30 June, 2014Issue 25.5Literary CriticismPoetryWriters

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Seamus Heaney’s Places

Rosie Lavan

Heaneys-RegionsRichard Rankin Russell
Seamus Heaney’s Regions
University of Notre Dame Press, 2014
536 pages
ISBN 978-0268040369


In 1998, the poet and critic Sean O’Brien could write with confidence of the “industrial” scale of scholarship on Seamus Heaney’s writing. Over the 15 years which followed, Heaney gave his critics still more to work with: three further collections of poetry; translations of Beowulf, Robert Henryson’s poetry, and another Sophoclean tragedy; and a volume each of collected poems and prose. This is not to mention the satellite contributions to periodicals, occasional volumes, and the mainstream media, which he made throughout his life. During this period, two other publications greatly expanded the possible approaches critics and readers could make to the poet: the comprehensive bibliography of Heaney’s work assembled by Rand Brandes and Michael J. Durkan and Stepping Stones, the extraordinary collection of interviews Dennis O’Driscoll conducted with the poet, which stands in place of an autobiography. Published this month, Richard Rankin Russell’s new study, Seamus Heaney’s Regions, is the first which is able to take account of the full run of Heaney’s oeuvre. While it was completed before August 2013, it is also, of course, the first study to appear since Heaney’s death last summer, a loss which has been keenly felt at the commemorative events held all over the world since then.

Russell’s work is deeply sensitive to the ethical dimension of Heaney’s writing, and he is concerned to emphasise and laud the beneficent conscience of the poet as it is manifest in his work throughout a writing career of nearly 50 years. In this respect the book is very much a continuation of Russell’s earlier study Poetry and Peace (2010), in which he addressed Heaney alongside his contemporary Michael Longley, and the commitment to reconciliation in their writing about the Northern Ireland of their times. For Russell in this new book, Heaney’s work is best understood when it is read and located within three distinct but related “regions”: “the first, geographic, historical, political, cultural, linguistic; the second, a future where peace, even reconciliation, might one day flourish; the third, the life beyond this one.” The bridges between these regions are conceptual, validated for Russell by recourse to the line of “regionalist” writing and thinking he identifies as formative for Heaney even before Heaney began to participate in it himself. It is further corroborated by the noted progression of preoccupations in Heaney’s writing, from his home ground in County Derry which is enduringly familiar from the early poetry of Death of a Naturalist (1966), through to the increasingly transcendent and mystical interests which belie the poetry from Seeing Things (1991) onwards.

One valuable achievement of this book is to reset and reorient Heaney in relation to place, which is a well-worn theme in discussions of Irish writing in general and Heaney’s poetry in particular. In the early chapters of the book, Russell considers how the idea of the regional was constructed in the middle years of the last century, which were also the early years of the state of Northern Ireland, which came into existence with notorious and devastating contention in 1922. A number of writers are posited as important “regionalists” from whom Heaney took encouragement, inspiration, and literary sustenance. They include Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and James Joyce. It was the experience of reading Kavanagh in the 1960s which convinced Heaney that it was possible to give a shape in poetry to his own, rural, Irish experience, and Kavanagh famously drew a distinction between the provincial and the parochial to which Russell, following Heaney, refers. The provincial mentality, Kavanagh argued in 1952, was in thrall to the metropolis and lacked the courage of the universal parochial mindset, which went out to the world with steadfast faith in its own place. Kavanagh’s universal gestures towards Russell’s interest in the global: Heaney’s regions are, he suggests, part of, and to be valued and appreciated within, a much larger world-picture.

Closer to home, the key figure in cultivating and asserting the specifically Northern Irish regionalist ethos which Russell discusses is John Hewitt, the poet and socialist of Protestant background who strove to argue that Ulster identity could accommodate elements both Irish and British. Russell pays due attention to the institutions as well as the ideas of regionalism in Northern Ireland, considering, for example, the short-lived but significant literary journals Lagan and Rann which were published in the 1940s and 1950s. Crucially, Russell offers a chapter-length consideration of BBC Northern Ireland. For him, Heaney’s important but overlooked work for the broadcaster in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which chiefly comprised contributions to the Schools Service, is to be read as part of a programme of cultural conciliation. Russell’s conviction is that through this broadcast medium, and particularly in appealing through literary means to the imaginations of children and young people, Heaney’s regionalist commitment was affirmed, and different, bigger possibilities for personal and cultural relations in Northern Ireland were created, to transcend the familiar divisions.

