Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Heaney in Chicago

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) published two pieces of criticism  in Critical Inquiry: "Now and in England" (1977) and "Current Unstated Assumptions about Poetry" (1981).  Also in 1981, Heaney he sat for an extended interview with Frank Kinahan, which appeared in our pages the following year.  On the occasion of Heaney's death, James Chandler has written an extended introduction to these pieces, and their place in Heaney's evolving criticism and art.


Around 1980, Seamus Heaney in Chicago

James Chandler


            The late Seamus Heaney was so great a poet that we may not always fully appreciate the remarkable body of critical prose he left behind.  He wrote about literature with extraordinary verve, no surprise there.  Beyond the stylistic virtuosity, however, he was a keen theorist of his craft and a learned scholar of its traditions, ancient and modern.  He was also an extraordinary conversationalist:  informed, open, inquisitive, witty, unpretentious.  All of these virtues are on display in three pieces that Critical Inquiry was fortunate enough to publish between 1977 and 1982 and that have been newly posted on its website.  The thanks are largely due in the first place to the good offices of Frank Kinahan, who was in those years finishing a book on “the Irish Yeats” and beginning another book on the promising new generation of Northern Irish poets.  Kinahan’s instinct was prescient, since all of them-- Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Tom Paulin, and, most prominently, Heaney himself—became bright stars in the literary firmament.  Sadly, Kinahan did not live to complete his book about them; it would be left to able critics like Helen Vendler, Patricia Coughlan, David Lloyd, Clair Wills, and Matt Campbell to rise to the diverse critical challenges posed by the work of this supremely talented cohort.

            Heaney himself had already won major honors by 1981, but the Nobel Prize was still a decade and a half away.  The brief five-year period of these Critical Inquiry pieces was particularly formative for him, I believe, and in ways that the interview with Kinahan obliquely conveys.  It was during this time that Faber published the first “selected poems” (1980), which seems to have given Heaney occasion to take stock of an already distinguished body of work, abetted perhaps by Preoccupations, published that same year, his first book of “selected prose.”  These years saw the publication of one of his finest and most integral volumes, Field Work (1978), and with it one of his most admired and widely-discussed poems, “Casualty,” about the events of Bloody Sunday, 1972, perhaps the darkest moment in the years of the Troubles that long bedeviled Heaney’s native Ulster.  W. B. Yeats was the Irish Nobel Laureate of those earlier “troubles” that attended the Rising of 1916, the War of Independence (1919-1921), and the Civil War (1921-1922), and “Casualty” is a poem in which Heaney also went far toward working out his own critical relationship with not only with Yeats but also with crucial issues of poetic audience and poetic community in the bargain.   

            Not coincidentally, the time around 1980 was also the period in which Heaney joined forces with a group of talented writers and intellectuals who sought to deploy the resources of theater and literature to redress some of the terrible ills that so violently divided Ireland during the period of the civil rights struggle there. 

The group, which began to gather and mobilize in the late 1970s, included the playwright Brian Friel, the actor Stephen Rea, fellow poet Paulin, and the writer Seamus Deane:  “Field Day” a loose rhyme for Friel-Rea.  The Field Day project formally launched in 1980, with a production in Derry of Friel’s landmark historical drama, Translations, about the cultural colonialism of British occupation forces in Ireland a century and a half earlier.  It is a play now considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest theatrical achievement since the early days of the Abbey Theater.  Claire Connolly reminds me that Heaney contributed a poem to the program for the first production.  He thought he saw transformative potential in powerful creative work of this sort, and urged the group to go forward.  Over these past three decades or so, Field Day grew and prospered, producing through the 1980s additional distinguished theatrical work and a series of fifteen pamphlets including an early one by Declan Kiberd and a closing trio, in 1988, by Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson.   Later projects included a mammoth five-volume anthology of Irish Literature, a long-lived monograph series, and eventually a lavish annual publication, Field Day Review, edited by Deane, and now in its ninth year. 

            Despite Heaney’s involvement in Field Day’s formation during the years of these Critical Inquiry pieces, the Field Day context does not come up directly in these pieces--not even, surprisingly, in the Kinahan interview.  It may have seemed too parochial for a predominantly North American academic readership not terribly well-informed about what was going in Ireland, nor fully attuned to the kinds of questions that Edward Said himself was just then beginning to bring to the fore.  The Question of Palestine only appeared in 1979, and Culture and Imperialism would not appear until 1993.  Gayatri Spivak, wrote her dissertation on Yeats, but did not publish “Can the Subaltern Speak?” until 1988.  But even without making explicit the Field Day context, in any case, the views Heaney expresses in these pieces clearly show a sense of engagement that is deeply informed by it and that, taken together with his full command of poetry and poetics, makes for some exceptional insights. 

            Consider, for example, the analysis in the earliest of these pieces, “Now and in England” (1977), of three of England’s leading poets from the third quarter of the twentieth century:  Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.  Lumping them together, as he convincingly does, Heaney offers some fine discriminations about their relation to England and the English language.  These are observations that give us real purchase on the traditions and poetic practices of each poet in relation to a location within England that is made, in a posture Heaney describes as unquiet, to stand for England.  Heaney’s capacity for a kind of micro-poetics is on display here, too, as we see in his fine-grained analysis of the war between the consonants and vowels in Hughes’s poems.  For all this, however, the larger argument of the piece is driven by the kind of big-picture thinking that formed part of the Field Day mix:  “The loss of imperial power, the failure of economic nerve, the diminished influence of Britain inside Europe, all this led to a new sense of the shires and a new [and defensive] valuing of the native English experience.”  This sense of an English literary culture turned anxiously on itself in relation to various forms of devolutionary politics has become fairly commonplace in the last couple of decades, but Heaney’s analysis here predates even Tom Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain (1978).  Heaney’s nuanced responses in the Kinahan interview also reflect, I suspect, both an experience of the Troubles and the effort to negotiate the relevant issues of justice and national identity in the “medium” of poetry (to use Heaney’s word from the end of the “England essay”).  Hence the sly invocation of what Heaney calls Beckett’s “definition of Irish” in response to a French journalist who asked if he were English, and to whom Beckett said:  “Au contraire.”

            Kinahan’s head note records the fact that the interview with Heaney took place a week and a half before St. Patrick’s Day in 1981.  At Chicago we must have learned that Heaney was in the country, probably for a reading at Notre Dame, and and we invited him to read at the University under the auspices of the William Vaughan Moody Series, of which I was then in charge.  The night of the reading was memorable on several scores.  When I arrived with Heaney at Swift Hall, ten minutes before the reading was to start, there was already a queue of people five abreast down three storeys of the winding staircase and spilling into the spring air.  Someone had failed to unlock the lecture hall for the event.  I’d never seen an audience for a poetry reading so large or so eager.  After finding someone to let us all in, I welcomed the audience, informed them that Yeats had visited Chicago as an early Moody Lecturer in the ‘30s, and introduced Kinahan.  He said that in the interest of time, he would dispense with the litany of the distinguished speaker’s books and honors, and then launched instead into a brief narrative. 

            The Pope [he began], on public tour in Ireland, has a hiatus in his official itinerary between Cork and Killarney and is assigned a private limousine in lieu of the usual pope-mobile.  After being ushered into the back seat, the Pope leans forward and asks the Irish driver if they can switch places on the grounds that this would be his one last chance to get behind a wheel.  He used to love to drive.  How can one refuse such a request?  The Pope proves to have a heavy foot, and he is soon pulled over by a member of the Garda.  The policemen takes one look inside the limousine, then quickly falls back to his car to phone headquarters.  “Ah, Captain, “ he says, “Officer Murphy, here.  I’ve a grave situation on my hands:  I’ve pulled over a terribly important man and I don’t know what to do about it.”   “How important a man are we talking about?” demands the Captain, “not the mayor of Cork, surely?”  “Oh no, Captain, a far more important man than that?”  “It’s not the Taoiseach of Ireland, I hope?”  “Captain, I said an important man!”  “O Murphy, you’ve not pulled over the President of the United States itself?”  “Captain, how can I put this?  This man is so important that the Pope is his driver!”  Whereupon, Frank simply said:  “I give you the man in the back seat.”

