Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Seamus Heaney |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

On Seamus Heaney : Door into the Dark

Of all the newer tight-lipped poets Mr Heaney is the hardest case, and the tight-lipped critics whose praise is not usually easy to get have been sending quite a lot of approbation his way. His technique is hard-edged: a punchy line travels about two inches. The subject matter is loud with the slap of the spade and sour with the stink of turned earth. Close to the vest, close to the bone and close to the soil. We have learnt already not to look to him for the expansive gesture: there are bitter essences to compensate for the lack of that. Door into the Dark confirms him in his course, its very title telling you in which direction that course lies. I will show you fear in a tinful of bait. It should be said at the outset that poetry as good as Mr Heaney’s best is hard to come by. But it is all pretty desperate stuff, and in those poems where we don’t feel the brooding vision to be justified by the customary dense beauty of his technique we are probably in the right to come down hard and send our criticism as close as we can to the man within. The man within is at least in some degree a chooser. If he chose to be slick, to let his finely worked clinching stanzas fall pat, there would be a new kind of damaging poetry on the way — squat, ugly and unstoppable.

But first let us demonstrate the quality of the poetic intelligence with which we have to deal. This is the first stanza of his two-stanza poem ‘Dream’: it should be quickly apparent that his virtuoso kinetic gift can find interior equivalents in language for almost any movement in the exterior world, so that the mere act of sub-vocalizing the poem brings one out in a sweat.

With a billhook
Whose head was hand-forged and heavy
I was hacking a stalk
Thick as a telegraph pole.
My sleeves were rolled
And the air fanned cool past my arms
As I swung and buried the blade,
Then laboured to work it unstuck.

All the correct chunks and squeaks are caught without being said. But where does it get us? It gets us to the second stanza.

The next stroke
Found a man’s head under the hook.
Before I woke
I heard the steel stop
In the bone of the brow.

He had a dream, you see, and his skill brings you close to believing it — but not quite. This deadfall finish is really a conventional echo of the professional toughies, ‘realistic’ about violence, who have been giving us the jitters for some time. Most of the other symptoms in the syndrome are manifest somewhere or other in the book. Human characteristics tend to be referred back to animals and objects. As with Ted Hughes, it takes a visit to the zoo, the game reserve, or an imaginary dive below the sod before the idea of personality gets any showing at all. The people themselves are mostly clichés disguised in heroic trappings. A stable vacated by a horse (‘Gone’) offers more character than the smithy still occupied by the smith (‘The Forge’). This latter poem, surely fated to be an anthology piece for the generations to come, can usefully be quoted in full:

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

The numbered questions in the back of the school anthology are obvious. What is the attitude of the smith to modern civilization? Is it the same as the poet’s attitude? And (for advanced students) would you consider the Leavisite views on the organic relationship of work to life relevant? But it should also be obvious that the interest of the poem drops considerably when the human being replaces the object at stage centre. Those hairs in his nose don’t do much to establish him, except as a character actor sent down at an hour’s notice from Central Casting. If he were more real, his attitudes towards mechanized culture might not fall so pat. Get through that doorway in the dark and you might find him beating out hubcaps or balancing the wire wheels on a DB6 — both jobs which can be done with as much love as bending your millionth horseshoe. There is no conflict here: there is just a received opinion expressed in hints and cleverly overblown in unexpected places — that altar, and the unicorn’s horn, which ought to be a rhino’s only that’s too easy. On the page the refined poem has its attractive spareness: it’s the implication, the area of suggestion, that worries the reader through the ordinariness of its assumptions about culture. Self-employed artisans are usually tough enough to see reality straight: given the chance, the leather-aproned subject might well remind Mr Heaney that there ain’t no pity in the city.

Things live; animals almost live; humans live scarcely at all. The inverse progression holds disturbingly true in well-known efforts like the poem about the frozen pump, ‘Rite of Spring’.

That sent the pump up in flame.
It cooled, we lifted her latch,
Her entrance was wet, and she came.

