Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seamus Heaney as a Poet

Poetry as a Weapon
Heaney uses a strange metaphor to begin his first collection of poems, the idea of poetry as a weapon. In the poem Digging he uses the simile of a gun:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Heaney makes a difficult choice, choosing poetry instead of farming, and in the process, besides alienating himself from his family, somewhere he alienates himself from his inspiration. Perhaps in recognition of this paradox he opens his first collection with an image that transforms the writer’s tool of communication into something used only when communication breaks down—a weapon.
This note, so different from the rest of the collection, immediately introduces a note of alienation into the poems. He puts his ‘weapon’ to a number of uses: laying the ghosts of his past, recording the ‘death’ of the ‘naturalist’ in him, and even breaking out an impossible situation, a desperate measure. He is creating space for himself, space to view things objectively, as a poet to be able to put things in perspective. Ironically he uses the one technique which he himself abhors in his later poems-violence. Though at the moment he isn’t concerned with events around him, later he becomes a spokesman against those very events and against violence.
Heaney as an Irish Poet
Some critics have placed Heaney in a difficult, no-win situation. He has been accused of being too involved in the events in Ulster, and taken to task for remaining aloof from it. However, some of his most convincing elegies reminisce about friends and family he has lost to the “troubles”. Casualty, a poem about a Catholic friend killed by the Provisional IRA for defying a curfew, gives us another look at the tribal warfare in Northern Ireland. His questioning of his friend’s responsibility for his own death makes us realise the muddling of right and wrong that grips Northern Ireland today. And yet, what is of supreme importance is not placing blame, but recognising what remains for those who live, burdened with memories and sadness.
Heaney’s work is filled with images of death and dying, but it is also rooted firmly in this world. His tender elegies serve many purposes: they mourn great losses, celebrate those who have gone before us, and recall the solace that remains to us, their memories.
It is easy to get the impression that Heaney is a provincial poet, concerned only with the happenings of his island and his memory. That however, is misleading. He is not solely occupied by his birthplace. Song illustrates his exploration of the poetic process. This short lyric attends to his imagination. His descriptive powers are similar to the great romantic poets, and his attention to detail and the world around him projects this poem into a league of its own.
Language and Diction
In ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney conveys his love for his homeland through his unique use of language. Aside from being self-conscious about using farming vocabulary, he proudly displays his knowledge—”headrig”, “townland”, or “whisky muddler”.
He uses strong, decisive language, never hesitating or rambling. His words take on the character of the setting, helping the reader familiarise himself with the surroundings, as the poet weaves the atmosphere.
The first collection of verse gives an impression of the poet discovering a new world—a world of sights and sounds that can be captured through the clever use of his pen. He uses devices like alliteration, assonation and onomatopoeia, recapturing the noises and silences of his home.
The range of sounds he is able to create is remarkable. “The spade sinks into gravely ground”—the “clean rasping” noise the spade makes is evoked by the alliteration of the “s” and “g”. The open vowel sounds mirror the depth of the ground, while the “i” and “k” of the “sink” contrasts with the sound of the spade biting into the earth.
Heaney always searches for the precise combination of sounds that will capture the scene described by him. In Blackberry-Picking he describes the “big dark blobs burned”, the sounds just like that of the berries dropping into the collecting can. In Churning Day, the light interplay of the alliterative letters recreates beautifully the action of butter-making—”the pat and slap of small spades on wet lumps”.
Poet as Observer
As an observer, Heaney keeps a sense of distance from his family, assuming a stance of remoteness and tight control in his poems. In family poems like Follower, Digging and Mid-Term Break, the carefully formal quatrains and triplets, and the measured line-lengths echo the coldness of the son’s account of his father’s ebbing strength, or the way in which the boy records his brother’s funeral. In these and other family poems, the poet is always a passive observer, sitting while his father digs, staring at his brother’s coffin, “embarrassed” as his community closes ranks in grief. The nearest his actions ever get to participating in the scene is to offer his grandfather some milk, or shake hands with the men who have come to pay their respects to the family.
He also takes the role of observer literally in these poems, describing only what he sees in terse, emotionless sentences. The mask only cracks to reveal his sense of embarrassment, otherwise he maintains a passive veneer.
Heaney’s poems have a very visual effect; he lets the words speak for him, conjuring up a series of images, like a motion picture. The silence in the above poems enhances the scene-like effect. There are very few words spoken, the remainder of the poem is given over to description-reinforcing the idea of a mute witness.
Emotion in his Poems
One tends to expect certain things from a poet as a matter of course, and topping this list is emotion. The traditional image of a poet is a soppy person whose cup runneth over with a whole range of emotions. Heaney however, is a different breed of poet, whose range of emotions on paper, though extensive enough, doesn’t seem to include love, that staple of the metaphoric poet.
In all of Heaney’s poems about family he remains aloof, disconnected, as if he is an outsider. Not once do emotions such as love, friendship, comradery appear in his poems. Even in Casualty, where he mourns the loss of a friend to the ‘troubles’, he talks of the friend in casual tones, discussing fishing, poetry, etc.
Even in works where Heaney portrays aspects of a married life, love, lust, happiness do not make an appearance. Instead he fills his poems with symbols of conflict, suffering, ritualised actions. The poem Wedding Day is a series of surreal, nightmarish images and frightened, internalised questions which culminate in confused flight. He portrays the act of reconciliation in Summer Home, not as a tender, intimate moment but as a formal ceremony.
Possibly the only love that can be detected in his writings is that for his land, his home, his country. The joy he depicts in himself as a child in his poems, the joy of nature and its habitat, is unparalleled, and no emotion between humans come close. He writes about his motherland with passion, deeply aware of the acute suffering of his people. Even here however, he hesitates to allow his feelings to come through. The words on the paper record happenings, raise questions in the mind of the reader, but not once does it clearly show the mind and heart of Heaney.
