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."
Seven pages later, in "2032," Death reappears:
It is evening in the town of X
where Death, who used to love me, sits
in a limo with a blanket spread across his thighs,
waiting for his driver to appear. His hair
is white, his eyes have gotten small, his cheeks
have lost their luster. He has not swung his scythe
in years, or touched his hourglass.
An intervening 30-year span has resulted in Death's decrepitude. What is the serious point of the humor here? It is the refusal to live in fear of "a handful of dust," in fear of not living, something the time-haunted moderns never managed. Strand's position is much like that of Wordsworth's "Leech-Gatherer," of "Resolution and Independence," except Strand's humor applies torsion to Wordsworth's "fear that kills," converting it not to prayer (as found at the end of "Resolution and Independence") but to wry acceptance.
Heaney is a realist who celebrates particular lives and events, while Strand is a fabulist who tests more general conditions--time, order, reason, mortality. Heaney occupies himself with patterns evidenced in local circumstance, while Strand questions our overall sense of pattern.
Heaney's "The Aerodrome" ends:
If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels, and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.
In contrast, Strand's "Elevator" tests one's "stance" against the absurdities of repetitive pattern:
The elevator went to the basement. The door opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
"I'm going down," I said. "I won't be going up."
The elevator went to the basement. The doors opened.
A man stepped in and asked if I was going up.
"I'm going down," I said. "I won't be going up."
In his collection of lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Heaney says poetry is a "condition of illuminated rightness" that counterweights what is unjust with "the virtue of hope." By it we move from "delight to wisdom." These ideas are consistent with a literary history extending back to Sidney and Horace, a history that Heaney has made his own with a relaxed ease that the modernists Pound and Eliot, who touted the contemporaneous past, seem to have been too earnest to have enjoyed very much. And though Heaney differs considerably from his fellow countryman Yeats, the latter, too, is an important part of the past for Heaney, as is George Herbert.
Heaney praises Yeats for "beating on the wall of the physical world in order to provoke an answer from the other side," and Herbert he celebrates for "his via media." These virtues are essential to Heaney: pressing the visible world for its invisible counterpart but doing so with the centering influences of faith, history, and reason.
As Heaney puts it, "The vision of reality which poetry offers should be transformative." In his view, Yeats and Herbert succeed at this. And they are not alone. Heaney's poem "Words worth's Skates" ends describing a transformative Wordsworth "As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored." For his own part, Heaney's poem "Sugan" opens, "The fluster of that soft supply and feed--" and concludes, "a power to bind and loose / Eked out and into each last tug and lap." Sugan is a hand-twisted rope. Heaney is describing the work and the world of common people. The work here is by hand, and it is physically transformative; heather or straw twisted by hand into rope.
In "Out of This World," a poem about religious faith, Heaney tells us that "The loss occurred off stage. And yet I cannot / disavow words like 'thanksgiving' or 'host.'" These words "have an undying / tremor and draw, like well water far down." Such poems as "In Iowa" and "On the Spot" continue the tension between "loss" and "draw," but resolving these there is the powerful example of two domestic workers, Sarah and Mary, whose lives are celebrated in "Home Help." And in "Home Fires" there is another instance of transformation found in the metaphorical results of tending a "cast-iron stove," part of a section dedicated to his fellow line-laborer W.H. Auden:
So one more time
I tote it, hell-mouth stopper, flat-earth disc,
And replace it safely. Wherefore rake and rattle,
Watch sparks die in the ashpan, poke again,
Think of dark matter in the starlit coalhouse.
In his collection of essays, The Weather of Words, Mark Strand observes that "for Wordsworth the self precedes experience," whereas "for the contemporary poet, experience must precede a sense of self." Strand has the late moderns John Berryman and Robert Lowell in mind, who represent "opposite modes of autobiographical poetry" from the "subjective-visionary mode of Wordsworth." These "confessional" poets, Strand argues, are "revealed journalistically, not imaginatively." Strand joins Heaney in a shared interest in Wordsworth that is part of each poet's move away from the tenets of modernism.
The final poem in Strand's collection is a response to Christ's seven last words. The concluding section of "Poem After the Seven Last Words" begins,
Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it
We are once again amid mysteries of faith heard in the Romantics' aeolian harp, what earlier in the poem Strand has called "a formal nakedness . . . the truth / of disguise and the mask of belief . . . joined forever." What he celebrates is neither entirely a believer's nor a skeptic's view but elements of both, a "sea of endless transparence, of utmost / calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it / . . . what has not arisen in the human heart."
As Heaney can be, Strand is in dialogue with a sublime of Wordsworthian complexity, though a sublime found more readily in history than nature. The modernists touted the tradition and railed against Romanticism. Heaney and Strand are Romantics, and in that seem quite traditional.
Wyatt Prunty is Carlton Professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee).