by James Naiden
This is an essay of discovery. The work of any poet is regarded, certainly esteemed, by a matter of degrees. While one may agree with Jonathan Sisson that many poets are not inclined to read poetry,1 it is also true that a few—Seamus Heaney and Thomas McCarthy (both Irish), Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück, Robert Hass, and Robert Bly (all Americans)—have contributed worthy prose to the ongoing conversation about the genre and its practitioners. Heaney’s work is my focus—his themes of love and other affiliations when he’s not concerned with secular, strife-filled matters such as the Irish Troubles of the late twentieth century.
Heaney’s tributes to other poets such as Joseph Brodsky and John Montague evolved naturally. While not “romantic,” these poems are empathetic. Then, too, his love poems are of interest because while he has been married to Marie Devlin Heaney since 1965, his tributes to her are naturally marriage poems, although one of his early love poems preceded their formal union. “Scaffolding” appears in Death of a Naturalist, his first collection:
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.2
Another—“Poem” (for Marie)—evokes wonder at the relationship and is composed in pentameter rhymes and off-rhymes, even half-rhymes, the assonances spare but definite, at times sibilant, as the poet explores both the nature of a shorter poem and his evolving relationship with his wife. This illustrates a durable relationship, not mere flirtation. Here is the final strophe:
Love, you shall perfect for me this child
Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking:
Within new limits now, arrange the world
Within our walls, within our golden ring.3
As the relationship becomes marriage and maturity evolves, Heaney occasionally faces separation, perhaps very briefly. Here is “Valediction”:
Lady with the frilled blouse
And simple tartan skirt,
Since you have left the house
Its emptiness has hurt
All thought. In your presence
Time rode easy, anchored
On a smile; but absence
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
The days. They buck and bound
Across the calendar
Pitched from the quiet sound
Of your flower-tender
Voice. Need breaks on my strand;
You’ve gone, I am at sea.
Until you resume command
Self is in mutiny.4
Allegiances are a central feature of Heaney’s work—tributes to family members and his peers. “Follower” employs his father as subject, as in the opening and closing strophes:
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.5
The well-known “digging” allusions of the first poem in Death of a Naturalist are a vehicle for observing his father and grandfather digging and cutting sod on the farm. The farming analogies with the poet’s unspoken disavowal of physical work favor the tools a poet uses. The opening and closing lines are well honed:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.6
Philip Larkin’s terse influence is evident, as well as Yeatsian irony and the bucolic pride of Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who was also from the north. Heaney’s study of the latter’s poems has been deep and abiding: “I have learned to value this poetry of inner freedom very highly. It is an example of self-conquest, a style discovered to express this poet’s unique response to his universal ordinariness, a way of re-establishing the authenticity of personal experience and surviving as a credible being.”7 Indeed, Heaney’s explorations of the craft and his prodigious reading of older poets—Kavanagh, Yeats, Montague, and Denis Devlin—resonate throughout his work. The insistence that his background is as worthy as any undoubtedly flows from Kavanagh. Years later in his 1995 Nobel address, Heaney included Kavanagh among his important poetic forebears, remarking on “the barefaced confrontation” in his predecessor’s oeuvre.8
A vital element in his early poems is the Roman Catholic Church. As a Catholic in Northern Ireland, Heaney and his family were in the minority. As such, his references to his faith are sincere but never tendentious. Nonetheless, figures from that tradition inhabit short poems such as “Saint Francis and the Birds”:
When Francis preached love to the birds
They listened, fluttered, throttled up
Into the blue like a flock of words
Released for fun from his holy lips.
Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,
Pirouetted on brothers’ capes,
Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played
And sang, like images took flight.
Which was the best poem Francis made,
His argument true, his tone light.9
If religion has taught Heaney virtue, it is delineated by close observation, as in these taut lines from “Poor Women In A City Church”:
Thus each day in the sacred place
They kneel. Golden shrines, altar lace.
Marble columns and cool shadows
Still them. In the gloom you cannot trace
A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.10
These observations keenly display the imagery of pathos. It is not a poet’s business to change the world but to observe it with the coins of language melded into tight imagery.
Heaney’s relationship with his father is of pivotal importance. Exploring where his people came from and what his father did for a living to support a large family are central to the poet’s ethos. It is also the reverse image—the mirroring relationships—where he recognizes the tension of roles. Similarly, his relationships even with strangers (who may not have realized a poet was observing) are imbued with unseen energy to and from one person to another, and from the poet to his materials. There is no reprieve from memories—such as a constable who had come to intimidate his father—“A Constable Calls”:
A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.11
If it is true, as Helen Vendler suggests, that Heaney’s subjects other than family members and peers are anonymous, it is a necessary conveyance. Otherwise, there is a risk of the poem becoming merely a list. “By choosing his subjects as anonymous rural laborers,” she posits, “the young poet erects a memorial to the generations of forgotten men and women whose names are lost, whose graves bear no tombstones, and whose lives are registered in no chronicle. Soon even the tools they used will be found only in museums, and the movements they made in wielding them will be utterly lost. It is immensely important to Heaney to note down those expert movements—like an anthropologist inventing a notation for an unrecorded dance—lest they vanish unregistered.”12 There are also the identities of rural inhabitants, arguably exceptions. In “The Outlaw,” about Kelly’s “unlicensed bull” kept for inseminating cows, the poet is direct. Here are the final couplets:
His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank,
Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.
“She’ll do,” said Kelly and tapped his ash-plant
Across her hindquarters. ‘If not, bring her back.’
I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack,
While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw
Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.13
The title poem of Door Into the Dark, published three years after his first book, comes from the first line of what might be an “anonymous” poem, to borrow from Vendler’s lexicon. The first five and the final four lines are testament:
All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.14
If one accepts Vendler’s thesis of “anonymities” for the early books (Death of a Naturalist, Door Into The Dark, Wintering Out), one must also believe that any specific reference disclaims the faceless unknown. This is true also with sexual imagery of a poem meant to be comic and composed in unrhymed tercets with supple metaphors:
He slashed the briars, shoveled up grey silt
To give me right of way in my own drains
And I ran quick for him, cleaned out my rust.
He halted, saw me finally disrobed,
Running clear, with apparent unconcern.
Then he walked by me. I rippled and I churned
Where ditches intersected near the river
Until he dug a spade deep in my flank
And took me to him. I swallowed his trench
Gratefully, dispersing myself for love
Down in his roots, climbing his brassy grain—
But once he knew my welcome, I alone
Could give him subtle increase and reflection.
He explored me so completely, each limb
Lost its cold freedom. Human, warmed to him.15
That the poem is “anonymous” doesn’t matter because we can empathize with its sleek sexuality. The speaker is a water nymph, compliant with the carnal desire of her “anonymous” male counterpart.
Heaney’s next collection, Wintering Out, appeared in 1972. The poet was now thirty-three years old and the father of three children. The book’s title is from the first line of “Servant Boy”—both anonymous (we have no clue where he lived nor is it necessary in order to understand the motifs) and affiliative. The first two lines are the central concern:
He is wintering out
The back end of a bad year . . . 16
Heaney’s remarks about the poem “Wintering Out” to an interviewer from The Listener (7 December 1972), quoted in a chapter epigraph by Neil Corcoran in his lucid volume about the poet’s work, are worth considering:
It is a phrase associated with cattle, and with hired boys also. In some ways, it links up with a very resonant line of English verse that every schoolboy knows: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent.’ It is meant to gesture towards the distresses that we are all undergoing in this country at the minute. It is meant to be, I suppose, comfortless enough, but with a notion of survival in it.17
If Heaney is able to depict the abject qualities of a servant boy or poor women in a church, he can also excavate his personal shortcomings. Few poets are as forthcoming. It is a realization that the self is worth examining as much as the quandaries of others. Thus, living abroad—the poet does not say where—with a young family has its travails. “Summer Home” depicts this starkly—the first four lines and then final sections:
Was it wind off the dumps
or something in heat
dogging us, the summer gone sour,
a fouled nest incubating somewhere?
Whose fault, I wondered, inquisitor
of the possessed air.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My children weep out the hot foreign night.
We walk the floor, my foul mouth takes it out
On you and we lie stiff till dawn
Attends the pillow, and the maize, and the vine
That holds its filling burden to the light.
Yesterday rocks sang when we tapped
Stalactites in the cave’s cold, dripping dark—
Our love calls tiny as a tuning fork.18
Another vein is redemptive—a broken night’s sleep with one’s beloved, in the first and final strophes of “Serenades”:
The Irish nightingale
Is a sedge-warbler,
A little bird with a big voice
Kicking up a racket all night.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So fill the bottles, love,
Leave them inside their cots.
And if they do wake us, well,
So would the sedge-warbler.19
The appearance of North in 1975 marked a change for Heaney, who by then had moved with his family to Glanmore, County Wicklow, in the Republic of Ireland. Tired of being harassed by British soldiers, the Heaneys decided to raise their children in a violence-free atmosphere—as much as possible. The poems in North reflect the increasingly polarized atmosphere in Northern Ireland with its marching Orangemen as well as British constables and soldiers who were less than cordial.
“Bone Dreams” is reflective, as Neil Corcoran has pointed out, of the English invasions of Ireland, not the earlier Viking foray. The fourth and fifth sections of the poem, Corcoran intimates, “are as strange as anything Heaney has written . . . creating a sexual philology and topography; they owe something, perhaps, and they are not entirely unlike some moments in the work of David Jones and of Heaney’s contemporary, Michael Longley.”20 Heaney’s adroitness is afforded a long view in which history, politics, and the visual arts all mirror his consciousness. Here is section IV:
Come back past
philology and kennings,
where the bone’s lair
is a love-nest
in the grass.
I hold my lady’s head
like a crystal
and ossify myself
by gazing: I am screes
on her escarpments,
a chalk giant
carved on her downs.
Soon my hands, on the sunken
fosse of her spine
move towards the passes.21
The poet’s fascination with excavated corpses from pre-historic civilizations is displayed in both “Tollund Man” and “The Grauballe Man.” There is his long-abiding interest in Classical civilizations, inspired no doubt by his training in Latin and Greek—
He courted her
With a decadent sweet art
Like the wind’s vowel
Blowing through the hazels:
‘Are you Diana . . .?’
And was he Actaeon,
His high lament
The stag’s exhausted belling?22
If increased tension and deaths in Northern Ireland meant anything to Heaney, it was his sensitivity to victims when retribution was vented on women who “lay” or “consorted” with British soldiers. “Punishment” excoriates Heaney’s own passivity:
I who have stood dumb
When your betraying sisters,
Cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.23
Despite the violence depicted in North, there are romantic instances such as “Act of Union.” The poet is addressing his pregnant wife:
And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with the pain,
The rending process in the colony,
The battering ram, the boom burst from within.
The act sprouted an obstinate fifth column
Whose stance is growing unilateral.
His heart beneath your heart is a wardrum
Mustering force . . . 24
In another vein, Heaney has never avoided discussing political machinations of Northern Ireland’s “troubles.” In a four-part poem, “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” he deplores the conflict. Here are lines from “Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966”:
The lambeg balloons at his belly, weighs
Him back on his haunches, lodging thunder
Grossly there between his chin and his knees.
He is raised up by what he buckles under.
Each arm extended by a seasoned rod,
He parades behind it. And though the drummers
Are granted passage through the nodding crowd,
It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.
To very cocked ear, expert in its greed,
His battered signature subscribes ‘No Pope’.
The goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood.
The air is pounding like a stethoscope.25
Vendler’s observation about the poet’s force in North is worth noting:
No one could be more conscious than their author that these poems alone could not tell everything about political events and the feelings they evoked in the years between 1968 and 1975. Yet there is no other body of work about those years that so wholly evokes the desperation and devastation felt in that period. North reconstitutes, in powerful symbolic form and tense imaginative language, the impact of those years on one person. That so many readers, both in Ireland and abroad, have found North an unforgettable book means that Heaney’s archaeologies have consolidated the personal into the communicable.26
In 1979 Heaney published Field Work, a departure on one level yet still a continuation of what a poet must do. In “Oysters,” there is celebration of sharing a meal, but a subdued anger at events beyond one’s control. This is made with allusions to the ancient Romans, who also ate oysters, transporting them over the Alps:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The front-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege
And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, all verb.27
Several critics have remarked on the shift of focus from North to Field Work. In the latter volume, there are evocations of dead friends and peers. There is the “triptych” element, a book in three parts. This theory is plausible as any, but not central to the book’s organization. To see it as a triptych is one way of looking at it. Gale C. Schricker argues cogently:
The poems in the first part comment primarily on Heaney’s experience in Northern Ireland before his move; the central sonnet sequence expresses Heaney’s emotions at Glanmore, his first residence in the Republic; and many of the final poems of the volume look to the future, beyond the respite at Glanmore. Undeniably a personal poet, crafting his poetry from his own experience, Heaney seeks to speak also for the larger society to which he belongs.28
The move to Glanmore (near Dublin), County Wicklow, was for reasons of physical safety, as I have indicated. The shift in Heaney’s poetry was also consequential, as he acknowledged to Frank Kinahan a few years later:
I suppose that the shift from North to Field Work is a shift in trust: a learning to trust melody, to trust art as reality, to trust artfulness as an affirmation and not go into the self-punishment so much. I distrust that attitude, too, of course. Those two volumes are negotiating with each other.29
The poems in Field Work are starker, in that Heaney addresses excruciating loss and dangerous precipices in his personal life. “The Strand at Lough Beg”—a eulogy for his relative, Colum McCartney—describes random death by sectarian violence in the summer of 1975. Heaney’s final lines sear into one’s memory:
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside much in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.30
This is a harbinger of what else the book contains. The very next poem, “A Postcard From North Antrim,” has suggestions of the poet’s early romance with his future wife, but it is also a eulogy, in this case to Sean Armstrong, killed in sectarian violence:
Fifteen years ago, come this October,
Crowded on your floor,
I got my arm round Marie’s shoulder
For the first time.
‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!’
You roared across at me,
Chorus-leading, splashing out the wine.31
A rush of such lamentations, eulogies, testaments—however one may see them—is inevitable when allegiances are formed. Poets enlist friendships, become mentors or protégés as well as kinsmen “in solidarity,” as Campbell McGrath has observed. Heaney’s friendship with Robert Lowell, twenty-two years his senior, who died of a massive heart attack at sixty while riding in a New York City taxicab, was significant, no less than the younger poet’s deep reading of Yeats and Kavanagh. Thus, “Elegy” is poignant for memories sprung by unexpected death in these middle and final lines:
You drank America
like the heart’s
as you Englished Russian,
as you bulled out
heart-hammering blank sonnets
of love for Harriet . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
you found the child in me
when you took farewells
under the full bay tree
by the gate at Glanmore,
opulent and restorative
at that lingering summertime,
the fish-dart of your eyes
risking, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ 32
The second, perhaps central, part of Field Work is “Glanmore Sonnets,” addressed to his wife. Throughout these ten sonnets is a strain of appeasing his beloved, as if to apologize for literary matters preoccupying him most of the time. Here are illustrative lines:
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces. 33
The final part of Field Work includes “An Afterwards,” “The Otter,” “The Skunk,” “Homecomings,” “Polder,” and the four-part title sequence. “A Dream of Jealousy” has lubricious images that any spouse who has been married a long time might find threatening, if not hurtful. However one reads the poem, it is a remarkable tease:
A DREAM OF JEALOUSY
Walking with you and another lady
In wooded parkland, the whispering grass
Ran its fingers through our guessing silence
And the trees opened into a shady
Unexpected clearing where we sat down.
I think the candour of the light dismayed us.
We talked about desire and being jealous,
Our conversation a loose single gown
Or a white picnic tablecloth spread out
Like a book of manners in the wilderness.
‘Show me,’ I said to our companion, ‘what
I have much coveted, your breast’s mauve star.’
And she consented. O neither these verses
Nor my prudence, love, can heal your wounded stare.34
The penultimate poem in Field Work is “In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge” (killed in France 31 July 1917). That Ledwidge had been a suitor of the poet’s aunt is complemented by regret that his life ended fighting for the British as a Catholic from the North—because Ireland had no real cause in the Great War. Indeed, why should the Irish have fought for the British in any war? Ledwidge did so, and it cost him his life. Writing three-quarters of a century later, Heaney remembers his aunt grieving thirty years after Ledwidge’s death, indeed after yet another world war had come and gone. Perhaps Ledwidge died in a false cause. Here are the final three quatrains:
‘To be called a British soldier while my country
Has no place among nations . . .’ You were rent
By shrapnel six weeks later. ‘I am sorry
That party politics should divide our tents.’
In you, our dead enigma, all the strains
Criss-cross in useless equilibrium
And as the wind tunes through this vigilant bronze
I hear again the sure confusing drum
You followed from Boyne water to the Balkans
But miss the twilit note your flute should sound.
You were not keyed or pitched like these true-blue ones
Though all of you now consort underground.35
The year 1980 was a significant one for Heaney. His first volume of prose, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, was published. This book has twenty essays, from previously published versions or lectures given in the fourteen years since Death of a Naturalist appeared. Preoccupations demonstrates his closest concerns, whether Wordsworth and Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Kavanagh, or his sense of place while writing or considering what to write, or the contributions of Theodore Roethke, Stevie Smith, Francis Ledwidge, John Hewitt, Paul Muldoon, Brian Friel, Mandelstam, and Lowell, as well as early Irish “nature poetry.”
In 1985, Station Island appeared, arranged in three sections. The central part is about the retreat in Ireland where Heaney went three times in his youth to affirm his religious faith. The third part is of his recapitulations from Sweeney, the ancient Ulster king, offering a different view of Irish culture centuries earlier. Five poems from the first section are tributes of love, respect or friendship: “The Birthplace”; “An Ulster Twilight”; “A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann”; “A Kite for Michael and Christopher”; and “The Railway Children.” I shall discuss the first poem.
“The Birthplace” reflects a visit to the house near Dorchester, England, where Thomas Hardy was born and lived. Never an iconoclastic patriot, Heaney has traveled constantly, paying attention to writers whose books interested him. In Britain, one such writer is Hardy. Others include MacDiarmid, Larkin, and Ted Hughes, with whom Heaney co-edited a book. “The Birthplace” concerns Hardy, whose novels and poems attracted Heaney early and brought the idea of writing into focus. Here is part I:
The deal table where he wrote, so small and plain.
the single bed a dream of discipline.
And a flagged kitchen downstairs, its mote-slants
of thick light: the unperturbed, reliable
ghost life he carried, with no need to invent.
And high trees around the house, breathed upon
day and night by winds as slow as a cart
coming late from market, or the stir
a fiddle could make in his reluctant heart.
Such descriptions are tremulous in the life of any writer. Hardy’s career, first as architect, then as novelist and finally as poet, was unusual in that he was writing until the day he died in early 1928, at age eighty-seven. Heaney is respectful and not a little in awe of a writer whose death was only eleven years before he was born:
Still, was it thirty years ago
I read until first light
for the first time, to finish
The Return of the Native?
