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Thursday 9 July 2009

Bogs, Bombs and a Glaciers

Seamus Heaney's District and Circle was published in 2006. I bought it soon after publication and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, thought it his best. There were three reasons for that, or so it seems to me now. One reason was that it contained the poem, The Tollund Man in Springtime. Heaney's fascination with the bog people (which I share) is well known, and this imaginative extension of them into modern everyday life was an absolute delight. The second reason was the inclusion of the poem Höfn about a melting glacier. The third and maybe most significant reason for my enthusiasm was the District and Circle poem itself. I admired pretty much the whole collection, but these were the highlights. I have to say, though, that the collection did not get under my skin. I did not enjoy it to the extent that I had thought I would.

In April I reviewed Dennis O'Driscoll's biographic interview with Heaney (here). Foolishly perhaps, but enthusiastically too, I did so before I had finished the book. Later their conversation was to turn to a more detailed discussion of Heaney's books, how he came to write some of the poems and his thoughts about various aspects of the writer's craft, his own methods of working and many other fascinating areas. One of the books discussed at some length was - you've guessed it! - District and Circle. Inevitably this sent me back to the poems and now, maybe with more distance from the current political and environmental problems under discussion, I found the read altogether different, still as impressive, but now far more enjoyable.

Let me take my big three one at a time: here they are , discussing The Tollund Man in Springtime, O'Driscoll first:-

"The Tollund Man in Springtime", too, seems to relate to contemporary conditions.

A quarter-century after I had written The Tollund Man, The Tollund Man in Springtime imagines the Iron Age man who had been found preserved in a bog in Jutland coming-to in his display case in the museum and coming out to walk "like a stranger among us" in the new world of virtual reality and real pollution, a world of violence and polluted public speech.

Then after I had resurrected him and set him on his way through the "virtual city", I had the idea of sending him down into a London tube station, and that eventually produced two sections where he was back underground, going into the tunnels and then riding along in the hurtling train. But I came to feel that in these bits - and especially in the episode where he meets the busker - there was something more specific and autobiographically weighted than in the other sections, so my instinct was to detach them and make them a separate unit.

After which they plunge straight into the title poem, which is actually a poem of five sonnets.

Was any thematic link intended between the title poem of "District and Circle", the "separate unit" to which you refer, and the London underground bombings of 7 July 2005?

The figure who speaks in the five sonnets is at a remove from the people among whom he finds himself . This is partly because I am remembering the other, younger person I was when I first journeyed on a London tube train; somebody who was much less at home, more anxious and 'out of it' than I would come to be later on.But the feeling of unease is also there because the figure in question is haunted by all kinds of new awarenesses; awareness of the potential danger of a journey nowadays on a London tube train and awareness of the mythical dimensions of all such journeys underground, into the earth, into the dark.

The double sonnet was there in May 2005; but after the July bombings, a poem called District and Circle was going to have to bear additional scrutiny. So I added one section, then another, then a third. Not particularly to do with the atrocity, more an attempt to convey the actual experience of an ordinary journey by tube, which almost always has something oneiric about it. When I had the Tollund Man meet the coin-collecting busker at the entrance to the station, it wasn't intended to suggest a mythic parallel. In the first instance it was a direct reportage, a recollection of something that happened and keeps happening - not just to me, but to everybody who travels by tube in London. Inevitably, however, the classical echoes were going to be heard, and the underground/underworld/otherworld parallels come into play.

Finally, speaking of Höfn:

"Höfn" too, with its melting glacier, could be included among the environmentally aware poems in District and Circle.

Liam O'Flynn and I were in Iceland for a performance of our "Poet and Piper" programme, flying in a small propeller plane from Reykjavik to Höfn in the south-east, and we crossed over this stony grey scar of ice. The original "cold star" couldn't have been scaresomely neuter. I felt a wild primitive fear that the plane would go down and we'd perish in the absolute frigor of the place. But then when we landed at our destination, we learned that the ice is actually melting. As "a child of earth", I've rarely felt more exposed.

Time, I think, to give you a few extracts from the book I'm supposed to be reviewing!

This, then, the second of the six sonnets comprising The Tollund Man in Springtime

Scone of peat, composite bog-dough
They trampled like a muddy vintage, then
Slabbed and spread and turned to dry in sun -
Though never kindling dry the whole way through -
A dead weight, slow burn like lukewarmth in the flue,
Ashless, flameless, its very smoke a sullen
Waft of swamp-breath... And me, so long unrisen,
I knew that same dead weight in joint and sinew
Until a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied
At my buried ear, and the levered sod
Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,
Bog-bodied on the sixth day, brown and bare,
And on the last, all told, unatrophied.

And here the first sonnet from District and Circle

Tunes from a tin whistle underground
Curled up a corridor I'd be walking down
To where I knew I was always going to find
My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side,
His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me
In an accusing look I'd not avoid,
Or not just yet, since both were out to see
For ourselves.
As the music larked and capered
I'd trigger and untrigger a hot coin
Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered
For was our traffic not in recognition?
Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,
And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

And finally, finally, an extract from Höfn

I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,

And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth

And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

Two reviews for the price of one, I suppose, but I have tried to show both the depth and beauty of District and Circle and the degree to which Stepping Stones sheds light on this, and, indeed, on Heaney's other collections.


Tess Kincaid said...

I'm ordering District and Circle from my library branch right now. Thanks, Dave.

Karen said...

