Monday, 2 September 2013

Seamus Heaney – in one ear and out the other, I'm afraid

I’ve been on the cusp for several years now of making a genuine effort to become more familiar with the poetry of Seamus Heaney, who died last week. When my son was doing English GCSE, I read the one about his dad digging and thought it not bad. One or two attendees at our poetry get-togethers have read one of his poems – but surprisingly few, given Heaney’s eminence and his impeccably left-wing, Republican credentials.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stood in our local Oxfam shop or Waterstone’s leafing through a volume of Heaney, making the effort now and then to read a whole poem – and somehow failing every time. I’m not sure whether he’s a great poet or not, because, apart from "Digging", I’ve never been able to concentrate on his stuff long enough to reach any sort of critical conclusion.

I keep thinking I should just take the damn book that’s in my hand and buy it and read it at leisure to make sure I’m not missing something. But I always end up putting it back on the shelf, partly because I’ve always suspected that the general reverence accorded the poet is somehow the result of his left-wingery, and partly because I don't find his way he interprets the world persuasive. But mainly it’s because not a single line of his poetry or a single image has ever surprised, delighted or worried me.

When people quote, say, Edward Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Phillip Larkin, R.S. Thomas or even Stevie Smith, I get the impression it’s because that couplet, that line, that single image has irresistibly lodged itself in their consciousness. When I hear someone quoting Heaney (a) I’ve forgotten the quote before it’s out of their mouth (b) I always suspect they’re using it to make some point about themselves and (c) I bet they’ve had to look it up beforehand in order to deliberately memorise it for some occasion or other. Heaney-quoting never feels spontaneous. It’s a bit like those toe-curling moments in TV or film drama when a character starts to spout some unlikely, often obscure bit of poetry, forgets the words, and the hero – usually a detective – effortlessly completes the lines, when we all know full well he’d be hard-pressed to identify the poem which begins “I wandered lonely as a cloud”. It reeks of phoniness (and, yes, Slick Willie, I’m talking about you).

I wasn’t going to bring all this up – Heaney seems to have been a popular chap, and I’m all for poetry being more widely read – but I was emboldened by a Sean Thomas post on the Telegraph website this morning, entitled “Seamus Heaney, the Nelson Mandela of Irish poetry, just wasn't that good” (here):
Why... did Heaney become more famous than the infinitely superior Larkin? For a start, unlike grumpy Philip Larkin, Heaney was, by all accounts, a charismatic, sociable, and generous man. But the younger Heaney was also Irish, republican, Left-wing and hairy when all this was à la mode. And once the literary world decided Heaney was the Mandela of Irish Poetry, he became irreproachable.
It’s telling, I think, that these are the Heaney lines most often quoted in his obituaries:
"Be advised my passport's green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
to toast the Queen."
Hardly great poetry, but a sentiment to gladden the heart of any Guardian reader. Which is why I suspect schoolkids are being forced to study Heaney.

Many of Heaney’s poems are about rural life. But instead of one of his, I’ll leave you with a deeply moving poem about working horses by Donald Hall, who grew up on a farm in New England. I came across it for the first time last week in Neil Atley's anthology, Being Alive (here) – which I bought at our local Oxfam shop after yet another bout of dithering over a Heaney collection:

Name of Horses by Donald Hall

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground - old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.


  1. I am ahamed to say that I know zip about Seamus Heaney. To quote Bernard Lee's army seargant in the Third Man after he decked Holly Martins: "He sounds anti-British, sir." Can't be doing with any of that. Anyway, I was impressed by the fact that two of the mourners at his funeral were Bono and The Edge [Walter Annenberg: "Every man is entitled to his nomenclature"].So he must have been good.

    1. I see former Pogue Shane McGowan - whose views on the IRA are interesting - also attended, as did Gerry Adams, who I believe also holds interesting views on the IRA.

  2. Sadly, an iconic (and notorious for it's disorder)book store is closing in Jackson...Choctaw Books.

    I toiled long enough to dig out a fine copy of Young and Inge's Donald's an essay on the four working, and final, versions of Lee in the Mountains and a Bibliography of his works.

    I'm set for poetry for a day or two.

    1. I just saw a local TV news item about a small independent bookshop in Barnes, just down the road from us, which is asking customers to buy £10 shares to help keep it going. I've spent more happy hours in bookshops than anywhere else in my life - and second-hand bookshops are my absolute favourite. The chains seem to be full of frazzled mothers pushing strollers and blokes on their day off braying into mobile phones and the staff don't seem to know much about books (my wife had to spell John le Carré's name for one of them).

      So it's sad to hear about Choctaw Books - sounds like my kind of boostore, and, besides, I've always loved the word "Choctaw".

    2. We still have a pretty strong network of Independent book stores in the region...but, Choctaw had a few problems. One was location. There are still areas within the Jackson city limits where people will go to shop...North St. off of Fortification is not one of them.

      Two...the place is well known as a disaster. You can't walk the aisles for boxes of unsorted books. God only knows what he's actually got in there. Choctaw is known for it's collection of books on The War and on The South (I've gotten some very good books out of there) but, even that section is impossible to navigate now.

      The owner is a great fella but, I'm inclined to think he's over it...been over it for a while.