John Burnside on Seamus Heaney: poems as drops in the moral ocean

The work of a great artist often appears so fluent, so graceful, that we assume it must have come easily – but nothing in art is worth much if it is not hard won.

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New Selected Poems, 1988-2013 
Seamus Heaney
Faber & Faber, 222pp, £18.99

In September 1994 Seamus Heaney revisited Tollund in Denmark, the imaginative locus of his fourth collection of poems, Wintering Out (1972). With the glimmer of an end to the Troubles in view, after the Provisional IRA’s cessation of violence over the summer and Albert Reynolds’s recent meeting with Gerry Adams and John Hume in Dublin, the conclusion of the poem Heaney wrote that same month (the date is carefully noted) reflects a mood of growing hope:

 

               . . . it was user-friendly outback
Where we stood footloose, at home
    beyond the tribe,
More scouts than strangers, ghosts
    who’d walked abroad
Unfazed by light, to make a new
    beginning
And make a go of it, alive and sinning,
Ourselves again, free-willed again,
    not bad.

 

Until that point, being “at home beyond the tribe” seemed possible only at the individual level, a matter of personal integrity that, for all its innate decency, was lonely, uncertain and nurtured mostly by friendship, books and the non-human world. What it lacked was a sense of community: integrity, at that point, meant to stand outside, to be one of the uncommitted. In fact, ten years earlier, in Station Island, Heaney, who had become acutely aware of Yeats’s dictum that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”, had conveyed that non-combatant condition perfectly in “Sandstone Keepsake”. The poet finds himself under surveillance during a walk at Inishowen:

 

Anyhow, there I was with
    the wet red stone

in my hand, staring across at the
    watch-towers

from my free state of image and allusion,
swooped on, then dropped by trained
    binoculars:

 

a silhouette not worth bothering about,
out for the evening in scarf and waders
and not about to set times wrong or right,
stooping along, one of the venerators.

 

It is interesting how Heaney portrays himself as a near-childlike figure here (A A Milne’s Christopher Robin, that champion of “just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear”, comes to mind) and there is more than a hint of self-deprecation in the irony of “my free state of image and allusion” (not to mention the wryness of “not worth bothering about”). But the achievement of remaining “one of the venerators” is significant. It was a position that many shared in the mid-1980s, not because of any single or local issue, but because “the worst” appeared to be firmly in the ascendant and it seemed likely that the legacy of the Reagan-Thatcher era was going to affect us all very badly for decades to come (as it did, and continues to do).

For some, with the collapse of the new left and the rise of a dog-eat-dog, no-such-thing-as-society mindset, the only honourable path that remained seemed to be what Heaney calls, later in that same collection, a “migrant solitude”. Everywhere, the times were out of joint and the question of what was to be done grew ever more urgent. In such circumstances, many feel that poetry is nothing more than an effete gesture of right-mindedness, or a mere entertainment, like some intellectual puzzle or game of literary trivia. Heaney’s work showed that they could not be more mistaken.

It was Auden who famously claimed that “poetry makes nothing happen”, though what he meant by “nothing” is open to discussion. Yet if we choose to take that dictum at face value, there is no better test of its veracity than the work collected here – where, at the very least, poetry makes compassion happen (and compassion in turn gives rise to other events). There are, also, merits in its refusals – in what it will not aid and abet, as when the poet, returning from New York to Belfast, is confronted on the train by his old adversary, the man of violent action, in “The Flight Path”:

 

So he enters and sits down
Opposite and goes for me head on.
“When, for fuck’s sake, are you
    going to write
Something for us?” “If I do write
    something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.”
And that was that. Or words to that effect.

 

This is a dilemma Heaney also works through carefully in “Weighing In”, where he interrogates the efficacy (through the figure of the mocked and crucified Jesus), of “the power/Of power not exercised, of hope inferred//By the powerless forever”. Yet although it may be easy, in moral terms at least, to reject the gunman’s invitation to “drive a van/Carefully in to the next customs post”, it is also the case that, in a world where the balance no longer holds, the temptation to “Prophesy, give scandal, cast the stone” becomes harder to resist. More­over, it is all too easy for such resistance to slide into a passive form of collaboration with the powers that be, especially if one has a comfortable position in life.

On the other hand, the dramatisation of that inner struggle – and of the venerator’s shambling along in scarf and waders, grotesque and useless in a world that demands that something be done – can also be a way of making things happen. This thought experiment adds to the political weather in ways that allow others to envisage their struggle differently, and perhaps to find more imaginative forms of action than stone-throwing and scandal. To refuse both sides – on the one hand, the stupidly beglamoured participation of the gunman and, on the other, the blithe collaboration of the sheltered – is at least to set the stage for other possibilities, for words and actions that make a tangible difference in the struggle for justice.

