Monday, September 27, 2010

By Seamus Heaney
85 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. US$24
(Faber & Faber in UK)

Ply the Pen
By WIilliam Logan
Published, New York Times,: September 24, 2010

 For a poet, life after the Nobel can be pottering, or bookkeeping, or simply keeping busy — it’s rarely full of radical departures or stunning new poems. (Eliot called the prize a “ticket to one’s own funeral,” and indeed it proved the funeral of his poetry.) Even pottering can be difficult when you are constantly in demand to judge this prize or sign that public letter, to give a blurb to old X or a recommendation to young Y. For a poet, all life can be a distraction from the siren call of the page. When you read that Seamus ­Heaney has a secretary to help him answer correspondence, you wish he had half a dozen, and perhaps a few armed guards. Yet apart from Pasternak, who was bullied by his government, no poet has ever turned down the poisoned chalice.

Photo of Seamus Heaney  by Jemimah Kuhfeld

 Heaney is the most popular literary poet since Frost, who managed to convince most of his readers that he wasn’t a literary poet at all, that he booted up ­poems while mucking out a spring or driving a buggy — and perhaps, in a way, he did. Readers often love in Heaney what they loved in Frost, the unassumed and unassuming wisdom. Heaney has rubbed shoulders, as Frost did, with some of the most important literary figures of his day; Heaney has spent a long share of nights in hotels and on the road, as Frost did; yet often they write as if, just out the window, the cows were bawling to be milked and the first green shoots were sprouting in the fields — and as if neither man had spent more nights in a hotel than the Queen of Sheba.

In “Human Chain,” Heaney’s latest collection, the poet is again a child in the world of things, his attention drawn to objects common as a coal sack:

Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal
The lorryman would lug in open bags
And vent into a corner,

A sullen pile
But soft to the shovel, accommodating
As the clattering coal was not.

In days when life prepared for rainy days
It lay there, slumped and waiting
To dampen down and lengthen out

The fire, a check on mammon
And in its own way
Keeper of the flame.

This isn’t lump coal, the top screening from the mine, but the bottom-deck “slack coal,” the cheap bits and grindings that fall through the other meshes. This refuse coal trims the cost of the fire (hence the mention of the Bible’s Mammon). “Keeper of the flame” is its own droll joke, as if the coal, like the poet, honors the dead. Heaney is not a plain poet, at least not as plain as he seems — the poems often have to be prodded and stirred to yield their meanings.
The full review at NYT.

And for a UK review visit The Guardian.

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