Seamus Heaney, The Place of Writing, the inaugural Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1989) 72 pp.
The Place of Writing, as Ronald Schuchard says in his Introduction, continues Heaney’s “long-time preoccupation with the unstable role of place in the creative process”. The governing image in these three challenging lectures is that of action at a distance: straightforward nationalism of any variety is no longer viable for the contemporary Irish poet who seeks to move the world. “Place” becomes a multivalent concept, centred on the volatile relations between physical and imaginative geography, local politics and national plight. In his first lecture, on Yeats and Thoor Ballylee, Heaney contrasts the young poet’s “filial” relation to a home region (arguing that Sligo should really be called “the young Yeats country”) with the older poet’s drive to establish “an outpost of reality in the shape of a physical landmark”. Sligo imposed itself on the young Yeats’s imagination, whereas the middle-aged poet imposed his on the tower, which became “the place of writing”: by the time The Tower appeared, Thoor Ballylee “had entered so deeply into the prophetic strains of his voice that it could be invoked without being inhabited”. Yeats’s tower was at once “an outward sign of an inner grace” and (as in “Meditations in Time of Civil War”) “the final personal ring of defence”. This tension establishes Heaney’s second major theme: the inescapable awareness that the struggle to sustain “the place of writing” as an imaginative location is both necessary and potentially futile, even fatuous. “The Black Tower”, which Heaney sees as the final Thoor Ballylee poem, foreshadows the contemporary Irish writer’s predicament: “the tower as emblem of adversity, as the place of writing, has taken on a final aspect as icon of the absurd”.