The Literary Letter and the Archive

In June 2019, Dr. Sarah Bennett conducted research at Emory’s Rose Library as a recipient of our Short-Term Fellowship Program. Dr. Bennett is a Lecturer in English at Oriel College, Oxford.

The Rose Library at Emory offers particular riches for scholars of Irish literature. Since Richard Ellmann, specialist in modern Irish literature and the first Robert W. Woodruff Professor in English at Emory, arranged the sale of his own substantial library—including rare first editions of Yeats’s poetry— to Emory’s special collections, the library’s faculty advisers and purchasers have built a formidable collection of modern and contemporary Irish literary manuscripts. After the gift of a small cache of manuscripts from Seamus Heaney in 1988, Steve Enniss, former director of Emory’s Manuscript and Rare Books Library, was instrumental in the purchase of the archives of Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Thomas Kinsella and Tom Paulin. A larger Heaney archive followed in 2003, and more recently, the papers of Irish critics John Wilson Foster and Seamus Deane.

This Irish collective within the Emory collections makes for a dynamic research experience, especially for those studying literary correspondence—many conversations glimpsed in the letters of one writer can be brought into three-dimensional existence by consulting the archive of another. A previous Rose Library fellow on this blog, Scott McKendry at Queen’s University Belfast, came to Emory to pursue research on gossip in Northern Irish poetry criticism, and particularly the cultural “feud” between Edna Longley, Tom Paulin and Seamus Deane, surrounding the Field Day project in the 1980s and 90s. Rumours and half-spun stories are often retold, revised and elaborated in the correspondence of such a tight-knit group of writers. The Edna Longley letters in the Seamus Heaney papers would, and perhaps did, provide McKendry with further perspectives on the dispute, as she expresses her personal fondness for Paulin, and doubles down on the ‘ideological quarrels’ she is compelled to pursue with Paulin and Deane: ‘I find some of their ideas both divisive and anti-poetry.’[i]

The letter and literary criticism

The capacity of the literary letter to negotiate personal, aesthetic and ideological concerns has been preoccupying my own research recently. I came to the Rose Library to look at the correspondence in the Irish poetry collections for my current book on America and the Irish Poetic Imagination, having recently finished editing the letters of Irish poet-diplomat Denis Devlin. Undertaking a project like this, an editor will inevitably think about the value of letters for literary scholars, and their place in literary criticism. Can we look upon the letters of poets, for example, as a form of literary criticism, offering crucial insight into their own work and the work of their contemporaries? It is clear that writers approach the space of the letter with different degrees of freedom and vigour. Devlin is generally tentative when the demands of literary criticism seem to be imposed on a correspondence—on the receipt of gift copies of his friends’ new work, for example. What could be a revealing letter to Flann O’Brien, Devlin’s UCD contemporary and fellow modernist, in acknowledgment of a first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds, feels the responsibility of adequate critical response too keenly, and defers the gesture for another time which never came:

I have been very keen on writing at length about it and so kept putting off a letter. […] It might have been better just to say it was a grand or a swell book but that seemed inadequate, although you might have preferred it, but I would like to say what interested me from chapter to        chapter. It wld. be dangerously near taking on the pomposity of a critic which I dislike myself so why shld. I want to do it with others?[ii]

A striking feature of the Irish poetry correspondence in the Rose Library is these writers’ willingness to use letters to engage with each other’s work critically and robustly. Michael Longley’s letters to Heaney, written in an exuberantly loopy hand, teem with an admiration and affection that extends very naturally to an intimate criticism. In a letter of October 1972 responding excitedly to a batch of poems that would take their place in North (‘I like your new poems tremendously; rich and packed yet beautifully fluent—a great sense of amplitude and abundance’), Longley acknowledges both the possibility that one of his own poems has unconsciously been influenced by an earlier reading of Heaney’s ‘Kinship’, and the possibility that his reciprocal imprint is somewhere present in the poems:

After a very swift meeting with Kinship in Sligo I must have unconsciously borrowed from your line “outback of the mind” for Poteen: noble of you not to mention this, although my conscience is eased by seeing something of me rubbing off on you in these two and in Bone Dreams which I’ve just been reading. Without being romantic, I think that at some points   we’re writing from different sides of the same dry stone wall.[iii]

Letter from Michael Longley to Seamus Heaney, 6 October 1972, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 41, Folder 11

Critical suggestions for excision and revision are, for these writers, a duty of the epistolary first-response. In this letter Longley offers courteous advice (‘If I may say so…’) about the tone and arrangement of ‘Sile na Gig’, a poem ultimately excluded from North: ‘the beginning of (VI) looks and sounds a bit heavy in the context of the whole sequence […] Might it not be in five stanzas?’. The instinct for criticism emerges from a deep and sensitive feeling for the poem, as Longley reminds us at the end of this paragraph: ‘my suggestions should show you that I feel the poems in my marrow.’  

