• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Poet Beyond Borders

Against Vendler’s judgment might be set that of the most brilliant of Heaney’s successors in the extraordinary flowering of poetry in contemporary Northern Ireland, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon. Carson, reviewing North on its first appearance, remarked of Heaney’s anthropological and archaeological approach to violence in the poems,

It is as if he is saying that suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts. They have been removed to the realm of sex, death and inevitability.

Less directly but no less damningly, Muldoon, though he published a large selection of Heaney’s work in his Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, saw fit to include just one poem from North, the nonpolitical “Mossbawn.”

The problem with the North poems is partly intellectual and partly aesthetic. Making the case for them, Helen Vendler accurately sums up the political proposition they contain:

that a wide practice of prehistoric violence, encompassing both the Scandinavian countries and Ireland, accounted for the survival of savage tribal conflict, which fundamentally was neither colonial nor sectarian, neither economic nor class-caused, but rather deeply cultural.

It is, perhaps, a testament to the mesmeric power of Heaney’s eloquence in these poems that so rigorous a judge of rhetorical strategies as Helen Vendler seems not to notice the glaring absurdity of this argument. If Ireland and Scandinavia still share a cultural predilection toward ritual slaughter which dooms them, regardless of religion, colonialism, or economics, to savage conflict, how come we haven’t heard of the Norwegian Republican Army or the Swedish Volunteer Force? Has there been a thirty-year news blackout on the squalid ethnic massacres in Denmark? Or could it be that the differences between peaceful, prosperous Denmark and broken, tormented Northern Ireland, differences precisely of colonial, religious, and economic history, are so vast as to make Heaney’s governing myth in these poems an obscurantist rather than an enabling one?

The ultimate answer is in the poems themselves and in the telltale signs that even Heaney’s miraculous technical and intellectual powers cannot transform the hollow analogy into a convincing lyrical connection. In the poem “North,” for example, the poet is standing on the edge of the Atlantic

…and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin

…were ocean-deafened voices
warning me…

That “and suddenly” is a crude conjunction between the Irish poet and the fabulous Viking raiders who seem to emerge, shaggy and bellowing, suspiciously on cue, from a pre-scripted Hollywood epic. The electrifying spontaneity, the sudden, organic epiphany of the authentic Heaney, are completely absent. Likewise, “The Grauballe Man” from this sequence compares poorly to the magnificent “The Tollund Man,” published three years earlier in Wintering Out. The latter poem has the shocked, enraptured immediacy of an unexpected discovery as the ancient body accidentally brings to mind the contemporary atrocity of

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards.

But in “The Grauballe Man,” for all its formal virtuosity, this connection feels preconceived. The ancient body is interrogated too methodically, prodded until it yields the political analogy that readers of “The Tollund Man” will have been primed to expect.

These North poems are, in any case, untypical of Heaney’s overall approach to the violence. Much more characteristic is the sheer anguish of living through the brutal murders of friends and acquaintances. Field Work, the volume that followed North in 1979, is dominated by elegies for specific, vividly evoked individuals. Some—Robert Lowell, the composer Sean O Riada, the poet Francis Ledwidge—died in circumstances unconnected to the Northern Ireland conflict. But the strongest of the elegies is “The Strand at Lough Beg,” a fierce lament for Heaney’s cousin Colum McCartney, murdered in a sectarian attack. The poet is literally haunted by his dead kinsman:

I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes….

The poem is an attempt at exorcism, ending with the poet washing the corpse, trying to assuage the horror with the power of immemorial ritual. But, contrary to the implications of the North poems, old rituals prove inadequate to the reality of the present-day viciousness. Five years later, in “Station Island,” Colum McCartney’s ghost is still not at rest. Not only does he return to haunt Heaney, but this time he explicitly attacks “The Strand at Lough Beg,” the poem that was meant to honour his memory:

You confused evasion and artistic tact.
The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.”

But this self-accusation is too harsh, and there is a part of Heaney that knows it. For, in the circumstances of Northern Ireland over the last thirty years, evasion has been at times a necessary gesture, even a form of courage. To deny or ignore the awful fate of over 3,500 people murdered along with Colum McCartney throughout the Troubles would indeed be shameful. But evasion in a broader sense, slipping away from the relentless and apparently inescapable logic of ethnic conflict, has been the most pressing political task. And Heaney has taken it on in various ways.

He has, first and most important, fulfilled the poet’s responsibility to language. When he and others like Michael Longley, James Simmons, and Derek Mahon began to write in Belfast in the early 1960s, it was an innately political act. As Heaney later recalled,

the fact that a literary action was afoot was itself a new political condition, and the poets did not feel the need to address themselves to the specifics of politics because they assumed that the tolerances and subtleties of their art were precisely what they had to set against the repetitive intolerance of public life.

Poetry, then, can be imagined not as a shunning of politics, but as a corrective to political rhetoric. The development of a language full of tolerance and subtlety is itself a rebuke to the dangerous clichés of so much political speech. In that sense, Heaney’s commitment to the independence of his art, to the pursuit of shape and richness and abundant ambiguity, is also a profound commitment to the quality of public life.

The tolerance and subtlety of his verse, aside altogether from its content, is embedded within its form, a form unthinkable without what he calls the “double reality” of Ireland and Britain. Catholic Irishman that he is, he is also a true inheritor of English culture. Helen Vendler rightly points out that while the predecessors with whom his work converses include the Irishmen Yeats, Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, and the anonymous author of the Sweeney epic, English poets like Wordsworth, Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, and the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf (which he is currently translating) are no less important to him. Some of Heaney’s early poems read like pastiches of Ted Hughes, and his first successful effort, “Digging,” reproduces the feel and situation of the latter’s “The Thought Fox.” The childhood self of his early poems owes a great deal to Wordsworth. The complex interplay of sound and rhythm in a poem like “Death of a Naturalist” is, among other things, an exploration of the possibilities opened up by Hopkins. The hard consonants and compound nouns of many of the North poems—“love-den,” “oak-bone,” “blood-holt,” “flint-find”—are direct echoes of Anglo-Saxon verse.

In the Glanmore Sonnets, one of the finest of Heaney’s sequences, the English achievement in the sonnet is acknowledged by allusions to “Dorothy and William” (Wordsworth), to “Lorenzo and Jessica” (Shakespeare, by way of The Merchant of Venice), to “my apology for poetry” (Sir Philip Sidney), and to Thomas Wyatt, when the poet asks his wife “how like you this?” touching as he does so the tender skin of Wyatt’s “They flee from me,” where this phrase so memorably lingers. And these are not merely abstract allusions. They are used in the most intimate ways, turned into snatches of domestic conversation, brought into the private sphere of marital joy and discord. It is not too much to say that these pieces of English tradition are made at home in contemporary Ireland. Written at a time when “Brits Out” was the catch-cry of the IRA and its supporters, this kind of poetic tolerance, however marginal its subtleties might be to the political conflict, has a force of its own.

If Heaney subverts cultural separatism, he also breaks away from the other way of defining “our crowd” religion. Heaney is a Catholic poet only in the sense that the language and rituals of the church he was raised in are a store of metaphor too rich to be ignored. But any sense of religious orthodoxy in his work is merely residual. “Habit’s afterlife” he calls it in “Station Island,” barely concealing his contempt for the Church. Elsewhere, he doesn’t bother with concealment. In “The Stations of the West,” he refers to “the fasting spittle of our creed.” In “The Skunk,” he hazards as a simile for that putrid animal’s tail the priest’s “chasuble/At a funeral Mass.” Even in “Station Island” itself, a long sequence which takes the apparently religious form of a pilgrimage to the holy island of Lough Derg, he is careful to make it clear to the reader that the pilgrimage is metaphorical, rather than literal, by including a scathing description of the “fawning relish” with which the faithful greet a newly ordained priest who shines with smugness, “glossy as a blackbird.” Heaney’s attraction to the figure of the Mad Sweeney (he made a fine translation from the Gaelic of the medieval epic in which this legendary figure first appears, and uses him as an alter ego in the sequence “Sweeney Redivivus”) is also linked to this religious skepticism. Sweeney is a pagan archetype cursed and banished by the Christian saint Ronan.

If Heaney distances himself from his own church, he also moves away from one of the defining characteristics of Irish Catholicism—its stereotype of the Protestant enemy. Some of his earlier poetic images of Protestants—“Docker,” which is left out of Opened Ground, and “Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966,” which is included—are accurately characterized by Helen Vendler as “hard, cartoonlike renditions.” In the first, the subject is clearly a shipyard worker rather than a docker, and the uncharacteristic imprecision is telling, for the man seems barely human. He is almost completely assimilated to his trade:

The cap juts like a gantry’s cross- beam,
Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.

The second, a member of the Orange Order beating the traditional lambeg drum in the annual July 12th parade, is likewise a mere adjunct to this well-worn symbol of supremacy:

It is the drums preside, like giant tumours.

Yet there are also poignant glimpses in the poems of the cross-community civility that makes coexistence possible. Especially when he is on home ground in rural County Derry, Heaney is able to view his Protestant neighbors more precisely and more sympathetically. In “Trial Runs,” a prose poem from a sequence called Stations, written mostly in 1970, but previously published only in pamphlet form, a Protestant returns from fighting with the British army in Europe during World War II bringing a gift of rosary beads to his Catholic neighbors: “‘Did they make a papish of you over there?’ ‘Oh damn the fear! I stole them for you, Paddy, off the Pope’s dresser when his back was turned.”’

In “An Ulster Twilight” (not included here), he recalls a Protestant whose father was a member of the special constabulary, for which Catholics had a particular loathing, making a wooden boat as a child’s Christmas present. Most memorably, in the gentle, elegiac “The Other Side,” written after the outbreak of the Troubles but evoking a more peaceful time, a Protestant neighbor, calling at the Heaney home, waits shyly at the outer door while the family inside finishes praying the rosary. The tenderness of this poem is often noted, but what is most startling about it is the way Heaney subtly identifies with this man from “the other side” rather than with his own Catholic family. At the start of this section of the poem, Heaney and his family are the “we” who hear the Protestant’s step outside. But a few lines later, Heaney the older infidel has moved to the literal other side of the wall, from the room filled with the murmur of Catholic devotions to the yard outside where he seems closer to the Protestant than to his own crowd:

But now I stand behind him
In the dark yard, in the moan of prayers.

The whole tone of the piece is shaped by an acute awareness of how fragile and perhaps evanescent this moment of closeness must be in a landscape whose contours are shaped by a history of possession and dispossession. But that momentary quality heightens the effect. A cultural and political border, marked at the time by outrageous brutalities, is crossed with such lightness and grace that it seems, for an instant, not to exist.

There is, as well as the openness to England in his use of language and form and the deliberate attempts to escape the stereotypes of Catholic and Protestant, a final political movement in Heaney’s poems, one that seems abstract but that chimes with the broader imaginative shift that eventually led to last year’s Belfast peace agreement. At the heart of that agreement is an attempt to move away from ideas of political sovereignty based on two irreconcilable claims (British and Irish) to the territory of Northern Ireland and toward an acceptance that sovereignty exists in people’s minds, in history, culture, community, and allegiance. It is a shift, in essence, from the physical reality of the land to the imaginative reality of human memories and desires. And this same movement is the course of Heaney’s poetic journey.

The best summary of the shift from Heaney’s early work to his most recent volumes—The Haw Lantern, Seeing Things, The Spirit Level—is that provided by Heaney himself in a lecture on one of his most important Irish forebears, Patrick Kavanagh. Heaney’s description of Kavanagh’s career is especially interesting because Kavanagh blazed the trail that Heaney himself followed, from a small Ulster farm to a poetic career in Dublin. In the early Kavanagh, he writes, “the experienced physical reality of [rural] life imposes itself upon the poet’s consciousness so that he necessarily composes himself, his poetic identity, and his poems in relation to that encircling horizon of given experience.” In the later work, however, written as it is at a distance from the original territory of childhood,

the world is more pervious to his vision than he is pervious to the world. When he writes about places now, they are luminous spaces within his mind. They have been evacuated of their status as background, as documentary geography, and exist instead as transfigured images, sites where the mind projects its own force…. The country he visits is inside himself.

The documentary geography of Heaney’s given experience in his early poems is that of a political minefield in which sectarian animosities, memories of conquest and dispossession, lie just beneath the soil. In his later work, however, there is a more luminous, more imaginatively open, sense of place. The sources of this change, of course, are not political but personal: the deaths of both his parents in the mid-1980s, the onset of middle age, the increasing distance between the internationally celebrated writer and the farm boy of the 1940s. But the effects are profound. They can be seen most explicitly in the last poem of the sequence “Clearances,” written in memory of his mother. Here, the poet remembers a chestnut tree planted on the farm in the year of his own birth, so that it became a natural, physical image of his own growth. Later, after the family moved away, the tree was cut down, and in the poem he is drawn to the spot where it once stood, now “Utterly empty, utterly a source”:

Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.

Here, the image of being rooted in one’s native soil, an image with deep political resonances in contested territory like Northern Ireland, is transformed into a sense of pure possibility. The tree no longer stakes a claim but rather holds open a blank yet boundless space. “The new space,” as Heaney puts it in his Kavanagh essay, “was all idea; it was generated out of my sense of the old place, but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm….”

A similar transformation, moreover, is evident in many of the best poems from these later collections. Marks on the landscape, borderlines, rigid definitions of territorial ownership become light and imaginary. In “Markings” from the 1991 volume Seeing Things, for example, he ponders the way youngsters play football even as darkness falls so that the lines that mark the field become invisible and they are “playing in their heads.” In the same sequence, he recalls the “imaginary line” along which his father plowed a field. In “The Strand,” from the volume The Spirit Level, that line has become “the dotted line my father’s ashplant made on Sandymount Strand,” a mark so ineradicable in the poet’s memory that the sea cannot wash it away. In “At the Wellhead” in the same volume, the well into which, in the early poem “Personal Helicon,” the poet’s childhood self peered with eyes hungry for physical detail is now an image in the mind of a blind neighbor who, when he reads the poem to her, says, “I can see the sky at the bottom of it now.”

That power to transform things as they are into things as they might be conceived is the poet’s true property. In a dark time, Heaney has held open a space for the imagination by showing that people are not necessarily prisoners of the physical reality that seems to doom them to conflict. He has turned borders and dividing lines into rich frontiers. Just as the incongruous violence of his early poems foreshadowed terrible events in the real world they described, it is just possible that the transformation of that real world in his later work may also herald a broader change.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print