Monday, May 04, 2009
A Seamus Heaney ABC
Was in Belfast the other day speaking at a symposium in honour of Seamus Heaney’s seventieth birthday. Belfast remains remarkable as having the only university in Ireland, it seems to me (and to go no further than Ireland) with a community of poets around it, whereas in all too many universities it’s already pushing it to find anyone still teaching the stuff. Here’s what I said on the day.
When this symposium was being planned, it was suggested to me that I might want to base my comments on my contribution to the recent Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney. There is something monumental about a living writer being the subject of a Cambridge Companion, carrying with it a faint whiff of embalmer’s fluid at the ready, so I thought I might make a point of offering something less in that vein today, and possibly with a little off-duty flippancy along the way. Instead I’m proposing an ABC of Heaney, stringing twenty-six possibly random topics together in search of an argument. Where I can at least claim some continuity is that many of them take Stepping Stones, Heaney’s volume of interviews with Dennis O’Driscoll, as a stepping-off point. I am also aware of using this exercise to raise questions about Heaney to which I might not offer answers. This is either simple laziness on my part, or an attempted reminder that if all the answers were now in, Heaney Studies would of course have come to an end. ‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it’, Walter Benjamin wrote in his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, and of few contemporary writers is it truer than of Heaney. Given his capacity to refresh our perception, and make the old seem worn new, it is a daunting challenge to us, but one we should not shirk, to keep our own perceptions of him equally refreshed and updated.
Which leads to me to my first letter: A is for ABC and ‘Alphabets’. A good reason for mentioning this poem first is the opportunity it represents to see Heaney assembling the world and a worldview. It is a prime piece of Heaney poetic epistemology, if ever there was one. The onomastic readings beloved of Paul Muldoon might latch onto the fact that ‘each potato pit’ in the poem is ‘patted straight and moulded against frost’, name-checking a poet surely part of any Heaney ABC, but the poem dodges self-conscious literariness in favour of its final stanza’s ‘pre-reflective stare’ and a derivation of the earth as letter O from a ‘magnified and buoyant ovum’. The arbitrariness of the signifier, so beloved of Saussure, is not about to trump Heaney’s Cratylean belief in a natural language, or a religiously inflected version thereof (‘IN HOC SIGNO’ indeed). Saussure would have just loved the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and its agon of martyred signifiers, but ‘The Fire i’ The Flint’, Heaney’s early essay on Hopkins, holds steadfastly to a religious reading, leaving any unholy alliance of Freud and Saussure off-limits. The Beaubourg centre in Paris has been described as toutes tripes dehors, having all its guts hanging out, and all through Heaney’s writing life, as poet and critic, and as ‘Alphabets’ reminds us, there has been a consistent aversion to styles that externalize and insist on artifice over naturalism, language read from and returned to the earth with a chthonic licence.
A is also for authority. In my aforementioned contribution to that Cambridge Companion I offered a reading of Heaney’s prose as a graph of his self-image and a form of vicarious life-writing, focused on the question of poetic authority. ‘If you live as an author’, Dennis O’Driscoll reminds Heaney that he said in 1977, ‘you reward is authority. But of course the trouble is how to be sure you are living properly.’ This is a tricky statement to parse. Wherein does that authority lie? In the life or the work? There are poets who self-consciously signal the link between their creative ambition, the life they have led and its poetic rectitude, even – Eavan Boland for one – and others who do the opposite, Derek Mahon, for instance, in the sense that, though a poetic ‘I’ is never just the biographical author, Mahon is at his happiest speaking through exotic and far-removed personae, and shows no interest, in his critical writing, in rehashing his life story or presenting his critical subjects as evolutionary staging posts culminating in his own work. Heaney stands somewhere between these positions. But having amassed as much poetic authority as it is possible for one man to possess, what does Heaney do with it now? Spend it or save it? Who if anyone is in a position any more to advise him about ‘living properly’?
