Monday, September 9, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
This morning, Saturday 31 August 2013, the radio news tells me that Seamus Heaney died in Dublin at the age of 74. In the brisk, superficial way of end-of-news obituaries, it tells me that Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1995) and was widely considered to be “the best Irish poet since Yeats”.
I bristle a little at this.
Seamus Heaney was the best Irish poet of the last one hundred years, period; and Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) was the best Irish poet of the twentieth century before Heaney came along. William Butler Yeats, a very great poet whom I much esteem, was not Irish. He was Anglo-Irish, which is quite a different beast. I am not waving the Irish Republican flag in saying this, or invoking sectarian tribalisms of Catholic Heaney and Protestant Yeats. I am simply pointing to a sociological fact. Yeats belonged to quite a different nation from Kavanagh and Heaney (who, though born in “Northern Ireland”, chose to live in the republic and chose Irish, rather than British, citizenship) – a different nation in terms of loyalties, inherited mythologies, attitudes, values and even language, much as they all wrote in a version of English.
Once I have harrumphed at the radio obituary in this way, I turn to Wikipedia and discover a truly extraordinary fact about Heaney. Apparently, in the last twenty or so years, sales of his collections of poetry accounted for two thirds of all the sales of works by all living poets in Britain. I appreciate that popularity does not necessarily equate with quality, and I further appreciate that Heaney was a favourite with high-school English teachers and his (eminently accessible) poetry was often published in school editions, which may account for at least some of his sales. Even so, this is a truly extraordinary tribute to his reach.
I won’t attempt to summarise Heaney’s career, ideas etc. Let’s just say that, from his beginnings in rural Irish themes, he had a way of showing how politics and history impinge on private lives. He references the Famine, the Troubles, the pains of the Northern Irish state etc., but you would have to completely misread him to assume that his poetry could be appropriated by a nationalist or republican political cause. Any of his later volumes – like 2006’s District and Circle – would show how cosmopolitan his interests were in terms of literature and general culture, as would his lively 1999 translation of Beowulf. Let’s just say that the phrase “Irish poet” should not be taken to mean “parochial”. In his poetry, Heaney was simultaneously Irish and a citizen of the world.
I could at this point recount one Heaney-themed anecdote. It would concern the hilarity that ensued, over thirty years ago, when I was teaching at a girls’ school and chose to analyse with a senior class Heaney’s poem “The Outlaw” (from his early – 1969 – collection Door into the Dark). The poem concerns an unlicensed bull being used to inseminate cows in rural Ireland. Girlish blushes, giggles and knowing winks galore.
But I won’t finish on this. Instead, knowing how corny it is, I reproduce the famous poem that appeared in Heaney’s very first collection, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966. Some have taken “Digging” to be Heaney’s poetic manifesto, like the “Thought Fox” of Ted Hughes (with whom Heaney once collaborated on an anthology of poetry for children). “Digging” often appears first when selections of Heaney’s poems are anthologised. Manifesto or not, the collaboration of specifically Irish concrete imagery and poetic intent is a signpost to the way the poet’s career would develop over the next 47 years.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.