It’s a roundabout way for passion to get into print. The obverse poems to this are ‘Mother’, in which the lady ends up wanting to be like the pump, and ‘The Wife’s Tale’, a brilliantly tactile poem in which you touch everything — cloth, stubble, grass, bread, seed and china cups — except flesh.

Mr Heaney’s ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ forms an important section of the book and could well be pointed to if one were asked to isolate a thematic area absolutely his.

They’re busy in a high boat
That stalks towards Antrim, the power cut.
The line’s a filament of smut

Drawn hand over fist
Where every three yards a hook’s missed
Or taken (and the smut thickens, wrist-
Thick, a flail
Lashed into the barrel
With one swing). Each eel

Comes aboard to this welcome:
The hook left in gill or gum,
It’s slapped into the barrel numb

But knits itself, four-ply,
With the furling, slippy
Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

That stays continuously one
For each catch they fling in
Is sucked home like lubrication.

Evocation could go no further: the eels (‘hatched fears’) are practically in your lap. Similarly in poems like ‘Bann Clay’ and ‘Bogland’ his grating line, shudderingly switched back and forth like teeth ground in a nightmare, finds endless technical equivalents for the subject described: he really is astonishingly capable. And in ‘Bogland’ there is an indication that he can do something even more difficult — state the open statement, make the gesture that enlivens life.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

The spirits lift to the flash of wit. There ought to be more of it. Nobody in his right mind would deny that Mr Heaney’s is one of the outstanding talents on the scene, or want that talent to settle in its ways too early.

(TLS, 1969)

Postscript (i)

One of my earliest notorieties was obtained by mentioning Seamus Heaney in the same breath as Yeats. I was right not to regret it, because sooner rather than later everyone was doing it. More commendably, this piece paid Heaney the compliment of careful writing on the reviewer’s part. By using ‘symptom’ and ‘syndrome’ in the same sentence to show that they did not mean the same thing (strictly, a syndrome is a group of symptoms) I pioneered a technique which I have been using ever since in the attempt to do my share of saving useful distinctions threatened with decay through misuse. As a TV critic, writing every week, I would frequently form a sentence around such paired words as ‘disinterested’ and ‘uninterested’, or ‘mitigate’ and ‘militate’, in order to prove that the precision conferred by using them correctly was worth preserving. If the campaign had succeeded I could be more modest about it. It failed completely. As Kingsley Amis has pointed out, there is an iron law operating which dictates that anyone working in the media who makes such errors somehow never gets to read articles deploring them.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1994)

Postscript (ii)

To hitch a ride on the coat-tails of a comet is a bad ambition, but can be gratifying if it happens accidentally. I was lucky enough to be the first critic into print with the nerve, or the naivety, to suggest that Heaney might have a Yeatsian gift. For some time afterwards the comparison was cited by my detractors as clear evidence of hysteria. Later on it was called a boldly premature tip that turned out to be right, and still later everyone forgot that I had ever said it. But it was fun while it lasted. With another flight of fancy I was less lucky. In my mock epic poem Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage I fielded a Guinness-voiced character called Seamus Feamus. The nickname caught on, but I never got the credit for it. In profiles about Heaney, its coinage (but with the second name spelt ‘famous’, which loses half the point, one would have thought) is usually ascribed to his old literary chums in Ireland. This might very well have been so: it was an idea begging to be had, so anything less than multiple authorship would have been surprising. Fortunately it is not possible to copyright a coinage, or else professional jealousy would spawn a million lawsuits. If you invent a word or a phrase, you should be ready to see other people lift it without acknowledgement; why else did you invent it, except to get it into the language? In the best critics of any medium there is always a poetic urge, and in the critic of poetry it can lead to a professional deformation. Almost always he is, or has been, a poet himself, and when faced with a brilliant new arrival he needs to guard himself against his own envy. The best way is to admit it. From his first book, it was obvious that Heaney commanded, as a natural dispensation, a vocal register well fitted for grandeur — rather more grandeur, in fact, than the emergent Yeats, who spent a long time trilling lightly near the top of the stave before his voice finally broke. The comparison was elementary. Yet one poet of my acquaintance — famous himself later on, although not quite Seamus famous — spent years telling me that it was the silliest thing he had ever heard.