A Big Life

Michael Hofmann

  • New Selected Poems 1988-2013 by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 222 pp, £18.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 571 32171 1

Robert Lowell has a poem called ‘Picture in The Literary Life, a Scrapbook’ which begins:

A mag photo, I before I was I, or my books –
a listener … A cheekbone gumballs out my cheek;
too much live hair.

Not knowing the photo of Lowell, I go instead to the picture of Seamus Heaney on the front of the companion volume to this one, New Selected Poems 1966-87, painfully young, worried-looking, Noh-rice-flour-pale, against a dark brick wall. The riot of hair came later, in the 1970s, the period after the epochal move out of Belfast down to Glanmore in Wicklow, the Noddy Holder whiskers, the period of ‘Exposure’, of ‘long-haired and thoughtful’, of the ‘wood-kerne’ and the ‘inner émigré’. But the cheekbones are there. And a listener for sure. ‘You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note,’ he has the ghost of Joyce address him in the marvellous ‘Station Island’ sequence from 1984. Tweed jacket, early-model button-down shirt, knitted tie: he looks like a boy at a funeral, serious almost to the point of tears. ‘In the middle of a space that is separate and a little sorrowing’, as Heaney put it once, a line quoted back at him by Dennis O’Driscoll in the epic 2008 book of interviews called Stepping Stones that will stand as a partial monument to both men. If Heaney – who, it turns out, fished only about a dozen times in his life – ever did any ‘Casting and Gathering’, it wasn’t with Ted Hughes, to whom the poem thus entitled is dedicated, but here, in the play of question and answer with O’Driscoll, who died in 2012, predeceasing his great mentor.

‘I, or my books.’ For the duration of this brief, as it were twilit interval, Heaney is still both. It probably sounds foolish, but it is hard to think of a poet to whom being mattered so much, who worked so hard at it, or was so good at it. Even the poems increasingly came to be moments of being, or even spots of being, but there was an awful lot of Heaney outside the poems as well, which keeps the life in a book like Stepping Stones (if indeed there is another book like Stepping Stones), in myriad recordings and photographs, and in the recollections of the many people whose lives he crossed and graced, all over the world. It is still a case of ‘I, and my books’, to vary Lowell. The sound of the voice, the ready laugh, the putting-at-ease, the waggishness, but also the constant and quite unpriggish dignity and thoughtfulness. A big life, much of it lived in public, but never for a public or the public; rather, a great adventure: ‘Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived/In important places’ (‘The Ministry of Fear’). It is a sobering thing to read O’Driscoll’s ten-page chronology of Heaney’s life (up to 2008): the meetings with famous men, the travel, the lectures and prizes and distinctions, things that are off the map, or off the charts. (Friendship with the empress of Japan? To Delphi to attend the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the birth of Sophocles?)

Any life in poetry is a freakish thing in our time, a successful one almost unexampled. The very greatest – Heaney, or Les Murray – have come huge and unlikely distances from obscure origins: ‘Like starlight that is light years on the go/From far away and takes light years arriving.’ Murray’s biographer, Peter Alexander, makes the striking claim that Murray had the poorest background of any English poet since Keats. Enough to bend anyone not double – which is a misnomer really – but half. One might as well go for an astronaut. And yet Heaney is upright, bare-headed through it all, and with a strange, persistent fantasy of being unroofed, of being, in the word he found for it, a ‘wallstead’: ‘He dwelt in himself/like a rook in an unroofed tower’ (‘The Master’); or, ‘Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into –/Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.’ Offered a choice of building to be in his 1994 Paris Review interview, he chose the Pantheon in Rome, with its circular opening at the centre of the dome. A form of dwelling not unlike a well. This is the more striking in one who so often draws on the metaphor and archaic comfort-language of construction, those ‘clinkered planks’ and ‘thole-pins’, ‘seasoned tongue-and-groove’, ‘coping-stone and chimney breast’. At its barest and simplest it is ‘form mendicant and convalescent’, almost a dream of anti-architecture, ‘unroofed scope Knowledge-freshening wind’, ‘an unhindered goldfinch over ploughland’. An unclutter that trumps the occasional temptation to clutter.

Writing in these pages long ago, Ian Hamilton took mocking issue with something Heaney said to another interviewer: ‘About the only enmity I have is towards pride.’[*] But it’s the simple truth. When you think of Yeats’s ‘Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death./Horseman, pass by!’ or Rilke’s (translated) ‘Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy/of being no one’s sleep under so many/lids’, the sheer peevishness, the withdrawal, the implicit self-adulation, the up-yours-even-unto-the-elbow-and-from-beyond-the-grave of these great souls, Heaney’s (I don’t know what it says on his grave) admirable humanity and unfathomable kindness become even more striking. His rare sense ‘of being here for good in every sense’. The ‘forgetting faith, straining towards good works’. Even the 1995 Nobel lecture, ‘Crediting Poetry’, while checking off the names of a score of poets, is still apt to sound as though he had won the Nobel Peace Prize instead. Such a widely loved and generous man lives on in the many who knew him and are grateful to him and grateful to talk about him, even as he becomes his books, and the books shake down into two, the early and the later Selected, and then one day the one Collected Poems. As Lowell also says, ‘everything printed will come to these back stacks’ and ‘this open book … my open coffin’. A big simplification is in train.

I have read Heaney scores of times but not hundreds of times, and so was surprised that he seemed to make his way into whatever I was doing, even the unlikeliest things. Into Kafka. Into Joseph Roth. He got into everything. Nothing seemed to be free of him, or to go without him. Perhaps it’s because of the contradictory or revisionist impulses you find in him everywhere, so he is all over many arguments. Into the past (the dinnseanchas poems of 1972’s Wintering Out and 1975’s North, much pruned in the selection); into the present moment (beginning with the Glanmore poems in Field Work, his fifth book, published in 1979). Monosyllabic, consonantal, guttural words; a suavely Latinate diction and in the last poems even the heavy presence of actual Latin – incertus (an early alias of Heaney’s) becomes macaronicus! Towards weight, clabber, onomatopoeia, feel; towards light, sleight, suspension and weightlessness (‘a pillar of radiant house-dust’). Collective and put-upon (the rather Edwin Muir-ish ‘From the Canton of Expectation’, where even the – for once lower-case – line beginnings seem to look glum):

When our rebel anthem played the meeting shut
we turned for home and the usual harassment
by militiamen on overtime at roadblocks.

Individual and ecstatic, as in the increasingly un-get-roundable (a Heaney word) sonnet ‘Fosterling’ in Seeing Things (1991):

Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

Responsible utterance; impulsiveness and self-delight. Into Ireland (where it sometimes seems Heaney has named every village, seen every sight, walked or driven every yard); away from Ireland, towards the (at least peripheral) UK, the US, latterly even the Mediterranean – as if he had unhooked Hibernia from its moorings and towed it into the Adriatic, or the Aegean, as in the series of six ‘Sonnets from Hellas’, written about the time he learned he was to receive the Nobel Prize:

Mount Parnassus placid on the skyline:
Slieve na mBard, Knock Filiocht, Ben Duan.
We gaelicised new names for Poetry Hill
As we wolfed down horta, tarama and houmos
At sunset in the farmyard, drinking ouzos,
Pretending not to hear the Delphic squeal
Of the steel-haired cailleach in the scullery […]
My head was light, I was hyper, boozed, borean
As we bowled back down towards the olive plain,
Siren-tyred and manic on the horn
Round hairpin bends looped like boustrophedon.

This is exhilarating, exuberant stuff, worth cherishing for that reason alone, almost as much Viking as it is Dublin. Beginning and ending with poetry, but encompassing the whole of life.

