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The Example of Poetry

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This paper presents an introduction to a larger project – a monograph titled ‘The Example of Poetry: Moral Authority and Exemplarity in Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill’. The theoretical impetus for the project lies in debates surrounding the use of literary examples in analytic moral philosophy – debates associated primarily with Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre and Wayne Booth. These philosophers and critics propose that moral concepts cannot be adequately conveyed using traditional philosophical examples (which tend to be simplified and unrealistic), and that this problem can be remedied by using examples taken from literary texts, in which moral questions are embedded in a detailed narrative context. This research asks whether such claims might productively be made for lyric as well as narrative forms.

A fruitful starting point for exploring this potential, I propose, lies with the poetry and criticism of poets who have themselves demonstrated a preoccupation with the exemplary dimensions of writing. Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill are two writers who make frequent recourse to the category of the exemplary poem, particularly in their ongoing meditations on poetic authority. While the larger project divides attention evenly between the two poets, this paper, in presenting an introduction, focuses on Heaney. Heaney has consistently sought to negotiate between a need for aesthetic autonomy and a desire to effect some (however indirect) kind of extraliterary influence, and for him, the concept of the ‘exemplary’ poem offers a means of articulating this tension. By definition, that which is ‘exemplary’ is characterised at once by a Platonically-inflected element of ideality and self-sufficiency, and, at the same time, by an assumption of outward influence – to be an example is, ultimately, to be followed. Heaney provides a persuasive antidote to the restriction of the ‘literary’ to the novelistic not only because exemplarity figures prominently in his work, but, most importantly, because his anxieties about the limits of his own exemplary position raise significant methodological caveats for ethical critics of poetry and fiction alike: he raises, that is, doubts about the moral authority of literature which are elided in more confident and hopeful narrative-centred studies.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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