On first teaching Heaney

Heaney CountryA Feature to honour Seamus Heaney, by MAX RICHARDS

 ‘…load every rift of your subject with ore.’ Keats to Shelley, 16 August 1820

The teaching of poetry was my thing at La Trobe University from 1967 when, aged 30, I arrived in Melbourne to join the new English Department there. I stayed on till age 67, and in that time Seamus Heaney gradually became, from a young poet it would be refreshing to teach, a fixture on poetry courses whom several of us lectured on and many taught.

Derick Marsh, the foundation professor, expected his appointees to teach the classics from Shakespeare to TS Eliot but also to range freely. When the department moved into a new building, he set aside a room furnished with pigeonholes. Sample poems and other texts and excerpts were numbered and kept available, ‘duplicated’ in those days before cheap photocopying by secretarial typing and ‘running-off’, for small group teaching. Derick suggested I add contemporary poems that I liked to the collection. This I did.

For many years students were offered, besides the regular courses, extra classes, not examined, called practical criticism, prac-crit for short. The term came from the late 1920s Cambridge English Faculty work of IA Richards and others. Removed from the pressures of reading the scheduled long books and plays and poems time-tabled strictly for study, discussion and writing about, this was discussion in small groups, freer, more spontaneous,  coming unprepared and open-minded each week to easily manageable pieces of writing. Here students would more readily develop independent judgment, widen their tastes and discover different ways of enjoying and discussing the written word.

A group could follow through with such selections sequences of writers of the past and the present in directions not prescribed by the regular courses. Comparisons and contrasts across the centuries were stimulating possibilities.

In my prac-crit classes I often tried to introduce them to recent poems from several countries, in the hope that their various pleasures would leave my students curious about new writing from not just the British Isles but Australia and the US, and what was for a few years called Commonwealth Literature and then post-colonial. I stocked a few pigeonholes with poems by Judith Wright and Randolph Stow, MacDiarmid and MacCaig, Fairburn and Curnow, Lowell and Plath, Derek Mahon, and quite a few others.

A colleague from England remarked to me that his students were not warming much to poetry from there – might they wake up to poems from nearer at hand? He had read a poem of mine called ‘Hawke’s Bay’ (set in that New Zealand province, but it might as well have been rural Australia), had it duplicated without my name on, and tried it on a group – with me in modest attendance. No, it didn’t wake them to a new sense of relevance – that pigeonhole never needed restocking. My point is that our generation of poets and would-be poets believed in the local, the regional, wherever it be.

Seamus Heaney with Armour

Seamus Heaney with Armour

I should like to say that Heaney, my contemporary, took my fancy very early in his career and to say the same of his Australian contemporary, Les Murray. In both cases it required a strong tip from an occasional visitor, the poet Jamie Grant, one of our early graduates, who began in publishing as a traveller for CUP. So it was that about the same time, 1976, I got hold of Murray’s The Vernacular Republic, his first selected poems, and Heaney’s first three books. These I sent for from Blackwells, filling out and posting airmail one of their order forms: ‘send all Seamus Heaney’. A packet arrived, bigger than expected, as it included a large format leather-bound book of poems got out for collectors of fine books, and costing £50. I posted it back, an economy I have since regretted. But now I was onto Heaney, who offered the pleasures one expected from reading Frost and other non-modernist poets.

‘Digging’ and the other distinctive early poems resonated with local piety and attachment to the freshly experienced and to personal memory. So did much of Murray, overlaid at times with the encyclopaedic and the complexly allusive.

Preoccupations, Heaney’s first prose collection appeared in 1980, and I reviewed it. In the foreword Heaney apologises for ‘the slightly constricted utterance of somebody who underwent his academic rite of passage when practical criticism held great sway in the academy.’

