Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Dominion of the Physical: Reading Heaney

review by John Wilson Foster

Seamus Heaney. District and Circle. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.

Time was when Seamus Heaney was a young poet known only in the precincts of Queen’s University, Belfast. “There’s a fella writin’ good stuff here,” a fellow graduate told me on my return to Belfast on holiday from the University of Oregon in 1966, and quoted the controversial lines from “Digging”:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Nowadays Heaney is as palpable as the tools and objects that weight his latest verse as ungainsayably as they did the verse in Death of a Naturalist (1966). The opening avoirdupois of District and Circle (2006) - “In an age of bare hands/ and cast iron,/ the clamp-on meat-mincers,/ the double-flywheeled water-pump” - once again risks self-parody, as though the poet had never read Wendy Cope’s sport with him in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986). Yet, once again, the reader senses only a comforting assurance of the quiddity of the world, his poetry functioning as a kind of fodder (a Heaney word) for the soul as well as the senses.

For a while, say in the 1970s and 1980s, Heaney’s ubiquity and representativeness (which is reputation with heft), resembled those of Margaret Atwood, born like him in 1939 and, like him, destined (it could seem) to embody a whole reinvigorated culture (Catholic Ireland, post-British Canada), and virtually singlehandedly to conjure into being a field of study (Irish Studies, CanLit) required to interpret and place the writing. Now, like Atwood and Yeats before him, Heaney has risen above his country into that placeless republic that global reputations inhabit. And yet, since Seeing Things (1991), Heaney’s memories cast into verse and lovingly celebrating custom, do so with an advancing nostalgia, as though expressing in tone his own advancing age (he is 67 and lately ill). “Found Prose” in his latest volume reads like excerpts of a familiar boyhood memoir, Cider with Rosie, say, minus Rosie of course.

Verse obituary is nostalgia chastened by death and tempered by elegiac obligation, and Heaney is still a master elegist (he learned much from Lowell) who can, as the genre traditionally requires, draw from mourned lives lessons about life, in his case about the joy of being in one’s element and the perils of being out of it, about the dignifying, signifying value of work, expertise, custom. This has been there all along and we know it again in such a poem as “To Mick Joyce in Heaven”. Indeed, given that Heaney has been reluctant to relinquish his memories of a now vanished rural Ireland, it would not be in error to describe many of his poems as pastoral elegy.

Since craftsmanship has been a frequent theme and everpresent formal concern, Heaney has been distinguished in part by his self-conscious but uninhibited wearing of the poet’s mantle. He learned this, surely, from his master Yeats, and from the largely anonymous Irish bardic tradition. Here in District and Circle are the formal sonnets obligatory to the British and Irish poets proving their mettle. Here are the comforting pentameters by which the poet marries form to voice, speech threatening to raise itself to song. And here are the poems dedicated to fellow adepts that are intimate enough to be virtual apostrophes to dead comrades (Seferis, Rilke, Hughes, Milosz, Cavafy, Auden, with Yeats inspiring the dedication): the pantheon in which Heaney modestly but firmly places himself.

Heaney required Poetry as armour during the decades of Ulster’s violence when his allegiance was tested. His choice was between physical-force Catholic nationalism and law-abiding (constitutional) Catholic nationalism. His passport was always green but he refused to let his poetry be recruited by the tribal warriors. He was clearly uncomfortable when under the influence of more committed comrades he appeared to speak out as a disaffacted Catholic, in the second part of North (1975) and in An Open Letter (1983). In 1996, in The Spirit Level, he’d had enough. “When for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?” a fellow Catholic taxed him. And he recalls replying: “If I do write something,/What ever it is, I’ll be writing for myself”. He might have said: I’ll be writing it for Poetry, so fervent a believer is he in the sovereignty of the art.

District and Circle steps familiar acreage. There is, though, a retrenchment of spirit, light, and marvel which from The Haw Lantern (1987) began to challenge the dominion of the physical in his poetry. Here, when he sees things, he is remembering them more than imagining them, if I might borrow the pun of Seeing Things. The balance has shifted, and balance has from his poetry of the 1980s been a thematic and formal ideal. Heaney has been a constant revisiter of his past, accounting for all those revenants in his poems that disturb him and then reassure him, and his journeys to the underworld to visit dead friends and admired fellow poets. (The title poem of the new volume accrues the familiar allegory.)

So the net changes have been shiftings, not departures. Certainly the start of discovering Heaney or any unique writer who swims into one’s ken, has for the veteran reader gone. Unlike, say, Auden, Dylan or Muldoon, Heaney does not do something different each time out. But then, the customary is where he lives. And our respect for Heaney, our gratitude to him for when his poetry helped us through dark times, return to re-invest his work with compound interest that he has richly earned, in this way increasing his very considerable principal. Raise it again man, we still believe what we hear.

John Wilson Foster lives in Vancouver and last fall was visiting fellow at the National University of Ireland/Galway. He is the author of The Achievement of Seamus Heaney (1995).