Another merit of the book, for first-time students of Heaney and longstanding readers and critics alike, is that Russell is scrupulous in dealing with and responding to a staggering number of the critical opinions which have emerged from that industrial load of scholarship. The book runs to some 500 pages and the extensive notes and bibliography are testament to the exhaustive research which underpins it. Russell made considerable use of archive holdings at Emory University in Georgia and thus offers exciting access to material which has hitherto been forgotten or neglected. He follows what has become the standard trajectory in studies of Heaney: the book is organised along a chronological line, which enables the critic to draw in the historical events which were coterminous with the literature he is discussing. Irish poetry in the twentieth century, and particularly that written in and about the North after 1969, has been relentlessly, exhaustively contextualised, and not always with the insight and acuity one would wish for. It is easy to point unthinkingly to events in the Troubles to elucidate or gloss the literary works which would seem to respond to or represent them; ironically, by the same token, it is easy to slide into a New Critical belligerence which leads to a problematic and rather prudish formalism seeking always to stress literature “as” literature, somehow imperviously superior to the conditions in which it is written and received. It is refreshing to find in Russell’s study, therefore, some unexpected contextual connections being asserted with care paid to both text and context. His fifth chapter, “Darkness Visible: Irish Catholicism, the American Civil Rights Movement, and the Blackness of “Strange Fruit”” is exemplary in this regard. He works towards a focus on “Strange Fruit”, the most intriguing of Heaney’s famous bog poems from North (1975), which took from the recovered mythologies and curiously preserved remains of Iron Age Northern Europe a symbolic framework with which to represent the worsening conflict in Northern Ireland. “Strange Fruit” is a sonnet which, as Russell indicates, went through many drafts. It meditates on the severed head of a woman found in Roum Fen in 1942. The poem’s speaker begins by anatomising her with the cataloguing detail of a museum curator: “Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd. / Oval-faced, prune-skinned, prune-stones for teeth.” The voice is implicitly male, but by the end of the poem the female face is looking back at him:

Murdered, forgotten, nameless, terrible
Beheaded girl, outstaring axe
And beatification, outstaring
What had begun to feel like reverence.

Central to Russell’s discussion is the crucial allusion Heaney’s title makes to “Strange Fruit”, the haunting song sung by Billie Holiday, which faced the brutal racism of the segregated southern states and its most appalling manifestation, lynching. With this dynamic between the Deep South and Northern Ireland in play, Russell can expand on the well established connection between civil rights activity both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s—the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association looked to the American movement for valuable lessons in non-violence and civil disobedience—but he does so, importantly, with reference to an article Heaney wrote for the Listener during his year at Berkeley in 1970-71, in which he contrasted the Black Panthers with what he deemed to be the less extreme activities of agitators for change at home. The allusion also affords Russell the opportunity to propose an interesting new argument about the way Heaney imagined and represented the outcast other, bringing seminal ideas from W. E. B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon to the discussion.

The chronological approach does not preclude Russell from launching a very fruitful comparison across Heaney’s oeuvre, which centres on a particular poetic form which is current throughout the poetry but emerges with major significance in three collections especially: Station Island (1984), Seeing Things (1991), and Human Chain (2010). That form is the Heaney tercet—the three-line stanza most memorably employed in the extraordinary sequence of 48 12-line poems in Seeing Things and which, as Russell argues with conviction, ought really to be seen as a hallmark of Heaney’s oeuvre. The book’s Afterword is concentrated on Human Chain, which became Heaney’s final collection of poetry. Russell alights on the two moods of this volume, the elegiac and the affirmative: it is a book in which the dead and the lost are remembered, while the newly born are welcomed and celebrated. Russell’s carefully wrought regional thesis settles here, with these last poems and the tercet form in which the greater part of them are written. He says:

The Heaneyesque tercet brings together in this volume his life’s exploration of the triple strains of regionalism in his work: the war-torn region of Northern Ireland, along with its imagined future state, and the spirit region that hovers tantalizingly close to the poet. In this way, his adaption of the terza rima [from Dante] into this form accords with his unambiguous declaration to Seamus Deane in 1977: “You have to make your own work your home.”

It seems appropriate in closing to return to that home Heaney made in his work. Russell is much taken with what he calls the buoyancy of the tercet in Heaney’s poetry; we might think also of what Heaney calls “the big lift” of remembered evenings in an earlier poem, ‘The Harvest Bow’, and find that lift in a different sense in the first lines of the last poem in Human Chain, ‘A Kite for Aibhín’:

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

This poem, written for Heaney’s second grandchild, is in dialogue with the poem he had earlier written for his own sons, ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher’. That lift and return—the tug we feel even as we read—is absolutely anchored to what a poem, for Heaney, is and does. Like Russell’s book, the current exhibition at Emory University, “Seamus Heaney: The Music of What Happens”, was being planned long before the poet’s death. It was brilliantly, perceptively right that Geraldine Higgins, the exhibition’s curator, decided to suspend a huge white kite at its centre. It hangs there now in his memory.

Rosie Lavan is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is an Executive Editor at the Oxonian Review.