What is in a title? Human Chain …
Heaney is a master of title, whether for a collection or an individual piece. His sometimes enigmatic, often ingenious headings invite the attentive reader to seek subtly submerged attachments. As regards Human Chain, it emerges that Heaney was carried down the stairs of the accommodation he was sharing with friends when his illness struck en route to the ambulance; he is a hefty six-footer and recognises the physical challenge that this represented. Within a short time he had written Miracle based on a Bible story but featuring the stretcher bearers without whom there would have been no miracle! The metaphor seems to have germinated from this.
The Human theme is about body and soul; it is all-encompassing: a personal journey through life is both a chain in itself and part of a wider chain; it features the inevitability, the emotional experiences, memories and sense of loss contingent to the human condition. The Chain provides the metaphor generating a raft of possibilities: it is about linkage and interconnections; about family past present and future; about inheritance of possessions and artefacts; about scholars and scholarship; about progression in time and space; about classical parallels of life, death, afterlife and reincarnation. It is coincidentally an instrument of bondage urging the self towards liberation from constraint.
Human Chain explores a personal lifetime involving family, community and respected figures past and present. It establishes a connectedness between the shades conjured up from Heaney’s studies and interests and those who have mattered most creatively and emotionally to him. What shines through most brightly is Heaney’s irrepressible joy of composition; this distances any suggestion of wintry feeling or shivery otherworldliness.
In Human Chain, requiem and endorsement go hand in hand; elegy affirms; lament seeks comfort; Heaney’s sense of wonder is undimmed by regret or anguish. Heaney’s poetry is on the side of life.
Where does Heaney’s poetry start?
Heaney offered the following comments to Robert McCrum:
‘I think it comes from all the other poetry that’s there. I think that a relationship with something else is called for – all the other poetry that’s around, or the culture, or the times, or your clique – and it calls the poetry out of you… To get started, what starts you?’ he wonders. ‘You can call it the muse, but it’s excitement, the beloved. Certainly, there’s a kind of quickening…There is a physical need. I need to feel a purchase on something. I used to say that it was like a bite on the line, or a tug. With me, the purchase is a ‘thingyness’ or a ‘memoryness’… It really comes out of – from the side… Like a ball kicked in… It’s rather risky. I don’t keep a notebook. I’m superstitious. I always felt that if I started to be assiduous about it, and looked for it, then it might go away. Or I would turn into a different kind of writer.”
Further pointers to Heaney’s poetic process can be found in North, Viking Dublin and Bone Dreams (from the collection North of 1975).
How does Heaney turn poetic charge into poetry?
What is clear, without specific comment from Heaney, is that, whatever the initial stages in the process, the moment a poem ‘comes on’ or ideas with a poetic charge emerge, the stages by which these are translated into poetic form involve a deliberate and sometimes lengthy process of composition and revision, selection and rejection that determines the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form, imagery and potential for success of each poem.
At one stage or another Heaney will settle on: the length of the poem and its internal structure; the nature of the verse (free or rhymed); the choice of individual words or phrases most fitting to carry his ideas through, thanks to their meaning, implication or sound, and so on. Whilst this is a far from exhaustive list of considerations it does indicate that spontaneity can only gain from being worked upon.
In addition to the depth and richness of Heaney’s personal ‘word hoard’, his personal store of lexical items, gleaned from scholarship and interest, plus a sensitivity and a discrimination born of wide reading and appreciation of literature, Heaney has access to a rich vein of poetic devices common to all poets; he will select from the list deliberately, adapting them to his own intentions, perhaps because he wants them to add something, or ring a change, or carry an image through, or provide an echo; his aim in brief: to turn ordinary language into something special. There is an alphabetical list of such stylistic devices at the end of this volume; knowing them by name is useful but ‘spotting’ one is less valuable, perhaps, than appreciating what it brings to the poem.
The blending of these ingredients can be roughly translated as ‘style’, that is, the ‘mix’ favoured by Heaney in each poem to carry his message forward (v. footnotes that comment on this aspect).
The best wines are more than simply the product of their basic ingredients plus other factors including soil and sun. The key to excellence lies in the skill it takes to engineer the perfect blend. Poetry undergoes a similar process. In Human Chain as in the twelve previous collections Heaney is the ‘blender’.
Heaney provides a music pleasing to the ear.
Singing scored music brings an awareness of a code of letters, abbreviations and signs that can be placed above or below the notes to indicate or modify the ways in which a piece is performed. When the human voice becomes an instrument, then in terms of volume: f tells us to sing the next phrase loudly; ff to sing it very loudly; p softly; mp a little less softly;cresc (crescendo) tells us to sing the phrase increasingly loudly, and so on. Other words interpret the tempo: rall (rallentando): gradually to slow down the phrase. Other signs tell us to emphasise a word or to pause for an instant. Others advise on the sound: sad or harsh, light or sweet or slowly dying away. Without expression marks the piece would be monotonous and boring.
The same code could be applied to poetry. After all, poems are songs that, when read aloud, cry out for individual dynamics. Heaney actually uses specific musical terms in The Rain Stick published in The Spirit Level collection of 1996 (diminuendo, scales [un]diminished) but, of course, he does not provide coded recommendations alongside the text; musicians do this but, apart from ictus accents and some aspects of sprung-verse, poets do not. However, the words and phrases themselves invite variations of timbre, modulation and cadence and by reciting them with dynamics in mind, the reader can turn each poem into a linguistic ‘event’!
Heaney uses his writing skills to help, not least in his use of assonance (vocalic rhyme repeating similar vowel sounds within reach of each other to achieve effects, say, of euphony)The lush/ Sunset blush of Derry Derry Down produces those pleasing, mellifluous sounds that vowels emit rather than consonants. Secondly, alliteration (that repeats and plays upon the same consonant).
Heaney is a word-musician.
In Human Chain Heaney resists cornering himself into formal rhyme schemes, except in the final poem. He keeps his options open and exercises his mastery of form in the composition by providing a rich and varied menu of rhymes (stranger/ danger in The door was open…) , extended rhymes(aground/ out/ shrouds/ drowned in In the Attic) loose rhymes (wet/ deft in Lick the Pencil), very contrived rhymes (terra firma/ earlier in In the Attic) even non rhymes that somehow gel (pit and pan in Uncoupled).Some are daring: blet/ weight (in Slack); grey/ again (Colum Cille Cecenit); bell/ Bellaghy (Chanson D’Aventure}, and so on.
Assonance can convey a moral dimension: the nay saying age of impurity (Route 110,viii)
Heaney places his assonances in ostensibly random but in fact quite deliberate order, now juxtaposed, now separated by other figures. He has the knack of producing perfectly tuned phrases and uses his skill at playing with the musicality of language and word order to generate beautifully turned passages. His thought processes and instinctive use of rhythm seem to go hand in hand, whether in phrases of bare simplicity or more complex ideas and emotions.
In A Kite for Aibhín the rhyme scheme itself provides the full range: higher/ flier; blue/ askew; feet/ elate; noon/ thorn; opposite/ comet; below/ flower.
Consonants differ according to where in the mouth they are formed: between the lips [p] [b] ; behind the teeth [t] [d]; velar or alveolar [[g] [k]. Some are voiced [b], some are voiceless [p]. Some ‘plode’ in a single sound, others can be continuous, floating on air being exhaled [s] [w], some involve friction [f], others are frictionless [w]. There are diphthongs,too.
The poem can benefit from all of these ‘musical’ alternatives and Heaney knows it! He loads his composition with alliterated consonants judged best suited to mood and melody. No poem is bereft of this technique, some are loaded. In Canopy Heaney even introduces his [s] [sh] with the correct phonetic term: sibilant ebb and flow/ Speech utterings, desultory/ Hush and backwash. The first half dozen lines of Route 110 (x ) feature a welter of sounds made in the same area of the mouth [s] [sh] [k] [ch], such that the resonance echoes on in a kind of after-shock.
Alliteration can lead to cunning trompe-l’oreille: the slipstream airflow round the aerodynamic shape of a high speed aircraft can be adapted to a hydrodynamic shape of a flip-stream frolic fish; or produce an onomatopoeia and an anaesthesia (you ‘see’ colour; you ‘touch’ texture) in the same sentence, the slither … greasy grey of the eel.
Heaney’s alliterations arrive in pairs: grave goods (Hermit Songs, iv), flash made flesh (Eelworks, v); or in threes: turf built trig and tight (The Wood Road); ‘battler’, berry-browned (Hermit Songs, ix); even in fours: through books through thick and thin (Colum Cille Cecinit, i).
Alliteration and assonance can be used in tandem to create a different effect: gleam/ And seam of sand (Wraiths); finally, though they might not rhyme the final words of succeeding lines might begin with the same consonant: gables/ ground/ guineas (Loughanure)
The permutations are endless and Heaney rings the changes as each individual poem reveals on close examination.
