Energy, Balance, Outbreak: Seamus Heaney's Poetry Makes Everything Happen

By Burnside, John | New Statesman (1996), December 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Energy, Balance, Outbreak: Seamus Heaney's Poetry Makes Everything Happen


Burnside, John, New Statesman (1996)


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

New Selected Poems, 1988-2013

Seamus Heaney

Faber & Faber, 222pp. 18.99 [pounds sterling]

In September 1994 Seamus Heaney revisited Tollund in Denmark, the imaginative locus of his fourth collection of poems, Wintering Out (1972). With the glimmer of an end to the Troubles in view, after the Provisional IRA's cessation of violence over the summer and Albert Reynolds's recent meeting with Gerry Adams and John Hume in Dublin, the conclusion of the poem Heaney wrote that same month (the date is carefully noted) reflects a mood of growing hope:

        ... it was user-friendly outback
   Where we stood footloose, at home
      beyond the tribe,

   More scouts than strangers, ghosts
      who'd walked abroad

   Unfazed by light, to make a new
      beginning

   And make a go of it, alive and sinning,
   Ourselves again, free-willed again,
     not bad.

Until that point, being "at home beyond the tribe" seemed possible only at the individual level, a matter of personal integrity that, for all its innate decency, was lonely, uncertain and nurtured mostly by friendship, books and the non-human world. What it lacked was a sense of community: integrity, at that point, meant to stand outside, to be one of the uncommitted. In fact, ten years earlier, in Station Island, Heaney, who had become acutely aware of Yeats's dictum that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity", had conveyed that non-combatant condition perfectly in "Sandstone Keepsake". The poet finds himself under surveillance during a walk at Inishowen:

   Anyhow, there I was with
      the wet red stone
   in my hand, staring across at the
      watch-towers
   from my free state of image and allusion,
   swooped on, then dropped by trained
      binoculars:

   a silhouette not worth bothering about,
   out for the evening in scarf and waders
   and not about to set times wrong or right,
   stooping along, one of the venerators.

It is interesting how Heaney portrays himself as a near-childlike figure here (A A Milne's Christopher Robin, that champion of "just going along, listening to all the things you can't hear", comes to mind) and there is more than a hint of self-deprecation in the irony of "my free state of image and allusion" (not to mention the wryness of "not worth bothering about"). But the achievement of remaining "one of the venerators" is significant. It was a position that many shared in the mid-1980s, not because of any single or local issue, but because "the worst" appeared to be firmly in the ascendant and it seemed likely that the legacy of the Reagan-Thatcher era was going to affect us all very badly for decades to come (as it did, and continues to do).

For some, with the collapse of the new left and the rise of a dog-eat-dog, no-such-thing-as-society mindset, the only honourable path that remained seemed to be what Heaney calls, later in that same collection, a "migrant solitude". Everywhere, the times were out of joint and the question of what was to be done grew ever more urgent. In such circumstances, many feel that poetry is nothing more than an effete gesture of right-mindedness, or a mere entertainment, like some intellectual puzzle or game of literary trivia. Heaney's work showed that they could not be more mistaken.

It was Auden who famously claimed that "poetry makes nothing happen", though what he meant by "nothing" is open to discussion. Yet if we choose to take that dictum at face value, there is no better test of its veracity than the work collected here--where, at the very least, poetry makes compassion happen (and compassion in turn gives rise to other events). There are, also, merits in its refusals--in what it will not aid and abet, as when the poet, returning from New York to Belfast, is confronted on the train by his old adversary, the man of violent action, in "The Flight Path":

          So he enters and sits down
   Opposite and goes for me head on. … 

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