Versus : Seamus Heaney and the poetics of form
Seamus Heaney's poetry is characterized by a friction between the poet's
ideas and his formal medium. Few studies, however, have interrogated the extent
to which much of the meaning of Heaney's poetry resides in the negotiation
between form and content. This thesis examines Heaney's preoccupation with
traditional metre and verse form, hoping to demonstrate the necessity of formal
analysis as a way of accessing meaning in Heaney's poetry.
One function of my thesis is to discover what can be gained from an
explication of the formal features of Heaney's poetry. However, I have not adopted
a rigidly formalist approach. My reading of the form of Heaney's verse recognizes
that a poem has its genesis in an historical moment, that it may 'mean' differently
at different times and that locating meaning requires an examination of verse form
and its function in the process of ideological signification. With these aims in
mind, I endeavour to explicate the formal mechanisms that themselves generate
meaning while devoting attention to the exchange between the aesthetic object and
its ideological bearings.
As a result of this dual obligation, I pay particular attention to the interplay
between convergent discourses. Poetry in traditional forms adheres to certain
codes, and these codes are at once formal--quantifiable, mechanical, technical,
mathematical, universally applicable and available-while at the same time they
are ideological-historical, confrontational, (un)avoidable, deconstructible,
sometimes objectionable. Much of the meaning of Heaney's poetry resides at the
intersection of these codes.
The text of the thesis comprises five chapters. Chapter 1 is devoted to an
examination of the poetry Heaney composed as a student at Queen's University;
chapter 2 examines Heaney's involvement with the Belfast Group; chapter 3
explores Heaney's experimentation with unconventional verse forms; chapter 4
offers an analysis of Heaney's management of a particular fixed form, the sonnet.
The thesis concludes with a postscript that looks at negative assessments of
Heaney's formalism and ponders the role of traditional verse forms in a postmodernist