Craig Raine pays homage to the genius of Seamus Heaney in a review of his New Selected Poems
New Selected Poems: 1966–1987 Seamus Heaney
Faber, pp.256, £18.99, ISBN: 9780571321742
New Selected Poems: 1988–2013 Seamus Heaney
Faber, pp.240, £18.99, ISBN: 9780571321711
The impersonator — Rory Bremner, Steve Coogan — speaks, in different voices, to a single primitive pleasure centre in his audience. Counterintuitively, we like the imposition of imposture. We connive at deceit, at replication, for the release of neurotransmitters, the flood of endorphins — the brandies of the brain. I once heard Peter Ustinov on a chat show replicate the sound of an electric bell being pressed. Pleasure on a different, even more vertiginous level. The audience was convulsed.
Unless a poet can produce this ungainsayable instant delight in the reader, this drench of dopamine, the poetry is automatically of the second order. (We expect less of our novelists, though great prose writers, such as Joyce or Dickens or Kipling, can also do it at will: Major Bagstock has a ‘complexion like a Stilton cheese, and… eyes like a prawn’s’; Mrs Podsnap has ‘nostrils like a rocking-horse’; Kipling gives us ‘the sticky pull of… slow-rending oilskin’; Joyce has the iron rim of a wheel ‘harshing’ against the kerbstone.) Effortlessly, Seamus Heaney gives us ‘The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark/As he pulls it to.’ As Bloom says in Ulysses, ‘Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt.’ Sllt is the noise made by a paper-slitting machine.
Heaney’s genius is an amalgam of moral complexity and the simple make-over of reality to his readers. He can describe things. He can describe things in a phrase, spray them with fixative — if not Ustinov’s ringing of a bell, then the sound a football makes when kicked — ‘it thumped/but it sang too,/a kind of dry, ringing/foreclosure of sound.’ Remember?