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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.


Mark Granier said…
I'm not sure who you think is going to crucify you Todd. Certainly not me; I've no wish to create a second Christ/ Messiah (even if I had the inclination, the time and the carpentry skills). I imagine that Heaney would be the last person to imagine he's 'beyond criticism', and the same goes for any poet/critic who possesses more than half a brain.

You place Heaney 'in the line from Frost on down to us' then declare (as if you were saying something risky) that you 'do not think [him] as good as Robert Frost or WB Yeats'. You aren't the first of the 'younger critics' to set Heaney up as mock-king then knock off the paper hat. He's been around so long, and has accrued so many (unlooked for) honours that there's a whole army of self-imagined young turks who get irritated or impatient with practically everything he publishes.

You say that 'he is not the poet of the disturbed lyric' but if I wanted a two-word synopsis of the opening poem, 'Had I Not Been Awake', 'disturbed lyric' would be pretty much on the mark. I cannot see how this poem is 'forced in its portentous conclusion'. Portentous it may be, if by that you mean 'suggestive of a portent' (rather than pompous, solemn, etc.), but in what way do you think it is forced?

I see nothing wrong with criticising Heaney or attempting to 'clear the air', and if the book doesn't stir you that's fine, and if the poems 'grate' on you this too is fine. But to follow this immediately with '[the poems] resonate with their intent. They telegraph their import, even, paradoxically, their modesty' baffles me a little. Many good and great poems could be said to 'telegraph their intent' and perhaps their 'modesty' (though I think 'tact' a better word, and less of a backhanded compliment). And a summation such as the following tells me next to nothing:

'... 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.'

The verb 'feel' occurs twice in the first sentence (and once in the preceding paragraph, though 'I know this, I do not feel it' may of course simply be an admission of failure on your part). Feeling is all very well, but I'm curious as to why you think (rather than feel) that any of these poems fail. The fact that Heaney brings in his old masters (such as Virgil) or the 'rural-mechanical' 'carts, wagons, bails of hay' is not really something you can take him to task for (unless you deplore Frost and Hardy for their birds, trees, horses, roads, etc.). Heaney was brought up on a farm. We take our subject matter where we find it, or where it finds us. Incidentally, Yeats' work is FAR more 'rhetorical' than Heaney's; WB was a very deliberate 'cultural-keeper-of-the-flame'. And Hardy and Larkin were, in their different ways, decidedly 'portentous'; think of the endings of those (marvelous) poems 'This Be The Verse', 'The Old Fools', 'During Wind And Rain'...

I know you say you're not attempting a review Todd, still less a critical essay (or 'assay') any more than I am attempting a crucifixion. But, since I am also reading this book, I am really curious to see what you or others think. To return to that opening poem, why do you think the ending is forced? Can you elucidate here?
Alan Baker said…
Todd, thanks for this honest, mid-book reflection. Heaney's best poetry - the books 'Wintering Out' and 'North' - was written a long time ago, and he has for some time been recycling the same tropes, as you describe. It isn't just mainstream poets who do this; John Ashbery has been writing the same book for years now. I guess there comes a point when a poet runs out of things to write about, or simply no longer has the need to try anything new. In Heaney's case, his Wordsworthian revisiting of a rural childhood was always poetically conservative. At least Ashbery has been an innovator, whereas most of Heaney's poetry could have been written in the nineteenth century.
Steven Waling said…
So far only read one poem that was in the Guardian or the Indie from the new collection; but I'm glad you've written what you have. I quite enjoyed the poem; but it wasn't doing anything he hasn't done before. Or at least not to me.

I wonder what it is, though, that sees some people reading nonmainstream poetry and seeing only confusion, while others 'get it' (whatever 'it' is) almost immediately. Or some read mainstream poetry and see great depth, while others see only echoes of the 19th century? I can see a rambly blogpost coming on...
Alan Baker said…
Steven, that's a good question. I'll look forward to your blog post. I think it's something to do with increasing sophistication. When I first listened to classical music (around age 22) I just heard noise. I had to learn to how hear it. I think a similar process occurs with unfamiliar types of poetry: you have to tune in to it. Readers not used to poetry at all (there are plenty of them) perhaps would see 'only confusion' in Heaney's poetry.

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