Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seamus Heaney's "Human Chain": coming home via three quotations

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

(Eliot: Little Giddings)

not “to Know”, if to know means the “real truth” of something will be revealed to us, but to see the once familiar differently, to react in a new way based on new knowledge or experience. Or to discover that what we thought before we left has been confirmed.

So in the past year, as part of the new project, I have worked my way though the major sequences/long poems of the twentieth century. (There are a more of them than I thought) . It reminds me of traveling home on the Trans Siberian: large swathes of time and landscape I don’t remember, punctuated by intense moments: seeing Lake Baikal, the grey water steaming in the sub zero temperature, surf coming in to smack into snowdrifts, the Narnian beauty of sunsets, small villages all but buried under snow, like illustrations for European Fairy tales, the Chinese family who spoke neither Russian nor French or English but who managed to talk me into sharing their breakfast of boiled chicken feet and home made vodka…

But somewhere east of the beginning of Zukofsky’s “A’, about “A 9” perhaps, the images changed. I was back on the trans Kazak express, staring at an unchanging landscape, imagining trying to walk across the steppe, a tottering survivor of a massacre plodding onwards because he’d forgotten how to stop.

A long long way from Kerr’s Ass. Time to go home

And there was Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain waiting to be read.
But I had also been reading aggressive poetics:

Quote #2
…Establishment poetry is approaching the condition of journalism—"a form of writing as harmless as it is ephemeral": A generic "sensitive" lyric speaker contemplates a facet of his or her world and makes observations about it, compares present to past, divulges some hidden emotion, or comes to a new understanding of the situation. The language is usually concrete and colloquial, the ironies and metaphors multiple, the syntax straightforward, the rhythms muted and low-key. Generic and media boundaries are rigorously observed: no readymades or word sculptures here, no zaum explorations of etymologies, no Steinian syntactic permutations. As for Eliot's objective correlative, it emerges, in the mainstream poetry before us, as little more than a faint echo, an ironic tic.

Having read enough of this type of criticism I opened Human Chain and the first poem begins:

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

And I shut the book.

It took a while to see beyond the criticism of the quotation. Reciting Kerr’s Ass helps. Perloff may be a great critic, but it’s not the paradigm of the lyric speaker itself that is the problem but the way it is so easily abused. In the wrong hands it’s too easy, requires no great art or thought to churn out the formulaic “poem”. But open any journal or book and you’ll find poems ticking boxes that prove the writer is “having a poetic experience”. (The PE may be aggressively modernist, avant garde or lyric depending on which poetic the writer hangs his or her hat: Sooner or later everything becomes formulaic).

Heaney has never seemed a box ticker. It’s true that Human Chain has an air of familiarity about it; some of the poems feel as though they’ve been here before. The “Heaney topics” of rural boyhood, school, family and religion are ever present. At times his habit of using an unattributed pronoun as the subject of a poem becomes irritating. The poet knows who “he’ or ”she” is or was but the reader has no chance and the overworked pronoun collapses the poem into vagueness. One of the great defining characteristics of the man’s work, the sense that a voice is speaking directly to the reader, at times lapses into a syntax that produces lines and a stanza like ”flattened back/ against themselves/ a bit stand-offish’. Or the whole of “Canopy” with its opening stanza:

It was the month of may
Trees in Harvard yard
Were turning a young green
There was whispering everywhere.

Which never rises above a literate diary entry.

But having said that:
Quote 3#

The sight quenches, like water
After too much birthday cake.

(Thom Gunn: “Expression”)

In The Wanderer, wisdom is understood as intelligence looking back on experience in age. It’s not a popular ideal these days in cultures driven by the cult of eternal youth, so in one sense to say that these are an old man’s poems may not convey the intended compliment. And to stick 'wise' in front of old would only sound even more anachronistic.

At seventy, having survived a stroke, you shouldn’t be too surprised if the poet is in retrospective mode. The collection is ghosted by a sense of summing up and coming to terms. Each recent Heaney collection has contained at least one poem in memory of dead friends. Some of them are very good poems. Like the Old English poet, he can produce memorable poetry out of the specifics of a common sense of loss. He does elegy well. In this collection: ‘The door was open and the house was dark” with its lift towards its final memorable image is a fine example in this collection.

There is also that familiar ability of his to see things awry as in “Miracle’ with its arresting opening:
“Not the one who takes up his bed and walks/But the ones who have known him all along/And carry him in-“

After all the theory, after the poetics, the gabble of disaffected voices, the struck pose and the learnt strut, it feels good to come back to poems sturdy enough to walk in the day time, that celebrate rather than whine or denigrate or disappear into their own self serving ideological smugness.

Human Chain my be uneven. But that says something about the poetry. Its successes and failures aren’t hidden behind a hedge of conceptualized waffle. As verbal artifacts they succeed or fail. I suspect the success comes from the sense of recognition, of a shared experience spoken aloud.

Bunting said he had tried to make poems that would give pleasure but stand on their own without prop of theory or the support of party. He succeeded. So does Heaney. If nothing else there are poems in this collection that challenge the generalsied condemnation of Perloff's statement.

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