Independent Scholar, Leeds, England | Published: 15 March, 2016
ISSUE 11 | Pages: 213-219 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2016-6241
This paper examines the presence and impact of the Kristevan chora in the kite poetry of Seamus Heaney, demonstrating how the presence of the chora in his final kite poem “A Kite for Aibhín” is used to alter the discursive representation of fatherhood that was handed down to Heaney through symbolic language. The views of Heaney and Kristeva on the revolutionary potential of poetry is analysed alongside Heaney’s poetry to glean an understanding of how poetry has a profound impact on identity and representation. This paper proves that for Heaney poetry afforded weighty individual change, acting as a technological medium through which he could alter language.
El artículo analiza la presencia y el impacto de la chora kristeviana en la poesía en torno a cometas de Seamus Heaney, demostrando cómo la presencia de la chora en “Un cometa para Aibhín”, su último poema sobre esta temática, sirve para alterar la representación discursiva de la paternidad que Heaney había adquirido a través del lenguaje simbólico. Los puntos de vista de Heaney y Kristeva sobre el potencial revolucionario de la poesía se analizan en relación a la obra poética de Heaney con el propósito de dilucidar el profundo impacto de la poesía en la identidad y la representación. En este trabajo se demuestra que la poesía permitió a Heaney un cambio substancial a nivel individual, al actuar como medio tecnológico a través del cual podía alterar el lenguaje.
Seamus Heaney; Julia Kristeva; poesía; poética; género; lo maternal; lenguaje; la chora.
In Seamus Heaney’s final collection Human Chain, and most explicitly in the last poem of this collection “A Kite for Aibhín”, Heaney reveals a corrective move into an inclusive maternal space. His poetry attempts to rectify the socially constructed model of paternal behaviour received through his father and through his culture. He does this through a move to a more maternal poetic space. It is necessary to clarify that this use of the term “maternal” is problematic due to the unavoidable inference of the female sex, motherhood and birth. Calling his poetry maternal is an insufficient expression of the feeling expressed by Heaney in his last kite poem. The limitations of the language available highlight the need for a new, more maternal, yet less gender specific language to describe paternal feelings and relationships like those present in Heaney’s poetry. However, at this time, it is necessary to describe Heaney’s poetry as maternal since it is impossible to discuss Kristeva’s concept of the chora and use the term “paternal’, as this suggests precisely the patriarchal regulation Kristeva is agitating against. Thus, when I speak of Heaney’s move to the maternal, I am speaking outside of gender identity. I refer to Kristeva’s concept of the “chora” as a genderless repository of drives and energies that are characteristically “nourishing and maternal” (Kristeva 1984: 94).
“A Kite for Aibhín” echoes Giovanni Pascoli’s “L’Aquilone”, the poem was shown to Heaney by Professor Morisco on a trip to the Italian University of Urbino. In a reflection on her meeting with Heaney called “Two Poets and a Kite” Morisco discloses her realisation of “how dear this topic was to him and how it tied in with his own personal experiences” (Morisco 2013: 35), as the poet had flown kites in his youth and written “A Kite for Michael and Christopher’. In his foreword to the translation of “L’Aquilone” Heaney claims that Morisco:
knew that Yeats’s phrase lurked in the Italian text and knew moreover that I had written my own kite poem (‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’). Sooner or later, therefore, I was bound to go “fishing in the sky” (as the Chinese put it) one more time (Heaney 2012).
This “fishing in the sky” led Heaney to rework “L’Aquilone”. This revision appeared in Human Chain as the last poem in the collection “A Kite for Aibhín”, and “was written to salute the birth of Heaney’s second granddaughter” (Sonzogni 2014: 35). It is this final reworked and highly intertextual poem that becomes the pivotal focus of this essay, alongside theory from Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language.
“A Kite for Aibhín” demonstrates how Heaney’s late style reveals a development in poetic language, a development which we could term “revolutionary”. A comparison of his kite poem for Aibhín against the poem for Michael and Christopher reveals a poetic style that in his later years, is uninhibited by those symbolic structures which castrate language, and thus, relationships. This “revolution” is Heaney’s ability to express maternal love through poetic language; his ability to put “feelings into words” (Higgins 2014: 72). In his kite poems, the kite as a memory, a motif, and an action is a multifaceted symbol of Heaney’s feelings being transposed into words.
Firstly, I wish to illuminate the interconnecting theoretical ideas in both Heaney and Kristeva’s poetics. Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry and Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language share an underlying assertion; that the revolutionary ability of poetry lies in its “liberating and verifying effect upon the individual spirit” (Heaney 1989: 2), in fact, through corrective poetry Heaney’s work generates his own liberation. As Anne-Marie Smith observes Kristeva’s revolution is an internal and individual revolution where the “subversive work of the semiotic” (Smith 1998: 18) infiltrates the symbolic elements of speech which are patriarchal and isolating, for Kristeva:
All imaginative practice, such as art, poetry, love and psychoanalysis, represents the individual subject’s encounter with the law of the father, of the symbolic and of society, with imposed form and structure as well as representing the imaginative attempts to battle with this frame of reference in the name of desire, subjectivity and the energy and drives they bring into play (Smith 1998: 18).
The arrangement of the semiotic in poetic language allows the poet to connect language to that semiotic space less regulated by patriarchal social structures. This Kristeva associates with our pre-Oedipal existence. This is where the similarity ends. Since, according to Kelly Oliver, Kristeva believes that “revolutionary texts prepare subjects for social changes that shake the foundation of contemporary society” (Oliver: 100-1), and this contrasts with Heaney, as Kristeva urges this internal revolution to carry influence into the political realm.
