Teach the free man how to praise. What is there to say about the writers who settle in and become part of your everyday life, co-habiting in ear and mind? Most of the time, as a critic and teacher, the texts that set me writing are the ones I can’t fully assent to, books that lodge themselves in my memory in ways that can feel stuck or misplaced; texts to worry to and with. Other writers, other poems, sink so deeply in the mind I reach for them all the time, but wouldn’t know how to say why. Auden, Bishop, Glover: their lines, learnt in adolescence, I’ve detached from poems and worked in to personal vocabulary.
Seamus Heaney was one of these writers for me. His poems are a continuing source of joy and sustenance, to be sure, but many of them feel so familiar – and so right – the brilliance of their achievement threatens to end up obscured. Isn’t that how I’ve always described such things, even if “that last / gh” isn’t mine at all? There hasn’t been a week, in the sixteen years since I first discovered him in sixth form, I haven’t read or remembered or gone back to a Heaney poem, all the time thinking that somewhere or other his own voice has been going on and new works were still to come. A companion, and part of an introduction to poetry, as with the names evoked in Auden’s ‘Thanksgiving.’
The first Heaney I bought, the inscription reminds me, was his New Selected Poems on my seventeenth birthday. ‘The squat pen’ and the showily terse equivalence of writing and ‘digging’ in the early poems were what drew me in, that gorgeously physical imagery – of peat and field, a ‘straining rump’ labouring ‘among the flowerbeds’ – and those terse full rhymes feeling like a kind of anti-poetry, an assertion of the place of labour and community and commitment against abstraction. History was there, too, and resistance: ‘And in August the barley grew up out of the grave.’ The words were what they talked about. How my adolescent reading combined this ‘phenomenalisation of language’ with Heaney’s supererogatory word choices and reach in vocabulary I can’t remember; I suspect I skimmed over the more thrawn lines in search of further sensuous particulars. There were plenty of those. The poems sustain that kind of naive reading – and Heaney, in his critical writing allowed himself the occasional anti-Theory jibe – but only to let you settle in and then ask from you more. These are poems that, eventually, teach pleasure in dictionaries, and I’m grateful for that.
The Spirit Level was a gift, later that year, fraught with the usual teenage baggage of unequal, unrequited exchange, and still means more to me, I imagine, than it ever did to the giver, if only in a kind of residually self-pitying and maudlin bitter way: ‘A deep mistaken chivalry, old friend. / At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.’ (The ‘Invocation’ to MacDiarmid’s ‘far-out, blathering genius’ would have meant nothing to me then; ‘endure / At an embraced distance’ feels right now.)
Some lines I memorised on first encounter for their sound and feel as if I’m only now learning how to grow into. All those very Irish punning terms for good conduct (‘govern your tongue!’) helped, and Heaney’s clear-sighted risk-taking in registering particular kinds of sadness without giving in self-indulgence or ‘expressiveness’:
When I went to the gents
There was a skewered heart
And a legend of love. Let me
Sleep on your breast to the airport.
Living in Tokyo, and travelling a split shift between teaching jobs, I’d often stop at the Oshima Book Store, picking up cheap copies of Heaney second hand. Station Island; Wintering Out; Seeing Things; Sweeney Astray – I re-discovered these either down the road in Ochanomizu, reading Heaney while drinking vodka and eating borscht at Russia Tei, or on the train home.
‘They seem hundreds of years away,’ those days, but re-reading the lines now brings an almost physical sense of the joy and personal help the encounters brought. Coping with the poems’ intellect and range and formal loveliness better now, and not in such a hurry to force them into adolescent patterns, there were new delights.
The refusals of Heaney’s poems from the 1970s, the way the poems turn eloquently in on themselves, marking false phrases off in quotation and worrying through, feel to me like his best work. ‘Whatever you say say nothing’ still astonishes:
Is there life before death? That’s chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again.
Poems make good companions. I bought District and Circle and Human Chain around about this time last year, in Dunedin for the funeral of a dearly-loved friend. They were good, helpful choices:
It was your first leave,
A stranger arrived
In a house with no upstairs,
But heaven enough
To be going on with.
The whole of you a-patter, ‘alive and ticking like an electric fence’: that’s the Heaney sensation, and I wish there could be more of it still. But this is no bad word-hoard at all.
I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-black,
polished sloes, bitter