Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013): A Partial View
I encountered Seamus Heaney twice. The first time in the mid-sixties, when I was in Belfast with the college rowing team, I attended a poetry reading at Queens University. He wore a homespun pullover and unfashionably loose trousers. I asked myself, what was that broth of a boy doing amongst these dandified aesthetes? The answer was easy. His sheepish presence accorded with mine. I too felt embarrassed by poetry although I wrote it.
The second time was twenty years later after he had become Famous Seamus. It was in Senate House, London University. The country boy had matured into a robust, reassuring figure, coif dishevelled to put the academics in their place. I was reminded of Verlaine’s description of Rimbaud.‘Trĕs beau d’une beautĕ paysanne et rusĕe (handsome with a rustic’s cunning beauty’). He recited his translations from the Anglo-Saxons and Dante with force, and was wily enough not to read his own poems. It was a triumph of modest aplomb. I wasn’t able to have a word with him as he was surrounded with admirers
My encounters with his work has been less sympathetic. I’m on record as calling him ‘a great, minor poet’ (The Niagara Magazine, 1975). The faint praise sticks in the throat. Neither ‘great’ nor ‘minor’ were words Heaney would dream of applying to himself. Believing all writing is experimental, I found Seamus Heaney too set in his ways for my taste. Of course I could admire the craft and its craftiness. But I was with the young Joyce when he door-stepped WB Yeats, ‘Old man, I pity you. There is no chaos in your soul’. Heaney wasn’t a poet who took risks with his reputation by revealing the chaos in his soul. He was a paragon of good sense who kept his poetical feet firmly on the ground.
In 1988, I ‘burdened him with my encouragement’ in a review of The Haw Lantern in Fortnightly:
‘My generation of literary youth in the South of Ireland had more than enough of the proud peasant tradition that went with the reach for the shovel tendency of poets from F R Higgins to Patrick Kavanagh. Even Yeats was tainted by his self-conscious Irishry. Pound, Borges, Neruda, Seferis, Holub, Popa, Herbert, Jack Spicer and the Black Mountain were the totem poets. Closer to home the expatriate 30s generation – Beckett, Devlin, Coffey - and the satire of Austin Clarke and Kinsella's ‘Nightwalker’, were the role models. We gathered around Michael Smith’s New Writer’s Press.
When in the mid-60s a crop of Kavanagh-inspired young poets sprang up in Northern Ireland, we were taken aback. Pound’s Cantos readers muttered: 'Kailyard', cabbage-plot poetry. Heaney's Death of a Naturalist, with its gun/thumb, dig/pig rhyming, was reminiscent of Irish Language primer pieties. But his solemnisation of rural life post-Beveridge - peasant father, educated son - tallied more with the class guilt of the new English novelists (Wain, Braine and Sillitoe). The intellectual ironies of Ed Dorn's Gunslinger (1968) were what the mechanical age demanded, or so it seemed to us. The dying art of tilling the soil by hand could not be redeemed by excavating peat-bog fossils.
The urbane English critics were enthralled. Poor old Paddy Kavanagh, a real rustic -naïve, had made no headway with them. Being hard on Heaney became a literary sport for southern literary youth. He was declared ‘a word-sucker’: a ruminant who regurgitated the chosen word - usually a funny one like 'pampootie' - in order to chew it again so it could be spat out into a traditional verse form. Poets left behind in school were his mould-makers. Most particularly Hardy, Robert Frost and the Georgians .
If the English critics noticed they would have put down our reaction to pen envy. Modernism was not so much in crisis as put aside to accommodate the Movement poets – Hobsbaum, Larkin, Amis. The reconstructed Poujadists of Oxbridge were now turning out theses on John Drinkwater and Edward Thomas rather than Pound and Zukofsky.
The Troubles consolidated the link with the First World War poets. John Montague, a far more cosmopolitan figure, filled the Round House, on the foothills of Hampstead with Rough Field (1972). This epic spectacle adapted the American epic style (Whitman, William Carlos Williams) to represent a Catholic peasant revolt in verse. But it was Heaney reaped the harvest with the liberally-inclined public. His North (1975) was more measured in its Republican sympathies. At the time events in Northern Ireland were rocking most Irish Catholics between being Gandhi and Che Guevara, often on the same day. Heaney’s move to the South in 1972 was judicious, and the one-remove consolidated his status as the immovably-centred poet-hero of the Troubles.
This must have made him feel uneasy. Heaney’s identification with the mad poet levitator in his translations of Suibhne Buile (The Frenzy of Sweeney) could well have been a nervous flight from the pedestal his Oxbridge admirers had put him on. He responded to the broad comedy rather than the satire of this 12th century romance, vibrating with the unreliable scribe, St Moling. Heaney, like the saint and the flying poet, wanted to be irresponsible.
But he took his responsibilities seriously when a childhood friend was murdered in a night-raid by the UDR. Station Island (1984) engages in an unrestrained outburst of empathy with people he knew who had been killed in the Troubles. He uses Dante’s Inferno as a model. The poem's length and prosy breadth is uncharacteristic. It ends on an uncertain note, with James Joyce lecturing the narrator: ‘You lose more of yourself than you redeem/doing the decent thing’. When this questionable paradox is followed by an auto-incitement to ‘swim out on your own’, I wondered did this augur the liberated Seamus Heaney, the poet without a safety net?
The smiling, public Heaney on the cover of his Selected Poems (1980) has legendary qualities. But it is Henry Fonda as played by Robert Mitchum. This astute 'country boy' with a wise head wears his subjectivity on a rolled up sleeve. A certain shy humour is evident. As though the imagination at work is restrained by an embarrassment that his secret is not darker. I don’t doubt he has ‘enough courage to be an amateur, and achieve originality’ (Wallace Stevens).
Heaney's latest collection, The Haw Lantern, provides an intimation of this. The influence of his friend Joseph Brodsky is evident. It is his most ambitious and, yet, inconsistent book. The ambition is packaged in what the blurb describes as ‘exercises in the allegorical vein’. 'Exercises' is worrying. It suggests he hasn’t yet made the imaginative leap to magnify meaning through inspired associations. And, indeed, in ‘Parable Island’, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, and ‘Land of the Unspoken’ he achieves poetic arguments rather than allegories. He stands back from immediate experience in order to place it in a clarifying context. In ‘Parable Island’ he wryly observes the natives' incapacity to call a ‘posthole a posthole’. It is a characteristic Heaney recognises in himself, perhaps. An army roadblock (‘Frontier of Writing’) becomes an ambush of critics in an overwrought updating of ‘Digging’, where a pen becomes a spade of sorts. But it is in Heaney the bardic poet that the ambition emerges. The poetic argument is built up and sustained by prosodic rather than 'word sucking' skills. Austin Clarke would have approved the Tennysonian authority. He has never written better.
Our unspoken assumptions have the force
of revelation. How else could we know
that whoever is the first of us to seek
assent and votes in a rich democracy
will be the last of us and have killed language?
Meanwhile, if we miss the sight of a fish
we heard jumping and then see its ripples,
that means one more of us is dying somewhere.
(‘Land of the Unspoken’)
However, Heaney in The Haw Lantern is only content to explore his new mode in half a dozen or so longish poems. There are enough typical short lyrics to satisfy his faithful readers. ‘Spoonbait’, and ‘The Milk Factory’, are good examples of this static genre. The title poem ‘The Haw Lantern’ reads like a rehash of a stanza from Grey's ‘Elegy’. Heaney obscures straightforward sentiments behind a rather coy cutting from a winter hedgerow. Faber & Faber in turn uses the berry bouquet on the cover. It is as though the more ambitious Heaney is something to hide.
‘A Daylight Art’ and some other poems about writing suggest Heaney is feeling persecuted by his reader's expectations. He might be advised to hand over this regrettable red herring to his publisher, demand a generous advance, a gazebo. and no deadlines, rather than worrying about squeezing his salvation through ‘the nib's eye’. The cringing introspection in ‘Frontiers of Writing’ suggests Heaney sees his popularity as more as a burden than as a blessing. I’m not convinced.
The Haw Lantern in part signals Heaney's brave release from obliging his faithful admirers. The developing bardic vein is bound to put off many of them. But Heaney will have become more himself. If he can suppress old habits and forswear the type of poem which he has done better before, we can look forward to long, formal, discursive poems which versify tribal wisdoms and woes. Let Thomas Wyatt be his guide:
Then seek no more out of thyself to find
The thing that thou hast sought so long before
For thou shalt find it sitting in the mind.
Heaney’s Nobel Prize took few by surprise. As an ambassador for poetry he was extraordinary, taking the preciousness out of the art, promoting its availability. Everybody was pleased (‘It couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow’). Ironically, despite being as ever-present as Bill Clinton on the international circuit, his development as a world poet was interrupted by the award. Moreover, his eminence did some collateral damage, marginalising modernism in Ireland into de-subsidised obscurity, and establishing the stream of self-consciousness school, with its anecdotal emphasis, as the dominant mode amongst Irish poets. That he was not responsible for his imitators goes without saying. But his last book Human Chain (2010) is defiantly insular, a backward look to the sheepish boy.
Had I had sufficient Irish to in Rannafast
In 1953 to understand
The seanchas and dinnsheanchas,
Had not been too young and too shy,
Had even heard the story about Caoilte
Hunting the fawn from Tory to a door
In a fairy hill where he wasn’t turned away
But lead to a crystal chair on the hill floor
While a girl with golden ringlets harped and sang,
Language and longing might have made a leap
Up through that cloud-swabbed air, the horizon lightened
And the far ‘Lake of the Yew Tree. eg Yew Tree.', gleamed.
He wasn’t looking for a lap of honour. Rather:
Clarnico Murray’s hard iced caramels
A penny an ounce over Sharkey’s counter.
Recently I read Stepping Stones (2008) a 500-page book of interviews with a friend. I found it dispiriting. The safety net is well in place. Despite the characteristic glimmers of wisdom, I couldn’t help feeling he saw the world of poetry as an extension of his own reputation. He was its prisoner, and was only freed by death. But the poems also have been liberated. They are their own context now. A new Selected poems is in order. Something akin to the Hatchette classiques where, for example, Verlaine, a poet who overwrote to fulfil his responsibilities as the Prince of Poets, has been purified to the poems that sing. His ambitions were modest but perfectly achieved . Probably a fair definition of a great, minor poet. Dare I contradict myself, and suggest that the essential Heaney would be at home with that as an epitaph.