How I learned to love Seamus Heaney’s poetry
Michael Foley was not a fan in his early Belfast years but grew to appreciate the genius in his own backyard
Seamus Heaney at a turf bog in Bellaghy in 1986 wearing his father’s coat, hat and walking stick. Photograph courtesy of Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives/John J Burns Library/Boston College
Usually everything fragments and flies apart, but occasionally there are strange, unexpected reconnectings and recombinings, late recognitions and reconciliations. In just such a roundabout way I left and came back to Seamus Heaney.
I knew him as the very big fish in the very small pond of Belfast poetry in the late sixties and early seventies – and regarded his work then as everything that poetry should not be, a rejection of the urban world for pastoral nostalgia, and of adult life for childhood nostalgia, a cautious upholding of all the Irish pieties (especially the Holy Trinity of nation, church and family), and an avoidance of anything emotionally disturbing or intellectually challenging.
This poetry was prim in content, solemn in tone and muscle-bound in language, and in striking contrast to the man himself, who was exuberantly disrespectful, mischievous, gossipy, funny and scatological. I wish I could recall a long joke he told about cunnilingus, with the punchline “smokey bacon flavour”. But at least I remember his comment, prefaced with silent but all the more intense heaving mirth, on an ageing academic who had just married a young woman: “He’ll be jumping on like a clegg”. What made this even funnier was that the academic in question was an extremely thin, wizened man with long, insect-like arms and legs.
Yet another problem was the contrast with the work of Patrick Kavanagh, a poet from the same small-farm background as Heaney, who had been aware of the demand for rural authenticity expressed in suitably “poetic” language, but refused to cater to this market and instead developed a style that was freer, lighter, more colloquial and blithe, based on a philosophy he described as “the art of not caring”. Kavanagh’s term for the type of writing he rejected was “ponderosity”, a word that seemed the perfect description of Heaney’s work.
All this drove me to make fun of Heaney in The Honest Ulsterman, the magazine I was editing at the time. He took it remarkably well, with no trace of resentment. Another personal characteristic not apparent in the poetry then was an almost reckless generosity. I remember him buying a big round for a group of poets with a cheque and, as he signed, remarking drolly, “cries like dead letters sent to dearest him that lives, alas! away”. This encouraged the company to compete with boastful stories about the size of their overdrafts, and me to withdraw to silent, guilty drinking, ashamed to have shockingly unpoetic savings, not at all the Rimbaud I pretended to be.
Heaney responded to the mockery with some of his own, a poem, Letter to an Editor, that appeared in The Honest Ulsterman. This is unlikely ever to be collected and is the kind of thing many writers would suppress – but Heaney himself still liked it many decades later, as he revealed in his book of interviews, Stepping Stones.
LETTER TO AN EDITOR
Michael, you know I’m an expert with the spade
and get official backing for each action:
then stand back, for this folk-museum blade
can choose to lop off handshake or erection.
I warn you, your wee fly bedsitter-king
sweats in the palm of this Rachman of the arts
who comes with fake concern and a Claddagh ring
to evict him from the reek of his own farts.
(God but this H.U. stuff, so sweet and sour
is easy going as the turnip snedder –
I’d say at least twelve quatrains to the hour,
including tea-breaks, which gives us a newsletter
eight times a day, going at minimum rate.
There’s a vocation lost, but what’s the use?
I should have read, I realize too late,
not ‘The Great Hunger’ but ‘Collected Pruse’.)
Now didn’t you learn it all from Kavanagh,
the slapdash truth and the well-meaning lie?
Distrust your solemn man. Go for the ba.
And ironically don’t care – spit in their eye.
Your prose style, I must say, is excellent,
fit instrument for cheek-slash and death blow
but is all that courage at the sticking point
screwed up by the real thing or some dildo?
Official gadflies are co-opted. Then beware.
You too might lunge and find your angry stick
is dunlopillo. Who do you think you are?
Rare Ben Jonson? Swift? Dryden? Or Ulick?
We both know the Big Study and Pre Par,
the half-day syndrome and the day-boy lunch.
It would be a pity to spoil things as they are
with a clip on the ear or rabbit punch
so instead I write to say I am fed up
finding myself too much in gossip columns.
Show proper respect, you editorial dope.
You’re dealing with a prefect from St. Columb’s.
Shortly after this Heaney left Belfast for Berkeley, no doubt to get away from the gossip columns, and I left for London, partly to avoid being co-opted as an official gadfly, partly to get away from drinking too much, partly to escape the sectarian hatreds and partly in search of alternatives to the Irish experience.
Heaney’s poetry of spade and bog seemed to have nothing to say to me so I paid little attention to his later books, and sought inspiration in European and American poets – especially in the Dream Songs of John Berryman, which incorporated so much everyday experience and expressed it with such vitality and humour. But eventually the cult of personality, as practised by Kavanagh and Berryman, began to wear thin. I got bored with myself and my preoccupations, aware now that Kavanagh and Berryman had been impossible in similar ways – selfish, needy, demanding egotists – that their work was often slapdash, as Heaney had noted about Kavanagh, and that their lives had ended in alcoholic disorder and despair.
