Heaney tackles the paradox of poetry and other arts, the fact that at one level ‘no lyric ever stopped a tank’. Yet they may just steel those who are stopping tanks, or help the rest of us understand what it takes to stop one. Or perhaps they can help keep the tanks from starting in the first place.
Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited. It is like the writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.
I sense a struggle in Heaney’s defence as if he doesn’t feel he’s quite nailed it. Or perhaps it is simply that I don’t feel he’s quite nailed it and I’m not sure how to nail it myself.
That said, the Hungarian poet György Faludy didn’t doubt for one minute the value of poetry in the face of oppression – he continued writing reams of poems, even using his own blood, or strenuously committing lines to memory, while incarcerated in a totalitarian prison.
Source: Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected prose 1971-2001 (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 189
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