Paul Muldoon, who began a deferential correspondence with his Queen’s tutor Heaney while still a student (‘Dear Mr. Heaney…’), quickly grew into their poetic exchanges. The assertion of a critical voice was an important part of this maturity, and one of Muldoon’s earliest critical responses to Heaney’s poetry is a warning against sounding too Mahonian. The closeness of this inter-generational coterie of poet-friends is never far from the surface of the letters.

The correspondence within the Muldoon and Heaney papers in the Rose Library gives an insight into these poets’ critical reception in the wider world, and for the purposes of my research I was particularly interested in reading the letter exchanges with American poets: Louis Asekoff, C. K. Williams, Robert Pinsky and Charles Simic—the latter two correspondents common to both collections. Critical responses to poems come freely, effusively, and often coarsely in the conversation of these letters. In the early 1990s, when Heaney was teaching at Harvard for a semester each year, and Muldoon had received tenure at Princeton, Serbian-American poet Simic was reading both these Irish poets appreciatively. The letters speak with amazement at what Muldoon and Heaney are able to do with language. On reading Madoc: A Mystery (1990), Simic writes of his delight at Muldoon’s ‘nuttiness, your erudition and comic sense. Most importantly you have ears that work wonders with the language.’[iv] On encountering Heaney’s Seeing Things the following year the otic praise is expanded: ‘You have eyes and ears that work better than anybody else’s. You make me happy I fell in love with the English language.’[v]

Madoc (1990) was Muldoon’s first volume since his American relocation, and it marked a radical step forward in the forms and intellectual reach of his poetry. It is striking that Muldoon’s American readers (more readily than his Irish reviewers) engaged excitedly with the difficulties, trickery and ambition of the poem. We see Louis Asekoff responding to the mystery in kind, sending himself a postcard in which he confidently ascribes his ‘under-apprehension of the complexity of Paul Muldoon’s Madoc’ to

my thinking of a couple as one plus one equals two, with the complications of two people as one couple (see Chinese metaphysics), and not also thinking the other anguish, which is ½ plus ½ = one.[vi]

Here Asekoff presents a complexity that takes as much unpicking as parts of Muldoon’s poem. The postcard, which we can perhaps understand as notes towards or a dry run at a critical response to Madoc, eventually found its way to the poem’s author, collected in the Muldoon papers at the Rose Library.

Louis Asekoff to Louis Asekoff, 5 September 1990, Paul Muldoon Papers, Box 1, Folder 5.

For C. K. Williams, the challenge of responding to Muldoon’s ambitious poem in letter form proves too much at first reading. In May 1990 he writes ‘[t]his is going to be a stupid response to your amazing poem’, recognising that his letter will compare unfavourably to that of their mutual friend and fellow poet-academic Bill Wilson, who ‘wrote you forty pages, which is about what one feels one owes after reading the thing’. He blames his lack of critical stamina on a general depression of spirits (‘I’m awfully down these days, waiting to come out of whatever it is that has me’) and offers a place-holding summary and congratulations:

I can’t claim yet to understand all of what you’re about, but everything that has happened to me as I read the poem is terrifically intriguing, your mad and inspired language-musicks are as always wholly engrossing in themselves, besides the juggling of conceptual and historical and anthropological intimacies: all splendid…[vii]

Unlike Devlin, Williams makes good on his promise for a follow-up correspondence with greater critical inspiration—in a letter of January 1991 he casually offers a synthesis of Muldoon’s poetics:

I had a thought the other day that more than any other poet I know of, you work, in your rhythms, your diction, your meanings, in all but your rhymings, (and even there, too, in a way,) against repetition: you’re our first anti-repetitionist, one might say. For what that’s worth.[viii] 

The burden of correspondence

The career trajectories of Devlin in the early twentieth century, and Heaney into the twenty-first century, alter these poets’ relationship with letter-writing. Devlin joined the civil service in 1935; by the time he achieved ambassadorial status in the 1950s, letters made up a significant portion of his diplomatic duties. His professional correspondence included political reports to departmental headquarters, reports on Irish-American trade relations and letters maintaining cultural links, notes to fellow ambassadors, and responses to enquiries from Irish citizens in Ireland and Rome on matters great and small. The diplomatic correspondence is dictated and typed, and both formal and formulaic in its locutions (‘I have your letter of the 2nd June…’; ‘With reference to correspondence on the Department’s file about the Padua Fair…’). Even before the burden of professional letters stepped up, Devlin confessed to being bad at maintaining correspondence with friends (his wife Caren called this his ‘maladie’); his personal letters in the 1950s show little of the jouissance of two decades before, are shorter and fewer, and written in a hand that reveals his failing health.

Heaney’s professional life was not so divided from his literary life as Devlin’s, but it’s difficult to think of a late twentieth-century poet who better exemplifies the profession of poetry. He was the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard from 1985, and then the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence from 1998, and throughout this tenure was protective of his writing life. With the international recognition he had received by the 1980s came a dramatic escalation in his letter-writing obligations, as the Rose Library papers document. Correspondence with family, poet-friends and employers proliferates to accommodate swathes of reading invitations, enquiries from students and readers, permissions requests, and requests for support from charitable, cultural and political organisations. Heaney had a secretary at Harvard to help him manage the American side of the correspondence, and his default mode of communication from the 90s onwards is a brief, scrawled fax message. The messages show that Heaney was very conscious of this shift, particularly when the fax machine was directing messages to friends. In a fax of November 1995 to the Boston-based educational specialist Vincent Greaney he wrote:

Sorry to have slipped up in the correspondence. This house has turned into a large letter-box, and the rooms are simply storage spaces for bales of paper. Easy for even the most important missive to get lost.[ix]

The following year, in a fax to Irish sculptor Conor Fallon, Heaney’s opening appeal for forgiveness is framed by a plaintive metaphor for this negligible but necessary form of modern communication:

Forgive this semaphore. I don’t have time to write a letter. Human contact is disappearing from my life, being replaced by “correspondence”.[x]

The visual sign system of the semaphore—communication with flags, hand signals, lights or code— is an alternative to verbal language. Heaney, the poet whose gift and ear for language has been identified as his singular achievement, sees this transition as a sad inevitability. The distinction he makes between the human contact which presumably includes the lively, conversational back-and-forth of letter-writing, and the functional, swift and business-like communication of a “correspondence”, is a telling one for archives like the Rose Library, in which contemporary author collections are increasingly expanding with paper copies of e-mail exchanges. A researcher sifting through these more recent exchanges feels something of Heaney’s sense of loss—the corollary of which is a delight at the encounter with a personal, substantial, letter in which time, such a rare commodity in the modern profession of poetry, has been invested. These letters, believe it or not, are still being written.

[i] Letter from Edna Longley to Seamus Heaney, 19 March 1984, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 41, Folder 10.

[ii] Letter from Denis Devlin to Brian O’Nolan, 1 June 1939, Brian O’Nolan Papers, (1/4/MSS 051), Box 1, Folder 2, Southern Illinois University Special Collections.

[iii] Letter from Michael Longley to Seamus Heaney, 6 October 1972, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 41, Folder 11.

[iv] Postcard from Charles Simic to Paul Muldoon, 9 May 1991, Paul Muldoon Papers, Box 5, Folder 11.

[v] Letter from Charles Simic to Seamus Heaney, 3 February 1992, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 43, Folder 11.  

[vi] Postcard from Louis Asekoff to Louis Asekoff, 5 September 1990, Paul Muldoon Papers, Box 1, Folder 5.

[vii] Letter from C. K. Williams to Paul Muldoon, 9 May 1990, Paul Muldoon Papers, Box 5, Folder 27.

[viii] Letter from C. K. Williams to Paul Muldoon, 22 January 1991, Paul Muldoon Papers, Box 5, Folder 27.

[ix] Fax message from Seamus Heaney to Vincent Greaney, 17 November 1995, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 47, Folder 8.

[x] Fax message to Connor Fallon, 26 April 1996, Seamus Heaney Papers, Box 48, Folder 4.