The Emperor's New Book
By Toh Hsien Min
In my other life as a competitive blind-taster, I have noticed a phenomenon I call the Chateau Latour effect, after one of the most expensive and prestigious wines it is possible to buy: often there is a marked reluctance to criticise a bottle of Latour, even though the estate occasionally produces duds. Because, d-uh, it’s Latour.
Seamus Heaney is the Chateau Latour of poetry. Canonised, Nobel-Prized, Whitbread-Prized and all but apotheosised, Heaney releases books to the kind of instant acclaim the Bordelais can only envy. His last two books of poetry, The Spirit Level (1996) and Beowulf (1999), picked up Whitbread Prizes despite being averagely good and a translation so liberal as to be faithless respectively. Now his latest collection, Electric Light, is already garnering praise. The trouble is, it’s Heaney on autopilot, crashing indiscriminately into tradition and his own context.
Heaney himself is aware of his situation. In a number of early poems, Heaney sets out his stall. ‘At Toome Bridge’ portrays a state of being, without explanation. Why “negative ions” are “poetry to me” Heaney doesn’t explain, preferring to brush aside argument in ‘Lupins’ by intimating that his flowers “stood for something. Just by standing”. This has become the Heaney method: the aesthetics of trickery, the emperor’s new clothes. If “none of this surpassed our understanding”, has it surpassed yours? So critics of the calibre of Matthew Sweeney and Harry Clifton dare not call Heaney’s bare-faced bluff, preferring to accept “recognition / That made no sense” (‘Montana’).
As a result, Heaney gets to include indulgent poems such as ‘Known World’, about a literary conference in Belgrade, where he celebrates his own iconic status, quoting his own scribbled notes. And he almost “gets / Away with it”. Despite the elbow-room he has created for himself, Heaney exposes an underlying insecurity, not even so much in the arrogating foible described in ‘Castalian Spring’ as in a profoundly ill-advised grappling with literary tradition.
One of the dominant texts in Heaney’s collection is Virgil’s Eclogues. Heaney translates the ninth Eclogue into plain vanilla, writes two of his own and alludes to the form in other poems. While the Eclogues do deserve more attention, Virgil has become one of those poets whose influence on world literature has solidified into convention. The great English poets were keenly aware of the Virgilian career. Edmund Spenser, for example, used the sophisticatedly rustic eclogue form in the Shepheardes Calendar to launch his career, then published moderately ambitious poems (notably with political themes) even as he developed the Faerie Queene, while Alexander Pope built up from his pastorals, through his essays and mock-heroic poems, to the Dunciad. Meanwhile, the politics of Virgil develops from the confused Arcadia of post-44 BC that many have since wrongly associated with escapism, through the Georgics’ vision of hope within uncertainty, to the glorious fulfilment of the Aeneid. Seen in the context of tradition, Heaney’s eclogues occur at the wrong ends of both his poetic career and the political history of Ireland. It may be tempting to attribute cynicism to the first Heaney collection since Door into the Dark (1969) to be published during a time of peace in Northern Ireland, for Heaney makes Virgil bless the child thus: “Let her never hear close gunfire or explosions”, opening the poem up to being read as insinuating that distant ones are okay.
More probably, the present use of eclogue suggests shades of political or literary naivėte. The latter is encouraged by lapses of judgement, such as positioning the ‘Glanmore Eclogue’ next to Virgil’s and thus amplifying its clumsiness; but the alternative is worse: it is Heaney signalling recognition of his own decline, or, more tellingly, indicating that, when he quotes the fourth Eclogue for the epigraph to ‘Bann Valley Eclogue’ (“Sicilian muses, a song somewhat more grand!”), he already knows that he will never produce an Aeneid.
Another shade that looms large over Electric Light is Beowulf, which is unsurprising given that Heaney was simultaneously finishing his translation of the Old English epic and writing for this collection. Heaney’s Beowulf should be seen as just that: Heaney’s Beowulf. Despite understanding the poem and its contexts, Heaney made deliberate choices to soften the Anglo-Saxon angularity and infuse it with post-Norman niceties and Irish rhythms and diction under the shield of a “philological Big Rock Candy Mountain”, and though at least there Heaney desisted from figuratively setting Grendel’s arm “in the morning dew” (as he does in ‘The Border Campaign’), he had already come close to gentrifying the visceral. The translation is still a form of reverse cultural colonialism, but Anglo-Saxon flavour, ironically, impacts on Electric Light. Heaney’s vernacular compounds, such as “flood-slubs”, “alder-dapple” and “hurt-in-hiding”, is a key characteristic of Anglo-Saxon, and not of Irish English. Heaney also draws up Hopkins, the most notable writer influenced by Old English after J.R.R. Tolkien, with the sprung rhythms of “Wave-clip and flirt, tide-slap and flop and flow”. By and large, these are positive touches; some occur, for example, in a moving elegy to Ted Hughes that includes a substantial and almost exact quote from Heaney’s Beowulf. Yet the title of that elegy, ‘On His Work In The English Tongue’, sounds decidedly suspect. Heaney projects on the English language a foreignness, not like “a thing allowed” but a tongue allowed; and attributing this to praise of Hughes is denied by the generic status of language within the poem.
Evidently Heaney’s allegiances still lie with the Gaeltacht (the Gaelic-speaking counties of Ireland), even if another Anglo-Saxonism, “wildtrack”, appears in the pre-Troubles nostalgia poem titled ‘The Gaeltacht’. Elsewhere, Heaney travels to Spain and can think only in the terms of the Gaeltacht. To that extent, one wishes Paul Muldoon could have sidled by with his errata: for “Gaeltacht”, read “Gaoltext”. Heaney approaches the wit of his Irish compatriot at times – one would have loved to see what Muldoon would have made of the literary conference notes or the ‘Sonnets to Hellas’ – yet it is only in reading the careers of the two poets side by side that one really appreciates how much Heaney has enabled Muldoon. Heaney’s is an intellectual poetry that dances on the edge of the comprehensible and that expects the reader to make sense of what periphery he gives; but his sobriety holds firm even as the corner of his lip twitches. Muldoon pushes the envelope, but Heaney’s refusal or inability to do so, while elsewhere very effective, weighs down an insubstantial collection such as this.
The collection is oppressed also by its second part – a collection of some rather dull elegies; it’s almost as if Heaney had taken a look at his generation of poets and become aware of mortality. The elegy to Joseph Brodsky, whom Heaney was very close to, is especially appalling: not only is Heaney not W.H. Auden, Brodsky falls far short of W.B. Yeats. And while the ghosting technique of ‘Would They Had Stay’d’ is as good as Eliot’s, the allusion to the witches in Macbeth is most unfortunate.
There are some fine poems, nonetheless; ‘Out of the Bag’, the last section of ‘The Loose Box’, ‘The Little Canticles of Asturias’ and ‘Sonnets From Hellas’ are all intelligent and convincing. However, it is less than surprising that arguably the most compelling poem in the collection is ‘Ballynahinch Lake’, a reminder of vitality that strikes a blow against living as an automaton, where the existential trembling of the “driver’s brow” reminds us that though “big sure sweeps and dips/ Above the water” may not equate “Translating in and out of the house of life”, it is the heaving against the air we feel.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001