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Irene Nordin - Heaney and Heidegger

Irene Nordin - Heaney and Heidegger

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Published by Cleoatwar
An article on Seamus Heaney's poetics.
An article on Seamus Heaney's poetics.

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Published by: Cleoatwar on Apr 05, 2013
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‘A Way-Station Along a Way’:Heaney and Heidegger and Wanderings and Home
 
 Irene Gilsenan Nordin
In his Nobel lecture in 1995, Seamus Heaney uses the metaphor of the journey to describe the transition in time and space - both psychic and physical space - from his childhood home in rural Co. Derry to his standingin front of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, to receive the Nobel prizein literature. He describes what he calls this ‘journey into the wideness of the world beyond’, in terms of a journey into language itself, a journey thattakes him from the child, in the farmhouse kitchen, climbing up on the armof the sofa to get his ear closer to the ‘wireless speaker’, listening to thevoices from the outside world, to his standing there as a man, in thathonoured gathering, delivering his speech. He describes the journey, in hisown words, as a ‘journey into the wideness of language, a journey whereeach point of arrival - whether in one’s poetry or one’s life - turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination’.[1]This idea of language as journey, as a ‘stepping stone rather than adestination’, as a movement outward from a state of silence to anarticulation in speech, is an important motif in Heaney’s poetry. It can beseen in terms of a bringing together of pre-verbal and verbal articulation, or what Julia Kristeva calls the mediation between ‘preverbal semiotic space’and the ‘symbolic operations that depend on language as a sign system’.[2]It can be seen as a search for articulation which the speaking subject makeson its journey into language. We see an example of this in an early poem,‘The Peninsula’, from
 Door into the Dark 
, where the act of writing itself isdescribed as a physical journey that the speaking subject makes intolanguage. The poem begins with the interior space of the silent subject, thenmoves gradually outward to encompass the whole of the landscape: ‘Whenyou have nothing more to say, just drive / For a day all round the peninsula’. As the physical space widens around the speaker, so too doesthe physic space, which constantly draws the speaking subject forward:‘The sky is tall as over a runway, / The land without marks so you will notarrive / But pass through, though always skirting landfall’.[3] This constantstate of movement suggests a state of estrangement, or homelessness, on the part of the speaking subject, a state which is juxtaposed with the return
 
 Nordic Irish Studies
20
home that is suggested at the end of the poem: ‘And drive back home, stillwith nothing to say / Except that now you will uncode all landscapes / [. . .]’. Here, the arrival home is again associated with the sense of absence andsilence, expressed at the beginning of the poem. But the end of the journeyalso suggests a newly gained insight to ‘uncode all landscapes’, somethingwhich results from the state of homelessness experienced on the way.Another example of the motif of the journey, where a spiritual quality isassociated with the idea of the search, is seen in the following lines from poem
 xxxii
, in
Seeing Things
: ‘Running water never disappointed. /Crossing water always furthered something. / Stepping stones were stationsof the soul’. Here, metaphors of movement and fluidity, seen in the imagesof the ‘running water’, and in the ‘crossing’ of water, are juxtaposed withthe stationary and fixed images of the ‘stations of the soul’, suggesting astate of temporary refuge for the speaking subject, as it makes its way intolanguage.[4]It is this notion of striving towards, implying an underlying state of  becoming, rather than any sense of arrival at that is of special interest to mehere. This can be related to Heidegger’s ideas regarding the nature andsignificance of language, outlined in ‘Dialogue on Language between aJapanese and an Inquirer’, a conversation between Heidegger and aJapanese friend. In this discussion, Heidegger considers language in termsof ‘thinking’, which he describes as a process, or what he calls ‘a way-station along a way’. This process towards language is something which isalways ‘under way’, something which has a mysterious quality, carrying thespeaking subject forward in a Heraclitian-like flow of opposites. Heidegger expresses this as follows: ‘And ways of thinking hold within them thatmysterious quality that we can walk them forward and backward, and thatindeed only the way back will lead us forward’.[5] This journey towardslanguage can thus be seen in an existential or spiritual sense as a process of thinking, which leads the speaking subject forward in his/her striving toreach a state of authenticity, a state of Being where self and world are brought together in language.[6] According to Heidegger, it is in thelanguage of poetry, in the creative and dynamic process of poetic language,where boundaries are fluid and thresholds are blurred, that this search for authenticity is most clearly seen.[7] Connected with the concept of languageas a search for an articulation of Being are the contrasting concepts of homelessness and home, the two competing poles between which thesubject is suspended. For Heidegger, these two concepts exist in a state of dialectical tension: home is only understood as such when one has becomeexiled from it, and it is only when we acknowledge the absence of home,
 
 Heaney and Heidegger 
21
when we truly embrace our state of homelessness, that we can begin toexperience true home.[8]These paradoxes of home and homelessness are seen very clearly inthe poetry of Seamus Heaney.[9] They are seen not least in the motif of the journey, where the crossings of borders and boundaries from one state of awareness to another show these Heraclitian oppositional dynamics at work.This is especially so in the sub-section ‘Crossings’, from the volume
Seeing Things
, where the contrasting states of home and homelessness can berelated to the overall metaphor of the quest, a governing motif in thevolume as a whole. In this respect, the poetic form is understood as anarticulation of the dialectical tension between striving states of being, whichare expressed in the crossing of thresholds from the realms of the concreteand fixed, to the realms of the fluid and the liminal. In the following poem,the motif of the journey is clearly conveyed in the metaphor of a car, as ittravels through a tree-lined road, bringing the speaker through on the other side, to a transformed state of awareness:
 Not an avenue and not a bower.For a quarter-mile or so, where the country roadIs running straight across North Antrim bog,Tall old fir trees line it on both sides.[ . . . . ](89)
The poem begins with a mood of hesitancy, expressed in the line: ‘Not anavenue and not a bower’, suggesting an initial searching on the part of thespeaking subject to find words to describe the particular stretch of road, astate of uncertainty which is continued in the second line, in the expressionof a lack of precision: ‘For a quarter-mile or so’. The image of the bog, inthe line which follows, also develops the initial mood of ambiguity,suggesting the idea of the layers of possible meanings that any of thesewords might have. These images evoke a sense of movement anddisplacement, which is suggested too in the contrasting images of the fixityof the terrain and the fluid image of country road that is ‘running straightacross’ it, just as tension is seen in the distance between the stretch of treeson the actual road itself, and the words used to describe it.In the first line of the second stanza, the metaphor of movementthrough is sustained in the image of the fir trees lining the road ‘on bothsides’, suggesting the idea of transition and displacement. This metaphor isdeveloped further in the third stanza, again with a suggestion of a process or momentum that urges the speaking subject forward:

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