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Lack Of Control As A Condition Of And In The Poem

- Aodán McCardle


I am going to examine two different poems in relation to in Helen Vendler’s words, ‘the self’s volatile and transient here and now.’ 1 Vendler refers to the ‘accuracy of language’ and to ‘a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.’ 2 I will contest this search and use of image and symbol; the poets’ awareness of the validity implied, and will highlight the basic relationship between poet, writing material and world as the crucial rift between these Poetries.

Heaney’s poem represents a speaker, himself or not, who finds it adequate to articulate failure through a particular control of language.  The poem does not present us with particular images of failure, examples of failure, but rather presents a personal acknowledgement of failure in the lines,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur. 3

To ‘know’ in this sense is the weight of the guilt magnified but it also dissolves the real situation of fear that is the condition of being complicit.  It takes a conscious acceptance, a tacit agreement with fear, and because of fear, that this will be one’s actions.  It is a reaping of the human spirit that needs exorcism rather than healing as a cure.  We are asked to empathise with this, to understand the words, the sentiment behind the words for there is no trace of the conditions, failure, complicity or shame, in the words for us to experience.  Where is the accuracy of the language to the implied emotional response of complicity?

Helen Vendler in her book on Seamus Heaney’s poetry, which nevertheless adopts a biographical stance under its title Seamus Heaney, identifies elements deemed necessary to a ‘poem of the first order’. 4 For Vendler the word ‘symbol’ reigns supreme and is definitive of a relationship to poetry and, more importantly and problematically, to the world.  She says variously in the introduction;

‘once the poet has found the symbolic plane to sketch his topic,’ pg.6,

‘he must find a way (since poetry is a temporal art) to prolong that symbolic plane through time,’ pg.6,

‘this temporal structure itself must (…) be formally expressive of the symbolic theme,’ pg.7,

‘the problems of poetry moved (…) to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament,’ pg. 8,

‘part of the purpose of this book is to read the poems as the provisional symbolic structures that they are,’ pg.9,

‘Heaney’s sequences (…) attempt, by a series of symbolic purchases, to gain a larger, though still partial, hold on the present and past together,’ pg.9,

‘the fundamental aim of lyric: to grasp and perpetuate, by symbolic form, the self’s volatile and transient here and now,’ pg.10.

It is a formulaic poetry.  Vendler finds in Heaney’s poetry measured, predefined values and outcomes aimed at a particular end; filtered experience, and aesthetically pleasing product.   That end, the filtered experience itself is the only element allowing doubt, but crucially this doubt is retrospective to, comes after, the current poem/product under hand.  The ‘second thoughts’ that Vendler highlights at the end of each chapter of Seamus Heaney show a mind wary of its own doings and this is a key element if poetry is to be alive rather than pretty but placid.  Unfortunately this wariness never questions the ability of the blocks in any fundamental manner.  These blocks and tools create in Vendler’s terms, ‘temporally prolonged symbolic form.’ 5 And so we find a description of a poet who questions his doings and recycles his relationship to the world but not the basic fundamental negotiating tools.  The world is experienced via different formal relationships, but there is no doubt that the key is still in finding ‘symbols adequate to our predicament,’ or that when found these symbols may be presented via the formality of ‘symbolic structures’ and ‘forms’.  The sonnet, the pentameter, the quatrain and finally full knowledge of ‘his own adjectival gift’  are not in question.  These are shifted and refined and it is through them that the world is seen and written.  This may best be defined via Vendler’s own example,

The best writing in ‘Punishment’ 7 comes at the end. Though the language of archaeological discovery is, as it always is in Heaney, expert, as he describes the corpse (…) the motive force within the poet is not the beauty (…) but rather the examination of conscience with respect to personal behaviour. 8

