[This article first appeared in the May 17, 1996 issue of Commonweal]
Seamus Heaney in the college cafeteria line at Harvard: The woman serving holds her scoop aloft. "Pasta or potatoes?" she asks. "Surely, you're joking," says Heaney, and pokes his plate under the sneeze-guard for the potatoes.
In "Digging," the best-known poem of his first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), Heaney declares his distance from men like his father and grandfather, men who "could handle a spade" and "scatter new potatoes," choosing instead to follow the poet's vocation: "Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests. /I'll dig with it." His successes have carried him far from the Northern Ireland of his childhood, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for part of each year, to Oxford University where he was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry (1989-94), and last year to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. (I am sure I am not the only Commonweal reader who cheered at that news!) But the objects, places, literature, history, and contemporary situation of Ireland remain the poet's home turf.
Justly celebrated as one of the finest poets writing in the English language, Heaney manages with unusual grace the incredibly difficult balancing act required of an international literary figure who simply must find the privacy required for writing. When I was studying at Harvard, people often wrung their hands on behalf of Seamus, as everyone familiarly calls him, even as they counted on him to appear at their colloquia and readings and parties, to remember their names, and (always) to charm. "Can it be good for his poetry?" ran the fretting refrain from this camp, even as others outside the academy expected "Famous Seamus," as they snipingly named him, to spend every waking moment promoting other Irish poets. (He is, indeed, the best known of an outstanding cohort, and not the only heir to Ireland's rich literary tradition.)
Remarkably, Heaney has more than a little of what everyone wants from him, as teacher, cultural ambassador, lecturer, poet. Many others put in positions like Heaney's take refuge in a cover of irascible or absent-minded behavior (and who can blame them?) in order to protect themselves from demands on their time. Heaney's generosity and graciousness pervade all aspects of his public existence, and he is an especially fine teacher of poetry. If you have ever heard him read his poetry aloud, or sought a signature for one of his books, you will know what I mean when I say that he has the gift of creating a feeling of intimacy, as if something particular and valuable has opened up and changed hands between you. This is, of course, the effect of reading a great lyric poem, the thing that makes us feel that we have received a glimpse of something especially true; or a valuable piece of advice about how to move through the world:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
(from The Spirit Level, 1996)
I love the last sentence of this poem, spilling over three-and- a-half lines back toward the road and the heart, moving from the "earthed lightning" of Heaney's swans (so different from the abstract broken patterns made by Yeats's airborne "Wild Swans at Coole") to the place where the poet and reader share the in-betweenness, motion, and vulnerability to the "big soft buffetings" of wind and wings.
You don't have to be Leda set upon by a god, Heaney's poem tells us, to have your heart caught off guard and blown open. Making "a hurry" the metaphor for the way we live exonerates us for not parking and capturing the scene "more thoroughly." We are not blamed for being tourists or city-folk in our car, on Yeats's alienating "roadway, or on the pavements grey" ("The Lake Isle of Innisfree"). At the same time, of course, we needn't stop to "capture" the swans on the lake because the poet has caught them for us, down to their "headstrong- looking heads," in all the possible positions above and below the water. In this nearly allegorical and completely accessible landscape, "known and strange things pass" through us because we are in motion, because we "are neither here nor there." Look at what you see now, and to what it opens in you immediately, the poem instructs, rather than treating the sight of the natural world as something to be stored up like Wordsworth's memories of landscapes, hoarded tranquilizers for treating future afflictions and alienation. You can have it now as long as you are willing to be caught off-guard by the marvellous. As Heaney's recent poetry has more and more frequently attested, there is "space in his reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous" ("Crediting Poetry"), or, as he puts it in the introduction to The Redress of Poetry (1995), for "poems and parables about crossing from the domain of the matter-of-fact into the domain of the imagined."
In his 1991 volume of poems, Seeing Things, Heaney describes such a close encounter with the marvelous, in the sequence "Lightenings":
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'
The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
In this vision proximate and tangible world and otherworld overlap, but the elements themselves, air and water, cannot be translated. The abbot wisely sees that the crewman must be helped back into his own "real" world up there in the air, and that the monks must not attempt to capture or arrest the materials of the vision, except in the words of the annals and the poem. The crewman and monks reach into the region uncannily shared by their world and the otherworld, a boundary-zone in which air and water are at once "known and strange," while the swans of "Postscript" move comfortably on either side of the boundary between air and water, and help us to imagine the next step in the experience of in-betweenness: hearts open, off-guard, and blown through by the same elements that make the ocean wild and light the slate-grey lake. Though he will not reassure us about where we are when we are passed through and passing by, Heaney generously invites us along to share his revisiting and reinventing of air, light, water, swans.