As a poet, Heaney wanted to soar and to sing, and ultimately did soar and did sing, as much as his near namesake and exemplar Suibhne, the bird-bard whose story Heaney adapted in Sweeney Astray (‘I prefer the elusive/rhapsody of blackbirds/to the garrulous blather/of men and women’). Here, he was given the greatest possible distance to travel, in the form of his Northern Irish birthright: a mother who was down to earth and a cattle-dealer father who rarely spoke. There is a wonderful moment near the beginning of his Paris Review interview (beautifully conducted by Henri Cole) where Cole asks him, ‘What about the Heaneys? Were they democrats?’ to which Heaney makes the magnificent reply: ‘The Heaneys were aristocrats, in the sense that they took for granted a code of behaviour that was given and unspoken. Argumentation, persuasion, speech itself, for God’s sake, just seemed otiose and superfluous to them. Either you were an initiate of the code or you weren’t.’ And out of that world of ‘speech itself, for God’s sake’ a poet had to emerge! In his Nobel lecture he describes the handicap not just of family but of the environment and ethos of Ulster:

No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration. So, partly as a result of having internalised these attitudes through growing up with them, I went for years half-avoiding and half-resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot. And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more licence than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation.

Signs of this I think are everywhere in Heaney. In a would-be benign doublespeak, different from Shakespeare’s, but every bit as marked and as pervasive, words are doubled up in gangs or split in two. ‘Quell it or fell it.’ ‘Manoeuvrable/yet outmanoeuvred’, ‘hutch and hatch’, ‘bearing up/and bearing out’. Perhaps it’s the ox on the tongue. Later on in that same Nobel lecture you grimace when he says ‘as a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain’ – a half-pun for which his translators certainly won’t have thanked him, if they even got it. ‘Do not waver/Into language. Do not waver in it,’ Heaney says to himself, but that’s as hopeless as Paul Celan telling himself to ‘rise up against/multiple meanings.’ The fact that these poets issue such instructions to themselves at all is proof that they need to.

A hankering (perhaps as much for his sake as for mine) for an unofficial Heaney – along the lines of Michael Hamburger’s book of Rilke, called An Unofficial Rilke – makes me conclude that the official and the unofficial in him are never far from each other, like two sides of the same coin. The poem with ‘boozed’ and ‘borean’ is the one that also has ‘Parnassus’ and ‘boustrophedon’. Perhaps this too has something to do with County Derry: the all-low is as inadmissible or impermissible as the all-high. ‘I like poetry that doesn’t fancy itself up to be poetry,’ he said to Henri Cole, with an expressive use of preposition. I have a vague sense myself of preferring the short-lined poems (‘these wafty little quatrains’ – mostly early) to the long-lined (mostly later), and the informal 12-line ‘squarings’ (1991 and after) to the regular sonnets (of all periods), but there is too much going the other way for that to be truly borne out. Truancy, impulse, spontaneity are never far away, but they are paradoxically aspired towards and then relished with diligence. ‘Like an access of free power’ is a not untypical phrase, but with its belt and two braces it doesn’t sound like an access, or powerful, or free. ‘In time that was extra, unforeseen and free’ from the wonderful ‘Markings’ has more charge, but still sounds highly deliberate. Presumably, a search for the words ‘free’ or ‘freedom’ will always deliver such trammelled, wistful contexts in Heaney. His 1998 post-Nobel single-volume selection, called Opened Ground, includes one uncollected poem called ‘A Transgression’ which features neither in a subsequent collection nor in the new Selected Poems. The subject is a very literal truancy. The young Heaney raises his hand in school, and though unqualified and unentitled, gets to bunk off with some older boys:

If ever I felt ‘heaven’s dome’
Was what I lived beneath, it was that day
I lied myself into my own desire,
Displaced, afraid
At what I’d dared to be ahead
Of time.

