27 June 1969: It’s impossible to fault Seamus Heaney's clean language and sensuous delight

In 1969, the poet Anthony Thwaite reviewed Seamus Heaney's collection Door into the Dark, alongside other newly-published works, under the heading "Country Matters". He found Heaney's poems to be without peer, but also strangely exotic in their appeal.

Door into the Dark
Seamus Heaney
Faber 15s

Ingestion of Ice-Cream
Geoffrey Grigson
Macmillan 30s and 12s 6d

Sandgrains on a Tray
Alan Brownjohn
Macmillan 30s and 10s

Arias from a Love Opera
Robert Conquest
Macmillan 30s and 8s 6d

New Numbers
Christopher Logue
Cape 25s and 12s

It may be that in our now densely urban Britain we tend to romanticise and overvalue the almost lost world of thatchers and farriers and rat-catchers and wild predators. A foreigner reading some recent English verse might imagine that we spend most of our time behind the plough or tickling trout, and that the town is still alien to us. I’ve had this in mind while reading Door into the Dark. As in Seamus Heaney’s much praised first book, Death of a Naturalist, the setting is usually rural Ireland and the exercise one of acute natural perception. ‘The Forge’, the poem from which the book takes its title, packs a lot of nicely phrased detail into its 14 lines (‘Inside, the hammered anvil’s short pitched ring./The unpredictable fantail of sparks/Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water’); ‘Rite of Spring’ is a laconic little piece of symbolism about de-icing a water pump, and ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ is an attractive group full of well-observed fishermen’s craft. It’s impossible to fault the clean language, sensuous delight, concise and modest statements; and I’m sure it’s all completely authentic. But I’m equally sure that the appeal of Heaney’s work is of an exotic sort, to people who can’t tell wheat from barley or a gudgeon from a pike. His poems are of a different, neater order from those of Ted Hughes, but I think he must be counted as one of what someone has called the Tribe of Ted; compare Heaney’s ‘The Outlaw’ with Hughes’s ‘The Bull Moses’, and see how both dwell lovingly on the animal as an image of massive power. In Heaney’s poem:

The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward, unexpected jump, and
His knobbled foreign straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank...

Turbines and pylons for the 1930s: bulls for the 1960s. It’s an odd progression.

There’s a good deal of close looking at Nature, too, in Geoffrey Grigson’s new book, sometimes of a clinical sort, with qualifications with havering and hedging so that poems get lost in modifying brackets: quiddities become boring when too much insisted. Better are the asperities of the combative Grigson, dismissing MacDiarmid in a quatrain, tossing a squib at TV’s talking heads, observing a marriage in ‘Academic Affair’. Only once does he sound a more generous, poignant note, in ‘Old Man by a Lake in June’, which I find the best poem in the book. Here the details are restrained and economical: too often they become a dense clutter, as in ‘All Saints Occasion’:

But looking down out cliff, I see a house-spout
emitting steadily rain-water which curves, then
falls adding a stalactite crystal-grey
to now yellowed stalagmites beyond of Lombardy
poplars unbending, long in a river-bordering line dead straight

Heaney’s rural Derry, Grigson’s riverside France, are not only geographically but temperamentally remote from Alan Brownjohn’s territory, in which (in ‘A 202’) he goes.

Journeying between wired-off bombed lots glossy
                With parked Consuls, making diversions
Round bus depots and draggled estates
In circumlocutory One-Ways,
Netting aquaria in crammed pet store windows,
                Skirting multi-racial bingo queues...

To call it Larkin country is simply shorthand, drawing attention to the fact that both Larkin and Brownjohn write from the England that’s readily recognisable to most of us. What Brownjohn does with it is very different. Where Larkin is concerned with precise though resonant recording of moods (much more emotionally than he is generally given credit for), Brownjohn is intent on thinking in verse; there is a strong thread of prose argument. Thus ‘The Clouds’ begins:

The craftsmen in my line bred out.
I drive, but could I mend a fuse.
My father handled founts of words
My brain would catch and fingers lose.

I find fair excuse, to serve:
There has, in our society,
Been ‘social change’, which makes these skills
Much less of a necessity.

The poem delicately and skilfully goes on to develop the debate from there, but already the danger is apparent: that prose argument can easily slide into the prosaic. And Brownjohn, for all his sensitive and scrupulous intelligence, too often lets this happen.

It doesn’t matter – is, indeed, part of the dry humour – in such lighter poems as ‘Somehow’ (which ‘satirises not the provinces but a certain provincial habit of mind’) and the trouvailles of ‘Common Sense’; but it runs to tediousness in ‘Winter Appointment’ – yet another poem about going to the dentist, a theme which by now seems ready for some barrel-scraping editor to make an anthology of. But I’m grateful for the observant and fine-drawn insights throughout Sandgrains on a Tray, that power which Brownjohn (in a memorial poem on Verson Watkins) isolates as giving ‘all quirks and details a sort of odd wonder.’

It seems to me that in his poems Robert Conquest’s problem has always been to get his intelligence and his impulses to mesh. You can see it in his first and second books (Poems, 1955, and Between Mars and Venus, 1962): the successful pieces are those in which you recognise that a warm rush of feeling has suddenly suffused the bony intellectuality and the poet has stopped frigidly cogitating on ‘art’ and ‘verse’. This is true of the new book too, in which some sort of ratio could be worked out showing the more warmly ‘the thing seen’ in the foreground, the better the poem. Examples are ‘Existences: Zurich’, ‘Far West’, and ‘Then’ – this last a well-focused wartime memory, handled with greater relaxation than Conquest generally allows himself. I wish, too, he would give his sense of the ridiculous (particularly the sexually ridiculous) greater scope: it winks out from ‘Revue Bar Strip’, but the taste for imported abstractions too often seems to win.

Christopher Logue sometimes looks like the licensed jester of the spasmodically dying capitalist West, the decorative rebel tolerated for his amusement value by the corrupt and effete masters whom his performances ostensibly satirise. Yet his 1959 book, Poems, had some excellent things in it, ranging from the ‘after Neruda’ lyrics on which ‘Red Bird Dancing on Ivory’ was based (one of the very few successful poetry/jazz combinations) to the Brechtian ‘Story About the Road’. Later there came his free but eloquent Iliad fragment, ‘Patrocleia’ (disappointingly followed by ‘Pax’, in which he appeared half-hearted not only about Homer but about language too). New Numbers is a ragbag of what Logue has been up to since: parts which read like variations, on those Private Eye ‘True Stories’ he assembles (see last week’s NS for an example), cheeky bagatelles (‘Come over here and sit on my sofa./I want to kiss you and lick you all ofa’), a ballade ‘for four organised criminals’, several black comic turns. It’s an entertaining collection, but terribly thin and perfunctory too. The pop poetry movement has overtaken him, so that Adrian Henri and Co. are reaping where Logue sowed; inevitably the whole thing looks a bit tired, as if he felt that poetry was, after all, a pretty futile occupation.

The poet Seamus Heaney, in a portrait taken in 1995. Photo: Getty
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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