Seamus Heaney— Literary Lion or Mr. Potato-Head?
In a flattering Harvard magazine cover story on Seamus Heaney published three years ago, ‘Seamus Heaney, Digging with the Pen: On rhymes and responsibilites,’ Adam Kirsch, Heaney’s former workshop student at Harvard, obediently strives to glorify his old prof and Nobel Prize winner.
Kirsch, after making introductory remarks on poets’ “responsibility” to the “ideal reader,” turns to Heaney’s most famous poem (unfortunately for Heaney) “Digging:”
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
There’s nothing wrong with honoring labor and one’s digging ancestors, as Kirsch hails Heaney for doing here.
The problem begins when the poet—as poet—attempts to own the ‘digging’ legacy—in his poem.
In a heavy-handed manner, at odds with all that is poetical, the poet feels impelled to inform us that his pen, which rests “between” his “finger” and his “thumb” (as if anyone needed to be informed how to hold a pen) is “squat,” (like the gun in line 2, like the digging spade, like the poet’s fist?) and, since he has “no spade” he will “dig” with his “pen/gun.” The metaphorical contraption of Heaney’s poem is rudely forced in a ham-fisted manner as would invite derision were such a thing handed in by a writing student to a writing class, and an example would surely be made: this is the kind of forced metaphorical writing which should be avoided at all costs.
It’s not a smooth metaphor. Pens don’t dig.
Not only is Heaney going to dig with his snug, squat pen, but his “head” breathes in the inspiration of potato-smell from cut “roots.”
If we ask how an ivory tower icon like Seamus Heaney, with his Harvard Chair, his T.S. Eliot Prize, and his Nobel could have such a wretched poem (wretched even for a schoolboy) as his best-known poem, it might be well to remember that before he was an ivory tower icon he was the humble, Derry, Peat-moss, poet, and this very identity of a potato-digging, poor Irish Catholic, an Irishman from the fields, a genuine salt-of-the-earth, may have allowed his work to circumvent those close-reading strictures that would have otherwise condemned such bathetic, metaphorical excess.
The “squat,” sweaty laborer was allowed his excesses as the token Irish Poet.
The excessive gutterality of his poetry (the passage quoted from “Digging” is a pretty good example) blends in with the excessive nature of Heaney’s metaphors, combining to produce a style which is not so much poetic as thick—the triumph of which is a sly joke played in the snobby, puritan halls of Harvard as Heaney attempts to chase down the ghost of T.S. Eliot.
When Heaney is not slathering on the metaphors, he’s often amassing sharp, primitive objects. Kirsch quotes Heaney from his book District and Circle:
In an age of bare hands
and cast iron,
the clamp-on meat-mincer,
the double flywheeled water-pump,
it dug its heels in among wooden tubs
and troughs of slops,
hotter than body heat
in summertime, cold in winter
as winters body armour,
a barrel-chested breast-plate
on four braced greaves.
“The lip-smacking assonance of clamp and pump,” Kirsch writes, anxious to make Heaney’s work not only “responsible,” but a pleasure and a delight.
These lines, however, feel like a torturer’s inventory from the Saw films.
They are hardly “lip-smacking.”
Heaney is no grinning Irish jester at the Blueblood court of Harvard.
This tied-up bear will tear you to pieces if you get too close.
Kirsch is merely heaping on praise when he says: “Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure… What makes Heaney a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself…”
Heaney is not a “lovable poet” or a poet of “pleasure.”
Heaney loves assonance, but assonance which slobbers all over the reader is not necessarily a pleasing effect—especially when it seems to have a mind of its own.
Heaney is best when he writes dramatically. His style of metaphor and thing-ism tends to be self-indulgent and is mostly painful to read. I could list little excellences in Heaney’s poetry all day, but I am concerned here with the true picture of Heaney’s reputation.
Heaney looks hard at the world. It’s time a critic looked hard back.