I'm with Willow. Thank you for the introduction.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave,

Thanks for showing us these extracts. I particularly like:

"At my buried ear, and the levered sod
Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God,"

Wonderfully rich!

Unknown said...

Having read both books, Stepping Stones quite recently, I think you're quite eloquent on Heaney. He's hard to top and there's plenty of meat in both books to satisfy a hungry poet. Lovely work.

Anonymous said...

Looks very interesting, wished could read the books...

Best regards,

Jim Murdoch said...

I ran across 'The Tollund Man' a few years ago but I've not read a lot of Heaney and I'm afraid the sheer length of some of the poems you mention puts me off. I have never been able to develop a love for the longer poem. They do always seem to go on a bit.

Rosaria Williams said...

Great introduction to a writer I'm not familiar with.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think part of the essence of a good poet is that often when one returns to their work one finds it altogether more inspiring - I feel this with Sylvia Plath - I really think one's subconscious mind often keeps working of poetic meaning long after one has read a poem. I have District and Circle and admire Heaney's poetry immensely. Interesting, thought-provoking post as usual, Dave.

Cloudia said...

Exhaustive and fascinating, Dave.
Thank you for sharing your expansive and educated sensibility with us!


Comfort Spiral

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Dave, I read the collection "District and Circle" twice, now you have awakened in me the desire to read it once more.
I bought it in Oxford on my latest visit in 2006.
I first read the poem itself "District and Circle" on the TLS on one the last times when I was buying the journal regularly every week being not yet tired by its deadening "highbrowness" and "smartassness".
Anyway, in the poem the final "Flicker-lit" left me just stuck in the air with the brightest bolt. I found myself exulting, fists to the sky.

readingsully2 said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed reading all of the historical details about the bog people. It seems in a way human nature has not changed much. These poor people were supposedly sacrificed for the Gods or something....I doubt is the violence of today would phase them much. :)

Dave King said...

Hope you enjoy it - I'm sure you will.

Ditto. Enjoy!

One of my favourite passages, too.

Ah, preaching to the converted again!

Welcome to my blog. Good to have you along.

Increasingly, I struggle with my failing powers of concentration. If I'm honest, I would have to say that I favour the medium length poem.

Thanks - very difficult to do him justice, though.

The Weaver of Grass
I have found that, yes. I have found it with Sylvia Plath particularly. I found her difficult when I began to read her, but now the going is easier and certainly more delightful.

Thank you for those kind remarks.

Your last paragraph describes very well the feeling that I had after going back to it and rereading The Tolllund Man in Springtime and District and Circle. Thanks for the feedback.

It never ceases to amaze me, not just what people do to each other, but the reasons why they do it. Thanks.

David Cranmer said...

Bog people are fascinating. The fact that Grauballe Man's hand prints were clearer than a researcher's own hand that was working on him always astounded me. Simply incredible.

And thanks for the reviews.

A Cuban In London said...

An excellent re-review, Dave. And also a good experience about writing about books before you finish them. I have to admit that I have read very little Seamus. Except for the poems The Guardian publishes on Saturdays every now and then and the ones I catch in this or that collection, I have not really delved into his poetry. I will be changing that in the near future. Thanks for throwing me this light in this dark tunnel.

Greetings from London.

Friko said...

Excellent work; I went to the bookshelves and took down the only Heamus we have, selected poems 66 -87, which includes The Tollund Man. I've been dipping into it all day. You are a treasure, glad to have found you.
Could I pick your brains? Do you know any poems on mountains? The more unusual the better, it's the next subject at my poetry group. Bit cheeky, I won't be miffed if you turn me down.

Friko said...

Sorry, messing words and names about is a family habit, should only be indulged in private. I"m so full of Heaney I thought I was at home. Disrespectful or what.

Jeanne Estridge said...

I'm new to Heany -- thanks for the intro!

SG said...

Loved reading the review as well as the comments posted. Look forward to your next post.

Dave King said...

I agree. Absolutely unbelievable. Thanks for the comment.

A Cuban in London
Yes Seamus is a poet easily overlooked. His early poetry particularly is not eye-catchingly new, but it repays time spent on it, improves with knowing, the effect can be cumulative. The development to his later material has been remarkable, I think, as have his translations.

Mountains. eh? Unusual, you say - the poems, I guess, not the mountains! I'll have to have a think and come back to you. (Not cheeky, no problem.)

Glad to be of service. Look him up, you'll not be disappointed.

Welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Hi Dave, I feel a bit out of the discussion because I don't know a thing about bog people and the poetry is dense with story...again, I know nothing about the context.

I do love the way Seamus Heaney connects words and creates visual images...

I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,

Thanks for sharing this skillful poet with me. <3

Dave King said...

Welcome to my blog and many thanks for stopping off to comment. Much appreciated. There is some in formation if you click on blog people in the first paragraph.

Batteson.Ind said...

I'm only just relenting in my dislike for Seamus heaney, since he was thrust down my neck in endless English classes at school.. imagine, a freezing cold prefab, it's raining outside and has been for three weeks and you are dissecting and learning by heart lines like;
"I was six when I first saw kittens drown" and poems about the death of his young brother..... Now I'm older however, I can appreciate the beautiful connection he has to this land, his land.. and the history it holds. He writes such gutsy and genuine lines. I'm by no means hugely aware of everything he's done, so the tip off of this book is intrigueing.. thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this... Im going to look up the books today!

Take care.