Monday, September 3, 2012

The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

One of the books I added to my own shelves this year is Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I read a few excerpts, and liked the flow of the poetry and the clarity of style.

My wife, who visits the library with the kids far more often than I do, usually picks up books from my list. Occasionally, however, she brings me something random that struck her fancy. This is one of those books.

Heaney is an Irish poet, currently in his seventies, who has been writing for the better part of the last six decades. (His name is pronounced, “SHAY-mus,” incidentally.) He has consistently insisted on being considered Irish rather than British - a distinction which appears in his writing, particularly in his numerous poems related to the Irish conflict. The Spirit Level was published in 1996, so it is one of the author’s more recent works. (Although he has published several collections since: he is certainly not slowing down.) Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year prior. This is thus the second Nobel Prize winning poet I have read this year.

The name for this collection comes from a simple tool, the device used to determine whether something is level. The most common form uses a liquid with a bubble, which will be centered in the tube when the tool is parallel to the ground. I have several of these in my garage, made of metal or plastic. I like these old fashioned wood ones, though, even if they are less reliable.

This collection contains poems on a wide variety of themes, mostly in traditional forms. Heaney is particularly fluent in blank verse, and the majority of the poems use iambic pentameter, rhymed or otherwise. Many of the poems that are rhymed use approximate rather than exact rhyme. The author also makes extensive use of the tercet.

This collection has both strengths and weaknesses. Heaney has a bit if a tendency (as do other moderns) to name-check other poets and writers within the community, many of whom are not always familiar to the reader. This also was a problem, for me at least, in the poems about the Irish conflicts. There were individuals and incidents that were probably familiar to Irish readers of the mid nineties, but were meaningless to this American reader. Needless to say, the lack of context diminished the impact of the poems.

On the other hand, Heaney writes beautifully about his friends, living and dead. He is able to use small incidents to great effect, creating an instant kinship with both the author and his friend.

Although there are many others, I particularly liked his tribute to his father-in-law, The Sharpening Stone, which contains this gem:

I thought of us that evening on the logs,
Flat on our backs, the pair of us, parallel,
Supported head to heel, arms straight, eyes front,
Listening to the rain drip off the trees
And saying nothing, braced to the damp bark.
What possessed us? The bare, lopped loveliness
Of those two winter trunks, the way they seemed
A causeway of short fence-posts set like rollers.
Neither of us spoke. The puddles waited.
The workers had gone home, saws fallen silent.
And next thing down we lay, babes in the wood,
Gazing up at the flood-face of the sky
Until it seemed a flood was carrying us
Out of the forest park, feet first, eyes front,
Out of November, out of middle age,
Together, out, across the Sea of Moyle.

Another great line is to be found in the tribute to another Irish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid.

At your wits’ end then, always on the go
To the beach and back, taking heady bearings
Between the horizon and the dictionary,

In many ways, this is my ideal of a life, lived by taking those heady bearings between the horizon and the dictionary. Just a great line and a marvelous word-picture.

I also liked the longer poem, Mycenae Lookout, which offers an interesting take on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon by the night watchman. The poem is in five sections, with each in a different form, from heroic couplets in the first to the stark tercets of the second, which have either three or four syllables. This second section, regarding the captive Cassandra, is a brutal melding of form and language, with a couple of face-slappingly shocking and effective uses of vulgarity. After reading the play earlier this year, I thought that Heaney’s particular musings were an excellent addition to the experience.

As I noted earlier, Heaney has a knack for the small incident. I recognized myself in a couple. In A Sofa, he describes playing “train” with his siblings similarly to how our family did. Likewise, The Flight Path includes a passage where the narrator attempts to find his own house from above as he flies over it. This is absolutely like me - I spend too much time trying to line up what I see with my mental map of wherever we are.

Two more poems stand out to me as excellent. The first is the opening poem in the collection, and probably one of Heaney’s better known works, The Rain Stick. My wife read it before she checked the book out, and decided it was worth a look for this one alone.

Up-end the stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
A sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
The glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

Also a beautiful, and instantly recognizable picture to any musician or music lover.

Perhaps my favorite was this one, entitled Mint. The approximate rhymes, internal rhymes, and the rhythm itself tend to disguise the fact that this is a truly traditional poetic form: a four line stanza rhymed ABAB. Like the above poem, this one is best read aloud, and more than one time.

It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

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