Scruples

James Wood

  • The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 213 pp, £15.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 571 17562 7
  • The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 71 pp, £14.99, May 1996, ISBN 0 571 17760 3

Seamus Heaney has always doubted poetry – not as a philosopher might doubt reality, but as a rich man might doubt money. He feels not scepticism, but guilt. He thanks poetry for existing but is tormented by the size of its donation. Poetry, he suspects, has no right to its wealth; so he lavishes scruples on his readers. Heaney’s poetry is loaded with anxiety and self-tormented power. At times this is truly powerful, and at other times merely self-tormented. But this is nevertheless the grimace of a major poet.

In much of his work, both in verse and prose, Heaney has struggled for a defence of poetry’s right to luxury, a right that is earned, it seems, through hard work in the unglamorous ranks of the actual. Poetry, as Heaney sees it, cannot simply promote itself to eminence. It must first redress reality. This, says Heaney in The Redress of Poetry, his latest book of criticism, is its ‘counterweighting function’:

Its projections should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated. The Divine Comedy is a great example of this kind of total adequacy, but a haiku may also constitute a satisfactory comeback by the mind to the facts of the matter. As long as the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world that we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighing function. It becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a fully empowered way.

Heaney is rarely convincing while swimming in theory, and at such moments one is grateful that his poetry, which is more intelligent than its defence, has tended to be dry of such generalities. It is hard not to feel in Heaney’s talk of ‘comeback’, ‘match’ and ‘counterweighting’ that what is being credited is not poetry’s counterweight but reality’s weight. It would seem that poetry’s ‘function’ is one ordained and controlled by the greater power of ‘the world we live in and endure’.

In fairness, Heaney is hardly the only poet to wring himself thus. In this century, William Carlos Williams was also obsessed with how

Beauty should make us paupers,
should blind us, rob us – for it
does not feed the sufferer.

Equally, the world that Heaney has been enduring since the mid-Sixties has often exerted a despotic pressure. He is not simply the Keatsian harvester beloved of school examination boards, but a deeply political writer who has been building a nation – historical, mythological, etymological – in his poems. Once the political urgencies of the late Sixties and early Seventies were felt, it was clear that a Catholic poet had certain debts and constituencies. ‘From that moment,’ Heaney has said, ‘the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.’ Unfortunately, in the boil of side-taking, others are likely to have heated ideas of what is ‘adequate’ poetry and what is not. A poem in The Spirit Level, his new book, recalls the following encounter between poet and constituent:

          So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’

There is a kind of vivid obscurantism in Heaney’s prose (and in a small portion of his poems) towards poetry’s rights and duties. Both The Redress of Poetry and its predecessor, The Government of the Tongue, propose a poetry that ‘answers’ the world. This answering achieves adequacy in two ways: it offers reality a version of itself – ‘a concrete reliability ... an upfront representation of the world it stood for or stood up for or stood its ground against’; and it offers reality something more than itself: the poem’s own, self-justifying aesthetic adequacy as a wholly imagined thing in its own right.

That reality does indeed request an answer, and that poetry must earn the right to supply one, is not queried. So, in The Government of the Tongue, Heaney argues of Chekhov’s journey to report on the conditions at the prison island of Sakhalin, a journey of great arduousness, that Chekhov was justifying the softer existence of his fiction. He ‘had to earn the right to the luxury of practising his art’. Heaney represents in similar fashion Robert Lowell’s year in prison as a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Lowell was ‘earning his poetic rights by service in the unpoetic world of jail’. Elsewhere, Heaney asks: ‘What right has poetry to its quarantine?’

Heaney’s notion of rights is dependent on his notion of poetry’s rightless luxury. The two extremities need each other. Only if poetry is thought to lack, and need, rights is it thought of as a luxury; and only if poetry is thought of as a luxury is it also thought to need rights. But though it may lack freedom in certain political dispensations, poetry does not lack rights and is not a luxury. Heaney’s idea of poetry’s answering or redress seems to clutch only at a subordinate relation to reality. Yet poetry not only has the same rights as other modes of human utterance but has a greater right to existence than several examples of the actual. Certain types of violence, say, have no right to exist, and represent a luxury of barbarism. Poetry’s rightfulness can consist not in its answer to reality, but in its clean denial of it.