Vendler says, ‘he does stand self-indicted before the victims (…) the poet has passed beyond ‘veneration’ and beyond ‘atrocity’: he has replicated himself in the very posture of the silent onlooker.’ 9 The movement of the subject in this poem is from ‘her’ and ‘she’ at the start to a sudden ‘you’ that ends the middle stanza: from third-person to the more direct second-person, and finally the subject is the poet ‘I who have stood dumb (…) who would connive’. 10 I will examine, in relation to the rights or autonomy of the poem, the effect of the responsibility of the poet for this speaking ‘I’?  The questions are; who is writing and what position are they taking and crucially for this argument what doubt is involved in this position or the materiality of the poem?  In this instance I will suggest that it is either the poet speaking and a good poem or a bad poem adopting an insincere position.  Even, if the poet, this is an unstable position.  A position of piety in easy admittance of ‘complicity’ or ‘self-indictment’. 11 I make no judgements as to the poet’s choice of position.  That is not for me and I agree with Vendler when she says, ‘to read lyric poems as if they are expository essays is a fundamental philosophical mistake.’ 12 What I can and do disagree with is the method in which the position is presented by the poet; the form of the poem that includes that part of its content which is the tool and knowledge ground of the poem and as such the knowledge or mastery are traded in some sense as ‘valuative’ indicators for the poem, the emphasis here being on value and not evaluating.  Surety of skill is displayed too confidently and the quality of skill is the value setting for the poem instead of being used to evaluate the experience.  Heaney, in his Nobel lecture, as Vendler points out, refers to his writing as, ‘a journey where each point of arrival (…) turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination.’ 13

The openness of this statement is I believe a fundamental position for any poet but its actualising, its being put into action, in this case is flawed.  Vendler, referring to the methodology says, ‘beyond the chosen symbolic plane and its prolongation in a formally supportive temporal architectonic plan the poet must find the right ‘dictionary’, syntax and sensory focus for his subject.’ 14 There is no questioning here of the ability of any of these formal traits to complete their tasks whether that be the symbolic plane, the architectonic plan or the dictionary syntax.  There is only a questioning within these positions as to how best to use them.  This knowledge base itself is never it seems in doubt, and it is that control which proves perilous to the poet’s position.  The flaw he admits is not for me to critique but the method he finds ‘adequate’ to his ‘predicament’ negates the sentiment.  An admission of moral or ethical lack, of failure, that is delivered with such cognitive control and such assuredness that the formal tools are adequate is in itself insincere.  Vendler herself says, ‘Lyric poetry neither stands nor falls on its themes; it stands or falls on the accuracy of language with which it reports the author’s emotional responses to the life around him.’ 15 Surely then failure and doubt should be found equally available in the language.  Surely the adequate form in this sense should reflect the ‘poet’s emotional responses.’

What is a questioning then of formal traits, how might the doubt about control as a stabilising structure manifest itself?  How is a system itself questioned?  How can language be aware of itself?  In Heaney’s poem Vendler is referring to the ‘examination of conscience with respect to personal behaviour.’ 16 A person may examine the tools themselves with which they negotiate experience; evidence of this examination by the poet then being found in the words, in the text, on the page; how the poet has found, in the end, matter adequate to the task. 

Barry MacSweeney’s poem ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ (see below for the full text) notates failure in such a way as not to ‘know’ control.  At the end of the first stanza we have the failure of a basic symbol of Peace.

Picasso’s peace dove just a pullet with broken craw,
dead olive twigs choking its throat.  Not even worth eating, forgive me its
                                                                                                     breaking. 17

The dove of peace choked by the olive branch of peace. The dominant symbols of Peace destroy each other.  It has to be more than signs and symbols.  In itself the control with which this idea is exposed is similar to that of Heaney’s poem, in a succinct pairing of image and idea, though the intention here of acknowledging the failure of signs, once the rest of the poem is considered, questions even the fundamental material of the poem, the words themselves as signs able to carry universal meanings.  The first stanza has ‘forgive me’ in it fourteen times.  One of these even asks forgiveness for asking forgiveness; a further wearing out of its dominant properties.  Words are not adequate solely in their common syntactical patterns.  The poet continues however with words.  Why?  Finally in this poem, in this condition at least, they are all that we have and the ‘headlong thoughts’ the poet seems to acknowledge in a moment of peace or stability at the end of the poem are not his to control or confine.  The breakdown of words and language, their inability to deliver is the subject/object of a great deal of post-modern literature.  The continuance of words here though is not identification of control but of lack.  The title ‘Dead Man’s Handle’!  It is a control manifesting a palpable presence of the out of control.  The words and language are the manifest detritus of what is out of control.  The whole poem identifies the out of control but not purely as a negative element.