According to Heaney, poetry has no power to effect mass social change, and he states that those who would wish poetry to become a force of political change constrain art. These people he terms “hecklers”:
Our heckler … will want poetry to be more than an imagined response to conditions in the word; he or she will urgently want to know why it should not be an applied art, harnessed to movements which attempt to alleviate those conditions by direct action (Heaney 1986: 2).
Kristeva exemplifies the “heckler” of poetry. Not without reason, though, does she urge poetry to become a political agent of change. As Oliver asserts, Kristeva believes that “by changing the representation through which we live … our lives can change” (Oliver 1993: 11) so through a “dialectic oscillation” (ibid.) between the semiotic and the symbolic present in poetic language, the speaking subject uses a revolutionary language with the potential to enact political change.
The notion in Heaney’s The Redress of Poetrythat poetry can be healing or “strong enough to help” (Heaney 1989: 9) offers an interesting approach to the reading of Heaney as a poet and person in constant redress. Furthermore, Human Chain is written in a “conscious dialogue” (Matthews 2010: 1) with Heaney’s previous work, indicating that this final volume is a mediation on the span of his entire life and work. The attention that is brought to Heaney’s relationship with his father in Human Chain indicates that the normative model of the father-son relationship customary to Heaney is lacking. In Heaney’s work, there are indications of his desire to redress the opposition of the maternal/paternal roles.
Many of the poems in Human Chain regarding Heaney’s father and himself are “second thoughts” (Vendler 1998: 74); they return to memories to reflect and redress. In part “IV” of “Album”, Heaney discusses the three times he embraced his father and the awkwardness of the emotion. Having “once said that his language and sensibility are yearning to admit … a transcendent dimension” (Farndale 2001), we see the evolving expression of the semiotic in “Album”. The self-reflection and redress are seen in the lines:
Were I to have embraced him anywhere
It would have been on the riverbank
That summer before college, him in his prime,
Me at the time not thinking how he must
Keep coming with me because I’d soon be leaving. (Heaney 2010: 1-5)
The distance between stanzas becomes loaded with absence, signifying the distance between Heaney and his father and the emotive distance of an embrace that did not happen. The rhythmic flow of language in lines three and four demonstrate the slippery nature of time.
Helen Vendler notices a shift in Heaney’s style after his father’s death, claiming that Heaney has a “new interest in the virtual realm, in which absence, not presence, defines space” (Vendler 1998: 76). In his own words, Heaney states that “abstract words that had previously had an ephemeral flimsiness to them were no longer abstractions” (Farndale 2001), thus, poems like “The Butts” in Human Chain are filled with emotive absences that strive to express the unspeakable chora. Inside the absences there are traces of a former man, “chaff cocoons” (Heaney 2010: 22) remain inside his father’s pockets, like ghostly seeds, symbolising the essence of his father and his ephemeral presence. There is, as well, the same sense of regeneration that is found in “A Kite for Aibhín”. The chaff’s ability to grow anew when planted is similar to the kite’s windfall moment and signifies the larger symbolism of the human chain Heaney’s collection refers to.
Furthermore, Heaney’s negotiation of language is an “encounter with the law of the father” (Smith 1998: 18). Heaney says that, to his father:
silence was valued, speech was almost a devaluing of the thing; … it was to do with my father… there was a code, and you knew the code of you didn’t. If you knew how to conduct yourself properly, you didn’t talk too much about yourself and your feelings (Farndale 2001).
His poetry becomes a way to overcome the regulatory law of the father that suppresses language and leads to the silences that represent Heaney’s relationship with his father.
Emotive speech between Heaney and his father literally orientates around the mother. In that same interview with Nigel Farndale, he asks Heaney, “So what did they talk about, father and son?” (Farndale 2001). Heaney’s reply was that “the way he indicated equality, at easeness, was to talk about my mother” (ibid.), here, the two men orientate expressive and emotional language through the mother; it is as though, she becomes a vehicle for the semiotic. Speaking of his cottage in Wicklow, Heaney said: “the place had, and still has, no telephone lines … When I go there I feel gathered and safe and under cover” (ibid.). This description of the home as a speechless and safe place is reminiscent of the maternal chora or the Freudian in utero existence. Additionally, his cottage where he writes is a womb-like site, where he can experiment linguistically and safely with the semiotic, and where his language only becomes an utterance once published.
“Antaeus” and “Hercules and Antaeus” two poems in North (1975) employ the commonly used mother-earth literary trope to dramatize the battle between the symbolic represented by Hercules and the semiotic represented by Antaeus. In these poems, Heaney writes about Antaeus a mythological figure who is invincible when connected to the womb-like earth and the hyper-masculine Hercules, who is determined to break Antaeus’s connection with the earth and bring him into a symbolic sphere. In “Antaeus” the earth is nourishing, but problematically instinctual, primitive and dark, and thus must be transcended to the masculine realm of air which is constituted by rationality and progress. When read as poems in dialogue with each other, “A Kite for Aibhín” and “Hercules and Antaeus” bring certain unities to light. For instance, the last lines echo each other: “my elevation, my fall” (Heaney 1975: 20) and “the kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall” (Heaney 2010: 19). In “Antaeus” the broken connection with the earth and the transcendence into a realm of patriarchal regulation is a downfall. Whereas the relationship depicted between earth/family regulation and kite/human in “A Kite for Aibhín” is more nuanced. The kite still maintains a connection with the earth, though string has broken and the kite is alone, Heaney evokes the sense that the connection with the earth can still be reinstated. The “windfall” here is regenerative. The kite is brought back to the earth but still maintains the ability to fly. This poem marks a revolution in Heaney’s depiction of the maternal. The kite moves “between worlds … tugg
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