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Poet Beyond Borders

When consonants are the threatened demesnes of the old Protestant ascendancy and vowels are the waters of “native” Catholic rebellion rising to flood them, politics can never be entirely absent from Heaney’s topographical vocabulary. Even the title of his new collection, though it sounds earthy and innocent, has a hidden polemical edge. The phrase comes from the first poem of the Glanmore sonnet sequence in the 1979 collection Field Work. But it was also the intended title of an anthology of poetry edited by the English poets Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, which included some of Heaney’s work. When the latter was instead published in 1982 under the title The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Heaney objected in the verse pamphlet An Open Letter to his inclusion under the rubric “British.” He pointed out that he is in fact a citizen of the Republic of Ireland:

    …My passport’s green.
No glass of ours was ever raised To toast The Queen.

Heaney expressed, in the pamphlet, his particular annoyance at the abandonment of the original title:

To think the title Opened Ground
Was the first title in your mind!
To think of where the phrase was found Makes it far worse!
To be supplanted in the end By British verse.

So Heaney’s return to that title for the definitive overview of his achievement carries a certain undertone of defiance. It is a reminder that the ground he has opened is his own, not an outpost of metropolitan culture but a territory with its own particular contours and boundaries. It harks back to Heaney’s decision when he was named the outstanding student at Queen’s University, Belfast, in 1961 to spend his prize money on books by the Irish writers Louis McNeice, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde, the choice, as he later recalled, “representing a kind of looking for one’s own crowd, you know, after all the English literature.”

The outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1968 changed the terms on which he could write, and such gestures made it easy to read Heaney as a cultural representative of his “own crowd” of Irish Catholic nationalists. He had to find what William Butler Yeats in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” called “befitting emblems of adversity.” As Heaney himself put it in the essay “Feeling into Words,” “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.”

The first part of that problem, though, was deciding who that “our” referred to. Was it the predicament of Northern Irish Catholics, stranded in a state to which most of them owed no allegiance? Or was it the broader complex of irreconcilable aspirations which included Northern Irish Protestants, the British government, and the increasingly ambiguous or indifferent Republic of Ireland, to which Heaney moved in 1972? In the small world of Northern Ireland, what you are not is more important than what you are, and Heaney is emphatically not a British writer. He is fond, indeed, of the reply given by another Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, to the question “Vous êtes anglais?“: “Au contraire.” For it is only in the negative that such certainty is possible. When a more positive identification with his own crowd comes into view, Heaney has tended to veer away from it. In “Station Island,” he banishes the ghost of Francis Hughes, a County Derry neighbor and an IRA killer who died on hunger-strike in prison. In “The Flight Path,” an IRA sympathizer has his demands for political commitment refused:

When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?” “If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”

The drama of Heaney’s position as a public poet, indeed, lies in the way he has orbited the conflict in Northern Ireland, held in place by equal and opposite forces of attraction and repulsion. Or in the more homely metaphor of “Terminus”:

Two buckets were easier carried than one.
I grew up in between.

He has kept his poetic balance, not by being politically weightless, but by allowing himself to be burdened on each side with a heavy load of uncertainty. In one hand is the guilt he feels when he retreats from the violent reality of his native place into pure aesthetic pleasure; in the other the loss he suffers when he moves too far from that sensual pleasure and too close to rational political statement. From early on, even when political questions are deeply buried beneath the surface, Heaney’s poems are delicately poised between the rational and the sensual. Their key words—savour, hover, pry, finger—suggest at once the tactile indulgence of touching and feeling and the intellectual pleasure of abstract contemplation. One of the most successful features of Helen Vendler’s book is the way she ends each chapter with a passage on Heaney’s “second thoughts,” showing how each position that he has elaborated is later reconsidered. The tendency to hover between the physical and the psychic, the visible and the invisible, commitment and detachment, is Heaney’s characteristic mode and it carries over into the best of his political poems.

Not for nothing, indeed, is Heaney, perhaps surprisingly for a poet so closely identified with images of a pre-industrial world, the great laureate of the motorcar. To follow his career in the expansive new volume is to be struck by how often, from his second volume, Door into the Dark (1969), onward, key poems place the poet behind the steering wheel. Helen Vendler rightly notes the importance of one poem in that volume, “The Peninsula,” in which he instructs himself, as she puts it, to root his work in “the primary senses and…memory founded in the senses.” These sense impressions, though, are gathered from behind the windshield:

When you have nothing to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.

This instruction is followed throughout his subsequent work, so much so that the lyrical impulse in Heaney could be said to be charioted not by Bacchus and his pards or even on the wings of Poesy but by the internal combustion engine. In “Night Drive,” “Westering,” “On the Road,” “Postscript,” and other poems, the poet at the steering wheel is the primary device. Even in a mythological poem like “The Tollund Man,” steeped in ancient rituals, he suddenly imagines himself “driving,/Saying the names/ Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard.” And the attraction of the driver’s point of view for Heaney is obvious: it is another way of hovering, a perfect way of placing the poetic self “in between,” of being in the landscape but sealed off from it, close to the ground, but not touching it, alert to the immediate texture of reality but mobile and free to escape. Significantly, this is also, at times, Heaney’s preferred approach to the rude presence of the Northern Ireland conflict. In “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” when he catches a glimpse of the Long Kesh internment camp for suspected terrorists, it is from his car on the motorway. In “From the Frontier of Writing,” British soldiers at a border crossing are “flowing and receding/like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.”

Even when he is not literally seeing the Troubles from the driver’s seat, Heaney often introduces them most effectively in a hit-and-run style or as if they were being glimpsed momentarily and unexpectedly from the window of a rapidly moving vehicle. In “Casualty” a conversation in a bar between the poet and a fisherman has its apparent banality shattered by a single word:

I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

The sudden twist out of the folksiness of horse and cart and into the violence of the Provisional IRA has the force of an ambush, reproducing for the reader the shock of the poet’s discovery that this same fisherman “was blown to bits/Out drinking in a curfew.” In “The Backward Look,” the poet’s contemplation of a bird, the snipe, and its old Gaelic names takes an equally sharp turn into political violence when we view its “flight/through the sniper’s eyrie,” and suddenly enter a dangerous landscape where armed men are keeping watch. In “High Summer” (not, regrettably, included in Opened Ground, though Helen Vendler gives it ample room in her study) he forgets, on a holiday in France, a bag of maggots bought as fishing bait until the flies swarm out and suddenly metamorphose into repulsive reminders of the Troubles back home. They appear

like newsreel of a police force run amok,
sunspotting flies in gauzy meaty flight,
the barristers and black berets of light.

The very swiftness of these glancing blows from the conflict indicates his fear that, if he lingers, he will be caught up in it. Heaney’s fear of involvement is a fear, not for his life, but for his art. And it is rooted in real artistic experience. In his most political volume, North (1975), there is strong evidence of the damage his work could sustain from too close an encounter with the atavistic roots of the violence. In the preceding volumes, for instance, images of men working the land are often subtly sexual. These early poems suggest but do not state an analogy between the worker and a male lover and between the land and the woman to whom he is making love. The analogy is unstated for the obvious reason that making it explicit turns it into a cliché. But that is just what Heaney does in a political poem like “Act of Union” from the collection North, where Ireland is envisaged as a maiden and England as an “imperially male” rapist wielding a “battering ram.” Here, the fusion of sexual and territorial imagery produces metaphors rich only in the doubts they raise about whether their sexual politics is cruder than their nationalist rhetoric.

Throughout much of North, indeed, there is an enormous sense of strain. Searching for a metaphor that might allow him both to dig into the violence then raging in Northern Ireland and to find some aesthetic distance from it, Heaney presents a series of poems—“Funeral Rites,” “North,” “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,” “Bone Dreams,” “Bog Queen,” “The Grauballe Man,” “Punishment”—proposing, by way of the ritually slaughtered Bog People preserved in a museum in Silkeborg, Denmark, an analogy between the sectarian violence and Viking death rites. These poems clearly affect many readers deeply. Helen Vendler writes in her book on Heaney that she heard the poet, then “wholly unknown to me,” recite them in Sligo in 1975 and thought them “some of the most extraordinary poems I had ever heard.” Yet, her chapter on North, in which she stands by this view, seems curiously defensive and lacks the magisterial command of the rest of her book. This may be partly because she is not completely at home with Irish politics, believing, for instance that Monaghan, birthplace of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, is in Northern Ireland when it is actually in the Republic, and that Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of Irish republicanism in the eighteenth century and subject of a Heaney poem that bears his name, was an “aristocrat” rather than a middle-class lawyer.2 But it is surely also because the poems, mesmerizing as they are on first hearing, cannot bear the weight of intense intellectual scrutiny.

  1. 2

    Vendler, most uncharacteristically, also misquotes the poem “Oracle,” turning “lobe and larynx/of the mossy places” into “the lobe and larynx/of the leafy places.”

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