A Meeting of the Margins of Europe:

 Seamus Heaney’s Dialogue with Contemporary Central- and Eastern European Poets

Mária Kurdi

Contributing to the ongoing and widespread discourse on the Other, this article deals with the ways in which the Northern Irish Nobelist Seamus Heaney (1939–2013) relates to a few eminent poets originating from Central- and Eastern Europe. Heaney grew up in a region at the Western end of Europe, as member of the Catholic minority in British-ruled Northern Ireland, where the majority of the population is Protestant. In a couple of inspired essays he set up poetic dialogues with Central- and Eastern European contemporaries of him and by crossing borders in this way, he highlights as well as recognizes certain shared aspects of cultural experience and aesthetic outlook with them. GILBERT P/C 3; GILBERT P/C 1; PÁLFALVI P/C 3; JASTRZĘBSKA P/C 3.

At Queen’s University Belfast Heaney started to write poetry as part of a group of young talents from both communities of Northern Ireland, under the tutelage of the English Philip Hobsbaum. Soon he became a leading figure of the group and published his first volume in 1966. From 1968 onwards, Heaney’ poetry could not remain immune from the political crisis that started in his homeland but he refused to write poems of political propaganda, which aversion provoked harsh critical responses. In 1972, he crossed borders upon the decision to move to the South, the Republic of Ireland and live there in a kind of self-chosen exile to free himself from day-to-day politics as much as possible. The difficulty of this choice is best commemorated in the poem “Exposure” (1975), which contains subtle intertextual references to the work of Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), the Russian poet who lived in banishment for a time during the Stalinist rule.

From the 1980s onwards Heaney became increasingly interested in the lyrical richness coming from the “socialist” countries of Central- and Eastern Europe, admiring their poets’ artistic sensitivity to political issues which he could not detect in the works of Western European (especially English) poets. Notably, he identifies aspects of their aesthetics that they seem to share with the traditions of postcolonial Irish literature. In the essay The Fully Exposed Poem, Heaney discovers ethical values and also the ability to balance opposites (an often quoted feature of Irish literature) in the work of the Czech Miroslav Holub (1923–1998). The essay entitled Atlas of Civilization by Heaney celebrates the strategically layered and sophisticated use of myths, a characteristic of his own poetry, in one of the works of the Polish Zbigniew Herbert (1924–1998). His analysis demonstrates a sensitive recognition of parallels with the historical experience of the other nation.

Heaney’s acquaintance with the Russian Nobelist, Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996) started in London in 1972. What he so greatly admired in the other poet was, again, a feature the latter shared with him, namely the belief in the power and autonomy of language, which is in the focus of Heaney’s essay The Government of the Tongue. In the obituary the Irish poet wrote on the occasion of Brodsky’s death he appraises the latter’s contribution to the refreshing of literary culture in the United States as an emigrant who gave readings and generated discussion about poetic traditions. With similar enthusiasm but at a greater length did Heaney address the work of Czestław Miłosz (1922–2004), another emigrant from his native country, Poland, to the USA in the essay Secular and Millennial Miłosz. For Heaney Miłosz represented forms and manifestations of the politics of poetry that were unknown in the modern English canon. His essay, The Impact of Translation begins with quoting Miłosz’s Spell (Zaklęcie) in its entirety. Heaney’s commentry on the poem testifies to his admiration for the rhetorical bravura in the work of the Polish writer.

The title of Secular and Millennial Miłosz sets up a connection between the secular and the sacral spheres to demonstrate the complexities of Miłosz’s position and achievement. Interestingly, Heaney highlights those qualities in his Polish colleague’s cultural roots and background which are characteristic of his own as well: most notably the integration of elements of paganism and early medieval traditions into Christianity. In the same essay, the development of Miłosz’s career is described in a millennial frame. His ability to create balance is found comparable to that of the millennial poet Virgil, on the basis of the dialectic linking of various perspectives that both display in their respective works. Miłosz’s poem Ars poetica? is quoted by Heaney as a testimony to the importance of speaking about the responsibility of poetry even in the postmodern era. Also, Heaney calls attention to Miłosz’s prose work Zniewolony umysł (The Captive Mind), where Miłosz, in a critical tone, claims that good poetry must convey more than the signature of individual crisis, unremarkable in itself without being grounded in historical experience. Coming from the margins of Europe, for both the Central European Miłosz and the Northern Irish Heaney the art of poetry is justified by fulfilling an ethical mission. The title of Heaney’s Nobel speech is “Crediting Poetry”, where the first word evokes multiple connotations of meaning.

A couple of years after the death of Miłosz Heaney published the volume District and Circle (2006), in which the elegiac work entitled Out of This World contains a uniquely formulated, unorthodox poetic memorial to Miłosz in its third part. The Polish poet is viewed here as belonging to the widest community of those who have been trying to produce art in different places. “Coffined in Krakow”, Heaney writes, he is

. . . as out of this world now
As the untranscendent music of the saw
He might have heard in Vilnius or Warsaw

And would not have renounced, however paltry.

Summing up, it can be said that Heaney discovered models and significant paradigms in the work of Central- and Eastern European poets. It has probably been Heaeny’s own otherness within western poetry which resulted in his unusual openness to the “Other” cultures on the margin of Europe lying far from his home country in the geographical but not in the experiential sense.