The Magazine

Modern Romance

The world according to Heaney and Strand.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By WYATT PRUNTY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

District and Circle

by Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 96 pp., $20

Man and Camel

by Mark Strand

Knopf, 72 pp., $24

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and U.S. poet laureate Mark Strand were schooled to be moderns, but they became Romantics.

If, following World War I, modernism began with disillusionment and in creased doubt about human reason and hi s tory, poets following World War II have had even more reason to doubt: a succession of wars, the Holocaust, the nuclear destruction of civilian targets, and worldwide terrorism. If anything, doubt has compounded. In Seamus Heaney's case, however, doubt does not extend to individual lives.

In his latest collection, Heaney is clearly different from that other Irish Nobel laureate (early Romantic and later modernist) W.B. Yeats. For one thing, Heaney's poetry is more local than that of Yeats, and its first care is given to people--Mick Joyce, George Seferis, Barney Devlin, Robert Donnelly, Tommy Evans, Phil McKeever, Harry Boyle, Barrie Cooke, Niall Fitzduff, et al.

The poems containing these names are very different from Yeats's elegy "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," for example. Yeats celebrates a young aristocrat of whom he asks, "What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?" A silly question written in the service of rhetoric and self-association. In contrast, Seamus Heaney's "A Clip" is about cutting rather than combing one's hair, and celebrates a less privileged world that is Catholic rather than Protestant, a world recalled by "Harry Boyle's one-room, one-chimney house" where, in his youth, Heaney went for "a clip." Heaney's imagination is not captured by social power nor astonished by death the way Yeats's was; instead, Heaney's imagination gravitates to the give-and-take of ordinary existence. Here is the conclusion to "A Clip":

What was it happened there?

Weeds shoulder-high up to the open door,

Harry not shaved, close breathing in your ear,

Loose hair in windfalls blown across the floor

Under the collie's nose. The collie's stare.

Compared with Yeats's aristocrat, Heaney's barber seems modest, but the world of "A Clip" is populated in a way the rhetoric of "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" precludes.

Yeats said of himself that he was the last Romantic, but of the two it is easier to imagine Heaney's inclusion in Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. Yeats's celebration of aristocratic Ireland runs opposite to Coleridge and Wordsworth's interest in the language of common people. Meanwhile, Heaney genuinely is interested in common people, and his diction matches Coleridge and Wordsworth's ideal of the "real language of men in a state of vivid sensation."

It is inviting to compare Heaney's common usage and his focus on landscape and the individual to that of Wordsworth in "We Are Seven," "Resolution and Independence," or these lines from "The Old Cumberland Beggar": Reverence the hope whose vital anxiousness / Gives the last human interest to his heart. Or to stay with this comparison a moment longer, the "nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness" that Wordsworth summarizes from a distance in "Tintern Abbey" are encountered up close in the characters one meets poem after poem in District and Circle.

The protean Mark Strand makes his way around the modernist legacy differently. For one thing, Romantic though he is, he nevertheless retains a modernist irony that is atypical of romanticism. Strand also carries with him the modern sense of time that caused Eliot to write, "I have lost my passion," or for Eliot to find "fear in a handful of dust," or, still only in his thirties, pompously to ask, "Why should the aged eagle stretch his wings?"

Strand, however, objectifies the effects of time with a level of play absent in Eliot's high seriousness. There are distinct differences in tone here. Eliot's "Prufrock," "The Waste Land," and "Four Quartets" reveal the same elevated angst about mortality and immortality that the Victorian Tennyson displays over the course of "In Memoriam" and in "Ulysses." In contrast, Strand can sound fey, and this is part of his independence from a modernism that, for all its claims of innovation, never escaped Victorian earnestness. Strand's poem "2002," in Man and Camel, begins,

I am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.

He leans back in his chair, rubs his hands, strokes

his beard, and says, "I'm thinking of Strand, I'm thinking

that one of these days I'll be out back, swinging my scythe

or holding my hourglass up to the moon, and Strand will appear

in a jacket and tie, and together under the boulevards'

leafless trees we'll stroll into the city of souls."