Wednesday, 3 September 2014

One year after the poet’s death, a reading

Full title: The Spirit Level
Author: Seamus Heaney
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 82 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (1996)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems of Seamus Heaney (not only these, but all) are a learning field. One needs to learn about Northern Ireland in order to understand his political allusions. One needs to train oneself in the patois of literature in order to understand his citations. One needs to grow an academic eye in order to understand his intertextualities. One needs to read his interviews and teach oneself lessons in Seamus Heaney's biography in order to understand his contexts. Gradually, however, this shortcoming (this embarrassment with which one approaches his poems) turns into a blessing: at the end of the process, one will have made progress; one will have grown.
Autobiography is vital in Heaney's work, and so one might often end up staring perplexedly at some lines or other, which, beautiful as they may be, straightforward as they may appear, feel somewhat hermetic, somewhat self-referential.
"All of us on the sofa in a line, kneeling
Behind each other, eldest down to youngest,
Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train

And between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door
Our speed and distance were inestimable."
("A Sofa in the Forties")
The gist of these lines is to be found in the opening statements of the acceptance speech given by Heaney at the awarding of the Nobel Prize, in 1995.


There, the same setting materializes: a childhood in a solitary Northern-Ireland farmhouse, nine siblings, of which Seamus was one, growing attuned to the sounds (harmonious or not) of the world.
As above, there’s a delicate celebration of things in almost all of Seamus Heaney's poems, and this is what, perhaps, made his poetry so popular. From the "Rain Stick," which opens the volume ("You are like a rich man entering heaven / Through the ear of a raindrop") to the sofa in the poem already mentioned ("Its castors on tiptoe, / Its braid and fluent backboard gave it airs / Of superannuated pageantry"), to the text itself, in "Remembered Columns" ("The solid letters of the world grew airy"), Heaney appears to be engaged in a crusade for the affirmation of objects in a world dominated by humans. Whether this happens through the agency of memory or through the more topical involvement of these objects in political matters, there is this constant feeling that objects are invited to feast with humans.
There's glory to be found in this. A sense of elevation, of a bringing to poetical height of inanimate objects (itself with a rich literary history, at least from Swift onward) dominates these poems. At times, objects take front stage. At other times they remain, well-behaved and silent, in the background. But what's important is that they’re never completely absent. The often-cited Northern-Irish peasant legacy must have translated, for Heaney, into this peculiar, affective attachment to objects.

Source: Le Nouvel Observateur
And that, to any reader of poetry, becomes easily apparent; in the way, for instance, in the poem “Mint,” one plant is regarded with a sense of bafflement, as if it were a flower growing from a pile of rubble (a living object in an environment of discarded objects):
"It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice."
... only to let the object (i.e. the plant) grow to a dimension that imposes questions. Questions not about the object but the humans it may be standing for:
"Let the smell of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we'd failed them by our disregard."
Heaney's multifaceted approach (at the same time political, historical, literary, and academic) makes the objects shine with their own luminous stances (and stanzas) on the page. You never know until you've read the poems twice, three times, a hundred times, where to place these objects – where to situate the poems, where, in the vast network of possible references, they are supposed to perform the role of their utterance. Often, their place remains a challenge to the mind – one as good as any riddle. But equally often, these objects are pinned down as aids to memory:
"The dotted line my father's ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won't wash away."
("The Strand")
The attachment to objects considered, one thing needs to be clarified: in these poems, sentiment doesn't develop into fetishism. While not exactly props but rather active participants in a dramatic plot of large proportions (at the end of the day, Beowulf didn't happen out of the blue!), the things that inhabit these poems are meaningful in precise senses. To see this, one has to read the Heaney interviews.


There, it's impossible not the notice how munch everything meant at one point or another in the poet’s personal history. There are precise memories that go hand in hand with precise objects ("When the thorn tree was cut down / You broke your arm"). Or maybe it's the other way round – reading, I find it difficult to decide over priorities.
"The piper coming from far away is you
With a whitewash brush for a sporran
Wobbling around you, a kitchen chair
Upside down on your shoulder, your right arm
Pretending to tuck the bag beneath your elbow."
("Keeping Going")
As here, explosions of objects are felt throughout the volume; throughout the oeuvre, to be more precise. They send shards of poetry off into the land of speech, where the poems of Seamus Heaney can be read aloud, with the same intonations of a bard setting about telling his tales.