What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment
When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.
Heaney’s own unlikely vocational journey from a farm in Country Derry to the most popular and widely read poet in English is documented in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. His poetry, from “Digging” onward, has relentlessly employed trope after trope to imagine and reimagine his vocation of poetry and poetry’s purpose. But “The Redress of Poetry” might be the best single read of his on vocation. It introduces the idea of vocation as redress, as a scale in which to weigh competing claims. And because the libra in “deliberation” is Latin for “scale,” Heaney sees poetry, and I think helps us see vocation in general, fundamentally as a way of thinking, a disposition, an on-going act of deliberation.
Heaney’s idea of the redress of poetry operates in two senses of the word “redress.” First, there is the redress that poetry offers to wrongs in the world in the form of “glimpsed alternatives” to our conditions and in the form of the consolations poetry gives to the individual spirit. But there is also the duty to redress poetry, to credit it and stand up on its behalf, first as the noble art that poets practice but, ultimately, as the capacity we all have to reimagine our lives.
Vocation, too, I think, is a type of redress. It offers an alternative, “a countervailing gesture” to superficial, consumeristic, self-absorbed, and unjust visions of the good. And as superficial consumerism combines with increasingly shrill and reductive political discourse, I think we must stand up for and credit, i.e. redress, the assaulted and shouted-over space, liberty, and silence that vocation provides because it is there that we can best ask, as Paul Wadell puts it in his essay “Itinerary of Hope,” “not only ‘What should I do with my life?’ but also ‘What kind of life is truly worth living?’”
Throughout “The Redress of Poetry,” Heaney explores how his calling to poetry can be both pleasurable and responsible. For Heaney, poetry can “seek to promote cultural and political change and yet can still manage to operate with the fullest artistic integrity” (6). Coming of age as a poet during the Northern Irish Troubles, Heaney had long wrestled with the question of balancing the “fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness” of poetry, “its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of the things in the world,” with the social and political claims of his time and place. “[Poetry],” Heaney says, “offers a response to reality which has a liberating and verifying effect on the individual spirit, and yet I can see how such a function would be deemed insufficient by a political activist” (2). Some “want poetry to be more than an imagined response to the conditions of the world; 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” (2). Of course, as Irish literature attests, it is possible for poetry to be an autotelic aesthetic experience and also be politically involved.
Heaney turns to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace for the image of a scale that solves the problem by undergoing both sides of it. He quotes the following lines from Weil:
If we know in what way society is unbalanced we must do what we can to add weight to the lighter scale . . .we must have a formed conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, ‘that fugitive from the camp of conquerors’ . . . Obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin. (3)
Heaney goes on to say:
[Weil’s] whole book is informed by the idea of counter-weighing, of balancing out forces, or redress—tilting the scales of reality towards some transcendent equilibrium . . . and in the activity of poetry, too, there is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales—a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitation pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical situation. This redressing effect of poetry comes from its being a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances. And sometimes, of course, it happens that such a revelation, once enshrined in the poem remains as a standard for the poet, so that he or she must then submit to the strain of bearing witness in his or her own life to the plane of consciousness established in the poem. (4)
Ultimately for Heaney, the redress of poetry, and, I think, vocation, becomes like an act of hope. Here, Heaney looks to Vaclav Havel:
What Havel has to say about hope can also be said about poetry: it is “a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope in us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation . . . it is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. I don’t think you can explain it as a mere derivative of something here, of some movement, or of some favorable signs in the world. I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are . . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (4-5)
The final sentence in the Havel quotation speaks of the hope that must underlie our vocations—the certainty that it makes sense to pursue a calling, regardless of how it turns out—especially when it is hard to see the immediate and practical applicability of what we do to the urgent needs of the historical moment. Our vocations ask for hope without any guarantee of success. Ours may not be the vocation heard round the world, but those in earshot may still hear our small, occasional rhymes of hope and history.
Maybe it’s time to push out from private pleasures and pursuits toward the place where our callings actually border social relevance. But, then again, maybe it’s social irrelevance that we need to maintain our vocational balance. Heaney’s essay can thus be read so as to suggest that vocation, rightly conceived, is an on-going act of deliberation upon competing claims, upon my vision for what my life and work should or could properly be and what they actually are.
So which sides of the scales needs more weight: hope or history? Pleasure in our work, or the claims of others and society on our callings? An act of solidarity or an act that “frustrate[s] common expectations of solidarity” by taking an individual stand in the face of totalizing and coopting or vapid and selfish ideologies, programs, movements, and regimes? Speaking of George Herbert’s “The Pulley” toward the end of the essay, Heaney says “as with any pulley system, the moment of equilibrium is tentative and capable of a renewed dynamism” (11). Heaney’s essay has helped me see that vocation is both a tentative and dynamic act of equilibrium. And, unable to resist the association of “equilibrium” with the ear, Heaney might say vocation is how we listen for the rhyme of hope and history.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.