Trigger Words

Seamus Heaney devotes one of his Oxford lectures (The Redress of Poetry) to Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It is an honest assessment of the poem’s aesthetic merits and faults. However one sentence glistens for me.

Wilde’s own public humiliation is recalled with great economy in his invocation of the ‘black dock’s dreadful pen’, and his preference for ‘the holy night’ over ‘the shameful day’ maintains a defence of the homoerotic life in face of the world’s total rejection.

On the surface this appears as a simple description of parti pris but the gorgeousness in which the observation is couched must perforce lead the reader to side with Wilde. There is something generous here especially for those fighting the world’s rejection. So much pivots on seeing that word “homoerotic” in print, in an Oxford lecture.

I am not alone in experiencing Heaney’s generous spirit. Witness the American poet Henri Cole’s as he records another moment of surprise

Over the years, I took many things he said under advisement. When I published my fourth collection of poetry, The Visible Man, I was worried it would be narrowly defined by its gay content, but Seamus objected, using the word “arena” — the arena of human emotion, he called it — which is where all good poems must operate, rather than catering to special interests. I didn’t expect this from the son of an Irish cattle dealer.

Cole’s piece about his friendship with Heaney first appeared in Death by Pad Thai: And Other Unforgettable Meals. A later version appeared in the New Republic as a tribute.

And so for day 374

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