B is for my home town Bray, Co. Wicklow, site of the composition of ‘The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream’, while the poet was waiting for his car to be serviced. I mention this because as the author of a book of essays titled The Place of Writing, Heaney has always rightly or wrongly given all too many critics licence to believe that his place of writing is an uncontaminated Co. Derry home and fons et origo. Place in Heaney, I would like suggest, is a more complex topic than it has been given credit for. Feminist objections, to North for instance, have tended to see his imagination as hopelessly territorial, contesting the occupier’s right to be in his land but not the basic idea that the female land is there to be mastered and occupied. But though Heaney has not written about ‘the importance of elsewhere’ as much as others among his contemporaries, and though his thoughts from abroad frequently turn to home, whether in California, Denmark or Spain, one of the central not-quite-directly expressed dramas of Stepping Stones, I think, is that Northern Ireland became artistically uninhabitable to him in the 1970s. He also downplays the alienness of Co. Wicklow and the south, which leads to a strange and typically Heaneyesque binary: that the place of writing in many Heaney poems since the 70s, I would like to suggest, is both home and exile at once.
C is for Collected Poems. Why is there no Collected Heaney? I can think of no good explanation. Is it because the individual volumes are all still selling too well? I’ve no idea.
D is for Dante, one of Heaney’s great imaginative sponsors, from his version of the Ugolino canto, to the template he provides for Station Island, to the appearance of a Dante-quoting Larkin in ‘The Journey Back’, from Seeing Things. Yet here, as with his relationship to Mandelstam, there is the nagging question of language. Heaney confesses in Stepping Stones to not having known Italian at the time of his Ugolino translation. Is this important? Yeats after all was a monoglot. In his essay on Dante Heaney speaks of T.S. Eliot ‘recreating Dante in his own image’, something Heaney has done to Dante, Eliot and Mandelstam. The word pietas derives from another of Heaney’s avatars, Virgil, but does the habitual imputation of pietas to Heaney too obscure the extent to which there is a Bloomian anxiety of influence at work where his precursors are concerned? His youthful identification with Patrick Kavanagh has always made sense as a handy detour round the monolith of Yeats’s influence, but is qualified more than a little by a phrase from a youthful essay in Hibernia that stands out when repeated in Stepping Stones, ‘There are no major poets at work in Ireland’, written when Kavanagh (and Clarke) were very much alive. Here for once is a flash of the real remorselessness that drove the young Heaney’s self-image, and which many critics still fail to recognise or address. Someone once won a New Statesman for most unlikely book title with My Struggle by Martin Amis, and while My Artistic Will to Power by Seamus Heaney would probably run that a close second, I would like to wonder aloud whether critical squeamishness on this subject is such a good thing. No one gets to be a major poet by accident, and a Bloomian study of Heaney along these lines might make for provocative reading.
E is for eel, the slippery creatures at the centre of the ‘Lough Neagh’ sequence from Door into the Dark:
Where she’s lost once she lays
ten thousand feet down in
her origins. The current
carries slicks of orphaned spawn.
The combination of origins and slipperiness might have been what appealed to Muldoon when he latched onto eels himself in ‘The Suitcase’, a poem that Neil Corcoran has parsed for its intertextual circling of Heaney. Muldoon returned to eels in a bigger way when he devoted an Oxford lecture to Montale’s great poem ‘L’anguilla’, a lecture that also does its share of circling back to Heaney. And still on Muldoon, the Heaney poem dedicated to him, ‘The Widgeon’, again combines an animal with intertextuality, with its sly dig at Muldoon’s genius for poetic mimickry. Perhaps the example of Mad King Sweeney cemented the association of animals and transformation in Heaney’s mind, but let me suggest animals now as the key to the great unwritten work on Heaney’s intertextual dialogue from his contemporaries.
F is for Robert Frost, whose influence on Heaney and other Northern Irish poets has been the subject of a fine study by Rachel Buxton. Sifting Heaney’s lines of poetic descent, Edna Longley has stressed his Virgilian-Frostian inheritance: ‘Heaney’s “earth” is not [Edward] Thomas’s. The speaker does not seek to express “the earth”; he proposes working with “earth” as a metaphor for poetic expression.’ This raises the question of Heaney’s amenability to an ecopoetic reading. Does he ask not what he can do for the earth but what the earth can do for us? Consider how different birds in Heaney are from birds in Longley, for instance. As a city poet Longley has had to make an effort to discover these places and these creatures, whereas for Heaney they are a given, and already there, just as the farmer in Frost’s ‘The Mountain’ is slightly taken aback by the suggestion that he might ever have climbed to the top of the mountain – why would he do that?
G is for guttural, a word I’d like to suggest Heaney has now rendered unusable for all other contemporary poets. Perhaps it could be withdrawn from circulation entirely when he stops writing, in the same way that football teams sometimes retire shirt numbers.
H is for Ted Hughes, Heaney’s debts to whom have also been studied in depth. There is an element of catch-up in Heaney’s more Hughesian early poems, an element of Arnoldian Celtic-Saxon reciprocity in the two men’s collaborations in later life, and an element of custodianship in ‘On His Work in the English Tongue’, the elegy for Hughes that appeared in Electric Light. A note of impatience creeps into Heaney’s answers in Stepping Stones when his interlocutor suggests that Birthday Letters is not among Hughes’s best work, a judgement I would be quick to second. Much criticism of Birthday Letters centred on its unhealthy mythologizing of Hughes’s life with Plath, a gamble on Hughes’s part that took some daring, to give him that much credit, but in Heaney’s elegy (to return to my earlier comments on his artistic will to power) there is a revealing combination of the highest mythic stakes, in its claims for poetry, and deflection of its mage-like claims onto something impersonal and passive. It’s one of the most recognisable of recent Heaney tropes:
Soul has its scruples. Things not to be said.
Things for keeping, that can keep the small-hours gaze
Open and steady. Things for the aye of God
And for poetry. Which is, as Milosz says,
‘A dividend from ourselves’, a tribute paid
By what we have been true to. A thing allowed.
I is for Incertus, an early Heaney pen-name. Heaney describes in Stepping Stones how seeing himself in print led gave him a ‘Borges and I’ experience of self-doubling from the start of his career, which leads me to suggest we’ve misread his pen-name slightly. It is in fact two words, in English, addressed to his early editors: ‘Insert Us’.
J is for just how different literary history would have been if Heaney’s first and middle names had been the other way round and we were now celebrating the seventieth birthday of Justin Seamus Heaney.
K is for Thomas Kinsella, the Irish poet Heaney can always point at with relief whenever the charge of nationalist animus, and the undesirability thereof, comes up in discussions of contemporary Irish poetry. It would be tempting to see Heaney and Kinsella’s divergent responses to Bloody Sunday, and to shouldering the burden of the Gaelic-Irish past as indicators of the deep ideological differences between Northern and Southern Irish poetry. But I don’t believe this for a minute, Kinsella’s sniping about that ‘journalistic entity’ notwithstanding. It is noticeable though, and this comes through more than once in Stepping Stones, how easily Heaney gives the impression of any disagreements involving his work being one-sided affairs, which he himself transcends. As, I would argue, in this case he genuinely does.
L is for Larkin, Heaney’s attitude to whom has received much attention, in particular his charge that Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ ‘reneges on what Yeats called the “spiritual intellect’s great work”’. Without wanting to rehash that debate, I would counterpoint that verdict with Heaney’s frequent invocation of lines from his fellow Larkin-sceptic, someone indeed who devoted a whole poem to his loathing of the man, Czeslaw Milosz: ‘What is poetry which does not save /Nations or people?’ Milosz’s lines help to focus our attitude to Heaney on Larkin, because Milosz at least wrote from a position of unabashed theist loathing of godless defeatism. Whereas Heaney, as we know well, is not a believer. Which leaves, for me, one of the defining questions about Heaney, the redress of poetry, crediting poetry, and all the rest of Heaney’s vocabulary of uplift and redemption: do we prefer it to Larkin’s because it brings comfort, not despair, and to Milosz’s because it comes without dogma and intolerance? Or because, falling short of these two poles, it does not ask us the tougher questions a committed theist or athetist poetics might? What, in other words, is Heaney’s theology of art and has anyone ever answered this question?
M is for most neglected book in the Heaney canon. What is it? I would suggest The Haw Lantern, which marked a break with what had gone before, if not as decisive or as long-lasting a departure as that announced by Seeing Things. Equally, the huge popularity of ‘Clearances’, from The Haw Lantern, could not mask the unease not a few people felt with Heaney’s allegorical style in ‘The Republic of Conscience’, ‘The Mud Vision’ and ‘From the Canton of Expectation’. If there is a plea to be entered on behalf of these poems and their place well above the plimsoll line of better than average Heaney, I hereby enter it.
N is for North, a book that sheer volume of critical response alone tells us is Heaney’s most important. Do we believe that? One of my reasons for beginning with Walter Benjamin’s line on tradition and conformism is the marked reluctance among some Heaney critics to express strong preferences for any of his books over any others. So let me express a preference of my own and suggest that both Field Work and Seeing Things are stronger books.
O is for omphalos, a prophetic ancient Greek word referring to early-twentieth century Irish indigenous styles of rural architecture, specifically down the Toome Road in Co. Derry.
P is for J.H. Prynne, not a name much linked to Heaney’s, but one he mentions in passing in Stepping Stones and that has since triggered some excited debate on Jacket magazine. I’m not proposing to stage a comparison between Heaney and Prynne here (though maybe someone should try), but what the debate illustrates yet again is Heaney’s peerless capacity to deflect poetics at odds with his own, or bounce them harmlessly off the body armour of his self-image. Heaney has never had much or anything to say about avant-garde writing, though his comments are non-committal rather than damning, and when disappointed Prynnites have attempted to respond, in Jacket, they have fallen back on jaded Movement conspiracy theories and engaged not at all with the poetry. There is something more than a little obtuse in the dismissal of Auden repeated by Heaney, however, still in Stepping Stones (and one which, though he doesn’t mention this, contains an undercurrent of homophobic prejudice via Richard Hoggart) as lacking the ‘rooted normality of the major talent’. I think Auden, Prynne or any other shiftless cosmopolitans who happen past might be entitled to some surprise at the restriction of major poet status to the ranks of the rootedly normal.
P is also for the prose poem, the genre of his one jettisoned book, Stations, but one he has returned to, partially, in recent years. I hereby call on him to write more.
Q is for Queen of England, subject of a piece of nationalist joshing by Heaney so minor and unimportant in the larger scheme of things I’m going to assume no Irish Studies academic has ever picked up on or mentioned it. Right?
R is for Russell Square, which Ian Hamilton once suggested Heaney was defiling with his ‘mud-caked fingers’. On the roll-call of critics who have turned up an Anglocentric lip in Heaney’s direction, Hamilton occupies an honourable, which is to say a dishonourable place. A.N. Wilson and Al Alvarez would be two others, I suppose, and so might Peter Porter, if he was English and not Australian. Although much of what these critics have said over the years is simply wrong-headed, it is worth dwelling on for what it reveals about the time-lag between British and Irish poetry, and an underlying sense of ‘Get with the program!’ being barked at Heaney from the post-enlightenment heaven of a world from which farms, muck and men in tweed jackets have been finally eliminated.
S is for Sixties. One striking aspect of Stepping Stones is how strongly the Sixties, or what we think of as the Sixties, seemed to bypass Heaney. Pop music was ‘more like background music or fairground music’, and jazz too fared hardly any better. Exposure to California shortly afterwards emphatically did not prise Heaney’s style apart. The closest he gets to a strong, non-Lowellite American influence, if we choose to read it that way, is the Williamsesque short-line style adopted in Wintering Out and North. Yet when that moment passed the short lines appeared to go back in the closet and have been all too infrequently seen since. It would be the merest philistinism to berate Heaney for not becoming the Adrian Mitchell of Bellaghy, writing poems about fifteen million silage bags, but what does this tell us about the distinctive and even unique moment of Northern Irish poetry in the 1960s?
T is for Translations, a play by Brian Friel in which people who are meant to be speaking Irish speak English, so we can all understand them. In ‘Broagh’ Heaney displays a strikingly contrasting aesthetic, when he insults all non-natives of ‘Broagh’, which is just about the entire population of the world, for their inability to pronounce that townland’s name, and instead of being insulted we his readers almost unanimously thank him for this precious insight into a culture we do not share.
U is for unpublished Heaney. Now that we have a bibliography, the full extent of uncollected Heaney is there for all to not quite see, unless we fancy trudging off to a research library. There is so much bootleg Heaney available online it’s surprising Heaney hasn’t followed Bob Dylan’s lead and started his own official bootleg series. I hereby pitch the idea.
V is for Volkswagen Beetle, the car that turns up with such regularity in the first half of Stepping Stones. Nor only does it drive Heaney to places that inspire him, it features in the poems, and on more than one occasion was their site of composition too. John Goodby has wondered whether, as a ‘People’s Wagon’, the car in Muldoon’s ‘Ireland’ is a ‘vehicle’ for subliminal republican sympathies, but for the last word on cars in Heaney we must refer to surely one of the most distinctive items in the Heaney criticism file, Medbh McGuckian’s ‘Horsepower, Pass By’.
W is for Whoops, I Did It Again, a silly song by Britney Spears I quote to my students every year to make a serious point. When Heaney’s cousin Colum McCartney appears in ‘Station Island’ to reprimand Heaney for his sugaring of his death in a previous elegy, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, with a reference to Dante’s Purgatorio, I ask my students to comment on the irony involved and sit back and wait for them to notice he is doing this in a poem whose whole structure is based on Dante’s Purgatorio. It’s usually a long wait, let me add, but my point is this: does the reprimand from the dead man and the associated guilt lessen the poet’s guilt or, since he’s simultaneously repeating the offence, does it not just compound it? One response to this would be a long, furrow-browed Heaney poem of moral introspection, but another is a simple yes or no: off the hook for apologising, or on the hook twice over for moral narcissism? I’d love to know the answer.
X is for X-rated. Conor O’Callaghan has stated that an anthology of Irish sex, as opposed to love poems, would make for a slim volume, and unkind critics have made a habit of picking on Heaney’s alleged squeamishness (I thinking of James Simmons here, and his concern for what Heaney’s ‘mammy’ would think), or stray moments of misjudged phallocracy (‘Rite of Spring’ and its final line, ‘Her entrance was wet, and she came’), but there is a simple riposte to all this. ‘The Skunk’ is surely not just a great poem but an effortlessly sexy poem too.
Y is for W.B. Yeats, once described by Robert Lowell as the best Irish poet before Seamus Heaney.
Z might stand for Zozimus, Zbigniew Herbert or Adam Zagajewski, but in this instance can stand for Zeus, who turns up in one of the ‘Sonnets from Hellas’ in Electric Light. The poet has travelled to the Castalian Spring to drink from its poetic well-spring but is refused entry. He invokes the ‘thunderface’ of the angry Zeus, then sneaks in anyway, feels his anger drain away, and indulges a moment of pure Heaneyesque mixed feelings, of grace, transcendence and defiance all at once:
So up the steps then, into the sandstone grottoes,
The seeps and dreeps, the shallow pools, the mosses,
Come from beyond, and come far, with this useless
Anger draining away, on terraces
Where I bowed and mouthed in sweetness and defiance.
Remarkably among poetic gods, Heaney is someone whose natural element is mildness first and last, a mildness that is a form of power, not weakness, and one whose poetic dividend, to use a Heaney word, continues to overflow bountifully for us mere mortals as well as the god himself.