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Raging diplomatically against the dying of the light

Dismissed as a politically inoffensive populist, Seamus Heaney shows in his latest elegiac collection why he deserves to be considered a titan of poetry.

David Bowden

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Nothing better symbolises poetry’s uneasy relationship with contemporary culture than the state of its titans.

A new novel by Jonathan Franzen gets him on the cover of Time magazine, Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall can compete with celebrity autobiography and crime fiction in the bestseller charts, and showman Martin Amis can still rely on his own unique brand of tits’n’teeth outbursts to keep him in the public eye. The visual arts and film still retain their ability to shock and provoke. Even opera, whether through the frivolity of From Popstar to Operastar or the hallowed reverence afforded to Dame Kiri te Kanawa and Glyndebourne, can still make waves.

But poetry? Carol Ann Duffy has sacrificed herself to the creative black-hole of the Laureateship; the Oxford professor of poetry election descended into farcical academic infighting. Performance poetry continues its youthful rise, but suspiciously tied to certain geographical locations where community-building funding-schemes are prevalent: we’ll see how it fares in the Big Society to gauge whether it can shake off its tag of being either posh rap or a therapy session for the self-loathing middle classes. Amidst all the shouting, it seems like we’re back where we’ve always been: with Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney sat atop the English language’s sad height, with only a handful of other grave men – Ashbery, Nichols, Kamau Braithwaite and the like – left to gather against the dying of the light.

Dying not just because they are of a grand age – although their numbers are steadily dwindling – but because they represent the last of the Western canonical generation: those who could properly claim to have come of age at a time when, to adapt Harold Bloom’s phrase, the anxiety of influence was a spur to creative invention rather than an excuse to rip it up and start again. All came from different traditions, of course, but all were united by their education in the Western liberal humanist canon and knowledge of what had come before. They recognised the essential linguistic challenge posed by a modernity of fracturing narratives and cultures; unlike much of what could be classed as postmodernism, they could see that the question posed by the age was not to find new or original meaning, but how to find ways of keeping language – the most human form of connecting to that meaning – alive, at a time when Western civilisation seemed to eschew all such attempts.

Of those figures, Heaney is the one with the greatest claim to contemporary relevance, or at least creative significance. Human Chain is his twelfth collection in a 44-year career, following both the TS Eliot Prize-winning District and Circle and a stroke in 2006. As such, thoughts of mortality and loss weigh heavily, although the eagle-eyed may note that the title of the latest is taken from a line in the titular poem of the previous. There the chain described a group of hemmed-in commuters walking along a Tube platform, with the implication of humans being both restrained and strengthened by the collective act of being human. District and Circle was rich in classical allusion to Virgil and Horace, along with elegies and translations of Heaney’s own deceased friends and recent influences (Ted Hughes, George Seferis, Czeslaw Milosz). Human Chain sees him continuing these themes, reflecting variously on his own upbringing (in particular, the classical Jesuit schooling he enjoyed at St Colomb’s in Derry), his parents’ unhappy marriage, the birth of a grandchild and his own brush with death.

Terry Eagleton in his recent book On Evil discusses the power in Irish fiction of the cyclical nature of life, in particular contrasting Yeats’ disillusioned mysticism with the novelist Flann O’Brien and playwright Samuel Beckett’s absurdist nihilism as differing responses to the horrors of the twentieth century. Heaney has certainly been criticised in the past for not overtly dealing with The Troubles and politics, despite turning down the Laureateship on republican grounds in 1982, and instead retreating into rural landscapes, memories of childhood and family and other topics unlikely to unnecessarily frighten the GCSE examiners upon whom every significant contemporary poet relies for an audience.

Similarly, lacking the rhythmic pyrotechnics and pop-cultural-familiarity of his younger protégé Paul Muldoon or the firebrand politics of Ciaran Carson or Tom Paulin, for all of his acclaim Heaney has always been viewed as a blandly safe poet for uncertain times: a non-sectarian humanist, with an uncomplicated populist touch, unable to be simply pigeon-holed and therefore inoffensive. His straightforward craftsmanship hardly helps: his mastery of short forms and basic poetics (assonance, consonance, repetition etc) ensuring he is readily teachable, his lilting metre and fondness for gritty, crunchy dialects making him palatable to fusty conservatives who disapprove of the effeminacy of free verse.

Anyone who has trawled through the bog-men and the ploughed the furrows of his selected poems Opened Ground will recognise Peter Porter’s charge that he fetishes the local, or Carson’s that his fascination with tribal violence and ritual – given the context of ‘the situation’ – veered towards acting as an apologist for the contemporary, and far more explicable, political violence of Northern Ireland. Desmond Fennel called his 1991 pamphlet, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing: Why Seamus Heaney Is No.1; Peter McDonald described his prose as that of ‘a man whom the audience always applauds’. It is a charge Heaney is evidently well aware of: the earlier poem ‘The Flight Path’ has Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Morrison ask him: ‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/Something for us?’

Yet if we choose to believe Auden’s dictum that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ yet ‘it survives/A way of happening, a mouth’ then Heaney’s continued creative, rather than mere physical, survival stands him in good stead. These are strange times indeed, with the precarious Northern Ireland peace process serving as one of many symbols of the death of the old politics of left and right. Meanwhile, as Daniel Ben-Ami has argued in his book Ferraris for All, debates about economic progress and human development now appear divorced from the certainties and inevitabilities that once characterised the modern era. The drive for human progress, he argues, has been replaced by the fear of human impact. What may have seemed in Heaney as a romanticisation of heavy agricultural labour and toil over the impersonal mechanisation of industry now takes on a different hue; the element of newly middle-class intellectual guilt which plagued his famous poem ‘Digging’ – comparing his writing with his father’s labour – now stands in stark contrast to the other meaning present in the poem, that the father’s labour begets the son’s education.

That seminal poem haunts Human Chain – the pen, ‘snug like a gun’ originally, makes its first appearance ‘uncapped’ with a ‘pump-action lever’ in ‘The Conway Stewart’, as he composes his first letter home from boarding school. The poetry on his parents’ marriage is haunted by the sadness of lives lived stoically, ‘unwavering’ in the face of bitter winds and work. In ‘Route 110’, just as in District and Circle, public transport is reinvented as Aeneas’ barge taking him on his journey to the Underworld: but, just as in the Aeneid, the mobility offers salvation rather than damnation; the freedom to move on beyond the ghosts and the supposed debts owed to the dead, and begin again anew.

Heaney may be, as Stephen Burt has argued, poetry’s great diplomat, but like every great diplomat he can at the very least claim to possess an extraordinary sensitivity to the mood of the times. Just as his lauded translation of Beowulf – steeped in its proto-Christian superstitions and blood-soaked darkness – was perfectly timed to speak to the cultural dislocation of the post-Cold War West, so Human Chain with its invocation of Virgil and its deep anxiety with transmission of knowledge nods towards the anxiety of influence of the nascent Romans, always looking back to Athens for cultural validation whilst they spread across the globe. The cultural optimist would opt for Dante, who prefigures the Renaissance and the modern era. After Virgil, in the human chain, comes only decadence, darkness and loss.

‘In the dark times/Will there also be singing?’ asks Brecht in one of his short lyrics. ‘Yes’, comes the reply, ‘there will also be singing/About the dark times’. Here, in one of Heaney’s beautiful near-sonnets mourning the loss of David Hammond, the poet walks into the deceased’s house to be met with only a silence and darkness, finding himself,

wanting to take flight
Yet well aware that here there was no danger,
Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar
On an overgrown airfield in late summer

Heaney, ever the ‘enlightened cosmopolitan liberal’ (as Eagleton once mockingly dubbed him) sees a darkness ahead, but what really terrifies him is that thought of withdrawal – that slow internal decay – from the values and traditions of the past.

Well it might. The human chain, to Heaney, is more than just an endless cycle of births and deaths, love and loss. It is a sense of progress, however creaking and ambiguous, from which civilisation can draw its strength and renew itself. It is maintained not by accident or by sudden outbursts of ahistorical genius, but crafted with all the design, concentration and seriousness that a carefully structured poem demands. It is something which is not just inherited by word of mouth or birth, but requires the intellectual and critical faculties to understand, analyse and discard as necessary. Arguments can rage over whether the likes of Franzen listed above deserve their place among the titans: but for now, in this moment, Heaney can rightfully claim that position in poetry. The question he’s more interested in, you suspect, is where he as a poet stands in the human chain. But there seems to be too much life left in him to judge that quite yet.

David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist. He is chairing the debate Poetry and the Tyranny of Relevance on Sunday 31 October at the Battle of Ideas festival in London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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