Kevin Saving on
District and Circle, Faber and Faber, London, 2006
This, Heaney's twelth collection, was published on the fortieth anniversary of his first, Death of a Naturalist. He has, over that period, become an almost universally celebrated - and I dare say mimicked - literary icon who once memorably wrote (a propos "the troubles"), "whatever you say, say nothing".
For me, this policy seems to have spilled over into District and Circle, 52 poems (if you include three in 'Found Prose'), many of a pastoral and/or descriptive nature.
Regularly hailed as "the greatest Irish poet since Yeats", one suspects that Heaney buys into that encomium for he displays a number of 'the master's' own faults: a less than noble self-absorbtion, insularity, and an occasional, almost naive, pretentiousness. These propensities have, of course, long been observable - as in the rather laboured correlataion of his wife, Marie, with a skunk in the 1979 love-poem 'A Skunk'.
Great poetry entails a kind of sharing and I'm uncertain how much is being shared these days. Many of the old G.M. Hopkins-esque tricks remain, however. In the present collection's second poem, a sonnet, the fourteen lines are comprised of 108 words (six of which are hyphenated), at least six sub-clause, and a parting interogative. All this occurs in just the one sentence and, though I am aware that Shakespeare and Keats - infrequently - wrote one-sentence sonnets, isn't all this mannered ultra-compression somewhat indigestible? And isn't it possible that in 'A Shiver' one of our most vaunted technicians has written both opaquely and self-indulgently?
In the title poem, District and Circle, (apparently a route used by the author as a young man), the stampede of imagery and -again- the surfeit of hyphens ('straggle-ravelled', 'herd-quiet', 'roof-wort') might well be unfathomable to any reader who has never actually travelled on the underground -and considered portentious by anyone who has.
It's hard not to be put-off by so many self-regarding literary allusions or seemingly arbitrary line-breaks; and, ultimately, not to distrust the confiding tone Heaney often selects as he embarks upon yet another, largely private, reminiscence. Once we realise that to confide is not necessarily to share, it's difficult to discern what exactly Mr Heaney is offering us here, other than an insight into his prodigeous vocabulary, extensive acqaintanceship and elaborate erudition.
The collection is at its best when at its homeliest. In 'A Chow', the great man has been offered something, evidently hot-tasting, called 'warhorse plug'. I found myself smiling at the disclosure 'The roof of my mouth is thatch set fire to/ At the burning-out of a neighbour, I want to lick/ Bran from a bucket, grit off a coping-stone'. This appears much more personal and authentic -yet even here Heaney cannot entirely eschew the literary, with the poem concluding: 'like a scorch of flame, his quid-spurt fulgent'. In more ways than I could ever fully explain, I'll always hope to avoid a fulgent quid-spurt!
There are some decent poems presented here ('The Nod', 'Stern' and 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' come to mind) but, overall,what's happened with District and Circle is a writer replete with hopnours - in my own opinion the most over-rated since Wallace Stevens - thinking that he can get away with anything. Perhaps a bonanza of acclaim can dull the self-critical faculties, as it did with Wordsworth and sometimes (heresy!) with Yeats himself.
So next time, Seamus, please: more sharing, less showing-off.
Kevin Saving © 2007