                                                       Forgive me my heart,
my clownhearted tidal wave heart, forgive me my heart. 18

The lack of control of the heart is tied to the idea, symbol, of the tidal wave by words, but this is not relied upon as enough.  It is identified with the sadness, forlornness and yet joy of the clown but that is not enough.  The heart repeated as it is ‘forgive me my heart’, cannot resist its relationship to that part of the later line which says ‘forgive me its breaking’ even though this seemed to be applied to the dove.  In this sense the symbols, signs, attract each other. The heart in this instance however cannot be controlled, certainly not its breaking.  Words themselves tumble out of control even as they seek each other out.  The Picasso reference lays its influence on the choice of ‘Cubist’ as a way of seeing the world breaking up in the second stanza.  The perspective that singularly controlled our view of the world since the Renaissance was destroyed by Cubism more than any other art form that used the flat plane of the canvas or picture in a representational manner.  It was not however during his cubist phase that Picasso drew his dove of peace.  Language has made these jumps in the same way that rhyme seeks out its own, that the ear runs riot in the selection process of writer and reader.  Control here is not so central to the poet as to the text, the poem itself.  Take the lines,

Christmas is here and there’ll be no summer.
Tomorrow really has arrived already and there’ll be no today. 19

These lines have the sound/sense of a proverb or platitude.  I’m colliding sound and sense here because this poem’s open relations between the materials of the poem allow this type of foregrounding.  Their smack of profundity has as much to do with this affiliation to sound/sense as with any syntactical pattern and the danger is there for both platitude and pattern in that they are equally encouraging of a glossed reading which bypasses subtlety and adopts the easy or ready made position.  It seems the author has been unable to keep these ready relationships at bay or that the editing process which can make aesthetic decisions of exclusion could not be brought into play as this would demand a position outside of the condition of the poem; a relationship other than that involvement which is this condition of being, this predicament, this ‘volatile and transient here and now,’ which is of the poem as well as the poet.  The action, which is the interaction of forces in the poem, cannot be set aside to make decisions under other, calmer pretexts.  The doubt that this can be contained, that any method will suffice is integral.  It is not a doubt that denies action however but which allows decisions that partake of all the conditions within that action.

In his defence of Existentialism Sartre denotes ‘anguish’ as that condition wherein a military officer takes responsibility for an attack and sends men to their death.  In this sense the decision is made from within that theatre of action.  No aesthetic distance can be had.  Anguish then, far from being a deterrent to the men during action is seen by Sartre as ‘the very condition of their action.’ 20 I take it that the doubt, inherent in the lack of control and conditional to the understanding that words are not in control in this poem, far from separating the poet from the process, allows the poet to remain as an integral part without applying criteria from outside or having to remain outside the field of the poem.  Anthony Caro said of the breakthrough in his work as sculptor, ‘You couldn’t step back, step away to look at it (…) I was in the same space as the sculpture.’ 21 Vanessa Engle suggests ‘that by working close up you suspend taste.’ 22 Caro responded, ‘I couldn’t really judge, I just had to live with them.’ Similarly here as a result those words which become the poem, their placement, their balance, find their control, their utterance into being from within the energies that is the poem.    The affiliated energies, rhythmic and semantic, of the pseudo truths of proverb and platitude lend themselves as well to the eternal truth in ‘swannes mate for life’ four lines later.  This may however be a central dilemma of the poem in that MacSweeney adopts the character of the swan for himself in several poems.  The trust in profundity leant to a proverb is as faulty as the trust in the sign to deliver anything but negotiation.  Ready-made meals are rarely as good as their packaging or the combination of their main constituent elements from their primary state and the language that delivers failure or complicity in a measured formal structure, whose internal properties are not to be examined, needs to have notation of its internal chaos as part of the packaging.  We haven’t simply been told that failure is on the agenda.  The language here is straining to present itself as believable.  The first few lines with their building frenzy of repeated phrases and recurring concentrations such as ‘chill chilling’ and ‘the blue sky, the blue cold sky’, show this strain from the outset.  The language is not in control, delivering a product; it is being pressed into utterance.  The text is invested by the failure of words to do when actions or experience fails expectation.  The poem changes at this point of Swannes ‘disproving history’, which itself is a failure of a kind of fact, and for a brief moment the language struggles with the featureless possibilities of a broken heart’s ‘blank sheet’, ‘washed out (…) watercolours’, washed out ‘growing season’ 23.

