Monday, September 02, 2013

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013.

I confess to having read very little of Seamus Heaney's poetry, just enticing snippets quoted here and there. They were enticing; Heany is one of those poets and other writers I have an ongoing resolution to read. I own a copy of his widely praised translation of Beowulf, which I've promised to read aloud to my wife and daughter over what will necessarily be a period of some weeks.

I may even have been in the same room with Heaney without knowing who he was. One of my friends reported on Facebook that he was known to visit the Lion's Head when in New York.

A Catholic born and raised in Protestant dominated, and British ruled, Northern Ireland, Heaney had a sharp sense of the way tribal divisions affect communication. His poem "Whatever You  Say, Say Nothing," quoted in Saturday's New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox, concludes:
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,
Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.
Some of Heaney's compatriots found his work insufficiently engaged with the political conflict in Northern Ireland, condemning him as "accommodationist."  According to the Times obit, his reply was in an essay on Osip Mandelstam, exiled by Stalin:
“We live here in critical times ourselves, when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes,” [Heaney] wrote. “Some commentators have all the fussy literalism of an official from the ministry of truth.”
While most criitcs praised Heaney's work, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995, he had his artistic, as well as political, detractors; those who, the Times observed, found his work "facile." The obit quotes Al Alvarez, in a 1980 review of Heaney's Field Work:
If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way. Eliot and his contemporaries, Lowell and his, Plath and hers had it all wrong: to try to make clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness was to mistake morbidity for inspiration.
The reference to "clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness" made me think of a poem I love, Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West." It begins with the image of a woman walking on the beach, singing, against the sound of surf. Stevens observed:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.
The poem continues:
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Stevens took particularities--a woman singing on a beach; the lights on boats at anchor--and used them to illustrate how artifice imposes order (also see his "Anecdote of the Jar"), making, if you will, "clearings...in the untamed, unfenced darkness." Heaney gave us particularities, as in the short poem "Nerthus," which Alvarez quotes in its entirety:
For beauty, say an ash-fork staked in peat,
Its long grains gathering to the gouged split,

A seasoned, unsleeved taker of the weather,
Where kesh and loaning finger out to heather.
This poem includes an artifact--the ash-fork--that is simply there, a "taker of the weather." It does not impose any order or scheme, it was simply, in Heaney's view, beautiful. The natural features--peat, kesh, loaning, and heather--have their own beauty, but the ash-fork is beautiful in their context. It could be beautiful in some other context, or none, as well.

The modernists Alvarez contrasted to Heaney--Eliot, Lowell, and Plath--had in the critic's view what Stevens (whom I would add to that group), in the final stanza of "The Idea of Order at Key West" called "blessed rage for order."  (I believe that his "Connoiseur of Chaos" supports that argument.) Heaney didn't rage; he showed us what is there. He didn't idealize or prettify it. He could, for example in one poem, "The Skunk", that Alvarez cites as an example of Heaney at what, in the critic's view, is his best, compare his memory of his absent wife to the skunk that visits his porch in California:
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.
So, what do I prefer: the "rage for order" or the savor of the particular? My answer is typical for me: I prefer neither, and like both. I've sometimes been accused of wanting to have my cake and eat it, too. My answer is, "Who wouldn't?" To me, the modernists and the particularists are like the Thatcher brothers in Peter Wheelwright's As It Is On Earth, epistemological yin and yang, forever connected and completing a whole.

And, as an epitaph for Heaney--I promise to read Beowulf and more of your original poetry soon--I offer a paraphrase of Auden's elegy on Yeats:
Earth, receive an honored guest;
Seamus Heaney is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
But, though the vessel lie empty, let the poetry live on, and on... .

Addendum: Christopher Benfey remembers Heaney as a teacher in this New York Review of Books piece.

Photo: By Sean O'Connor, cropped by Sabahrat (File:Seamus Heaney.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons