Compelling identities : nation and lyric form in Seamus Heaney
In Ireland's divided society in which everything is political except solutions, the evaluation and redefinition of the governing metaphors of political and cultural identity is a matter of public concern. For nationalist Ireland, the traditional centrality of the poetic imagination to the development of the legitimating tropes of national identity endows representative status upon all subsequent poetry which treats of these themes. The heated public and critical debate about the poetry of Seamus Heaney derives from the recognition that as nations are "imagined communities", so the form and content of the poet's imaginative process is heavy with political and social implications. Heaney's poetic negotiation between the given collective traditions of his community and the transfigurative appeal of the individual imagination engaged with modernity, produces a sustained reflection upon the nature and implications of cultural identity in modern Ireland. What is implict in the tenor of the debate surrounding Heaney is explicit in Heaney f s compelling poetic, namely, that in the modern age cultural identity remains central to social and political definition. But whereas the fact of cultural identity is central to social definition, the form (either hegemonic or inclusivist) of any such expression of identity is dependent upon the discursive practices which imagine and construct such definitions. In this context what begins for Heaney as a lyric flirtation with the possibilities of language, becomes a critical reappraisal of nationalist ideology's governing metaphors of place, history and belonging. In order to situate and define Heaney's contribution to the preoccupying question of identity it is necessary to evaluate the history and discursive evolution of nationalism as an ideology. Such an evaluation demonstrates that nationalism as a product of post-dynastic modern societies, is dependent upon a number of figurative habits and discursive practices for its universal and universalising appeal. By identifying these formations and by establishing the connection between these figures of thought and the expression of cultural identity as a hegemonic or inclusivist narrative, criteria may be determined against which the status of Heaney's own expressions of cultural identity may be assessed. Against the contemporary background in which nationalism appears to have acquired the status of a political metaphysics, Heaney's candid engagement with the cherished illusions informing this perception reveals him for what he is - a definitively modern poet announcing to those who will listen that there is and must be, poetry after Auschwitz.