Dazzling Philosophy

Michael Hofmann

  • Seeing things by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 113 pp, £12.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 571 14468 3

Seeing things, Seamus Heaney’s ninth volume of new poems, is aimed squarely at transcendence. The title has a humble and practical William Carlos Williams ring to it, but that is misleading. It is better understood as having been distilled from ‘I must be seeing things’, said seriously, and with a fair amount of stress on the ‘I must’.

The greatest difficulty for the poet is how to go on being one. Randall Jarrell set it out like this at the end of his essay on Stevens: ‘A man who is a good poet at 40 may turn out to be a good poet at 60; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.’ This is poetry as catastrophe, as Minnesotan roulette. Heaney in his The Government of the Tongue quotes the Polish poet Anna Swir to similar but subtly different effect: according to her, the poet is ‘an antenna capturing the voices of the world’. Compared to the chilling folly of Jarrell, this is both pat and heroic. It is more statuesque, less adventitious, less calamitous. It allows less room both for the will and for good luck: what it expresses is not so much the poet’s real agony and uncertainty as his function in hindsight – a poet struck by lightning will have become an antenna of sorts.

Neither quotation bothers to work out the effect on the poet of popularity and fame, but it seems easy enough: such a poet might not be inclined (in Jarrell) to go out in the wet so often, or (Swir) he might stop retuning his receiver, and stick to a familiar frequency. In the introduction to his 1988 selection of The Essential Wordsworth, Heaney seems uncomfortable, even compromised, as he discusses the starchy, establishment figure of the older Wordsworth, ‘in his large, not uncomplacent house’, seemingly ‘more an institution than an individual’, ‘an impression not inconsistent with the sonorous expatiations of his later poetry nor with the roll call of his offices and associations – friend of the aristocracy, Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland, Poet Laureate’. In that padded, double-breasted construction, the double negative, Heaney would seek to offer criticism and mitigation at the same time, but in so doing he betrays his own anxiety.

I don’t know whether Glanmore, the house where Heaney wrote much of Field Work (1979), is large and complacent or not (although I doubt it), but readers of Seeing things learn that he has now returned to it as its owner-occupier, a condition which, with some more awkward double-speak, he celebrates in the seven sonnets of ‘Glanmore Revisited’ – in such lines as ‘only pure words and deeds secure the house.’ Of course, Heaney has also become the master of a ‘roll call of offices and associations’ of Wordsworthian distinction and dimensions, so it seems tempting to try on the ‘institution’ and the ‘sonorous expatiations’ for size as well. In the event, I don’t think they fit. The new book is many things, among them Heaney’s most plain-spoken and autobiographical work to date. It is a departure in style, tone and purpose. So nix institution and expatiations.

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