I don’t know why Heaney dropped the poem – perhaps too circumstantial, too explicit, the morality that keeps him from enjoying his undeserved liberty too much George Washington-in-Hollywood. But it’s a strange thought: the poem about truancy being subsequently disciplined by the poet.

‘The right balance between insouciance and application’, ‘the intertwining of the “creative” and the “responsible”’, these are always on Heaney’s mind. I have a suspicion that he wrote most of his poems in cars (the only place he could be stimulated, unself-conscious and alone?). ‘Useless’ – even – ‘to think you’ll park and capture it/more thoroughly’ (‘Postscript’). He dreaded turning his study in the attic of the house in Dublin (and before that in Glanmore) into ‘a designer study, a film set rather than a bolt-hole’. He had a sense, at times, of subjects for poems running away from him: his purposiveness, their fugitiveness. I was shocked to learn, from Stepping Stones, that the first time he actually had a whole day’s clear run at anything, it was ‘Bog Queen’ from North in 1975: that’s early mid-career. Much of his work, I think, must have been done ‘on the fly’. He allows the ascription ‘binge-writer’, and once wrote ‘about forty poems’ in a single week in 1969. The 12-line ‘squaring’ was – Heaney-punningly – his compact with informality.

*

By great good luck – but also by his complicated engagement in writing and being – Heaney’s life coincided with a period of (what to call it) pacification, normalisation, partial or hesitant return to civility in Northern Ireland. The classic poems of his thirties and forties, even now probably his best-known and best-loved work, imaginatively and then actually, from close to and then from a distance, are about the Troubles: the later ‘bog poems’ of North, the elegies of Field Work and Station Island, some of the numbed allegorical pieces in The Haw Lantern. But there is no knowing whether or not that will remain the case. I can imagine a more unencumbered Heaney, more personal, more celebratory, some of the political anguish burned off, perhaps a little as happened with his friends Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky.

His late poems return to the rustic archaic innocence of Mossbawn and then Bellaghy in County Derry, and it feels like the grateful reassertion of something small and pacific and local that actually never left him: ‘It smelled of hill-fort clay/And cattle dung.’ Even as he followed the great outward rippling of his life, he remained in touch with family and origins. At some point, he became a poet of revisiting: ‘My last things will be first things slipping from me./Yet let all things go free that have survived’ (‘Mint’). He writes about his father, both in age and in his prime, about being taken to school, about the smell of the rack of his old suits (‘The Butts’). (These are the personal, lyrical and heartbreaking poems that twenty years ago Ian Hamilton argued Heaney couldn’t or more likely wouldn’t write.) ‘Keeping Going’, to his farmer brother Hugh, sees Hugh waggishly on his tractor, keeping ‘old roads open by driving on the new ones’. ‘Anahorish 1944’ begins, ‘We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived,’ and ends: ‘As they tossed us gum and tubes of coloured sweets’. In spite of the ominous date, there is no war. Places that were once associated with violence – the Toome road, say (‘One morning early I met armoured cars/In convoy, warbling along on powerful tyres,/All camouflaged with broken alder branches,/ And headphoned soldiers standing up in turrets’), or, more loosely, Tollund or Aarhus in Denmark – come round again in memory, or in mufti, in ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’, or the lovely late sequence ‘Route 110’. Virgil, the presiding genius of Heaney’s late years, is grafted onto a memory-web of small local journeys:

Once the driver wound a little handle
The destination names began to roll
Fast-forward in their panel, and everything

Came to life. Passengers
Flocked to the kerb like agitated rooks
Around a rookery, all go

But undecided. At which point the inspector
Who ruled the roost in bus station and bus
Separated and directed everybody

By calling not the names but the route numbers
And so we scattered as instructed, me
For Route 110, Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt.

It may be Charon and the Underworld in disguise, but a new peace is held up against an old peace; terror, murder, sectarianism and occupation all feel a little more remote.

[*] Ian Hamilton reviewed The Haw Lantern in the LRB of 1 October 1987.