Heaney knows this, for there is a wistfulness in the way that he asserts poetry’s right to overwhelm reality through aesthetic procedures. As he writes in The Redress of Poetry: ‘Poetry cannot afford to lose its fundamentally self-delighting inventiveness, its joy in being a process of language as well as a representation of things in the world.’ But why and where is this self-delightedness threatened? Heaney’s theoretical statements often seem to be answering a specific reality – the scepticism of those in Northern Ireland who might question poetry’s rights.

Out of his own need to answer on behalf of poetry, he constructs a theory of poetry’s need to answer on behalf of poetry. He ascribes to poetry a scepticism whose origins do not lie in poetry itself but in certain sections of his audience. Of Lowell’s art he writes that ‘however self-willed it might on occasion be’, it ‘could never escape from an innate demand that it should not just be a self-indulgence’. And he writes of how the free, self-delighting element of lyric poetry ‘always comes under threat when poetry remembers that its self-gratification must be perceived as a kind of affront to a world preoccupied with its own imperfections, pains and catastrophes’. Poetry, it seems, carries within it an ‘innate’ sense, a memory that alerts it to its own luxuriousness. But it is not poetry that complains about being a luxury; it is people who make that complaint about it. For if poetry did have such an innate capacity for self-examination, then, necessarily, it would not be a luxury any longer, but a stripped bone of self-examination. The man who asked Heaney when, ‘for fuck’s sake’, he was going to write something for his cause, was not ‘poetry’; he was a negator of poetry with a brutish request.

The problem, as Heaney sees it, remains. How is poetry to establish its own rights? It can do so by becoming a poetry that reflects on its own rightlessness; and by asserting its own rights in the course of its poems. The result has been, for better or worse, an oeuvre of marked self-involvement, a body of work that has returned again and again to the question of its own legitimacy, its own responsibilities. From the very beginning, Heaney’s poetry has been badged with guilt. But what his critical prose sleepwalks through, his poetry dreams. For some of his finest work, and one of the loveliest poems in his new book, has grown out of the need to address the question of rights.

Immediately, we notice that Heaney’s most powerful poetic self-examinations do not question the failings of poetry, as his critical prose does, but those of the poet. They make no statement about poetry’s lacks. Heaney’s poetry has moved from a tendency to direct statement to a fondness for indirection. The poet who, in his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), ground his filial guilt into pellets of verse, has for some time been enjoying a gentler passage – what he has anointed, in a poem in his last volume, Seeing Things (1991), a ‘music of binding and of loosing’. The young poet of direct statement felt, famously, in ‘Digging’, that he could not dig like his farmer father, but that he would dig with his pen. But in ‘Exposure’, from North (1975), Heaney sees only the impossibility of such certitude. A poetry of comet-like flashing would be a marvellous thing: ‘If I could come on meteorite!’ But the poet has only his mild, ambulatory reticence: ‘Instead I walk through damp leaves, / Husks, the spent flukes of autumn.’ Pondering his recent departure from Belfast for the rural Republic, he decides that he is ‘neither internee nor informer; / An inner émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful.’

The poem’s beauty has much to do with its air of candid resignation. The poet feels that he has ‘missed / The once-in-a-lifetime portent, / The comet’s pulsing rose’. And this resignation, or retirement, is political. The direct references to politics are sleeved in melancholy, subdued by the poet’s own disappointments. In his recent work, Heaney’s self-examination has become more oblique, but less resigned. In the elegy, ‘Casualty’, from Field Work (1979), a poem dedicated to a stubborn fisherman who broke a Catholic curfew and who was blown up by his own people, Heaney rouses himself with self-encouragement. The dead man taught him freedom, he thinks, and this lesson for creative work:

To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm ...

Heaney’s need to dispraise poetry’s catch, to share the fisherman’s ancestral wariness, is always felt in his poetry, but has almost disappeared in his new book. His delicate poem from The Spirit Level, ‘The Butter-Print’, is so exquisitely suggestive that one might easily miss that it is about the pattern of poetry, as well as about a pattern printed on a circle of butter. This is the poem in full:

Who carved on the butter print’s round open face
A cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles?
Why should soft butter bear that sharp device
As if its breast were scored with slivered glass?

When I was small I swallowed an awn of rye.
My throat was like standing crop probed by a scythe.
I felt the edge slide and the point stick deep
Until, when I coughed and coughed and coughed it up,

My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden
I might have been inhaling airs from heaven
Where healed and martyred Agatha stares down
At the relic knife as I stared at the awn.

The poet looks at a pat of butter, remembers swallowing an awn of rye and coughing it out. Life is renewed for him. But the poem also suggests the renewal that poetry brings, a sharp poetry (‘that sharp device’, ‘probed by a scythe’) that scores reality’s softnesses and produces a new dawn (‘dawn-cold’), and it perhaps draws power from a misty memory of Yeats’s poem, ‘The Fisherman’, in which the poet promises the fisherman ‘one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn’. But Heaney’s poem is not primarily about poetry, but about a child who swallows an awn of rye. It is richly careless of programme; it is so deeply sunk in its own concentrates that it does not care what extra meaning the reader may choose to skim off it. It is a poem of healing, and one of the high moments in this new volume.

What is refreshing about Heaney’s poetry in the last ten years is that it has softened its need to ‘dispraise the catch’, and has muted its urge to prove itself by means other than the lyrical. Of course, Heaney’s poetry has always been lyrical, but his suspicion of the lyric’s pure right has meant a need to boast his work’s groundedness as proof of its contract with reality. At their worst, Heaney’s poems simply state their adequacy. At such times his professed guilt is nothing of the kind; it is an artisanal complacency, ruddy with the kind of secret pride that Heaney succumbs to in his Nobel acceptance speech when, talking of his need for a poetry of ‘concrete reliability’, he adds, of Northern Ireland: ‘No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism.’

Just as the criticism in The Redress of Poetry speaks convincedly of ‘the foundedness of Clare’s voice’ or, at one point, of ‘the rightness and thereness’ of a poem – tautology hovering like woolly clouds just above his prose – so his poems speak of how they must ‘take and give / Our proper measure’. ‘Only pure words and deeds secure the house’ is the last line of ‘Lustral Sonnet’. Heaney’s house of poetry is indeed secured by such pure words and deeds, but we rebel against being shut inside it with these hortatory locks. In The Spirit Level, we hear an aftershock of this way of talking, when one of the poems, ‘The Gravel Walks’, urges us to ‘Hoard and praise the verity of gravel. / Gems for the undeluded’. Does gravel have a special verity, and just by being stated?

This rhetoric of proof is contagious. A recent critic has referred to Heaney’s reputation as one ‘founded on the exact earth of his rural upbringing in Co. Derry’. Earth may not be exact, but Heaney’s verse has certainly persuaded us that its grounded rights arise out of the ground. One of his loveliest and simplest lyrics is called ‘The Peninsula’, from Door into the Dark (1969). It begins: ‘When you have nothing more to say, just drive / For a day all round the peninsula.’ Heaney extols this landscape, and suggests that when you return home you will uncode all landscapes by this one: ‘things founded clean on their own shapes’. The poem, without strain, describes itself. Like the entranced reader, it has ‘nothing to say’ beyond the hard promotion of its own guarantees; like the landscape, its stony quatrains are ‘founded clean on their own shapes’.

Heaney’s poetry has become the landscape it describes. This has not always been as persuasive as it is in ‘The Peninsula’. Too often, Heaney has simply voiced the landscape by describing it as voice: ‘soft gradient / of consonant, vowel-meadow’ (‘Anahorish’); ‘The tawny guttural water / spells itself’ (‘Gifts of Rain’); ‘But now our river tongues must rise’ (‘A New Song’); ‘Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground’ (‘Glanmore Sonnets’); ‘A glottal stillness’ (‘Homecomings’); ‘lobe and larynx / of the mossy places’ (‘Oracle’). A poem such as ‘Kinship’, from North, testifies to an almost frantic desire to sink language into Heaney’s beloved soft peat bog, and a desperate urge to make that land signify. The bog is first called ‘hieroglyphic’, and becomes, through the incessant descriptive minting of the poem, a ‘deep pollen-bin’, an ‘earth-pantry’, an ‘insatiable bride’, a ‘floe of history’, ‘soft lips’, ‘a melting grave’, and finally: ‘the vowel of earth / dreaming its root’.

This is the Heaney whose autochthonous regressions, whose talk of ‘tribes’, of ‘the shared calling of blood’, whose desire to construct a bottomless Northern Irish history was not only schooled by P.V. Glob’s book, The Bog People (1969), but by Ted Hughes, who, in ‘Pike’, looked into a pond and saw ‘Stilled legendary depth: / It was as deep as England.’ Yet Heaney has made great poetry about the bog landscape when he has not strained for augmentation, but has simply concentrated on its textures, and when, as with good clothing, he has left room in his poems for expansion – for the fattening of the implicit. ‘The Tollund Man’ and ‘The Grauballe Man’, about the Iron Age corpses found preserved in Jutland peat, are fine poems; their repeated descriptive approximations are not desperate, as in ‘Kinship’, but persistent enough to worry the sediment of meaning, loosening it rather than exploding it. Likewise, ‘Bogland’, which beautifully frees meaning. The bog is thanked for being

          kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.

The bog misses, evades, definition; and we pay especial attention to this because Heaney’s poetry is usually such a noose of continual definition. Here the rope slips off, and the poem notes the moment of release, gently.

Heaney’s recent poetry has been just such a poetry of release. In his Nobel Lecture, Heaney suggested that in the last few years he has abandoned his anxieties and self-interrogations, and begun to ‘make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as the murderous’. This, as is characteristic of his prose, sounds vulgar and symmetrical in ways that his poetry does not. But reality’s ground has become less important than the float of lyricism. The Haw Lantern (1987) inaugurated a poetry suddenly hospitable to discussions of the soul – ‘Risen and free and spooling out of nowhere’, as one poem has it – and the visionary. Heaney seemed to have taken a pew in George Herbert’s glassy church. In ‘Fosterling’, in his next book, Seeing Things, Heaney writes wonderingly about himself as ‘Me waiting until I was nearly fifty / To credit marvels’. We have moved from ‘the music of what happens’ to a ‘music of binding and of loosing’. The orchestra of the poems has left its ruled and bitter score.

The results are here, in Heaney’s new book – dangling poems of childhood memories, such as ‘The Swing’ (‘A lure let down to tempt the soul to rise’) and ‘A Sofa in the Forties’, and exhalations of lyricism like ‘The Walk’:

When we stepped out

Cobbles were riverbed, the Sunday air
A high stream-roof that moved in silence over
Rhododendrons in full bloom, foxgloves
And hemlock, robin-run-the-hedge, the hedge
With its deckled ivy and thick shadows ...

This new verse has got beyond proving things, and is just a sweet engine for the propulsion of its lines. Heaney has never sounded quite like this before – his syncopated repetition of ‘the hedge, the hedge’ is a shock from a writer who has rarely had interest in musical spray. Two poems in particular suggest how novel is this calm. One, ‘Tollund’, revisits the Jutland fields about which Heaney wrote his famous earlier poems. But this time, there is no Irish violence to be linked with, no historical electricity. Everything is quiet, pastoral. ‘Things had moved on,’ Heaney writes. He stands ‘footloose, at home beyond the tribe’.

The other poem is the book’s last, called ‘Postscript’. It begins in conscious homage to his early poem, ‘The Peninsula’:

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore ...

But in this late work, there is no urge to harden the verse into land, none of that bullish air of challenge: the rage to define a place and a poetry founded ‘clean on their own shapes’, which marked the earlier poem, has become an avoidance of definition and something more like the gulp of lyric:

Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. 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.