The corncrake in the aftergrass
verified himself, and I heard
roosters and dogs, the very same
as if he had written them.36
Certainly, there is a ruthless self-examination, not unlike the eerie narrative tone of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel, The Unconsoled. The tone of Heaney’s poem published a decade earlier is very similar. Ishiguro, a Japanese-born British writer, might have read Heaney’s poem. It is as if the poet witnesses his own actions and does not let himself off easily. Still, as Vendler has observed, his is a non-engaged, non-partisan stance.
In 1988, Heaney’s second collection of prose, The Government of the Tongue, appeared. He is instructive in these essays on prosody and the legacies of Anton Chekhov, Wilfred Owen, Kavanagh, Derek Walcott, the craft of translation, Elizabeth Bishop, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, W. H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Lowell. Some of these essays first appeared in literary journals, others are derived from university lectures. This book contains Heaney’s beliefs on the craft of making poems and what moves a poet in the first place.
Discussing Plath’s work, Heaney presents his own credo: “I do not in fact see how poetry can survive as a category of human consciousness if it does not put poetic considerations first—expressive considerations, that is, based upon its own genetic laws which spring into operation at the moment of lyric conception.” 37 In the book’s introduction, Heaney sets down reasons for writing about poetry: “Writing these essays helped . . . to verify what I believe anyhow: that poetry can be as potentially redemptive and possibly as illusory as love.”38 A year later, in 1989, his third book of prose, The Place of Writing, appeared—and he was also elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He had affirmed his role as poet-critic, although with a measure of self-restraint. By now he had turned to East European poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Miroslaw Holub, and Zbigniew Herbert. As Vendler observed, Heaney “sought out the conditions of poetic freedom in authoritarian or totalitarian circumstances. The deftness and inventiveness with which Eastern European poets, feeling the state pressure for political correctness, managed to evade it was one focus of Heaney’s inquiry; but an equal focus was their steadily maintained indifference to such pressure. . . . he has posed, in both specific and general ways, the question of the role of writing within a framework of human suffering.”39 In Heaney’s words: “The fact is that poetry is its own reality and no matter how much a poet may concede to the corrective pressures of social, moral, political and historical reality, the ultimate fidelity must be to the demands and promise of the artistic event.”40
In 1991, Heaney’s eighth book of poems, Seeing Things, was published. In this luminous volume, he reaffirms his central quest for depth of meaning. In “Casting and Gathering,” dedicated to Ted Hughes, Heaney offers his own preferences: “I love hushed air. I trust contrariness. / Years and years go past and I do not move / For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers / And then vice versa, without changing sides.”41 In “The Schoolbag,” dedicated to the memory of John Hewitt, Heaney recalls a “handsewn leather schoolbag” forty years in the past: “Learning’s easy carried! The bag is light, / Scuffed and supple and unemptiable / As an itinerant school conjuror’s hat. / So take it, for a word-board and a handsel. . .” The poem’s tribute, one might argue, is to a deceased friend, although the “you” is clearly the poet himself as a child, or the dedicatee. The connection is ambiguous.
While poems in The Haw Lantern address his mother’s passing, Seeing Things provides the same purpose for his father, who died in 1987. The poet recalls his father’s close call at having almost drowned, and it is here, as Jonathan Allison suggests, “Heaney’s own face-to-face meeting with his father’s shade emerges.”42 Hence: “That afternoon / I saw him face to face, he came to me / With his damp footprints out of the river, / And there was nothing between us there / That might not still be happily ever after.”43 One critic remarked on the mystical, ethereal quality of Heaney’s verse, or at least his perceived direction: “Heaney’s diction is now more sparse, the narrative style more discursive and easy-going, but this has not led to any diminution in the intensity and resonance of his poetic voice.”44 If anything, Seeing Things is a cumulative book. The poet has, as it were, bade farewell to his father in remembering him. In this sense, the book is a romantic testament. He addresses his wife and pays homage to poets and friends no longer alive. Seeing Things is a distillation of the poet’s sensibilities at fifty-two.
