For over forty years Seamus Heaney has dug deep with his pen into the psyche of Ulster, exploring cultural identities and Ireland’s troubled past. He has been awarded numerous accolades over the years and added another to his collection earlier this month when Heaney’s twelfth volume of poetry, Human Chain, was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection. The prestige surrounding a poet of Heaney’s stature was echoed by that of Whitworth Hall itself, and with its neo-Gothic architecture, swooping chandeliers and wood panelling, it’s difficult to think of a venue in Manchester more befitting a former Nobel Laureate.
As he stood at his lectern wearing a sombre charcoal suit, Heaney’s white hair contrasted sharply against an imposing backdrop of grey organ pipes. A lone spotlight shone directly onto his books and it looked almost as though what he was reading from had turned into gold. In his own words, Heaney was about to take his audience on a ‘journey of the soul’ which would recount old and new poems along the way, with his father emerging as a central figure on that journey. In his opening address, Heaney was quick to point out his literary roots with Manchester, as it was in Didsbury that he had some of his earliest works published in a literary magazine set up by Harry Chambers. He also heaped praises on the university’s Centre for New Writing which he said has cultured some of the best Irish poets of recent years.
Heaney is himself an inspiration to many poets, partly because he has a gift for making the ordinary extraordinary, and this was demonstrated in his opening prefatory poem to Human Chain, entitled ‘Had I Not Been Awake’. The lyric poem is about a wind, ‘A courier blast that there and then / Lapsed ordinary’ which rouses the poet from his sleep, acting as a metaphorical vehicle to showcase how acutely sensitive Heaney has become to his surroundings following a stroke in 2006.
Heaney admitted that the poems in Human Chain had been written more quickly than any other works which had preceded it, and by way of contrast the next poem to be read out was ‘Personal Helicon’ taken from his first collection, Death of A Naturalist. Dedicated to his close friend, the Irish poet Michael Longley, ‘Personal Helicon’ is one of the first poems in his journey of the soul, and recounts from memory a young Heaney aged one, playing by a well and tapping into a world of identity that he has little comprehension for, but is beginning to hear echoes of: “To stare bug-eyed Narcissus into some spring / Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
The following group of poems which Heaney recited: ‘Mossbawn: Sunlight’, ‘A Sofa in the Forties’, ‘Two Lorries’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ were all set in his childhood home on the farm at Mossbawn, County Derry. In the late 1960s when Heaney was establishing himself as a poet, his memories of the 1940s overlap with those of the Troubles that were about to begin in 1969:
Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes. (Two Lorries ll.20-23)
Heaney’s reading shifted its focus intermittently from innocent childhood memories to a more immediate present, as he touched upon recent events in Northern Ireland and the resurgence of Irish terrorism of which he said: “the danger is still tick, tick, ticking away.” Danger also lurked in ‘The Tollund Man’ which he composed after being gripped by photographs of mummified peat bodies in P.V. Glob’s The Bog People. Throughout his career Heaney has been inspired to write poetry which examines the bog myth, concerning whether or not the bodies were victims of sacrificial rites, and during his recital he posed the question, “Did they fall or were they pushed?” He went on to explain that ‘The Tollund Man’ had been written around the time of the first killings during 1969 and he explained that the poets of The Belfast group, to which he and Michael Longley belonged, “felt the pressure of public events and the unease of private writings.” For Heaney, The Tollund Man is a poem that attempted to address the dichotomy between public and private. This was something he went on to add had also vexed WB Yeats’ soul many years earlier in ‘Easter 1916’ when he had asked, “O when may it suffice?”
It was the figure of his father Patrick, who Heaney turned to next in his recital and whom he movingly referenced in ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Uncoupled’, ‘The Conway Stewart’ and ‘The Butts.’ Over the years Heaney’s father has taken on various significances, whether it be the silent figure of ‘The Harvest Bow’ or that of the farmer in ‘Uncoupled’. In ‘The Butts’, whose title Heaney joked “means different things in different places,” the frail body of his father acts as a poignant reminder of the soul’s mortality. But as often is the case with Heaney, there is cause for joy and celebration to be found in the darkest of subject matters. Referring to the stroke he suffered in 2006, Heaney said that while in hospital he thought about the incident in the New Testament when the paralytic is brought in for healing by Christ. He observed that it was the people who carried him in and looked after him there that were central to the tale, and this he admitted inspired his poem, ‘Miracle’ from Human Chain.
Heaney also had a point to make about ‘The door was open and the house was dark’ – a poem which he said came to him as a dream. Written in memorial of his friend David Hammond, the poem captures a precise moment in time of knowing when something is not quite right, it also confronts a fear of any soul’s journey, that of death itself: “I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, / Intruder almost, wanting to take flight.”
For his penultimate reading, Heaney chose ‘In the Attic’, a lyric poem from Human Chain inspired by the view of a birch tree from his attic window. It invokes the power of imagination, something which Heaney has thankfully not been robbed of following his stroke. The poem is split into four parts, the first opening with references to Treasure Island and closing on an image of the wind, the motif which had opened the collection: “It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighted.”
The evening, and the Manchester Literature Festival itself, came to a close with ‘Postscript’ a poem taken from The Spirit Level, published in 1995, the same year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. With its images of wild swans, the poem contains yet another reference to Yeats, whom alongside Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, he holds in the highest of regards. ‘Postscript’ again made reference to wind in the closing lines which beckoned the audience to, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” The wind motif in Heaney’s poetry acts like memories that whistle and swirl into the mind, Heaney said of it himself that: “Wind reminds us that we are to enjoy every minute.”
For over an hour the audience listened, enraptured by the dulcet tones of Heaney’s Northern Irish accent, enjoying every minute. Heaney captured the imagination of everyone present, taking their souls on a journey through his poetry, intertwining the old with the new and contrasting the fears of a nation with those of his own personal struggle. ‘Human Chain’, like so much of his oeuvre is about the passing on and transmission of humanity, whether it be knowledge, love or memory. And as the chilly winds of Manchester brushed against the faces of those leaving the warmth of Whitworth Hall, they may have been left wondering when Seamus Heaney will next grace the city with his presence.
by Catherine Fearn