Yet there is still more to it than that. By “making strange” the things we take for granted, Heaney’s poetry transforms everyday life to such an extent that we recognise that it is this, the forensic detail of the
ordinary life we all live, day to day, that is most meaningful. Such a revelation is a socio-political force in its own right, because it contributes to a rejection of the glamourised, the illusory and every form of engineered consensus.

To see the quotidian in its true light helps us to resist the synthetic experiences of a consumerist economy that perpetuates inequality, conflict and poverty. Admittedly, one poem is only a drop in the moral ocean – but a lifetime’s work, especially an oeuvre that has become as much a part of the cultural fabric as Heaney’s has, becomes something more like a wave. To anyone reading Heaney, Auden’s dictum can only seem preposterous: to say poetry makes nothing happen is like saying that raising a child or planting a tree makes nothing happen. It means nothing, because it gets the timescale wrong, and it ignores the law of unexpected consequences.

New Selected Poems, 1988-2013 picks up where the earlier New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (now reissued) leaves off, presenting work from 1991’s Seeing Things, through The Spirit Level, Electric Light, District and Circle and Human Chain, along with passages from the opening and conclusion of Heaney’s celebrated translation of Beowulf. The only new poem here was Heaney’s last, composed some weeks before he died. A meditation on mortality and the continuity of life, “In Time” is a short but highly affecting addition to a lyrical tradition most notably pursued by Spanish poets such as Jorge Guillén and Juan Ramón Jiménez, the genus type being, perhaps, the latter’s “El viaje definitivo”, in which the continuing life of the poet’s garden is celebrated even as he recognises that he will not be there to enjoy it.

In Heaney’s case, the subject is a small child, who will continue to grow and develop after the poet is gone:

 

Energy, balance, outbreak:
Listening to Bach
I saw you years from now
(More years than I’ll be allowed)
Your toddler wobbles gone,
A sure and grown woman.

 

This is a beautiful and touching piece, but there is more to it than is obvious at first sight. That opening line, with its references to energy, balance and outbreak, expresses the basic ground of a philoso­phical tradition as old as Taoism, in which the complementarities, yin and yang, constantly seek to balance each other until a new shift, a new “outbreak”, renews the cycle once more; or, in western terms, the original vision of the dialectic, in which one energy brings into being its complement and they temporarily balance one another, before a new situation arises out of constant flux.

This idea is one of the basics of philosophy – and of all our thinking about change, mortality and growth – but it is also fundamental to our understanding of how art works, an underlying current in works as diverse as The Tempest and a Mahler symphony. Energy, balance, outbreak: here is the endless pursuit of order which is never altogether achieved (if it were, the result would be entropy). It is characteristic of Heaney’s economy that he suggests this with what seems, in the context of the poem’s subject matter, not much more than an aside. It is also a comfort – not an easy or sentimental matter, but something hard won – in the face of mortality, which is, as the Spanish poets knew, the way in which we share the world with others.

The New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 showed us a young poet very rapidly find-ing his own, inimitable voice as he worked with and against a variety of influences, perhaps most notably Robert Frost. This subsequent volume reveals a poetic world in which Virgil is, in many ways, the guiding spirit. Indeed, the book opens with Heaney’s version of the Golden Bough passage from Book VI of the Aeneid. It is the dissident Virgil of the Eclogues, however, who is most in evidence here, sometimes as a shadow in the background, but present nonetheless.

This comes as no surprise; by the time he received the Nobel Prize, Heaney had already found his place in a world literary tradition, in what Osip Mandelstam called “nostalgia for a world culture”. In this tradition, no matter how diverse the source material (and it is good to see Heaney’s retelling of a Nigerian Chukwu story here, alongside responses to Old English, Irish, Greek and Roman texts), there is a sense of wholeness, of mutual animation. The central experiences on which that tradition is based are the myth of origin, the journey to the otherworld and some version of pastoral; and it is difficult to think of any other recent or contemporary poet whose work interrogates those experiences with such subtlety, delicacy and lyricism.

In the end, it was the humanity of Heaney’s vision, manifested not only in the work but also in the way he carried himself, that compelled an almost unparalleled affection for the man as a public figure. It would be good, then, if the publication of this collection helps readers to understand how complex and sometimes conflicted that vision was.

The work of a great artist often appears so fluent, so graceful, that we assume it must have come easily – but nothing in art is worth very much if it is not hard won. Nothing in human sympathy or community, either: those who speak of community as if it were some natural condition into which we would all happily slip if only we would go back to some old-value system are, quite simply, liars.

Part of Heaney’s art was to show the difficulty, and so the extreme beauty of achieved community and, even when it comes, to know its limits as well as its possibilities, as in the closing lines of “District and Circle”, where he makes one final journey into the Underworld:

And so by night and day to be transported
Through galleried earth with them,
    the only relict
Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward,
Reflecting in a window mirror-backed
By blasted weeping rock-walls.
    Flicker-lit.

John Burnside’s most recent collection of poetry is “All One Breath” (Jonathan Cape, £10)

This article appears in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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