To be a poet in a culture obsessed with politics is a risky business. Investing poetry with the heavy burden of public meaning only frustrates its flight: however tempting it is to employ one's poetic talent in the service of a program or an ideology, the result usually has little to do with poetry. This is not to condemn the so-called "literature of engagement"; eye-opening and revealing, it has served its purpose in the unfinished story of our century, and now is certainly no time to call for the poet's retreat into the "ivory tower" of the self. Preserving the individual voice amidst the amorphous, all-leveling collective must be the first act of poetic will, a launching board from which each poet must start the effort of poetry.
A mere glance at recent Irish history suffices to show a place where this preservation is particularly difficult. The pressures that the bifurcated Irish society exerts on its poets are enormous: taking a political stance is no longer a temptation (this implies a certain luxury of choice on behalf of the tempted) but rather an inescapable reality imposed by the agora of public discourse. Thus the condition of exile becomes the poet's only way out, the sole means of retaining the autonomy of his poetic voice. More than merely a survival tactic, however, it is a strategy of finding home "elsewhere," whether in the original language of the island (and today's minority), as in the case of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, or in the larger reality of poetic imagination. Seamus Heaney, who occupies the precarious position of being Ireland's most famous and accomplished living poet while refusing to become its bard, calls our attention to the role of exi...
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Heaney, Seamus. Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
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Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Malloy, Catharine and Phyllis Carey, ed. Seamus Heaney: The Shaping Spirit. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.
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Welch, Robert. Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing. London: Routledge, 1993.
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