In The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson speaks of the “vast, submerged continents of nonconscious thought and feeling that lie at the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives” (xi). This profound core of our sense-making ability is the seat of calling. I began to understand the role of these “vast, submerged continents” in making sense of our civic lives after NetVUE’s “Courageous Texts, Courageous Teaching” webinar on the power but also the problems of proximity and kinship. Discerning our collective calling to justice and love of neighbor requires teaching aimed at surfacing, shaping, and reshaping these affective depths.
Easier said than done. Covid, quarantine, divisive cultural conditions, all exacerbated by shrill and reductive social media discourse, have made teaching our civic calling to justice more challenging than ever. And more urgent.
To do this, I try to make my classroom into a space not unlike the space of a poem: affectively engaging, resistant, surprising, of sufficient “space and liberty,” to quote King Lear, where biases, presuppositions, and formative narratives can be clarified and refined.
Again, easier said than done. But I have been helped and inspired by Seamus Heaney and what his life and work have taught me about affect, political emotions, and poetry’s power to engage “the heart of our ability to make sense of our lives.”
The “peace line” or “peace wall” at Bombay Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
By Supermac1961 – Creative Commons.
If I had to choose an image that embodied the problems of proximity and the urgent need to address political emotions, I would choose a peace wall from Northern Ireland
Each time I see a peace wall, I think of Heaney’s poem, “Kinship,” from his 1975 volume, North. “Kinship” concludes with the speaker addressing the Roman historian, Tacitus:
And, you, Tacitus, . . .
Our mother ground
is sour with the blood
of her faithful,
they lie gargling
in her sacred heart
as the legions stare
from the ramparts . . .
report us fairly,
how we slaughter
for the common good
and shave the heads
of the notorious,
how the goddess swallows
our love and terror.From “Kinship” by Seamus Heaney
The point of these closing lines of “Kinship,” as the title suggests, is to emphasize not one side but the two-sidedness of “our love and terror.” The Roman ramparts divide tribe from empire, but, as a frontier or border, also link tribe and empire. The ramparts mark for both groups the frontier between their loves and terrors. The rhyme of “ramparts” with “sacred heart” underscores the notion of a divide which entwines as it separates, linking the legions to the “sacred heart” of the land and linking the sacred heart of the land to that which divides it, namely the Roman fortifications.
The religious overtones of the poem’s language suggest the fervent intensity of allegiance and animosity and the devotional quality of violence. The Roman ramparts could be the peace walls in Belfast. They could be the terms “Catholic” and “Protestant,” “Republican” or “Loyalist”; they could be, in short, anything actual or imagined that encloses, protects, and identifies one group, and, by those very acts, excludes another group.
In his introduction to the 1972 anthology Soundings ’72: An Annual Anthology of New Irish Writing, Heaney also emphasizes the need to address political emotions in Northern Ireland:
I disagree that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ It can eventually make new feelings or feelings about feelings happen, and anybody can see that in this country for a long time to come a refinement of feelings will be more urgent than a reframing of policies or of constitutions.From Soundings ’72: An Annual Anthology of New Irish Writing
Heaney’s point here isn’t meant to minimize legislative gain but to remind us that changed laws don’t mean changed hearts. The process of peace must acknowledge, engage, and work to refine feelings as well as develop just laws and principles framed in constitutions. This is exactly where poetry can help.
For Heaney, a poem is a space wherein we experience delight in and deliberate upon “language’s most unexpected apprehensions” in ways and to degrees shaped by particular formal and generic features of lyric poetry (“The Redress of Poetry”). These features can generate what Andrew Osborn calls poetry’s “difficulty.” Osborn defines difficulty as “Resistance to swift and confident interpretation . . . experienced at the juncture of thought and feeling” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Such difficulty gives poetry the power, as Wallace Stevens says, “to resist the intelligence, almost successfully,” and, through such resistance, to elicit a more embodied cognition as we navigate a poem and the feelings the poem both evokes in us readers and embodies in its aesthetic patterns. Hence, for Heaney, “poetry, having to do with feelings and emotions, must not submit to the intellect’s eagerness to foreclose” (“The Government of the Tongue”).
Of course, as Heaney says, “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” But, if lyrics can’t stop a tank, they can at least make us stop and think. Or better, a poem can make us stop thinking even as it recruits and sustains entrancing attention. Poetry does this not to help us escape thought, but to return our cognition to its foundations in an embodied, erotic engagement with the patterns of our environment, whether those environments are aesthetic and actual.
Heaney’s thinking about poetry, politics, and emotions is echoed by Martha Nussbaum when she asks:
What makes people want to support political principles that require sacrifice of self-interest and that require them to treat people as equals not marginalizing or stigmatizing them?
How do we bring up people to want love and support principles of justice?
Advocating a direct love of principles [misunderstands] what human beings are like, what makes them care intensely about something . . . we need a richer account of human emotions.From Why Love Matters for Justice (workshop with Martha Nussbaum)
Poetry provides this richer account. The poetic qualities mentioned above can at least help us begin to imagine a kind of visceral pedagogy that could make students “care intensely” about principles such as justice. Aristotle thought tragic drama could bring about a catharsis of our fear and pity by evoking those feelings and allowing us to reflect on them. Just so, “our love and terror,” collective amplifications of fear and pity, must be recognized, scrutinized, and recalibrated in order to achieve just and peaceful relationships with those to whom we are bound in social proximity. Indeed, Nussbaum, a classicist, articulates in the above quotation an important insight of classical political philosophy, an insight that Heaney’s poetry attests to: the soul and the city shape one another.
For other posts on the use of poetry for vocational discernment and reflection, see Paul Burmeister’s “Poetry as an Aid to Teaching Vocation,” Stephanie Johnson on “The Call of Lyric Poetry”, Erin VanLaningham on the poetry of Eavan Boland (“The Cartography of Vocation”), and Jason Mahn on how we misread Robert Frost’s famous poem (“The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken”). For more on the poetry of Seamus Heaney and vocation, see Jason Stevens’ posts, “When Hope and History Rhyme,” “Growing Up In Between,” and “Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation.” Jason has also written here about the poem “The Hill We Must Climb,” by Amanda Gorman (read at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden). The image at the top of this post is from the digital project A_B_ peace & terror etc. (2008) by Peter Crnokrak.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.