In response to:
A Fine Way With the Language from the March 6, 1980 issue
To the Editors:
May I join what I suspect will be a chorus of indignation over A. Alvarez’s review of Field Work [NYR, March 6]. There are many things to be indignant about. First, there is the suggestion that Heaney is the current House Paddy because the English, traditionally, need an Irish star on their literary scene. This is simply not true. The English have always been hospitable to, and appreciative of, Irish writers. They treat them as they treat English writers. An Irishman could not wish for more. Secondly, there is the implication that the English prefer “safe” poets like Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin to “experimental” poets such as Eliot and Robert Lowell. Surely the record shows that English critics have been appreciative of the work of both Eliot and Lowell. Alvarez’s admiration for Sylvia Plath is another matter. If he considers Heaney and Larkin “minor” poets is he asking us to consider Sylvia Plath as “major”? Lastly, the word “loaning” is as common in Ireland (Heaney’s country, after all) as is the word “baloney” in the United States. But then Alvarez probably doesn’t recognize baloney either.
To the Editors:
A. Alvarez seems to want it both ways in his condescending review of Seamus Heaney’s Field Work. He complains that Heaney is too accessible a poet, too traditional, and therefore dangerously attractive to lazy-minded critics who want poetry to be easy. But at the same time, Alvarez also complains that reviewers sometimes explicate “the subtleties” of Heaney’s “textures or his references, as if he were some younger Eliot or Yeats.” Perhaps Heaney is not quite as easy as he looks? And Alvarez then makes very heavy weather indeed of “Nerthus,” a brief poem from an earlier collection, Wintering Out (1972):
For beauty, say an ash-fork staked in peat,
Its long grains gathering to the gouged split;
A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather,
Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.
Alvarez is annoyed at the poem’s “verbal affectations”—Nerthus, kesh, loaning—in a “poem as brief, unsubstantial, and apparently simple as this.” For him the poem’s puzzling questions are very nearly beyond all conjecture, and he clearly needs those explicators to clarify them. For the poem is neither as simple nor as difficult as he thinks.
The ash-fork is staked in a peat bog, a recurrent setting in Heaney’s poetry—as a metaphor for memory, since bogs conceal, preserve, and unexpectedly produce various objects, and as the scene of ritual murders as part of the worship of the old Germanic earth goddess. “The Tollund Man,” printed immediately before “Nerthus in Wintering Out, is about the rediscovered body of a man sacrificed to the goddess, a body preserved in a Danish bog. The goddess’s name, Tacitus tells us, is Nerthus. Her votaries carved abstract elongated wooden statues in her honor, which here merge with the primitive farmer’s ash-fork. The ash is sacred to Woden and also to Stephen Dedalus. Heaney’s “Tollund Man,” and similar poems in North, are partly based on his reading of The Bog People by the Danish archaeologist, P. Glob, a book Heaney has often mentioned in interviews.
Despite Alvarez, kesh and loaning do “figure as such in the biggest Oxford dictionary.” The OED defines loaning as an open uncultivated piece of ground, citing Scott’s Redgauntlet. Had Alvarez allowed his eye to stray one entry beyond OED’s kesh, dialect for kex, an umbelliferous plant, he would have come upon kesh-work with a cross reference to kish, Irish for a wicker basket, and by extension to a causeway built up on wicker baskets of earth or stone, and to a corduroy road. Kesh/kish is therefore a common Irish word, reminding us that Heaney is not an English poet. In Wintering Out he has a number of poems (“Anahorish,” “Toome,” “Broagh”) about the tension between an Irish and an English vocabulary. And, writing about an Irish poet from the North of Ireland, Alvarez ought particularly to be aware of Long Kesh, the notorious prison camp where suspected members of the IRA are held without trial under extremely harsh conditions.
Department of English
University of California, Berkeley
A Alvarez replies:
I am glad Mr. Moore finds English critics so alert and hospitable. I am sure this will be welcome news to his compatriots. I doubt, however, if James Joyce would have agreed, or poor Patrick Kavanagh, or Samuel Beckett before his international reputation as a playwright made him more or less unassailable. Perhaps life in Malibu makes the heart grow fonder.
As for the English critics’ appreciation of Eliot and Lowell: had Mr. Moore bothered to check, he would have found that Eliot was given a persistently hard time during the first long years of his working life; the reception of The Waste Land was notoriously savage. Lowell also had a far bumpier take-off run in England than in America. When his books began to appear here during the decade I was poetry critic and editor of The Observer, I wrote consistently and at length in praise of them and was thought, as a result, to be eccentric. Just as I was when I wrote enthusiastically about Sylvia Plath’s late poems and helped to get them published. But yes, I think Lowell and Plath are both major figures, Larkin and Heaney minor—although, unlike Mr. Moore, I believe that to be a rare and honorable achievement.
I am grateful to Professor Tracy for the lesson in archaeology. How silly of me not to have known. For the record, I took the trouble of checking the words that puzzled me with an eminent professor of English at one of our most eminent universities and he was as foxed by them as I was. So at least I am ignorant in good company.