Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber, 85 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 078-0571269228
Sometimes it seems that poetry (and by extension, literature) is the most thriving light industry in Ireland. I am in the greenroom of the Abbey Theatre, on the evening when we meet to celebrate the fortieth birthday of the Gallery Press. There seems to be a full house, as far as one can judge from the waves of laughter and applause: an inland sea.
And the greenroom is also full, absorbing the restlessness of twelve performers, all of us courteous yet tense. It is a scene worthy of at least a modest homage, which I tried to improvise on the night:
In the almost marine gloom
Of the Abbey Theatre Green Room
Twelve Gallery poets await their turn;
Swerving and gliding, without colliding,
Piloted by a mysterious radar,
Like varied fish in an aquarium.
This is a far cry from the poetic flytings of my youth, when begrudgery ruled: Kavanagh thundering in his Envoy diary; Clarke’s sly barbs. The MC, or fear a tigh, of the evening, is Seamus Heaney, and his seemingly effortless courtesy reminds me of the parish halls of our shared Ulster childhood, with Tommy Ligget, my Protestant neighbour, spinning the wheel for all comers. Or else a great diplomat calming a room. It is not Yeats chastising a mob, but a more avuncular presence in a more amiable ambiance: people assembling to listen to some of their favourite poets.
Seamus is about to produce another book, Human Chain, more sombre in atmosphere than any since Station Island, with a series of meditations upon death, particularly that of his father, who has been a presence in his work from the very beginning, in “Digging”: “By God, the old man could handle a spade.” And in memoriams of his contemporaries are scattered throughout the volume, painters like Colin Middleton and Nancy Wynne Jones, and of course his great friend, singer and broadcaster David Hammond, whose sweet voice and pirate temperament enlivened us all. (When we were making a film, I called on some Protestant neighbours with Davy, who teased them unmercifully.) And there is his own brush with mortality (Heaney has had a stroke), and the inevitable frailty that grows with age: “As I age and blank on names, / As my uncertainty on stairs / Is more and more the lightheadedness / Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging …”
After the broken careers of Clarke and Kavanagh, Heaney has had an exemplary run, his poetry glossed by his prose, recalling the practice of Yeats. But there the comparison ends, for Human Chain displays none of the almost daft abandon of the later Yeats: “Seventy years have I lived, / Seventy years man and boy, / And never have I danced for joy.” Nor is there any appeal to the occult. Heaney evokes not so much the Catholic faith of his childhood, although an aura of the sacral persists, but that high point of Roman literature, Virgil’s descent into Avernus. (Perhaps he agrees with the admonition of the Sibyl: “Give up this hope that the course of Fate can be swerved by prayer.”) For Heaney is a poet doctus, or learned, like his contemporary, Michael Longley, limber with the classical allusion, although one should not forget that Irish literature has long been a fertile ground for the classics, as in Joyce, and Kavanagh’s response to EV Rieu’s Homer.
What is truly dazzling in Heaney is his descriptive power, his almost hymn to a Conway Stewart fountain pen, or glimpses of his father performing a farmyard task, wrought to a hallucinatory, Van Gogh-like intensity: “ … ‘Drench the cow’, so fierce his nostril-grab / And peel-back of her lip, so accurately forced / The bottle-neck between her big bare teeth.” Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus is a mystic of the ordinary, which he renders extraordinary, though unlike Hopkins he does not leap towards God. The human chain is the natural progression from childhood dependence to parenthood, to the blessings of grandchildren who will shape our future: one certain form of immortality.
Twelve Irish poets sitting in harmony like the twelve apostles (except there were two lady apostles). Surely we need a new critical terminology, to deal with this lyric abundance? Kavanagh would query loftily, of some fledgling bard, “Has he the touch?” (A woman poet was outside his ken.) What did he mean by ‘the touch’? A sense of something otherworldly, the presence of a power, a shiver from behind the curtain. Federico García Lorca’s duende could be an equivalent, but it applies to performances as well: the click of the dancer’s heels, the death-risking flourish of the bullfighter.
“The touch”! There is no doubt Kavanagh had it himself, especially in the lyrics of A Soul for Sale and the handful of canal bank sonnets. And no one could deny that Heaney has it as well, especially in poems like “Harvest Bow”, the murder scene in Station Island, the wonderful “Funeral Rites” and “Casualty” (Seamus has always been excellent on funerals).
I believe that I myself have contributed to this new armoury of critical terms, by defining the almost dialogue between our two languages: “the grafted tongue”. Do we inherit what Eliot calls a dissociation of sensibility, a coarsening of the language in post-Elizabethan England, or does our second tongue protect us, since the real essence of Hiberno-English is the haunting and sometimes healing presence of the older language? (Strangely enough, when he translates from the Gaelic, Heaney’s cadences often sound more Anglo-Saxon than Irish; elegant, though without the sharpness of the original. But then I am comparing his translation of “Is scíth mo chrob ón scríbainn” with that of Flann O’Brien, who was a lapsed Gaelic scholar.)
Another surprising new critical term was coined by Seamus himself during a BBC programme, when he rhetorically demanded if my long poem The Rough Field was really “the big splatter”. I knew immediately what he meant, because of my Ulster farming childhood, so similar to his own. In fact I describe it in a recent poem, the cows’ “ … sly revenge, a gush / And swish of warm manure, / Splattering happily as infants / As they enter the home stretch, / The closing gates of byre, farm.”
Someone, Randall Jarrell I think, describes the poet as someone who stands out in the elements, hoping to be struck by lightning. If he incurs six hits, he is a real poet, although a minor one. To be a major requires twenty blows of fate. I am not sure that The Big Splatter is not a better term to describe poems like Paradise Lost, The Prelude or The Waste Land. And in Ireland, certainly Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche and The Great Hunger qualify. And perhaps Station Island? To your stations, Anglo-Irish scholars!
John Montague,poet, short-story writer, memoirist and “friend of France”, was this year made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.