            Heaney loved this joke and returned to it more than once during the raucous party we threw for him after the reading.  Someone spilled Guinness into the humidifier, so we were able to savor the occasion for weeks afterward.  Amid the festivities, I had a long conversation with Heaney about Ted Hughes.  From first reading Heaney, especially the early manifesto poem “Digging” (with which he opened his reading that night), I judged him to be working in a Hughesian vein.  Poets often do not necessarily like to be confronted with alleged influences, and, one might imagine, especially not in 1981 for a poet as Irish-identified as Heaney in respect to one as English-identified as Hughes.  Further, this was long after Hughes had produced his Crow poems, generally taken to mark his decline as a poet.   Heaney could easily have maintained his distance.  Instead, he acknowledged the debt and embraced the topic, taking turns with me in reciting some of the early poems of the West Yorkshire landscape.  I now see Heaney and Hughes as less connected than I did then, and the distinction shows in the difference between “Digging” itself and the similarly-themed Hughes poem, also widely anthologized, that Heaney discusses in the first of these essays:  “The Thought Fox.”  Both are poems about the writing process, both reliant on metaphor.  Both finish a terse, self-reflexive half-line resolution:  “The page is printed,”  “I’ll dig with it.”  But the allegorical tracks of the thought fox lead forward to the easy abstractions of Crow, where Heaney’s archaelogical commitments take him, for example, to the extraordinary Bog Poems in North (1975), from which he also read in Chicago, or later to “A Dream of Soltice,” the beautiful poem about the pre-historic site at Newgrange, in County Meath, commissioned thirteen years ago for the turn of the millennium.         

            Heaney returned to Chicago read again 1992, again at Kinahan’s invitation.  After the reading on that second occasion, Kinahan hosted us at the Woodlawn Tap, Hyde Park’s longstanding watering hole, and in the course of our  lively conversation I told Heaney that I’d been doing some work on the once popular but since neglected Irish poet, Thomas Moore.   “Ah, Moore,” he said, pronouncing the name as if it were the Scottish Muir, “it’s a massive career, isn’t it?  A massive career.”  This was still pre-Nobel, but I remember thinking that here was a writer whose measure of greatness had grown from the poem to the book to the career itself.  What further struck me, though, was how deeply knowledgeable he was about the career of Moore:  the poet of the erotic Anacreontics, the composer of popular songs, the satirist, the novelist of Captain Rock, literary broker and memoirist, the judge in a Bermuda booty court. 

            I supposed if I had been as well-versed in Heaney’s critical work then as Kinahan was, I would have been less surprised.  Kinahan, who had already undergone heart surgery a few years before, died just months after Heaney’s visit, at 48, six years younger than Heaney himself at the time.  Heaney wrote eloquently of him for the Chicago Tribune:  "We loved Frank because he was like poetry itself: he surprised by a fine excess.  Great kindness, wily intelligence, jubilant and spontaneous wit, huge joie de vivre-he had all these things, but they were deeply guaranteed by a sweet intimation of wisdom suffered for and of learning transformed to magnanimity."

            The most extraordinary moment of both these Chicago readings was probably Heaney’s rendering of “Casualty,” a poem that actually takes as its subject the activity of talking—or not talking--about poetry in a pub.   Now possibly his most widely admired poem, it is nonetheless difficult and slippery, hard to grasp even after repeated study.  Yet by the sheer force of his eloquence, Heaney managed to make it somehow accessible to his Chicago listeners even in 1981, when many in the audience may have been hearing it for the first time. “Casualty” can be read as a self-consciously poetic intervention in the cycle of sectarian violence that widened across Northern Ireland and beyond through the 1970s.  It revisits the aftermath of Sunday, 30 January 1972, when a predominantly non-violent civil rights march in Belfast was brutally dispersed by gunfire from British paramilitary forces, leaving thirteen citizens dead. Or as the Unionist graffito cited in the poem has it:  “PARAS 13, the walls said, / BOGSIDE NIL.” 

