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
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism