deemed to fall

     Within the perlocutionary range

Of speech-acts like his own which, after all,

 

Were fashioned with no thought how times might change

     Or circumstance contrive that they promote

An après-coup with such power to estrange

 

Act from intent. So maybe those who quote

     The verses about Tollund Man to show

How well and ecumenically he wrote

 

About 'the troubles' in some long-ago

     Time-out-of-time should take time to reflect

That certain myths and speech-acts may bestow

 

The dubious blessing of a disconnect

     Between our present sense of what befits

A value-system premised on respect

 

For human life, or comfortably sits

     With our (let's say) more socially advanced

Morality, and what in us submits

 

So unresistingly to the entranced

     Condition of balletomanes who fling

Aside mere audience-custom as they're danced

 

Into some all-involving Rite of Spring

     Where nothing stands between such acts of raw

Onstage ferocity and everything

 

That ethics, empathy, and rule of law

     Once strove to keep offstage. No doubt this type

Of image-mongering's liable to draw

 

The charge that I'm exploiting it to hype

     The whole thing up and make the poet out

A rabble-rouser just to give my gripe

 

The same emotive resonance or clout

     That (I've said) all those trademark mises-en-scène

Of ritual violence work to bring about.

 

Then there'd be room for refuge, yet again,

     In that vague border-zone between the class

Of speech-acts that have consequences when

 

Pronounced with such intent and those that pass

     For fictional or mythic and contrive

Thereby to spike the guns of all smart-ass

 

Or cloth-eared commentators who'd derive

     The Yeatsian lesson, though now hedged around

With no such queasy doubts. It's one that I've

 

Seen fit to venture here, and—to compound

     The lapse of tact or taste—further surmised

That this involves the sorts of speech-act found

 

In just the kinds of poem chiefly prized

     For holding back from words more closely geared

To action, or performatives devised

 

Precisely to ensure the reader's steered

     Well clear of any upshot that entails

The fateful passage, rightly to be feared,

 

From speech to act. For it's when language fails,

     Or willfully declines, to specify

Just which of all its mythic-sounding tales

 

Is history, or how we're to apply

     Some mix of context-principles with strict

Sincerity-conditions and thereby

 

Tell true from false, that we're left derelict

     Of any half-way adequate technique

For knowing whether maybe we've been tricked

 

Into some realm of fictive doublespeak

     Where no such categories fit the bill

Since here the only pertinent critique

 

Of speech-acts, as of actions good or ill,

     Is one that chooses to interrogate

The relative degree of art or skill

 

Their fashioning required. At any rate

     That realm's no country for young men, or for

Those active types who'd quick as thought translate

 

Some watchword from the poet's ample store

     Into a truly consequential act

Whose outcome speech-act theorists might deplore

 

As lacking warrant since so poorly backed

     By those grandiloquent performatives

That find small room for simple truths of fact.

 

On this account poetic license gives

     Full dispensation from the flat demand

Of anyone who thinks that freedom lives

 

In that small gap between the mythic and

     Those thought-procedures that at length allowed

Our slaughter-sated kind to understand

 

And so reject what once induced the crowd

     Of deathwatch ritualists to undergo

Such atavism though themselves endowed,

 

Prospectively, with means of saying no

     To its malign bewitchment. Let's admit

There's a fine art to his maintaining so

 

Adroit an equipoise or perfect fit

     Between the rival claims of membership

In that albeit nowadays loose-knit

 

Tribal community and what the trip

     To Arhus told him of the need for some

Much larger view of things whereby to slip

 

All such parochial bonds. Still should it come

     Down to the sort of reckoning here proposed

In speech-act terms then, as a rule of thumb,

 

Let's say that what I've seemed to diagnose

     As case-specific to an heir of Yeats,

So that each word was taken to disclose

 

Some turn of thought that subtly correlates

     The private with the public, should instead

Be viewed in light of those set-piece debates,

 

From Plato down, where the one party said

     (With Sidney) how the poet's word redeems

Our fallen world and turns to gold the lead

 

Of mortal life, while the other party steams

     With rage and says that lot will fuck your head

By filling it with their delirious dreams,

 

In which case we're most grievously misled

     By fictions, metaphors, or endless streams

Of sense-beguiling imagery since fed

 

A soul-corrupting diet of what seems

     But is not. So when asked where fancy's bred

The answers run to opposite extremes

 

Like Sidney contra Plato. I should tread

     Cautiously here since none of these stock themes,

From Plato's carpentered or painted bed

 

To poets' dirty work for bad regimes,

     Is of the sort you'd think aptest to shed

Much light on why this nobler poet's schemes

 

Of conflict-management should conjure dread

     Despite what every grateful reader deems

His strife-appeasing art. Still there's a thread

 

That runs through this as through the peatbog seams

     And asks if Tollund Man's potato head

Evoked in verse might yet send killer teams

 

For fresh blood to requite the restless dead.

 






Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University, Wales, and author of over thirty books on various aspects of philosophy, literary theory, and music. He has also
more recentlypublished poems in Critical Quarterly, Indigo, The European English Messenger, and Scintilla. His collection The Cardinal's Dog and Other Poems appeared from De La Salle University Press last year. 








                                    

 

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