After this the address changes.  The command ‘Go then’ replaces rhythmically the ‘forgive me’ of the first half of the poem.  In the end however both of these statements fit the same rhetorical model.  They are neither of them commands that may be carried out by the speaker.  ‘Go then’ is not of the same nature as ‘Go!’  It cedes the final decision to another; implies a future decision and consequence rather than the ready-made one of a command.  The repeated energy of the words ‘go then’ continues to reinforce the isolation and helplessness contained in the ‘forgive me’ lines.  Helplessness is the central tenet of this language in this predicament that is this poem.  It does not command, it does not do, it doesn’t even manage to solicit an answer.  An answer of sorts is given but it doesn’t regenerate language as a persuasive device rhetorically able to cement meaning via syntactic or semantic blocks.  The answer when it comes at the end identifies only language in the form of thoughts shifted like pebbles by the same tide that broke the heart.  Language has no ability to repair, to contain and offer up for self-contemplation.  It is in fact celebrated not by its containment or picturing of the tide but by its position at the head of this tide.  There is no distance from the tide; it is experienced in the language negotiated by the reader, not just semantically but via the sweep rather than the identification of the sign ‘swept’.  The control or stability I mentioned earlier which seems evident in the identification of ‘headlong thoughts’ and also in the enlarged text at the end of the poem with its rhyming of ‘gutter bright’ with ‘sky’s light’ and its lyrical romantic reference to ‘eternal’ and ‘starres’ is tempered by the last line in the by now inconsequential smaller type, ‘last train to Demonville right on time.’  The semantic beauty of the words in large type and their affirmational rhythm cannot stop the tide.  This experience of being out of control defies any contemplation of eternity or platitude found in ‘eternal’.  The last line with its impending inevitability of ‘right on time’ is the only really positive identification by language in the poem and it cedes control rather than gaining it.  Language does not wrap around an object to define its shape as in the measured stanzas of Heaney’s poem which like a Faberge egg maintains a formal surface beauty and shape but which would need to be broken to access the centre.  Here language is shaped by that which has dictated or necessitated its utterance.  The patterning adequate to the predicament in Heaney’s poem never allows us access to the real form of that predicament, it remains representational only, in secondment to his ‘adjectival gift’.  MacSweeney’s poem on the other hand is weather-beaten by the tide of its predicament: the language thrown up by the force and energy of that tide, not laid over but laid up by.  What is not swept away, what sticks, is the identification of the tide by the tide; language made accurate by the tide.  The beauty here is in that form, the ‘motive force’, to use Vendler’s words, is within the poem as much as the poet; the examination of conscience cannot be stood outside of in order to measure and prepare a shell or formal relationship as representation of beauty or force.  The examination of conscience would have to be the very condition of the action.



1 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 10.

2 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 8.

3 Seamus Heaney, ‘Punishment’ in the book North, (Faber and Faber, 1992,) pg. 30-31.

4 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 7.

5 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 12.

6 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 31.

7 Seamus Heaney, ‘Punishment’ in the book North, (Faber and Faber, 1992,) pg. 30-31

8 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 50.

9 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 50.

10 Seamus Heaney, ‘Punishment’ in the book North, (Faber and Faber, 1992,) pg. 30-31.

11 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 49-50.

12 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 9.

13 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 5.

14 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 7.

15 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 6.

16 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1998,) pg. 50.

17 Barry MacSweeney, ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ from The Book of Demons, (Bloodaxe Books, 1997,) pg. 74-75.

18 Barry MacSweeney, ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ from The Book of Demons, (Bloodaxe Books, 1997,) pg. 74-75.

19 Barry MacSweeney, ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ from The Book of Demons, (Bloodaxe Books, 1997,) pg. 74-75.

20 Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, ‘Existentialism’, (Castle, no date given, ISBN 0-89009-529-9,) pg. 21, from original text Existentialism, trans. Bernard Frechtman.

21 Anthony Caro, Art and the Sixties, ‘Bronze to Baked Beans’, Vanessa Engle ed., BBC4, 12-7-04.

22 Vanessa Engle talking to Anthony Caro, Art and the Sixties, ‘Bronze to Baked Beans’, Vanessa Engle ed., BBC4, 12-7-04.

23 Barry MacSweeney, ‘Dead Man’s Handle’ from The Book of Demons, (Bloodaxe Books, 1997,) pg. 74-75.


Barry MacSweeney, ‘Dead Man’s Handle’

[from: Barry MacSweeney, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems 1955-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2003), pp. 255-56]
(with thanks to Bloodaxe Books for allowing us to include the whole poem)


Aodán McCardle

Readings webjournal, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. email: or or