            The poem tracks the parallel courses of two funerals that ensued.  One was for the thirteen comrades slain on Sunday.   The other was for an unnamed “dole-kept” fisherman of Heaney’s acquaintance (one Lewis O’Neill), who lost his life later that week when he failed to heed an IRA curfew and was blown up in a retaliatory bombing against a Protestant pub frequented by the paras.  To bring these parallel rituals into a common field of vision, the poem narrates Heaney’s relations with O’Neill, partly in a realist mode, partly in a mode of Wordsworthian high Romantic imagination.   In the realist mode, O’Neill is rendered, at the very start of the poem, as a mainstay of a pub also frequented by the poet.

He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman's quick eye
And turned observant back.

This is a figure Heaney wants us to recognize for his familiar place in common life.  The voiceless gestures are enough to tell us that we all know this man.  In the high Romantic mode, however, he becomes by the end of the poem a “dawn-sniffing revenant” haunting the poet, who for his own part seeks only another chance to satisfy him:

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

This elevation of a common “dole-kept” man into the status of praeternatural monitor recalls nothing so much, I think, as those celebrated lyrics of Wordsworth, like “The Leech-Gatherer” and the “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” where the outcast gains a kind of secular sanctification.

            The pivot between these two modes—realist and Wordsworthian--lies in the explosive moment of illumination in the center of the poem, the IRA bomb blast, at once the apotheosis of realism and the occasion for a transformative epiphany:

I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.

If the flash of the bomb creates a modern snapshot effect, freezing the moment in a blinging pulse of light—a kind of realism—it is also calling on moments in two of Wordsworth’s best know poems.  In “Tintern Abbey,” the poet reports that “the light of sense goes out / But with a flash that reveals the invisible world.”  And at the close of “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” the etiology of the poet’s initial vision of the daffodils (“When all at once I saw a crowd”) is revealed as an effect of the poet’s habitual meditation:  “For oft when I my couch I lie / They flash upon my inward eye.”  In the mode of micro-poetics, we can note the use of the present tense in both the daffodils poem and in “Casualty” here as a departure from the past tense of the initial presentation:  in Wordsworth, “I wandered,” “I saw”; in Heaney,  “I loved his whole manner,” supplement by the past conditional “He would raise….”.  This is a shift in both cases from vision to Vision.

            Predictably, however, the seeds for this transition, including the tense shift, lie early in the poem when the poem describes his failure to engage with O’Neill over the question of poetry.  And this passage too supplies a key to the question of why it is that the poet wants to be questioned again:

To him, my other life.
Sometimes on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art
His turned back watches too.

Crucial here is the use of the present tense “watches,” colloquial enough in most dialects of English, but here forecasting the poet’s later sense of being haunted by this man’s questions long after his death. The move from violent outwardness to recuperative inwardness is familiar enough in the repertoire of Wordsworthian Romanticism, especially as it was understood in the 1970s, and Heaney was roundly criticized in some circles for availing himself of it in order to evade darker truths.  Yet the poem makes poetic evasion itself absolutely central to its own work.

The poet’s crafty dodging of the fisherman inquisitiveness about poetry—his “art” in switching topics as a fisherman might switch bait--comes back quite literally to haunt him in a manner that constitutes the artfulness of the poem itself.  The regret of it supplies the motive of the poet’s final hankering for another chance with the fisherman’s questions.  By the end of the poem, these seem to be questions about the fact of poetry’s social embeddedness, precisely in its artfulness.  In this poem, poetic art, like angling, is a transitive practice. 

            It is less clear that the poem manages to answer such questions than that they are the questions very much of this transformative moment for Heaney around 1980.  In its allusive dimension, however, Heaney’s “tentative art,” does provide a framework for reflecting on these questions, critical as they are (in all senses of that term).  Look closely at the verse form.  In the 1981 Chicago interview, Heaney agrees with Kinahan’s observation that with the recent Field Work volume Heaney had turned to a longer line.  But “Casualty” is clearly an exception to this rule, one that proves most telling.  Heaney’s here deploys the unusually truncated English verse form of iambic trimeter.  That fact, taken together with a scheme of abab rhyming quatrains, embedded moreover in a verse paragraph structure, puts this poem in close dialogue (as Nicholas Ruddall first pointed out to me), with “The Fisherman,” a celebrated lyric that Yeats published on similar themes in the wake of the great conflict that shook Ireland six decades earlier.  The trimeter line and abab rhyme scheme is evident in the poem’s famous opening:

Although I can see him still—
The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies—
It's long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.  
All day I'd looked in the face  
What I had hoped it would be  
To write for my own race  
And the reality. . . .

