“Words as Bearers of History” : Testimony and Trauma in Seamus Heaney's Early Poetry
Gülpınar Özoran, Gülay
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This study argues that in Seamus Heaney’s early poetry there is a paradoxical attitude towards the therapeutic function of the act of bearing witness to trauma. Heaney’s early collections, Wintering Out (1972), North (1975) and Field Work (1979), are preoccupied with representations of Irish cultural traumas including the colonial conquest of Ireland and sectarian violence during the Troubles. Regarding these representations, this thesis argues that while some poems in these early collections represent, endorse and practice the act of bearing testimony as a way of coping with trauma, others question, refute and reject the idea that the act of bearing witness has therapeutic function. Heaney’s early poems register the act of bearing witness as a necessary step for the process of healing because it enables the trauma-witnesses to comprehend and process the traumatic events and/or experiences that have been hitherto unfathomed and unprocessed. The poems also represent the act of bearing witness to cultural traumas as a way of regulating the uncontrollable traumatic memories and integrating them into the narrative of the past to end their impact on the present. Moreover, there are also poems in Wintering Out, North and Field Work that represent the act of bearing witness to cultural traumas of the distant and recent past as an impossible or dangerous task. Hence, Heaney’s early poetry attracts attention to the fact that witnesses are rendered incapable of comprehending and thus representing the event, and also to the possibility of opening old wounds through representing the traumatic events in words. Accordingly, Heaney acknowledges that opening old wounds in a country that is already violently segregated as the Northern Ireland is especially dangerous since circulating the narratives of past traumas runs the risk of generating a desire for revenge. In conclusion, this thesis interprets these contradictory representations of testimony in Heaney’s early poetry as an indicator of the traumatic complexity of the Troubles that Heaney represents.
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