Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thanks, Seamus.

Seamus Heaney passed away yesterday. I felt that I had to break my blog silence and write about it. There have been some really lovely obituaries written about him, most notably in The Paris Review and The Guardian. If I'm honest, I'm surprised at myself for feeling so emotional about it all, having adopted a rather juvenile sneer against Heaney as a bored 14-year old in school.. The sneer never quite shifted. Indeed, my personal poetry preferences have never really been Irish, or Northern Irish, or whatever. I have generally rejected learning about the great Irish writers of the past, so when my University friends were studying Beckett and Yeats, I opted for American Literature 101, mixed with a bit of creative writing and Elizabethan Theatre (which I bombed out at, catastrophically).

I suppose if I really think about it there are valid reasons why I pushed Irish poetry and writing away. My parents were talking about Heaney last night and with every reminiscence, there was a reference to an event from the Troubles. Together with John Hume, for my parents, I think Heaney represented their voices at a time when they couldn't speak. Coming from the same mid-Ulster area, same type of socio-economic background. The way my parents talked about him, it was as if they'd been to school with him. Indeed, the priest who baptised me was in Heaney's class at St. Columb's.

For me though, Heaney represented a towering block, a Granddad like figure that I couldn't seem to force myself to like, or to appreciate. A few years ago I read an Introduction to an anthology of Irish writing where the female editor played around with the Heaney quote, "whatever you say, say nothing" to illustrate how women and women writers in Ireland/Northern Ireland are merely submissive figures. And I suppose I latched onto that, immaturely.

So I was surprised to feel like the wind had been knocked out of me yesterday. And reading all the articles and memoirs, seeing quotes from poems I didn't think I knew but somehow did know... When I read lines like the following, from 'Squarings' and think about my best friend who is strong like the Causeway and has that wild force that is beyond possibility. And the ugly but stunning beauty of the Antrim coast.

When you sat, far-eyed and cold, in the basalt throne
Of “the wishing chair” at Giant’s Causeway,
The small of your back made sense of the firmament.

Like a papoose at sap-time strapped to a maple-tree,
You gathered force out of the world-tree’s hardness.
If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone.

But you were only goose-fleshed skin and bone,
The rocks and wonder of the world were only
Lava crystallized, salts of the earth

The wishing chair gave savour to, its kelp
And ozone sharpening your outlook
Beyond the range of possibility.

The way I feel about some of these words, and others, has been written hundreds of times in the last 24hours. It's like Heaney is able to take the big things and make them small, take them into your home and your heart. I'm confused at myself and ashamed that I have acted like such a precocious snob in overlooking Heaney. Or getting wrapped up in the emotion of it all, enjoying the national mourning that Ireland does so well that I'm happily lolling around in my Northern Irish/Irishness/whatever-ness just to be part of something?

One thing I am sure of however is that the link between Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney is strong. I spent this afternoon re-reading 'The Indefatigable Hoof-taps: Sylvia Plath', which Heaney wrote as part of his 1986 TS Eliot lecture series. It is an excellent essay where Heaney outlines what he believes to be Plath's strengths and weaknesses as a poet. As he was such good friends with Ted Hughes, I've often wondered how much that friendship had to do with the concluding parts of this essay because it seems like Heaney makes what I feel are simplistic judgements on her poetry - after writing a series of wonderfully thoughtful and detailed sections on Plath's artistic abilities. Judging 'Edge' as "a suicide note, to put it extremely" (165) and patronizing her work citing "youth" and "unbearable duress" as reasoning behind her apparent extremism, it strikes me that Heaney's criticism of Plath may have been better served if he considered the 1963 poems as a completely separate "phase" than her 1962 works. It seems impossible to me to compare 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Edge' as part of the same outburst of creativity.

However,  'The Indefatigable Hoof-taps' is a beautiful essay. Looking at my previous annotations, I've written the word "beautiful" five times throughout. Heaney appreciated Plath and I loved that he has the insight to compare her final poems to Ezra Pound as well as the line where he talks about "what is exciting to observe in this poem ['Elm'] is the mutation of voice; from being a relatively cool literary performance, aware of its behaviour and as a stand-in for a tree, it gradually turns inwards and intensifies" (162). Tim Kendall remarked that Plath and Heaney share a kindred poetic spirit because they transform/use alternative methods of language to encounter issues they both felt were problematic. I really agree with this and think it's so apparent in much of Heaney's output. I posted a youtube video of 'Blackberry Picking' on Twitter yesterday and feel that poem is so Plathian and that there is so much else going on in the piece than the surface words alone.

Since I learned of Heaney's passing, there has been a strange hole in my heart. It feels like Ireland is off-kilter, or that a lynch-pin has been removed from the motor/the heart of the country. Really, what Seamus Heaney has given me, as someone from Tyrone with an interest in poetry, is stability. Maybe that's a strange choice of word. But when you grow up being taught Heaney in school, when his home place is 40mins up the road from your home place, poetry doesn't feel so far away. You read in feminist criticism books about the struggle women felt coming to writing. But for me, whether it was the odd attempt at creative writing or going off to University to study English and not even blinking an eye, I know it was Heaney who paved the way. I may have felt in awe of his huge force and legacy, but never uninvited. Along with Patrick Kavanagh, to know that someone else came from the same boggy part of the world as you and had a claim on letters was very important and necessary. For that, and the words, thank you very much Seamus Heaney. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thank you for this. Truly a great poet has been lost.

suki said...

Lovely, thanks Maeve

suki said...

Lovely, thanks Maeve

suki said...

Lovely, thanks Maeve

Anonymous said...

I identified with so much here. Great post!

Rehan Qayoom said...

I came to Heaney through Hughes and felt some of those emotions you've described in your eloquent and touching tribute most strongly during the live funeral transmission when I realised I was witnessing the passing of great man. I had the good fortune to see him at Ted Hughes' commemoration in Poets' Corner. I have several favourite Heaney poems, among them are 'Sloe Gin', some of the 'Clearances' poems, the 'Glanmore Sonnets' particularly the one about the weather forecast which reaches extraordinary heights in its rhythms and music and reminds of Auden's consternate line 'Just reeling off their names is every so comfy'. Another favourite poem is 'Lightenings: viii' about the phenomenon of the Fata Morgana mentioned in the annals of Clonmacnoise:

But there is a particular kind of silence which falls after a life like Coleridge‘s and perhaps it should be observed.

It is an expectant and companionable silence, I think; the silence before the questions begin, and the reckonings are made. It is like the silence in a concert hall when a symphony has just been played. The music has ended, but it hasn‘t in any conceivable way finished.

This is the peculiar music of biography, haunting and uniquely life-like for a moment, but always incomplete and unsatisfactory and sending out many echoes into the future.

(Richard Holmes. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1998).

It will be difficult to fill the space, the sibilant silent o gape in literature he leaves behind.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I disturb you, I just wanted to confirm that the Plath Profiles Links are not working.
Please, can someone do something?
Thank you so much,

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi Gabrielle - the Plath Profiles links are working on my computer fine.

Are you accessing the correct URL?

What can't you access from your side?

Zoë said...

This was beautiful Maeve, I feel very uneducated about Heaney, besides reading Beowulf as an undergrad!

BridgetAnna said...

Anyy (private or otherwise) way I can get a PDF of aforementioned "Hoof Taps?"

loved the post!


The Plath Diaries said...

BridgetAnna -

Unfortunately I don't have a PDF of it (unavailable on JSTOR!). I had to purchase the collection of essays to get my hands on it. That said, it is a great book so perhaps you could get one via Amazon used or new (cheaper option!).

Sorry I can't help!

Julio J. Hernández said...

Thanks, Maeve.

We can remember the article '“Gleaning the Unsaid Off the Palpable”: Seamus Heaney’s Response to Sylvia Plath' by Toni Saldivar in Plath Profiles: He analyzes the “The Indefatigable Hoof-taps: Sylvia Plath.”

Also, Maria Johnston quotes it in
"Sylvia Plath’s Vital Presence in Contemporary Irish Poetry":

Julio J. Hernández said...

Sorry, should be "She analyzes..." instead of "He...".