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Saturday, 28 August 2010

Humourless Chain?

I have been reading Seamus Heaney for at least 30 years - since I was 14, and my aunt Bev gave me a book of his.  He started publishing the year I was born, 1966.  For 44 years, he has been a major figure, and since his Nobel win, in 1995, a pre-eminent one.  Indeed, since North in 1975, he has been a dominant poet.  Traditional poet, of course.  I am not here to discuss his entire output, or unquestionable import.  As Helen Vendler, and then a thousand others, have said, he is the lyric poet of our moment.  He is not the poet of the disturbed lyric, he is not experimental.  But he is in the line from Frost on down to us.

Of course, these ours and uses are themselves debatable.  There is no one or two poetic audiences anymore, no poetry receiving line.  The king stands alone, and what courtiers come, come on their own, in their own time.  Heaney's 12th collection has arrived at my door this Saturday from Amazon.  Nothing says more about what remains of England's civilisation than that it has Saturday post.  Human Chain is a handsome book.  I opened it with great excitement and interest.  A new Heaney is an event - a new Dan Brown for those who love "quality" poetry.  Human Chain - I broke off a third of the way through to write this very provisional post - puzzles me.  What is it that forms his appeal?  I do not think Heaney as good as Robert Frost or WB Yeats.  There, I have said it.

Of the poets of the last 110 years, who have ploughed his furrow, others have done better.  He is excellent, others are, I think, superior.  Indeed, Frost, Edward Thomas, Housman, Hardy, and Larkin, are to my mind greater.  Ted Hughes perhaps, perhaps not: I am not sure.  I do not find Heaney's poems as inviting, moving, or warm, as the best of lyric poetry in the great Frost-Thomas line.  Rooted as they are in his memories, his politics, his reading of the Classics (all humane and intelligent) and his sense of the communicable values of language, experience and value - his poems grate on me, at times.  They resonate with their intent.  They telegraph their import, even, paradoxically, their modesty. How many poems about Virgil, about the underworld, do we need?  How many carts, wagons, bails of hay, can any one reader stomach?  I do not find Heaney's pastoral images, his tropes, in this new collection, universally engaging, as Frost's birches and boulders are, as the flowers of Thomas are.

I do not find myself, a third of the way through - convinced utterly.  I know this is well-written poetry of the first rank.  I know it means well.  I know it is decent, wise, fully-felt.  I know the words in italics have been looked up in the OED and understood to their Latinate atoms.  I know this, I do not feel it.  "The Wood Road" seems to me a blunt instrument, with its sepia, blood, smithereens and hunger striker.  "Had I Not Been Awake" seems forced in its portentous conclusion.  "The Conway Stewart" is charming, but a little clunky in its scuba gear-pen analogy.  "Uncoupled" is superb, among his best, though again, a Shade poem.  "The Butts" is yet another child among his father's clothes poem - excellent, but not original.  "The Baler" is another rural-mechanical lyric.

I will go on to read the whole book, with care - this is not a review, after all, but a commentary in mid-read, a mid-stream look-about.  Perhaps the book will lift like a kite at the end (I have peeked).  It is a calmer, quieter book - the poem about the ambulance ride is honest and moving.  It may be a masterwork.  But I feel that there is a ponderous, rhetorical, cultural-keeper-of-the-flame feel about this late work, this late style - so that the poetic that is emerging is both comfortingly sturdy, and solid, but not either surprising or entirely delightful.

When do Heaney's new poems take us out of themselves, out of ourselves?  When do his new poems rise beyond the scrupulous making and reflection on making that marked his very first well-staring and pen-gripping?  How many times can a poem be written before it ceases to be a Heaney poem, and becomes, instead, and more wonderfully, first an extraordinary occasion of language?  I am sure this post will lead to my crucifixion in some quarters, but I did want to assay a tentative questioning - not of the master's over-all stature - which is secure from the likes of younger critics like me - but in order to clear the air for a clear-eyed reading.  After all, if poets are beyond criticism, they are also beyond appreciation - which is different from adoration.
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