“And what was it like,” I asked him,
……………………….“When he looked at you,”
He said, “It was like standing on a quay
Watching the prow of the Queen Mary
Come towards you, very slowly.”
S. Heaney, from ‘Stern (in memory of Ted Hughes)’
Heaney continues, “Now it seems / I’m standing on a pierhead watching him / All the while watching me as he rows out /… / Making no real headway.”
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Eliot a monumental ocean liner, Hughes a solitary rower; I imagine Heaney to have been a ferry, like the sort in Sydney or Hong Kong harbour, snugly and reliably taking people out to the world and back home again.
In John Freeman’s book of interviews with writers, How to Read a Novelist, Heaney talks about knowing great poets, and brings up again the work of the voyage: ‘It’s not so much that you learn from [great poets]; it’s that you’re verified in that you seem to be taken seriously, you’re on the same rowing benches.’
The grand elementary principle of pleasure
One of the sweet, sad serendipities over the last few days has been to stumble upon nuggets and shards of Seamus Heaney’s poems on the internet as bouquets of obituaries for the poet have been placed in his honour.
My choice of posy is ‘A Call’ from The Spirit Level, 1996. In the poem the writer rings someone, and in the time that it takes his (I assume aged) friend to come to the phone he has imagined himself into a dark harbinger, and then finds himself surprised into the tenderest reversal:
‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’ll just run out and get him.
The weather here’s so good, he took the chance
To do a bit of weeding.’
……………………….So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Touching, inspecting, separating one
Stalk from the other, gently pulling up
Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also…
……………………….Then found myself listening to
The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks
Where the phone lay unattended in a calm
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums…
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
This is how Death would summon Everyman.
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
Pleasure and the pain of Irishness
‘A Call’ is so apposite as to be corny, but I couldn’t resist its beautiful simplicity, and the sincerity of the last line is like that aphorism from somewhere, that a well-placed full stop can pierce the heart.
From the Freeman interview: ‘We’ve got to remember this business is not to do with the data of the content,’ he says, easily slipping into professorial mode. ‘It has to do with the effect of the language: William Wordsworth spoke of the grand elementary principle of pleasure.’
I find many of Heaney’s poems , if not exactly difficult, at least not easy; knotty and dense as they are. “Oaken,” to use Freeman’s word. But if frequently they are shy of being easy, they can also be plain-spoken. These dangerous opening lines: ‘Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.’ You can speculatively feel the pleasure of the poet as he transcribed the image that popped into his head.
His gun-pen shoots the ink: ‘History says, don’t hope / On this side of the grave. / But then, once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.’
But the poet doesn’t want to be co-opted. In ‘The Flight Path’ he famously “documents” an encounter with an IRA member, who asks him: ‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write / Something for us?’ To which the poet replies: ‘If I do write something, / Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
If that sounds selfish, this is how Heaney put it: ‘I simply rebelled at being commanded … After that, I wouldn’t give and wasn’t so much free to refuse as unfree to accept.” (The account is contested ground.) When Heaney presented an Amnesty award, ‘Ambassador of Conscience,’ to Václav Havel, Heaney said that Art for Amnesty ‘represents a disposition rather than a party line.’
John Berger has written that poems form a resistance — ‘they refuse the lies, the arrogant complacencies, the weak-kneed evasions.’ Or, indeed, a party line.
The duty of beauty
But perhaps the poet’s deepest duty / is always to beauty. If you will excuse the riff on Keats — beauty being the index of truth. Sylvia Plath, an improbable apologist, you might think, put it like this: ‘Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure — not its influence as religious or political propagnda.’
These are the strange, gorgeous last four lines from ‘A Stove Lid for W. H. Auden’ —
I tote it, hell-mouth stopper, flat-earth disc,
And replace it safely. Wherefore rake and rattle,
Watch sparks die in the ashpan, poke again,
Think of dark matter in the starlit coalhouse.