The poem should be read in the context of the ‘Troubles’ in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and of hunger strikers. Heaney, a poet in the public eye, acknowledges that he has often been absent from Ulster as events unfolded; he has sympathy for ’causes’, but is unsure what stance he ought to adopt.
The speaker and his anonymous friend are enjoying a convivial session in a seafood restaurant (let us suggest, to coincide with Heaney’s first meeting with Czeslaw Milosz, that the setting is somewhere on the Californian coast); others are almost certainly present. The poem explores the tensions writers share as regards their creativity, their historical moment, their take on political ‘engagement’ and their comments reported in the media.
A lobster is prised with cold steel fork from the tank in which it has been waiting. Certain details are noted: pincers and legs like articulated twigs;its muted colouring of rainy stone…/ sunk munitions underlines its impotence. Its fate as the final stanza will confirm is symbolic of that of creative people feeding a public appetite for doing them down.
The conviviality within the restaurant contrasts with the colder, more inhospitable world visible outside: the sea wind spitting. The lobster is plunged into boiling water and reddened by the cooking processprior to consumption.
Busy with the enduring intricacies of dismembering the lobster (the last of the claws) what followed was serious stuff: they sat for hours in conclave conversing in solemn debate. As evening closed in, the cut-and-thrust of conversation in which questions hopped and rooted came to resemble the tensions, energy and postures required of sailors rowing against the tide.
The company toasted the principal guest as they engaged in serious debate beside empty plates and glasses: hard at it over the dregs /… laying in in earnest. Then as the sea continued in its eternal cycle they begin to cite evidence in defence of their stances and opinions: quotations start to rise like rehearsed alibis.
A quotation from Milosz sets out the writer’s dilemma: as a thinker he is caught between doing nothing and action, between a motionless point and the imperative urgings of the inner self to be politically ‘engagé’: the command to participate/ actively in history. It is with this final point that Heaney”s natural disposition and instincts struggle.
Light effects on the sea mirror his attempts to decide where he stands; his metaphor is about sifting, clarifying and refining his stance until it settles: a fine/ graduation somewhere between/ balance and inanition, between forthright comment and empty silence.
He distinctly remembers (cannot clear his head) the convictions of those present, each caught up in a similar syndrome: lives in their element/ on the cobbled floor of that cage . He feels the outsider in their midst the hampered one, out of water, strengthened by the occasion, still tortured by uncertainty: fortified and bewildered.
There comes a point at which a parallel between poet and lobster is established: they can neither of them escape; they are both disabled in some respect by a band round pincer or tongue or mind; they can both be offered up for consumption. Perhaps the final message is that as yet in the ‘book of changes’ (On the Road, l.70) for Heaney there is no getting Away from it All.
- Heaney’s title is deliberately double-edged: he and his fellows have escaped for recreational purposes; Heaney’s American adventure has distanced him physically from the problems in Ulster though his mind is still there.
- At the time of the H Blocks hunger strikes, DODsuggests ‘it must have been impossible not to feel something like guilt at not being able to help alleviate the situation or contribute to its resolution’ Heaney replied: ‘This was during the time when Station Island was being written, and the ‘self-accusation’ of those days is everywhere in the sequence. Also in individual poems like … Away from it All. Because of my earlier brush with Mr Morrison on the train during the ‘dirty protests, I was highly aware of the propaganda aspects and cautious about being enlisted (p259). (v. the incident with Danny Morrison in the Introduction)
- The italicised quotation is from Czeslaw Milosz’s Native Realm p125; Heaney had met him for the first time in California 1984 with Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass. Milosz, a Polish speaking Lithuanian and man of Letters (Nobel Prize laureate in 1980, also diplomat with the Polish Foreign Service) eventually broke with the Communist régime and was forced into exile. Heaney referred to him as ‘The Giant at My Shoulder’ and dedicated the poem Out of this World to him.
- pried: senseof ‘raised forcibly’; compare French ‘prise’ meaning ‘grasp’;
- articulated: personificationtwigs with human ‘joints’ ;
- munitions: weaponry; guns shells etc.
- conclave: a serious coming-together, originally an event in which cardinals came together to elect a pope;
- more power to us: might accompany a toast as in ‘more power to your elbow’;
- dregs: last drops in a glass, sediment;
- laying in: ‘hitting out’, ‘having a go’;
- alibis: the plea that you couldn’t be guilty because you were somewhere else;
- Heaney reveals the contemporary importance of the Milosz quote to him in DOD (p260 )‘my own mantra in those days’
- rendered down: the sense of melting down, clarifying, ‘removing the fat’ from something by heating; by extension ‘refining’;
- graduation; a word from alchemy;tempering and refining in the search to derive something valuable from base metal;
- inanition: archaic French suggesting ’emptiness’, ‘void’;
- in one’s element: in one’scomfort-zone or preferred surroundings (it is worth noting that amongst their numerous contacts Heaney and Derek Mahon (to whom the next poem is dedicated) shared, in 1977, an Arts Council tour entitled In Their Element;
- seven quintets in a nine-sentence construct disrupted by 2 short questions triggered in an active mind;
- line length variable from the initial 4-syllable line up to 10 syllables;
- enjambed lines fit with the ebb and flow of conversation, particularly frequent when the speaker’s attention is drawn to external events (Q3, Q6) or reflecting on the irony of his circumstances (Q7);
- initial verbs punctuate the lobster-prep process;
- ‘questions’ become living entities, birds or plants in Q3 where repetition and format mimic the rhythm of the oars;
- vocabulary of serious discussion, stretching the meal out to accommodate serious intellects at work;
- final paradox: ‘it helped but I’m still not sorted out’;
- the music of the poem: eleven principal assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: Q1combines voicelss plosives [t][k]; Q2 pairs bilabial continuant [w] with sibilant hiss of [s]; Q3 is initially dominated by voiceless alveolar [t], voiced to [d] in Q4; Q6 introduces bilabial nasal [m] and alveolar [n], carried into Q7 alongside paired alveolar plosives [t] [d] and bilabial [p] [b];