For Yeats, facing the “reality” of what it would mean to write for his “own race” meant a confrontation with the triumph of loutish vulgarity, the elevation of “drunken cheer” and “the joke / Aimed at the commonest ear,” and, more ominously, “The beating down of the wise / And great Art beaten down.”

           “The Fisherman,” then, is a poem about the fact of poetry’s social dimension, but for Yeats’ that fact stands  at odds with its Art—upper case here, as pointedly not in Heaney’s poem.  And Yeats’s solution, famously, is to conjure his own figure of Irish audience, a gentleman angler in grey Connemara cloth, and in all his magisterial solitude.  From the point of view of Heaney’s reframing, that fisherman displaces precisely the society of the pub shared, and problematically not shared, by Heaney and Louis O’Neill:

Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist, 
A man who is but a dream; 
And cried, “Before I am old 
I shall have written him one 
Poem maybe as cold 
And passionate as the dawn.”

Here, then, is the prototype against which Heaney’s encounter with his own fisherman is so evidently cast.  It enables us to see a dimension of Heaney’s art and its pointed differentiation.  Heaney did not turn way in “scorn” of the audience represented by Louis O’Neil, but, almost as bad, he condescended to him in the act of shying away from condescension.  And Heaney’s poem, as it drives toward its own version of a paradoxical closure in the dawn, raises a larger question, no more answered than the others, about whether the casual exclusion of O’Neill from the brotherhood of poetry has bearing on the fatal exclusion of O’Neill from the brotherhood of those who survived both the Bloody Sunday massacre and its violent reprisal.

           Yeats is a poet who comes up several times in the Kinahan interview, and it has now become commonplace to call Heaney the greatest Irish poet to write since Yeats’s death in 1939.  Commonplace, too, to see Heaney as having had to work out his poetic destiny in relation to Yeats monumental example, especially the negotiation of how, belonging to Ireland, one deploys the linguistic and even poetic resources of a nation with which Ireland stands at odds—for Yeats, the “contrary”; for Heaney, Beckett’s “Au contraire.”  If, as I have been suggesting, the period around 1980 seems in retrospect to have been formative for this issue in Heaney’s development as well, it is partly because Heaney’s composition of a poem like “Casualty” so richly compliments, and is complimented by, his working of the critical issues in the Field Day circles and in the Critical Inquiry pieces of that same pregnant moment.

            As recently as this past spring, I was part of a conspiracy to bring Heaney back to Chicago for what we knew might be a final visit.  We were aware that he was traveling less since his stroke back in 2007.  It says something about our keen interest in Heaney’s powers as a scholar and critic that we wanted him to come not only for a reading but for a series of distinguished lectures.  Since I had not been in touch for a while, I asked a mutual friend, Luke Gibbons, to make the approach to him.  Within a couple of days,  Gibbons relayed to me this characteristically witty and graceful reply:  “That's a handsome offer, proffer even, but the days are over when I could take on a series of lectures; indeed I am hard put to rise to a single occasion.  So I regret that I cannot avail myself of the bounty of the donor, or honor Jim's trust in my ability to deliver.  It's a case of Chard Whitlow's 'As we get older we do not get any younger….'” 

            Wit and grace attended him always.  When I told Declan Kiberd recently about our failed plan to bring Heaney back to the Midwest, he said that over this past summer Heaney had come to feel a little stronger and actually taken on some manageable readings in Ireland.  After rising to one such “single occasion,” just two weeks before he died, Heaney found himself gathered over some pints with a number of other septuagenarian colleagues and friends who had likewise suffered major health problems or undergone serious medical interventions.  Raising his glass to them all, he said, “Blessed are the pacemakers.”  If you consider that the long “a” in Northern Irish comes out sounding close to “ea,” this casual joke amounts to a cross-dialect pun on the very theme that so preoccupied Heaney well through the years not only of “Casualty” but also of the three pieces made newly available on the Critical Inquiry website.  One is tempted to respond to Heaney’s toast:  “may he inherit the earth.”  It’s just that the earth, in these dark days, does not seem nearly enough to proffer him.