A comment Mark Robinson made in the days following Seamus Heaney’s death in August resonated with me. He said he had learned as much about poetry and poetics from Heaney’s critical writing and essays as from his poems. I only ever got to hear Heaney read his poetry once. I never met him, let alone was taught by him, yet I think of him as one of the great teachers in my life. The advice and teacherly example in his poems is justly famous:
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light. (‘North’)
I would argue his essays are just as rich a word-hoard of wisdom and delight, to use two of his favourite words.
Here is the beginning of Omphalos, Part 1 of ‘Mossbawn’, the first essay of Preoccupations (1980):
I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside out back door. It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s.
Everything that Heaney achieved and set out to do in his essays is in here I think. Right from the off, there is the presence and influence of learning upon thinking and interpretation of reality: ‘omphalos, meaning the navel, and hence the stone…’ carrying with it the expectation that the reader’s intelligence and learning is at least as well-stocked and up to speed, but, in case it is not, also bearing a tone of benevolent reassurance. We get that in the repetition of the word, ‘omphalos, omphalos, omphalos‘, and in the marvellous visual and sonic image of that farmyard pump. It is as though he is putting his arm around the reader in forewarning of the esoteric language which follows, but not to worry, in a minute he will get on with some talk about tractors. His epithets are Heaney in microcosm, the Anglo-Saxon hand-tool of ‘blunt’, and the romanticised longing of ‘falling’. As prose it is hypnotic, sonorous and persuasive as a lullaby, one long, complex sentence followed by a simple one, bringing us back to earth as it were: ‘It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s.’
It is possible, however, that, achieved and perfect though this, none of it carries the same weight as the one-syllable word that sets it all going, beautifully and craftily rendered invisible by the time we reach the word ‘Greek’: ‘I’. What Heaney does in all his great essays is to place himself both at the centre (that word again) and to the side of the action. A proper sleight of hand in plain view, ‘I’ is a word we do not see again for the rest of that first paragraph, until the start of the next one, some 180 words or so later. Yet not for one second do we doubt that this happened, in that place, at that time, in the manner the writer describes it. It is a masterful exhibition of writing which is both authoritative and without ego.
Pick any of Heaney’s great set-pieces and these tropes and themes are repeated. The disastrous and abandoned recording of poems and music with his friend David Hammond at the start of ‘The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac and a Knocker’. His aunt planting a chestnut in a jam jar at the start of ‘The Placeless Heaven’. Robert Pinsky sharing his new translation of Czeslaw Milosz’ ‘Incantation’ ‘in the upstairs study of a silent house, empty that afternoon except for ourselves’. Robert Lowell’s remark to Heaney that his dolphin sonnet (‘My dolphin, you only guide me by surprise’) was itself ‘set-piece, set-piece’. Not least is the impression that he was as good at friendship as he was at poetic insight. But while he seems to have known everybody, you always feel it is they who are doing him the favour. The names are used, not dropped.
In the final analysis, it is this authority one looks for, recognises and returns to, taking us from personally lived and felt experience into a realm where statement, so often rejected as a modus operandi in the poems, can be formulated, however provisional and metaphorical: ‘Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe that it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines he is making up’ (‘Feeling into Words’). You can argue with that, but you can’t disprove it, as Yeats is supposed to have said about ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.
My favourite of all his lines —and I do think of them as lines, in the same way I think of his poems— occurs right at the end of his marvellous essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’, from the book of the same name (1988). It is a free-ranging tour de force which takes in Eliot, Coleridge, Anna Swir, Mandelstam, Dante, Stalin, Zbigniew Herbert, George Herbert, Elizabeth Bishop, and the writing of Christ in the sand when presented with a woman caught in adultery. Heaney describes Christ’s writing as ‘like poetry, a break with the usual life but not an absconding from it’. He goes on:
It does not say to the accusing crowd or to the helpless accused, ‘Now a solution will take place’, it does not propose to be instrumental or effective. Instead, in the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves.
This, for me, is one of the great descriptions of the effect of poetry, even when ‘faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught’. It describes the free and untrammelled entering of a space where anything can happen, but where nothing is forced. It is, paradoxically, a space of communion and solitude, of longing and completion. At the same time I also happen to think it is one of the great descriptions of good teaching, a pedagogy where the boundary between teacher and pupil is blurred for a moment, at once separately ‘summoned and released’ into self and co-reflection.