The Comfort in Heaney

I’ve loved Seamus Heaney for years, ever since I found a copy of his poem The Early Purges at school. His work felt heavy and relevant to me, and as I read further into his verse and prose, I began to think I’d found a comfortable home. And it’s only ninety miles from my farm to the fields where Heaney grew up; that’s a fair leap in cultural terms, but it’s hardly two steps for a weather-front.

I often find that it’s hard to write about the immediacy of farming places; to capture an honest and accurate reflection of this life which lies around me. After ten years of trying, I’ve found that I’m well able to sink deeply into this landscape; deep enough to find the reality I’m searching for. But then I’m doomed to smudge that clarity with the constant desire to record and reflect the experience by writing it down. I flick between the roles of participant and observer, and I worry that authenticity dribbles away in the gap between the actual experience and my expression of it. I have to accept the fact that I’ve snagged on an impossible paradox which I can never wholly overcome; trying to capture the precise and accurate truth of being a farmer – by being a writer. And while this dilemma is true to all kinds of art and creativity, it’s doubly relevant in an agricultural world where the subject is “hard” and the poet is “soft”.

In a recent article on Seamus Heaney in the Irish Times, Michael Foley described him as “especially fond of things with significant heft, the sledgehammer, the stove lid and [turnip] snedder – a heavy metal poet – and of practical tasks – a labouring poet”. That sounds perfect to me in principle, but I’m hung up on the idea that “labouring poet” is an oxymoron; like “substantially ethereal”; “bluntly fey”. And I worry that despite Heaney’s many strengths, he was sometimes little more than an observer in scenes of rural labour. I want to believe in the authenticity of his voice, but I get suspicious.

And as always, Heaney is ahead of me. It’s deeply comforting to find him drawing the clear and reassuring line between labour and poetry in his own work. In Digging, he’s quite explicit about his role as a poet; “I’ve no spade to follow men like them / Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests / I’ll dig with it”. He seems to confirm my hope that spade and pen can make similar inroads to the same subject matter; that writing itself can be participatory, and that the “switch” between active and reflective is really a dial. Besides, if I’m occasionally uncomfortable with the authenticity of his early poems, it’s helpful to remember that Heaney was only a child at Mossbawn. I can’t expect a boy to have participated in the sweat and labour of man’s work. And he acknowledges the boundaries of complicity; and he explains the choice to use different tools as he works towards the same destination.

I’m glad to read critics like who suggest that Heaney’s first three collections of poetry (Death of a Naturalist, Door Into The Dark and Wintering Out) are actually far more than rich, descriptive nostalgia. If you buy the idea that Heaney is digging, those books can be read as the hands-on continuation of a rural tradition – the harvest of heritage into a paper barn. And that makes his work even more valuable to imagine Mossbawn simmered down like a stockbone; the bare essentials made portable in a few small pages. It can be done, and while that’s encouragement for me to grow towards, it’s testament to Heaney’s depth that he was only just getting started. Complexities would build a thousandfold during the phases of his work which came afterwards.

There’s another reassuring idea in Patrick Kavanaugh’s novel Tarry Flynn (1948). Kavanaugh and Heaney had an odd relationship, but the two overlapped for a time before Heaney streaked away like a comet and Kavanaugh crumbled. Set in rural Co. Monaghan, the novel follows the life of an idle, entitled dreamer called Tarry. He’s forever postulating and shirking his catholic responsibilities, and he takes some interesting lines on his own creativity. The best of these is that “The land keeps a man silent for a generation or two and then the crust gives way. A poet is born or a prophet”. That’s a fine expression of a shared, hereditary personality, as if generations in a family are merely moods in the same identity. But more importantly, it locates the urge to write and reflect as being within a rural tradition – a cyclical fruiting in a pattern of “hard” and “soft”. Writers and artists are not spiritual outsiders, but part of the place; digging the same materials from a different angle.

So if poetry and laborious pragmatism are knowingly connected, there’s actually a fun dialogue which can spark between them. I’ve often felt like a shirker for working indoors; that real jobs are pursued outside in the grip of strength and sweat. Heaney suffers with the same concern, but finds comfort in allowing the labourer to respond. The result is a perfect evocation of “to each their own”:

In Electric Light, a teacher is told: “Book-learning is the thing. You’re a lucky man. No stock to feed, no milking times, no tillage/Nor blisters on your hand nor weather-worries”.

Heaney often returns to the idea of “earning” your subject matter; establishing the lived credentials to write well and truly. It’s a key theme in the essay Nero, Chekov’s Cognac and a Knocker in The Government of the Tongue (1988), and it’s one of the lines between literature and journalism which continually haunt me. But Heaney is reconciled to the link between participation and reflection; what he describes as “suffering and song”. He argues that art, writing and poetic expression (on any subject) are weak or inauthentic when the mode of expression becomes preoccupied with itself. As an example, he worries that the technical puzzle of writing “lyric poetry” can become an escapist vanity-project for the writer, particularly when it is disconnected from lived reality. I was glad to see that particular thread exposed and dismembered. I’m often frustrated to find that my own writing tends towards florid window-dressing – in writing pretty puzzles, it’s no wonder I’ve felt like a sham. But when Heaney establishes that writing is part of being, it’s possible to see good poetry as profoundly participatory and authentic. He seems to say “write truly and you have nothing to fear”. I love the man for all manner of reasons, but that is both balm and provocation.

When I first came here you were always singing, a hint of the clip of the pick in your winnowing climb and attack. Raise it again, man. We still believe what we hear.

The Singer’s House

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