In 1995, Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Irish poet to be so honored since Yeats went to Sweden seventy-two years earlier. I refer the reader to the full text of Heaney’s Nobel Lecture, a model of poetic decorum, mingled with a call for poets to do their work regardless of travails. His concerns are about the fratricidal wars in his homeland, and also of the other places where poets bear and have borne witness. The poet, Heaney reminded his audience, wants his work, the poem itself, “to be not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock that sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad standing there blue with cold and whispering her fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it.”45
Reactions to his Nobel Prize and his acceptance speech were euphoric. Scholars who had written on Heaney’s work held forth in newspapers, journals, and interviews about the significance of an Irish poet winning the most coveted of literary prizes. Michiko Kakutani praised Heaney’s work in the long tradition of world literature. “If one can find affinities in Mr. Heaney’s verse with such Irish contemporaries as Thomas Kinsella and Patrick Kavanagh,” she wrote in The New York Times, “one can just as easily find correspondences with a wide assortment of English and American poets. In Mr. Heaney’s closely observed paeans to the physical world are echoes of Hardy and Frost; in the wonderfully supple, musical phrasing of his poems can be heard the ghosts of Hopkins and Stevens.”46 One scholar of Irish literature suggested that reading Heaney in larger amounts is best. “You have to read him by the book,” suggested Thomas Dillon Redshaw. “The individual poem doesn’t work well if it floats free of context.”47
Almost overshadowed but not unnoticed in 1995 was the publication of a new collection of critical prose, The Redress of Poetry. Heaney’s subjects range from Christopher Marlowe to George Herbert to Elizabeth Bishop. The book received plaudits befitting his new status as a Nobel Laureate. A few months later, his next collection of poems,The Spirit Level, affirmed the notion that metaphor can sustain a poem, however isolated and brief. The Spirit Level has many poems of love and tribute. “Because this collection contains many occasional pieces and poems dedicated to friends, on first reading, I wondered when things were going to start heating up,” wrote Richard Tillinghast.48 Indeed, “things” do not heat up, but merely evolve with the poet’s attention flowing from instance to person and back again. The individual poems mount up to a steadfast vision, as in Heaney’s earlier collections of poetry and critical prose. Remembering his childhood and a train ride with his siblings, Heaney is subdued in these closing tercets from “A Sofa In The Forties”:
Out in front, on the big upholstered arm,
Somebody craned to the side, driver or
Fireman, wiping his dry brow with the air
Of one who had run the gauntlet. We were
The last thing on his mind, it seemed; we sensed
A tunnel coming up where we’d pour through
Like unlit carriages through fields at night,
Our only job to sit, eyes straight ahead,
And be transported and make engine noise.49
On the next page is an affectionate address to his brother, Hugh, who stayed in Northern Ireland to farm: “My dear brother, you have good stamina. / You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor / Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people, / You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep / Old roads open by driving on the new ones. / You called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes / And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen, / But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong . . .”
As Vendler has observed, one of Heaney’s concerns has been how poets and writers survive, if they do at all, in repressive political cultures. His tiny poem simply titled “M.” is a salute across the continent of Europe and the decades since Stalin’s long terror:
When the deaf phonetician spread his hand
Over the dome of a speaker’s skull
He could tell which dipthhong and which vowel
By the bone vibrating to the sound.
A globe stops spinning. I set my palm
On a contour cold as permafrost
And imagine axle-hum and the steadfast
Russian of Osip Mandelstam.50
Heaney’s love for driving an automobile is one way to let his thoughts clear. In the final poem of The Spirit Level, he makes time for an autumn drive along the west Irish coast. “Postscript” conveys both ruefulness and vulnerability—here are the final lines”:
You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.51
In 2000, Heaney produced a bestselling translation of Beowulf. No doubt the book’s popularity owed something to his Nobel Laureate status, but it was also due to his having acquired an American publisher more than two decades earlier. When his eleventh volume of poetry, Electric Light, appeared in 2001, one critic couldn’t resist a backhanded compliment:
Who knows, furthermore, what kind of blessing a Nobel Prize can be? It is an arrival; poetry, on the other hand, lives by departures. Perhaps the literary Nobels should be awarded for one year only and then canceled—the honor, that is, not the money. Poets need money, if only to encourage the young.
Nobelization, a simultaneous swelling and freeze-drying of the voice, has been alleged by Mr. Heaney’s several detractors in Ireland and Britain. (He has hardly any in America, where we are not crowded or threatened by him, but enlarged.) They find him prone to let his engagement with the moral and political questions of his time sag into a kind of lofty poetic bestowing.52
Another commentator noted the many tributes to literary forebears. “Heaney’s skill,” wrote Fredric Koeppel, “is to find such connections in the fundamental material of everyday existence yet mediated in the life of the mind. Electric Light may be intensely reflective, even nostalgic, but it’s also Heaney’s most learned and allusive, revealing the broad range of his reading and his comfortable acceptance of the European heritage.” In another vein, in one tiny poem sub-titled “The Party,” Heaney displays good humor:
Overhead at the party; like wet snow
That slumps down off a roof, the unexpected,
Softly powerful name of Wilfred Owen.
Mud in your eye. Artillery in heaven.54
Heaney also pays homage to Brodsky. His salute to the Russian poet is undoubtedly the most vivid poem in the book. Here are the final quatrains of “Audenesque”:
Nose in the air, foot to the floor,
Revving English like a car
Hijacked when you robbed its bank
(Russian was your reserve tank).
Worshipped language can’t undo
Damage time has done to you:
Even your peremptory trust
In words alone here bites the dust.
Dust-cakes, still—see Gilgamesh—
Feed the dead. So be their guest.
Do again what Auden said
Good poets do: bite, break their bread55.
Remembering the electrification of rural Ireland when he was a child provides the title poem. Here are representative lines:
In the first house where I saw electric light
She sat with her fur-lined felt slippers unzipped,
Year in, year out, in the same chair, and whispered
In a voice that at its loudest did nothing else
But whisper. We were both desperate
The night I was left to stay, when I wept and wept
Under the clothes, under the waste of light
Left turned on in the bedroom. “What ails you, child,
What ails you, for God’s sake?” Urgent, sibilant
Ails, far off and old. Scaresome cavern waters
Lapping a boatslip. Her helplessness no help.56
In 2002, a comprehensive “selected” edition of Heaney’s critical prose,Finders Keepers, made its welcome appearance. Though a long book, it contains many salient essays and lectures since his first collection of verse in 1966. Many essays are reprinted in full or at least in part—on prosody, and on Lowell, Plath, Hughes, Kavanagh, MacDiarmid, Yeats, Larkin, Edwin Muir, Norman MacCaig, Robert Burns, John Clare, Elizabeth Bishop—and of course making both poems and commentary on matters concerning poets, conceivably anything under the sun. One has to make choices, to make those discrete paeans to the craft of writing and making art, thereby ennobling human existence in a candle’s light.
District and Circle was published in 2006, forty years after Death of a Naturalist, seventeen books earlier. Now Heaney was sixty-seven, no longer the ambitious young poet but much garlanded with fame, respect, and money. Still, he was as he had always been—uncorrupted, realistic, and fatalistic about Northern Ireland, where a tenuous peace had held for only a few years. The sonnet form appears here in various guises—Petrarchan, unmetered or “free-verse,” with Heaney’s own rhyme schemes and meters described by Brad Leithauser as “rough-hewn, hand-honed.”57 As with their predecessors, many of these later poems are derived from memories. The fifth slender strophe of “To Mick Joyce In Heaven” illustrates this:
“To Mick Joyce in Heaven”—
The title just came to me,
Mick, and I started
If not quite from nowhere,
Then somewhere far off:
A bedroom, bright morning,
A man and a woman,
Their backs to the bedhead
And me at the foot.
It was your first leave,
A stranger arrived
In a house with no upstairs,
But heaven is enough
To be going on with.
The title poem—a sonnet—is strong, tense, and decidedly political, but still riveting for uncertainty of the other’s thoughts, possible responses, depicted in these final lines:
As the music larked and capered
I’d trigger and untrigger a hot coin
Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered
For was our traffic not in recognition?
According passage, I would re-pocket and nod,
And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.58
Heaney’s fascination with ancient peoples—whether “civilized” in historically recognized cultures or not—has always given heft to his poems. A stunning six-sonnet sequence, “The Tollund Man In Springtime,” reflects this curiosity. These sonnets are composed as if this ancient man could address us now. The question arises: who is the speaker? Here is the mysterious ending of the sixth sonnet:
. . . . . .Dust in my palm
And in my nostrils dust, should I shake it off
Or mix it in with spit in pollen’s name
And my own? As a man would, cutting turf,
I straightened, spat on my hands, felt benefit,
And spirited myself into the street.
Homages to Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda, Dororthy Wordsworth, W. H. Auden, Edward Thomas, Horace, and Milosz abound in District and Circle. These are names one knows immediately, for all are apt and intriguing writers. Still, as Leithauser astutely notes: “Mostly, though, the gaze is planted backward, often toward the modest-plotted rural Ireland of his childhood. Heaney is far more elegist than prophet.”59 Not surprisingly, in his tribute to Neruda, who died in 1973, Heaney describes the joys of anticipating crab apple jelly on bread, thinking of the late Chilean poet in these final lines of “To Pablo Neruda In Tamlaghtduff”:
O my home truth Neruda,
Round-faced as the crowd
At the crossroads, with your eyes
I see it, now taste-bud
And tear-duct melt down
And I spread the jelly on thick
As if there were no tomorrow.60
To mark the new decade, both ours and his own, Heaney spoke to a BBC interviewer about his life’s work and what it means after observing his seventieth birthday the previous spring. The context is the poet’s concern for Northern Ireland. As Catholics living there, Heaney and his family members were among the minority. Even his name was cause for concern: “My name is Seamus, which is an Irish name for James. Within the Northern Ireland situation, that is a code for Catholic, unreliable perhaps . . . certainly not a Unionist, though not necessarily a supporter of the IRA.”61 Heaney’s remarks illustrate the quandary many artists faced during this period of “the Troubles.” What was needed, then, was a new dynamic of language, and referring to Yeats, who died in 1939, Heaney—born that same year—emphasized in this interview that government has never helped solve the problem, especially an intransigent British government and the fierce resentment kindled among the Northern Irish themselves. “It’s up to us to establish a new language, a civic language, rather than a language of resentment and bigotry.” In other words, as Yeats had said many decades earlier, it can be only the citizen’s choice. The artist plays a pivotal role here. “Yeats said he wanted to hold in a single thought reality and justice,” Heaney reflected. “It’s very hard to do but in a situation of great polarization, of blame, of political stalemate, the self is distressed. It’s stressed and distressed. It yearns for some kind of at-oneness in the world. It yearns for harmony and is offered stalemate. So at that point, in a cornered situation, I think that’s when an artist has to escape into a work.”
The peace has held fairly well, but with the memories of fratricide, the poets can help by “making space in official language” for dialogue. Heaney went on to speak optimistically about Barack Obama, whose unusual personal history and literary instincts have helped to create international conversation and negotiations rather than constant shouting and obduracy. This, Heaney emphasized, is a great shift in tone when there was very little, if any, dialogue before. Pessimism and rigidity go nowhere. The poet’s tools are language and persistence.
Seamus Heaney’s gift of words is what we choose to make of it. The poet has presented his offering. We have only to behold these joyous, saddening, whirling, tragic, and uplifting precipices of language. If the ancient writers still speak to those of us who read them, so does this poet speak to and of our own time—if we pay attention.
1 Jonathan Sisson, “The Secret of Poetry,” The North Stone Review, issue #14, 2002, 157.
2 Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist (Faber & Faber, London, 1966), 50. Hereafter cited as DN.
3 Ibid., 48.
4 Ibid, 46.
5 Ibid, 24-25.
6 Ibid, 13-14.
7 Seamus Heaney, “The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh,” The Government of the Tongue, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1990), 14. Hereafter cited as GT.
8 Seamus Heaney, “Crediting Poetry,” Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1995. Copyright © 2002, The Nobel Foundation. Hereafter cited as NL.
9 DN, 53.
10 Ibid., 42.
11 Ibid., 60-61.
12 Helen Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1998), 20.
13 Seamus Heaney, Door Into the Dark (Faber & Faber, London, 1969), 16-17.
14 Ibid., 19.
15 Ibid., 26.
16 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out (Faber & Faber, London, 1972), 17. Hereafter cited as WO.
17 Neil Corcoran, A Student’s Guide to Seamus Heaney (Faber & Faber, London, 1986), 71. Hereafter cited as NC.
18 WO, 59-61.
19 Ibid., 62.
20 NC, 112.
21 Seamus Heaney, North (Faber & Faber, London, 1975), 21. Hereafter cited as N.
22 Ibid., 42.
23 Ibid., 30-31.
24 Ibid., 43.
25 Ibid., 62.
26 Vendler, op. cit., 55.
27 Seamus Heaney, Field Work (The Noonday Press / Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1979), 11. Hereafater cited as FW.
28 Gale C. Schricker, “’Deliberately At The Centre’: The Triptych Structure of Seamus Heaney’s Field Work” (Eire-Ireland, Volume XXVI, Number 3, Fall 1991), 109.
29 Quoted in chapter epigraph, NC, op. cit., 127.
30 FW, op. cit., 18.
31 Ibid., 20.
32 Ibid., 31-32.
33 Ibid., 42.
34 Ibid., 50.
35 Ibid., 59-60.
36 Seamus Heaney, Station Island (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1985), 34-35. Hereafter cited as SI.
37 GT, op. cit., 166.
38 Ibid., xxii.
39 Helen Vendler, “A Nobel for the North,” The New Yorker, 23 October 1995, 85.
40 GT, op. cit., 101.
41 Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1991), 15. Hereafter cited as ST.
42 Jonathan Allison, a review of Seeing Things (Eire-Ireland, Volume XXVI, Number 3, Fall 1991), 140.
43 ST, op. cit., 20.
44 Jonathan Allison, op. cit., 141.
45 NL, op. cit.
46 Michiko Kakutani, “An Observer Reflecting On Mankind’s Strivings,” The New York Times, 6 October 1995.
47 Mary Ann Grossmann, “Heaney’s Honor Wins Praise From Colleagues, Admirers in the Twin Cities,” Saint Paul Pioneer Press, 6 October 1995.
48 Richard Tillinghast, “Poems Into Plowshares,” The New York Times Book Review, 21 July 1996, 6.
49 Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1996), 12. Hereafter cited as SL.
50 Ibid., 68.
51 Ibid., 82.
52 Richard Eder, ”‘Electric Light’: Seeing the Present in the Glow of the Past,” The New York Times, 20 April 2001.
53 Fredric Koeppel, “Heaney’s at peace with mystery in affirmative gaze backward,” Commercial Appeal(Memphis, TN), 24 May 2001.
54 Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2001), 66.
55 Ibid., 79-80.
56 Ibid., 96.
57 Brad Leithauser, “Wild Irish,” The New York Times Book Review, 16 July 2006, 12.
58 Seamus Heaney, District and Circle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006), 17.
59 Leithauser, op. cit.
60 Heaney, op. cit., 67.
61 This interview was broadcast by the BBC on 16 January 2010. The interviewer was Laurence Pollard. “IRA” refers to Irish Republican Army.
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