The term ‘practical criticism’ fell into disfavour, but as ‘close reading’ I like to think it is still at the foundation of what we do when we treat a text as literature. In my roundabout way, I am acknowledging that the poems Heaney the former farm-boy wrote, by being the poems of an Eng-Lit graduate of that era, are especially satisfying for readers brought up in that reading tradition. It was not necessary to go through an Eng-Lit university department – my secondary schooling in Auckland in the early ’fifties involved sessions with grouped poems and prose samples the authors of which were kept from us until we’d attempted an independent close reading. Perhaps everywhere in the English-speaking world poets were being put to similar tests – in the US the movement was called The New Criticism – and Shelley (recall Keats’ advice) and Swinburne were dissolving under the scrutiny, while Donne and Yeats and Eliot stood up. The intensity of this mostly-academic activity when practised exhaustively led to jokes about ‘the lemon-squeezer school of criticism’.

Heaney’s rapid canonisation was due to his attractive subjects and themes, and to his poems’ suitability for contemporary criticism. Heaney sensed that the moment of practical criticism was over. But I think it is fair to say that in his long prolific career as a poet, Heaney never gave up writing for that critical readership. True, his reading was wide across several poetries, and he was open to many influences, but first and last he achieved poems that satisfy those 1950s expectations.

Field Work (1979), with ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, was being close-read soon after in Melbourne when Danny Cusack, a politics postgraduate at the University of Melbourne advertised a Heaney reading group he proposed to convene. I was among the first to join. Cusack (living in Ireland in recent years) wrote as follows soon after hearing of Heaney’s death and contacting old Melbourne friends:

The group started at my house in Drummond St, North Carlton  October 1981, then moved very briefly to Jon Hewitt’s place in Carlton May 1983, thence to Newman College until April 1985 (when I departed for Ireland). Three-and-a-half years in all. Though I think it continued in some shape or form (or was later resurrected) after I left.

I think we would have been the first people in the world to discuss some of the poems in the Station Island sequence, extracting them as we did from American literary magazines long before they were published in book form. Of course we studied many other Irish poets. But it was Heaney who got us started.

It is in Station Island (1984), section 8, that the poet turns back on himself with a worry about the way he had elegised his cousin Colum McCartney in ‘The Strand’. McCartney’s shade rebukes him: ‘you whitewashed ugliness…and saccharined my death…’ And in Stepping Stones (2009), Heaney, interviewed by Dennis O’Driscoll, talks about the poem and the rejoinder to it that he put in his dead cousin’s mouth (and makes clear why the poet had not attended the funeral).

Our approach to ‘The Strand’, then, takes in Heaney’s own poetic self-correction, and his comments of 2009.

If only I had taken notes of the discussions in Danny’s Heaney group!

My files in my La Trobe University English office bulged with Heaney material, including some lecture scripts, now lost since I retired and moved house twice. I emailed Brendan Ryan, once my student at La Trobe, and now a formidable poet with a strong interest in Ireland, saying that it saddened me to have no note or recollection of what students thought of Heaney during my teaching years. (Ryan grew up Catholic among dairy cows; farm life is a main subject; an early mentor was the very urban poet John Forbes. Ryan has written well on John McGahern.) He emailed back saying he himself had written for me on Heaney, and later posted me a xerox of his handwritten draft essay. (What I wrote by way of comment on the submitted assignment he has not reminded me.)

I mention these things because I should like to be able to trace the course over those years during which the poem made no great impression on me but ended by making me feel it holds in concentrated form the virtues of feeling and language that make it one of his great poems, and my current favourite.

The Strand at Lough Beg 

in memory of Colum McCartney

            All round this little island, on the strand
           Far down below there, where the breakers strive,
           Grow the tall rushes from the oozy sand.

(DANTE, Purgatorio, I, 100-3)

Leaving the white glow of filling stations
And a few lonely streetlamps among fields
You climbed the hills toward Newtownhamilton
Past the Fews Forest, out beneath the stars –
Along the road, a high, bare pilgrim’s track
Where Sweeney fled before the bloodied heads,
Goat-beards and dogs’ eyes in a demon pack
Blazing out of the ground, snapping and squealing.
What blazed ahead of you? A faked roadblock?
The red lamp swung, the sudden brakes and stalling
Engine, voices, heads hooded and the cold-nosed gun?
Or in your driving mirror, tailing headlights
That pulled out suddenly and flagged you down
Where you weren’t known and far from what you knew:
The lowland clays and waters of Lough Beg,
Church Island’s spire, its soft treeline of yew.