Two especially exciting discoveries were the thing poems of Francis Ponge, who rejected personality to write about ordinary objects like plates, tables, telephones, matchsticks and soap, and William Carlos Williams’s poetry of exuberant delight in the everyday world (“No ideas but in things”).
The world immediately around me, which in my solipsism I had never noticed, was suddenly interesting and mysterious. Hence a crucial revelation: the most effective way to re-enchant the self is to re-enchant the world. Another discovery was the process philosophy of Henri Bergson, which argued that everything, including the self, is process and that salvation is in recognising this and surrendering to process. This too had an American parallel in the work of William James, an admirer and friend of Bergson.
All this must have been in the air, probably due to a general weariness with individualism, personality, and the search for the true self, because reverence for things has become fashionable with young thinkers and has been grandly renamed as object-oriented ontology, though few acknowledge the debt to Ponge, and Bergson’s ideas are everywhere in contemporary culture, especially science, though even fewer acknowledge his influence.
So it was a shock to return to the poet obsessed by a rural childhood in the ’40s and ’50s, and find that this apparently retro poet was actually an object-oriented ontologist ahead of the trend … a thing poet.
Heaney is usually regarded as a poet of native place and people, but I prefer him as a venerator of sticks and stones, bones, gravel, slack, a sofa, a settle bed, a collection box
Sometimes it happens like this – you go round the world looking for something and it turns out to have been in your backyard all along. Heaney is usually regarded as a poet of native place and people, but I prefer him as a venerator of sticks and stones, bones, gravel, slack, a sofa, a settle bed, a collection box, a Conway Stewart pen, a schoolbag, a fireman’s helmet, a priest’s biretta, a metal stove lid and a turnip snedder.
And he is better still as a process poet recreating the use of things, conveying exactly what it feels like to lift a sack of meal, push a smoothing iron, swing a sledgehammer, step into a rowboat, cast with a spinning rod and of course sned a turnip. No one else has this mimetic gift. He is especially fond of things with significant heft, the sledgehammer, stove lid and snedder – a heavy-metal poet – and of practical tasks – a labouring poet.
But best of all are his celebrations of gratuitous process, booting a football, swinging a bag of chestnuts and turning a bicycle upside down to spin its wheels by hand-turning a pedal. This bicycle poem is particularly good because it recreates with uncanny precision a universal childhood experience likely to be forgotten in adulthood and a delight to recall. I didn’t even own a bike but I remember spinning bike wheels in just this way.
The first real grip I ever got on things
Was when I learned the art of pedalling
(By hand) a bike turned upside down, and drove
Its back wheel preternaturally fast.
I loved the disappearance of the spokes,
The way the space between the hub and rim
Hummed with transparency. If you threw
A potato into it, the hooped air
Spun mush and drizzle back into your face;
If you touched it with a straw, the straw frittered.
Something about the way those pedal treads
Worked very palpably at first against you
And then began to sweep your hand ahead
Into a new momentum – that all entered me
Like an access of free power, as if belief
Caught up and spun the objects of belief
Into an orbit coterminous with longing.
The breakthrough collection was Seeing Things, which should have been called Gripping, Hefting and Using Things, a book Heaney acknowledged as influenced by Kavanagh. He seems to have been aware of Kavanagh’s charge of ponderosity, and to have sought a lighter touch, wishing to break away from earth and take to the air, like the booted “ball that kept going/ beyond you, amazingly/higher and higher/and ruefully free”. And Kavanagh would surely have approved of the liftoff in The Pitchfork. In the early work this would have been forking hay or stuck in a bog – now it not only escaped the soil but the planet itself to become:
a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless
There are also two kite poems. In the first, from the early eighties, the kite is a “long-tailed pull of grief” that “dragged as if the bellied string/ were a wet rope hauled upon/ to lift a shoal”. In the second, written more than 20 years later and published in his last collection, the kite is a “long-tailed comet”, a “thin-stemmed flower” exuberantly veering and dipping and cavorting, “until string breaks and – separate, elate –/ The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall”.
In the beginning Heaney liked to sign himself as Antaeus, the Greek god invincible as long as he had contact with the Earth, but in the end Antaeus broke free and got totally airborne.
Michael Foley was born in 1947 in Derry, and educated at St Columb’s College and Queens University, Belfast. In 1972 he moved to London, where he still lives, and a career in teaching, culminating in 23 years at the University of Westminster lecturing in information technology. His first poems were published in 1969 in The Honest Ulsterman, a magazine he went on to edit with Frank Ormsby, and his first prose in a satirical column in the magazine Fortnight, which also serialised his first novel, The Passion of Jamesie Coyle. After retirement from teaching he wrote his first non-fiction book, The Age of Absurdity, a bestseller, and has since written three more non-fiction books.