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Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Book review: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney (2006)

Heaney loves the feel and sound of words, there’s no question about it, and he has a certain fluency with them, along with a distinct breadth of vocabulary at his command, but I found this collection obscure and disappointing. It’s the first time I’ve ever read any poems by the Nobel Prize-winning author.

He has trouble with his referents (the things he’s actually trying to talk about) and this seems to me to be a critical kind of failing for a poet, whose work ultimately floats or sinks on its ability to convey meaning. But in these poems meaning evades your grasp. It’s sort of like the feeling you get when, out walking, you see a car approaching on the carriageway but there’s a pole on the footpath ahead of you. The distance between you and the pole, and between the car and the pole, and the speeds at which the two of you are moving, mean that you never see the car, just the pole. That’s how I felt reading this collection of mature poetry (Heaney got the gong in 1995). There was always something getting in the way.

With the prose pieces in this book you find the same threadbare quality as with the verse. In the section titled ‘Found Prose’ there are a number of pieces, ‘The Lagans Road’, ‘Tall Dames’ and ‘Boarders’. In these, even though the poet has all the room in the world to work with because it’s prose not poetry he’s writing, the referents still evade your grasp. Unaccountable! And where you can make sense of what he’s writing about in these prose pieces, the poetry is thin and unsatisfying. So even where there are enough words to convey the meaning the poet has in his mind, the effect of the ideas contained in the language is pale.

It furthermore never escapes the bounds of the wonky, haphazard syntax that is placed by the author on the page. And the very physicality of the language, which is meant to be a feature, makes the words resist the type of suggestive sense-making that flares up like ideas in some contemporary poetry through the material of the language itself. As you find for example with the excellent work of the Australian poet Les Murray, a contemporary of Heaney’s who is still with us.

When it comes down to it, Heaney’s work is simply just not very good. Certainly not good enough for a Nobel Prize for Literature. The apposite word in Japanese is “gutai-teki”: “physical”, “of this world”. I use it to mean that things here are shackled rigidly to the material world. No chance of anything escaping the tug of gravity and flying up into the air. Nothing abstract or theoretical to upset the punters, although there is a certain cloying nostalgia that like a cranky uncle inhabits some of the poems in this collection.

What most forcibly cemented the idea of the materiality of the poetry in my mind was reading ‘The Harrow-Pin’, which is about a part of an agricultural implement that is towed at the back of a tractor, and that intrudes into the earth to help farmers break up clods in order to prepare the soil for sowing seeds for crops. The tool is made of iron and is large and hard. I had to look up “harrow” on the internet in order to understand what the object is used for. Here, at a glance, rest the poetics of Seamus Heaney.

He savours his words, rolling them around in his mouth like a piece of hard candy as he sucks the goodness out of them before offering up the consequence, like a thin trail of spit sent up against a wall, for the appreciation of the reader, as though he were offering the viscera of a slaughtered goat to be read by a soothsayer. “See how far it goes!” you can almost hear him shout as he checks out where his latest gob has started to run down the vertical of the painted surface toward the horizontal of the patient dry ground. (“Use the hose next time you want to water the plants.” You’re only being helpful.)

Heaney desperately wants to sing, you can feel the passion inside him, even in his dotage, but he just chants like a tired old monk. Much better, from a slightly earlier generation, is R.S. Thomas, the Welsh poet and Anglican clergyman. 

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