Whether Dante’s strand in Purgatorio resonates here for the reader, I do feel some of the richness of this poem is immediately apprehended in its opening: the dignity by association – even where filling stations are concerned; the way the night is lit; the ‘you’ that makes the newly dead man still a listener, and us readers over-hearers; the specificity of locale – place names known only to the few. But with Sweeney the bloody mythical past of Ireland comes alive (even for me an outsider). Old terror links immediately to contemporary terror in the key word ‘Blazing’, ‘blazed’. The poet does not know all the facts of his cousin’s death, but the pattern is a familiar one in those violent years. A roadblock – or a tailing vehicle flagging him down – two standard openings before a killing. The victim is beyond his safe territory, and so vulnerable. Lough Beg and Church Island are named in a way that makes home ordinary, protective, forlorn now.

There you once heard guns fired behind the house
Long before rising time, when duck shooters
Haunted the marigolds and bulrushes,
But still were scared to find spent cartridges,
Acrid, brassy, genital, ejected,
On your way across the strand to fetch the cows.
For you and yours and yours and mine fought shy,
Spoke an old language of conspirators
And could not crack the whip or seize the day:
Big-voiced scullions, herders, feelers round
Haycocks and hindquarters, talkers in byres,
Slow arbitrators of the burial ground.

When young the cousins shied from the guns of duck shooters who were other, privileged, confident. The lads who minded the dairy cows felt their disadvantage but had the solidarity of their shared working lives and their yarning about clan members gone before them. From here on the poem takes a strikingly imaginative turn: this is not what happened that recent night but how the poet’s imagination explores and makes emotionally true for us the old familiar scene of peaceful cattle suddenly being visited by the new horror: if he could have been present and before the atrocity was completed, the poet might have seen just this: his cousin on his knees needing succour. But in the absence of a first aid kit (excuse my fussy extra here), only dew on the grass can serve.

Here I first feel the intensely emotional coming together of their old shadings and the new loss. The dew for me takes on more than improvised first-aid meaning – it is the eternal generosity of the climate they worked in together giving succour. Yes, he imagines washing and dabbing ‘clean with moss’. The beautiful pathos of this for me is the wishfulness of it all. If only he could have been there… but he wasn’t except now in imagination casting round for what resonates in that early environment that made them the men they became: dew and moss ‘fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud’. In his elegy for Yeats, Auden jokes: Now Ireland has its weather still… Here Heaney transfigures that deplorable dampness into consolation and – the tender work of amateur undertaker – or priest. (Scapulars mean more to those brought up Catholic – wear them as ‘a sign of salvation’, even to ward off hellfire!)

The weight of the poem falls on the repeated word ‘green’:

With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

Others will have several ways of saying why this is so moving – for me it’s a picture, a dream or imaginative picture of how the grieved-for cousin should have been handled at the moment of death and at the shrouding soon after.

The poet has become a modest maker of ritual, the ritual is enacted by himself in painful closeness to his cousin’s body, lifting and laying, plaiting. Some years before, in ‘The Tollund Man’, Heaney had imagined a pagan ritual to help cope with these shocking deaths:

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed flesh…

In those lines Heaney was thinking of Aarhus where bog folk had been disinterred, somehow a suitable place for a new ritual for his Irish.

But ‘The Strand’ enacts in Ireland an intimate personal consecrating ritual, the poet with his murdered cousin. ‘Whitewash’? ‘Saccharine’? – we see how the charge might come up, and also how it is wide of the mark.

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half-shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

I was lucky to be able to read ‘Lough Beg’ to the gathering at the Melbourne Celtic Club in commemoration of Heaney, and feel that my voice, without any Irish timbre, could help it carry into the assembled hearts that day.

Max taught Literature at LaTrobe University and is a poet in his own right. He was involved in a Memorial for Heaney in October at the Celtic Club and read with deep feeling ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’. Tinteán commissioned him to explore his feeling for the poem.