Creating a word-picture.
Heaney is a virtuoso painter of word-pictures.
A painting or three dimensional object on display offers itself to the eye in its entirety, offering a message or a linkage, permitting rapid value judgments based on ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ to be made. To reach an informed verdict it is required to give the piece the attention it merits and ‘look’.
Only when prepared to ‘see’ might we realise, for example, that the composition was designed to lead the eye smoothly around the picture following its curves or shapes or groupings. A portrait might provide single or multiple focal points requiring us to look in a different way. A still life study or a scene involving a dead body would provoke different reactions and emotions. The key is to be prepared to look.
‘Looking’ will reveal that Heaney is an excellent creator of word-pictures: he paints individual portraits, groups engaged in country pursuits, landscapes from nature or past history. In common with the painter Heaney will have spent endless moments composing and revising his ‘canvases’ in search of perfection.
He has an advantage over the painter: the poem can only take shape when you read it from its first word to its last. This is a cumulative process. You follow Heaney step by step; he leads your inner eye in the direction he has chosen; only when you reach the final stop does he await your response.
Like the best painters, Heaney adds texture, colour, detail and shape to his ‘action’; he, too, generates emotion during the process. Additionally, he can focus us on each of our senses in turn, by his choice of words and devices. Human Chain includes reactions to 2- and 3-dimensional pieces he is ‘observing’ (Death of a Painter, Loughanure, the charioteer of Delphi) Other poems narrate scenes etched, painting-like, upon his memory; some of his word-pictures are single-frame, others move from frame to frame, like a film or a news clip or a special effect.
Heaney seems to enjoy an edge over the processes of the other creative arts and makes the very best of his opportunities!
Heaney and ‘languages’.
Heaney’s poetry is written in the English language and his whole publishing apparatus is based around British connections. This caused him some discomfort whenever times of political trouble judged his celebrity and ‘Irishness’ to be either at loggerheads with the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland or against the interests of Republicans.
However, that political background, now a thing of the past, is a different issue and is indifferent to the poet’s huge linguistic competence. The content of Heaney’s poems frequently quotes, alludes to or transmits messages involving a much wider range of tongues. These enrich the texts immensely.
The everyday language of his upbringing and Primary schooling in rural Ulster exposed him to the musicality of Northern Irish pronunciation and an Irish-English vocabulary and usage common only to his vernacular of, say, country activity and references to the flora and fauna around him: seggins, boortree, benweed. Such words have an English equivalent but generate a different resonance in their original form.
Heaney’s contacts with the powerful rituals and routines of the Catholic church, later referred to by him as ‘mantras learnt’ will introduce a glossary of unforgotten terms associated with worship and Latin phrases/ responses that still find an echo in his mind: in illo tempore.
Secondary education brings new lessons to be learnt: classical Latin, modern French. Heaney says he learnt Irish at school; later odysseys to the Gaeltacht of Donegal, where spoken Irish and Irishness have remained at their most predominant, provided stepping stones to understanding the Irish language and the legend and lore of Irish history, geography and mythology that so enrich the poems.
His particular talent for the Classics especially Latin and its literary texts is never far away: references to Virgil (and also to a standard translator of set texts in The Riverbank Field) confirm both his schoolboy passion for and ‘quick’ ways of accessing works (and of course, later on, offer prosaic translations of texts that Heaney’s linguistic flair will enable him to improve on). Perhaps most importantly, close study of the vocabulary and structure of Latin provides the roots and origins of words that give them something extra, an etymological bonus when he deploys them.
Heaney’s interest in French takes him further than modern usage; he can access the Occitan language of the troubadours and refer to Breton poets in celebration of dialects clinging historically to the western fringes of Europe and resistant to military and cultural invasion in times gone by in the same way that Irish was not erased by Vikings or Elizabethans.
It is his choice of an Honours Course in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast, for which he receives a much-coveted First-Class Degree, that provides over three years the key to specialised, in-depth study of other periods: the earliest writings in English, medieval literature, knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon and Old English languages in which they were written alongside studies of later periods and genres. The language of Beowulf and no more than a few steps away from the Old Irish texts with which Heaney will become familiar.
In Human Chain alone Heaney’s consciousness of all things literary will treat us to: Caesar’s judgment on Irish cultural development; the earliest medieval texts of the great Irish missionaries and scholars, references to the anonymous Irish lyrics of subsequent centuries; mention of Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter de la Mare; poems written in the style of Italian and Breton poets.