Attention to Detail
“Death of a Naturalist” is a detailed, rich portrait of Heaney’s childhood world, Mossbawn. The poems are filled with colours, smells, tastes and experiences. He describes everything, even the frogspawn, vividly, with a child’s wide-eyed wonder, natural charm, and even sometimes fear.
His attention to detail is remarkable, minutely observing the people and their places of work, that he describes richly. He includes even seemingly insignificant details—the way the milk is “corked sloppily with paper” or tea is served in “bright canfuls”—and these serve to bring the moment alive.
Like a photographer who zooms in and identifies the object, often looking at the same object from different angles, Heaney zeroes in on his target, examining it from all possible angles, recording vivid details that transform his words into photographs. His keen eye seeks out the signs of expertise—his father’s “coarse boot nestled on the lug” of the spade, his grandfather “nicking and slicing neatly” at the turf. Like a film-maker he covers the scene before and after the event, leaving the reader with a fuller, more complete picture. We read about how the blackberries rot later, or how the farmhouse “would stink long after churning day”. The words leap up put of the page and form a picture, and we transform from readers to audiences under Heaney’s expert guide.
A Sense of Divided Loyalty
Till 1969, Heaney was writing of farm life, and issues that intrigued him, and occasionally he contributed articles in London magazines on the situation in Ulster. His writing in the latter was on objective, if somewhat bemused, account of the events unfolding in the area. This could perhaps be attributed to a certain sense of embarrassment he felt, whilst writing for and circulating in sophisticated London literary circles; he feared being associated with the ‘ludicrously anachronistic’ happenings in Ireland.
This changed by 1972, where after seeing student politics in Berkeley, he returned to Belfast. He finally moved to the Irish Republic, a weary war-refugee, disillusioned and revulsed with the political scene. The change had less to do with the evident disparity between campaigning in Berkeley and the real events in Belfast, and more to do with his own sense of confusion, and a divided sense of loyalty.
He felt indebted to England, whose teachers taught him, whose literature he taught, whose publishers printed his poems. England’s poets had encouraged him, given him the impetus to write. He couldn’t forget that.
On the other hand, these same people had conquered his homeland, and culturally destroyed the native Catholic people’s sense of place, of belonging. His birthright of the Gaelic poetic tradition was denied to him. As an English speaker, and a writer of English, he felt a sense of betrayal, even defeat, in speaking the enemy language.
A moral dilemma also plagued him. On the one hand he couldn’t help sympathising with the school of thought that wanted to destroy the Protestant supremacy. He felt that a sense of loyalty, of patriotism, in siding with them. On the other hand, being a poet, a man of letters and an educationist, he could not advocate violence, he couldn’t condone the lack of humanity and reason. This dilemma tore him apart, along with the guilt that his fellow Catholics were suffering, and he wasn’t, simply due to an accident of circumstance.
A further point of contention he felt was the general expectation that he should become “Poet of the Troubles”. As a poet who firmly believed that the act of writing is a “kind of somnambulist encounter”, who waited for inspiration to strike, much like Hughes’ Thought-Fox, he couldn’t foresee himself picking up his pen and dashing off political pieces as the situation around him changed. He did write about his feelings or his experiences of the troubles, probably with more feeling than a mere political poet may have, but he carried with him a guilt for not taking up the mantle of a campaigner through his work.
Bogland as a Poetic Metaphor
Ever since he played as a child in a moss-hole, Heaney realised that the bog represented for him a repository of memories of his childhood. He also recognised the bog as being literally a storage place, which held objects preserved for decades beneath it.
He realised that the history of his country lay beneath the boglands, as he writes in Feeling into Words:
I began to get an idea of bog as the memory of the landscape, or as a landscape that remembered everything that happened in and to it. In fact, if you go round the National Museum in Dublin, you will realize that a great proportion of the most cherished material heritage of Ireland was “found in a bog”.
The poem which contains all these ideas Bogland is placed last in the volume “Door into the Dark”, but it acts as a key to the whole collection, describing Heaney’s voyage of discovery.
He wrote several bog poemsPunishment, Tollund Man, Bogland. In Tollund Man Heaney was attempting to find his own solution to the problems in Ulster, in later poems he became more pessimistic, and just presented his poems, in a way simply giving ‘birth’ to them. He uses the images of birth frequently in these poems—the Grauballe Man emerges “bruised like a forceps baby”, the Bog Queen rises out of the dark when her “slimy birthcord / of bog” is cut. These creatures are almost like spirits, coming to Heaney’s call for an answer in the time of violence.
Just as Heaney believed that Ireland’s history lay beneath the bog, he also began to use the bog to project her future. The eerie, almost nightmarish images described in his poems portend the nightmare descending on the people. The bog people have now become symbols of the violence in Ulster.
The poet seems to be mesmerised by these bog creatures, so much so that he feels unable to shape these poems to any positive outcome. He is instead only the holder of the pen, whilst someone or something else is writing for him. He uses a reverential tone with the bog people, “I almost love you”, and in a morbidly fascinated way obsessively records every physical detail.
Interestingly, the more Heaney attempts to escape from his own feelings of guilt and divided loyalty, the more they force him to contemplate and examine his feelings about the Ulster situation. Almost like unwanted memories, they recur over and over. The result is a deepening of the negative impulses haunting the poems. Heaney writes brutally honest descriptions of his feelings about the situation, having finally resolved it. The Catholic in him surges up, and almost rejoices in the atrocities committed against the Protestants. In the final lines of Punishment, he is chillingly honest, admitting that he would do nothing, watching as the “artful voyeur”, while the Catholics take their “tribal” revenge.

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