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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A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event – not least because of who shows up for interview

My week, including an invitation to Mrs May, grilling a top copper, and the unity of Miliband and Farage.

The harrowing details of the terrorist atrocity in Nice made for a difficult listen. The atmosphere in the media centre at Lord’s that morning as we gathered for the second day of the Test match against Pakistan was muted and sombre; cricket really was the last thing on our minds.

However, there was no avoiding play starting at 11 o’clock, and that I would be on air welcoming listeners to Lord’s. How to get the balance and the tone right at such a time? Bright and breezy in a “life goes on” sort of a way? Or stunned, angry and confused, reflecting the true mood of all of us? Is sport a welcome distraction at times like this, or merely a triviality?

 

Do or Di

Unfortunately, this was familiar territory. Last November I welcomed BBC Radio 4 listeners to a relatively meaningless one-day international against Pakistan in Sharjah immediately after a graphic report on the Paris terror attacks, which had taken place the previous day. If I am honest, that occasion, thousands of miles from home, felt awkward and difficult to justify. I scripted a very straightforward and safe opening line or two, and comforted myself by recognising that, despite the horror in Paris, we were still playing cricket against a team of Muslims in the United Arab Emirates.

But my most difficult broadcast was on the afternoon of 31 August 1997. With the world in a state of shock, and moments ­after Princess Diana’s body was repatriated to RAF Northolt, BBC2 broke away with the solemn announcement: “Now cricket. Here’s Jonathan Agnew . . .”

 

Let ’em eat cake

Theresa May’s succession as Prime Minister continues the healthy connection between politicians and cricket. So far I have interviewed three presidents (Mandela, Mbeki and Musharraf), four prime ministers (Major, Cameron, John Howard of Australia and Gaston Browne of Antigua) and many other senior political figures. I am hopeful we can entice Mrs May, who watches her cricket at the Oval, to visit us next summer.

If my gentle persuasion is not enough, we can surely rely on Geoffrey Boycott’s less subtle approach. Mrs May has already surprised a few by revealing herself to be a fan of the greatest living Yorkshireman, and even delivered a cake to him when she visited Headingley last summer.

 

Be my guest

A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event, which gives me the chance to interview a wide variety of well-known personalities on Test Match Special. Last week’s victims ranged from Harry Potter’s Weasley twins to Britain’s most jubilant mum, the effervescent Judy Murray. Then Michael Parkinson turned the tables on me with an ambushed interview to celebrate my 25 years as BBC cricket correspondent. Wonderful memories.

The rock star Alice Cooper must rate as my most unlikely Lord’s guest (Boycott shook Mrs Cooper’s hand in the honest belief that she must have been Alice), while John Stevens of Scotland Yard gave me my best scoop. After meticulously sidestepping everything John Humphrys could throw at him that morning, Sir John arrived at Lord’s for his lunchtime date with me. Fuelled by a glass of champagne and with the band of the Grenadier Guards playing on the hallowed turf, he carefully considered my question, identical to the one he had faced on the Today programme that morning, about the number of terrorist threats on London that had been thwarted by the Met. “Eight,” he replied. And then, as every mobile phone in the media centre instantly burst into life, he quietly slipped away on holiday.

 

Bowled over

I remain in contact with many of our guests and could not avoid a chuckle when, within seconds of each other, texts arrived from Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. It probably will not be appreciated by either of them, but they are in fact united, albeit through cricket. Farage was wearing a Primary Club tie as he celebrated his victory in a private box in the Mound Stand. Supporting cricket for the blind and partially sighted, the Primary Club is open to all those who have been dismissed first ball in any form of cricket, and the tie is adorned with shattered stumps and flying bails.

Clean bowled! The referendum claimed more than its share of those.

 

Golden glory

So to the Rio Olympics, and specifically equestrianism. Yes, it is an unlikely assignment, earned more through my wife owning a horse rather than any personal involvement, but I am taking my duties seriously and have been learning how to ride – more seriously, it seems, than the world’s top golfers who, one by one, are pulling out, citing concerns about the zika virus.

Twenty-two male golfers have withdrawn so far, including the top four in the world, confirming for many that to include mainstream, professional sports such as golf
and tennis in the Olympics was a mistake. These are highly paid sportsmen on a constant global treadmill and used to playing for serious prize money. Rory McIlroy appeared to speak for many of them before the Open when he confirmed that golfers are not bothered about the Olympics.

Whatever the reason for so many pulling out, the integrity of golf as an Olympic sport has been irreparably damaged. Not only that, but I suspect it has also done for cricket’s ambition to join the fold, which has been its aim. Perhaps it is for the best. In my equestrian circle, five of the eight members of the dressage and eventing teams are female; women are thought to be more vulnerable to the zika mozzie than men. Yet for them, as for most athletes, Rio  can’t come soon enough to fulfil their lifelong dreams of winning not money, but an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Agnew is the BBC’s cricket correspondent and a presenter of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt