The Responsibility of Poetry

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Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died only recently, in 2013, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In his acceptance speech he went back to his upbringing as a Catholic living in Northern Ireland, and talked about writing poetry during the Troubles, the period when atrocities were committed almost daily on both sides. This led him to the kind of responsibility poetry has, or should have, to the world we live in.

"Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote."

That knowledge, said Heaney, ‘puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test’. When we think about

"the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art."

(You can read the whole speech here:

Heaney was raising difficult but important questions for anyone attracted to poetry (or any of the arts), whether as writer or reader. A crude summary might be, how can you enjoy poetry while attending to the news, while being properly aware of the world you live in? On the one hand, Heaney does not think that poetry should be written as though the world of blood and tears did not exist, in some separate, aesthetic, insulated space of the pure imagination, reserved for the arts. But on the other hand – and this is perhaps the trickier bit – poetry should not give itself up to documenting the grim truth about suffering and injustice. It also has a responsibility to do what poetry does: to create, to transform, to give pleasure, to evoke, perhaps, a kind of beauty, to enable us, however gingerly, to ‘credit something positive’ in the work of art.

Heaney tried to suggest what he was getting at by quoting two lines from a poem by an American poet, Archibald MacLeish, called ‘Ars Poetica’, or the Art of Poetry. (You can read the whole poem here: Here are the lines he quoted, with two more lines that immediately follow them.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

A poem, this poem provocatively suggests, should be not true. It should not try to give us the truth of the world of blood and tears, ‘all the history of grief’. But we should nevertheless feel that it is ‘equal to’ those realities. What does that phrase suggest to you? What might it mean, to be equal to something? Consider also that little word ‘for’ which opens the second couplet: it can mean both ‘instead of’ and ‘standing for’. Poetry gives us ‘an empty doorway and a maple leaf’ – images, perhaps charged with feeling or suggestion – and these images both replace and stand for the history of grief. They are in that sense, perhaps, ‘equal to’ grief. They may seem fragile, lightweight to set against such a heavy phrase as ‘all the history of grief’: the claim that poetry can be equal to such things seems tentative, vulnerable. Yet the last line is two syllables longer than the line before; it actually outweighs it, when spoken aloud, achieving the iambic pentameter rhythm which is one of the staples of English verse. Perhaps MacLeish is more confident than tentative in the claim he is making for poetry. Or perhaps the sense of confidence is equal to the sense of vulnerability.

Before we go further, take a moment to reflect on what is here. Do you find yourself in sympathy with what Heaney, or MacLeish, seems to be saying? What doubts or challenges come to mind? (Heaney suggests in his speech that ‘not true’ is a half-truth.) How would you want to defend the value of poetry in a world of blood and tears?

We shall return to Heaney at the end of this unit, but first we shall take a detour to Wordsworth, whom Heaney mentions in his speech as a model, and whose poetry raises similar issues in a different way.