This is not a solitary's journey. The fact that we can overhear a conversation with Yeats in this poem from the forthcoming volume The Spirit Level reminds us that the intimacy of the lyric poem comes not only from the gesture of speaker to reader, but from being allowed in, temporarily, to the poet's library. We hear what he has read, and how he reads and (as Harold Bloom would show us) misreads it. Strong poets, according to Bloom, misread one another in order to clear imaginative space for themselves and their own work. While it seems to me that Heaney employs in his poetry only the cagey and crafted sort of allusion, I know no more creative and critical a misquoter of others' lines than Seamus Heaney the teacher. Listening to him lecture on twentieth-century British and Irish poets, I have heard him inadvertently improve lines of Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Geoffrey Hill, and W. B. Yeats, among many others.
Introducing the late James Merrill, author of The Changing Light at Sandover, Heaney emended the title of this magnificent book to The Shifting Light at Sandover. Merrill cringed, but shifting light...not bad! Of course, anyone who learns by heart a vast amount of poetry and recites from memory will occasionally misplace or elide a word, and I know few poets who wouldn't be willing to risk misquotation to have Heaney think of their work what he feels about a poem by Thomas Wyatt: "I often say it just for the sheer elation of the poem itself."
A memorable performer of his own poems, Heaney carries on the important tradition of reading aloud. The Harvard Poetry Room at Lamont Library has made available a tape of Heaney reading not only his own work, but poems by the fifteenth-century Scots poet Dunbar, by Thomas Wyatt, Walter Raleigh, William Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Thomas Hardy, and W. B. Yeats. Only two, Yeats and Hardy, lived into the age of sound recordings, so we have no "authentic" voice to confute the versions we hear in our heads. (For those who have not had the opportunity to hear Heaney's voice, I'm pleased to say that Farrar, Straus and Giroux is issuing The Spirit Level in a special edition with an audiotape of the poet reading.) Interspersed with anecdotes about those who introduced him to the poems, and with brief comments on why and how they are meaningful to Heaney, the Poetry Room tape captures some of what makes Seamus Heaney such a wonderful teacher. His reading of Walter Raleigh's admonitory poem to his son, the "pretty knave" of the sonnet, is worth the price of the two cassettes:
Three things there be that prosper up apace
And flourish, whilst they grow asunder far,
But on a day, they meet all in one place,
And when they meet, they one another mar;
And they be these: the wood, the weed, the wag.
The wood is that which makes the gallow tree;
The weed is that which strings the hangman's bag;
The wag, my pretty knave, betokeneth thee.
Mark well, dear boy, whilst these assemble not,
Green springs the tree, hemp grows, the wag is wild,
But when they meet, it makes the timber rot;
It frets the halter, and it chokes the child.
Then bless thee, and beware, and let us pray
We part not with thee at this meeting day.
Though I know that Raleigh's Elizabethan English was a different accent entirely, I hear this lyric now in Heaney's voice. Perhaps coincidentally, this sonnet was also one of Robert Frost's favorites to recite, and Frost, like Heaney, honored the discipline of formal verse, even as he took the line in the direction of the colloquial. Frost famously commented that writing without form was like playing tennis with the net down. Heaney's metaphor takes us back to his scene of the monks in the oratory at Clonmacnoise: "Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a holding, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and centripetal in mind and body" ("Crediting Poetry"). In this version of the story, no abbot intervenes to free the ship, for the crewman descending the rope must be the poet, adjusting the tension between the captured craft and the anchor, and entering the marvelous as he goes.
As the Nobel prize reminds us, Heaney's sojourns in the academy have not impeded his true work. In the past decade he has published three superb volumes of poetry: The Haw Lantern (1987), containing the breathtaking sonnet sequence "Clearances"; Seeing Things (1991), reviewed in Commonweal (February 26, 1993); and the aforementioned new collection, The Spirit Level. In addition, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-87 appeared in 1988, a play, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles" Philoctetes, in 1991, and the lectures Heaney delivered during his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford came out last year as the collection The Redress of Poetry. His moving Nobel lecture, "Crediting Poetry," published in the New Republic (December 25, 1995), should not be omitted, for here Heaney articulates the credo of his vocation: "I credit poetry," he says, "both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind's center and its circumference .... I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase."
Being true to life means more than giving "a print-out of the given circumstances of time and place," as Heaney says in his essay on Yeats and Larkin in The Redress of Poetry, for poetry must be a help, must restore and transform, "in order that human beings bring about the most radiant conditions for themselves to inhabit." Though we may wonder how poetry can accomplish this urgent work, we can at least applaud the generosity of the vision. And some time make the time to drive out west into County Clare.
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