What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Seamus Heaney's Sensual Apprehension of Life

Seamus Heaney, who died two days ago at age seventy-four, had a close New Yorker connection. Over the years, he contributed thirty-eight poems to the magazine, including his great elegy, “Casualty” (“Rained-on, flower-laden / Coffin after coffin / Seemed to float from the door / Of the packed cathedral / Like blossoms on slow water”) (The New Yorker, April 2, 1979; included in his superb 1979 collection, Field Work). New Yorker poetry critic, Helen Vendler, an ardent champion of Heaney’s work (he dedicated The Spirit Level to her) wrote four pieces on him: “The Music of What Happens” (September 28, 1981); “Echo Soundings, Searches, Probes” (September 23, 1985); “A Wounded Man Falling Towards Me,” (May 13, 1989), and “Choices” (April 15, 1991). They are among the glories of New Yorker critical writing. 

Yesterday, I was pleased to see The New Yorker pay eloquent tribute to Heaney. Dan Chiasson, commenting on Heaney’s sequence of poems called “Squarings,” says, “The work of these poems is to make as real as possible the represented sensory experiences of the child, conveying their aromas and textures as though at first hand” ["Postscript: Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)," “Page-Turner,”, August 30, 2013]. This gets at what I most prize in Heaney’s poetry – his gift for ravishing, sensual, tactile description. Vendler, in her brilliant Seamus Heaney (1998), says, “Heaney’s senses often transmit themselves in language with an ecstatic acuteness.” Here is a yellow curd of butter “weighting the churned up white, / heavy and rich, coagulated sunlight / that they fished, dripping, in a wide tin strainer, / heaped up like gilded gravel in the bowl” (“Churning Day”). And here is the sweet flesh of a blackberry “Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it / Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for / Picking” (“Blackberry-Picking”). And here is the exhumed cadaver called the Grauballe Man (from the extraordinary poem of the same name):

The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inward to a dark
elderberry place.
Chiasson is right when he says, in “Postscript,” that Heaney’s “poems about peat bogs and what they preserve are probably the most important English-language poems written in the past fifty years about violence.” [Incredibly, James Fenton dissents on this point; in his “The Orpheus of Ulster” (The Strength of Poetry), he says, “I don’t much care for what he fishes out of bogs.”] But if Grauballe Man represents atrocity, he’s also, as Vendler points out, “in the plainness of his utter amalgamation of all being (tar, water, wood, basalt, egg, swan root, mussel, eel, mud, armor, leather), a figure of incomparable beauty” (“The Music of What Happens”). Beauty runs through all that Heaney wrote, including his incomparable criticism. His Preoccupations (1980) and The Government of the Tongue (1988) are, for me, touchstones. In “Feeling Into Words” (in Preoccupations), Heaney provides this unforgettable definition of technique:

Technique entails the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of existence within the jurisdiction of form.

Regarding the importance of rhythm, he says, “A new rhythm, after all, is a new life given to the world, a resuscitation not just of the ear but of the springs of being” (“Sounding Auden,” in The Government of the Tongue). In “Lowell’s Command” (The Government of Tongue), he quotes the concluding lines of three of Robert Lowell’s poems and says, “Closing lines like these would tremble in the centre of the ear like an arrow in a target and set the waves of suggestion rippling.” On Wordsworth’s poetic voice, he says, “As his poetic feet repeat his footfalls, the earth seems to be a treadmill that he turns; the big diurnal roll is sensed through the poetic beat and the world moves like a waterwheel under the fall of his voice” (“The Makings of a Music,” in Preoccupations). On and on – as a poet and as an essayist, Heaney is endlessly quotable. Vendler called his pieces on Bishop, Lowell, Plath, and Auden “the best in recent memory” (in “A Wounded Man Falling Towards Me”). She said that twenty-four years ago. It still applies today.

Credit: The above photo of Seamus Heaney, by Richard Franck Smith, illustrates Joshua Rothman’s "Seamus Heaney in The New Yorker" (“Page-Turner,”, August 30, 2013).

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