Saturday, August 31, 2013

"Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"

For my tribute to Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet who died Friday, I'll include a segment from "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing."

That poem has been cited often since yesterday for what its title came to exemplify about the sectarian divide's effects on Northern Ireland. But it hits home with me for its jaded view of the reporting segment of my profession, of the ballet of stock phrases and replies in which reporters engage with the man in the street and that, by the numbing effect of constant repetition, ceases to have anything to say about anything, much less something so serious as a civil war fought in the streets.

I'm writing just after an encounter 
With an English journalist in search of 'views 
On the Irish thing'. I'm back in winter 
Quarters where bad news is no longer news, 

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point, 
Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads 
Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint 
But I incline as much to rosary beads 

As to the jottings and analyses 
Of politicians and newspapermen 
Who've scribbled down the long campaign from gas 
And protest to gelignite and Sten, 

Who proved upon their pulses 'escalate', 
'Backlash' and 'crack down', 'the provisional wing', 
'Polarization' and 'long-standing hate'. 
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing, 

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours 
On the high wires of first wireless reports, 
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours 
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts: 

'Oh, it's disgraceful, surely, I agree.' 
'Where's it going to end?' 'It's getting worse.' 
'They're murderers.' 'Internment, understandably ...' 
The 'voice of sanity' is getting hoarse. 

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I think Ciaran Carson speaks a little more fluently about the Troubles. Heaney was happier out on the boglands or delving through ancient manuscripts. He was not an urban poet or even really a poet of contemporary life.

Heaney was a great writer but his was an Ireland of another age, when the majority of the population lived in the countryside and worked off the land. Its no wonder that he admired Frost, Yeats and Hardy so much. If there's an afterlife it would be nice to think that the four of them are out mending stone walls together or critiquing the others' spade work.

September 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting you should state the case that way. To this outsider, that first section of the poem sounds like someone exasperated and maybe puzzled by the fighting rather than in agony over it.

I had not known that Heaney admired Yeats, but I did notice as soon as I read it that the line "The 'voice of sanity' is getting hoarse" sounds like an echo of "The Second Coming."

September 01, 2013  

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