Monday, December 10, 2007

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?*

A moment's reflection sent Malcolm in search of a poem. He was somewhat disconcerted not immediately to find it.

Let us start with his hunt.

The poem was Seamus Heaney's Whatever You Say Say Nothing. Now, Malcolm immediately reached for Opened Ground and New Selected Poems, only to find that both included only the shortened versions, which omit the second section.

That of course, raises the issue: why did Heaney's second thoughts cause him to excise those 28 lines, those seven quatrains?

In this day and age, it is no longer necessary to retain hard-copy texts. Wendy Cope was lamenting this in last Saturday's Guardian:
My poems are all over the internet. I've managed to get them removed from one or two sites that were major offenders, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of sites displaying poems without permission. If I Google the title of one of my poems, it is almost always there somewhere, and I can download it and print it out. I'm sure that this must affect sales of my books. I've tried Googling some of Seamus Heaney's poems, and those of one or two other well-known poets, and it's the same.
That's, appropriately and with some feeling, under the headline:
You like my poems? So pay for them.
Malcolm did, Wendy: he promises you.

However, right at that moment he was faced with an immediate need. He ought, by your definition of all that is right and proper, to have spent a fair bit of the day on the no. 134 bus, to and from the Charing Cross Road. Or, of course, he could have waited a few days before Amazon delivered a copy (if Malcolm had known in which book the complete poem would be found).

Instead, he weakened and googled.

Ong passong, so to speak

Has everyone now noted two linguistic discrepancies?

Whatever happened to famous Seamus's fada? That, strictly, should be his síneadh fada (or what might more widely be recognised as an acute accent, though in Irish it works to lengthen the syllable, not raise the pitch). Malcolm does not believe that the Great Man passed through St Columb's College without "Séamus" being pressed on him, even in the 1950s, nor that he played under GAA rules for St Malachy's without some attempt to Hibernicise him. After all, there's that broadside he dispatched when included in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry:
Be advised, my passport's green
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.
It concluded:
British, no, the name's not right.
Yours truly, Seamus.
Seamus, let the world note. Not Séamus. That's presumably not merely to save all those critics and student essayists a small fidget with the keyboard (on a Mac, OPT+e; on a benighted PC, ALT+0233.)

And, used as a verb, should it be "Google" or "google"?

Malcolm! Back to the issue!


Malcolm recalls a 1995 piece by Blake Morrison in The Guardian, including the canard that the Nobel Laureateship :
... like the awards to Sholokov and Pasternak, Milosz and Seifert -- here is another "political" Laureateship, given to Heaney in the year which has seen the peace process on Northern Ireland begin in earnest. Within an hour of yesterday's announcement, the wires were buzzing with stories of Heaney's alleged keep-everyone-happy chameleon-ism: how, for example, when travelling on the train from Dublin to Belfast he'll switch brands of whiskies at the border.
That brings Malcolm back to Whatever You Say Say Nothing, because it is an outstanding statement of Heaney's political standing. Indeed, Blake Morrison, in that same article, recognised:
Under duress to "respond" to contemporary violence, terrorism and military repression, Heaney proved he could do reportage with the best of them :
Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite's a common sound effect.
But he wasn't altogether comfortable with the results, which violated his deeper, instinctual, feminine muse, and at the end he withdrew, "a wood-kerne escaped from the massacre".
That brings us to the missing section II. It reads in full:


Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite's a common sound effect:
As the man said when Celtic won, 'The Pope of Rome's
A happy man this night.' His flock suspect

In their deepest heart of hearts the heretic
Has come at last to heel and to the stake.
We tremble near the flames but want no truck
With the actual firing. We're on the make

As ever. Long sucking the hind tit
Cold as a witch's and as hard to swallow
Still leaves us fork-tongued on the border bit:
The liberal papist note sounds hollow

When amplified and mixed in with the bangs
That shake all hearts and windows day and night.
(It's tempting here to rhyme on 'labour pangs'
And diagnose a rebirth in our plight

But that would be to ignore other symptoms.
Last night you didn't need a stethoscope
To hear the eructation of Orange drums
Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.)

On all sides 'little platoons' are mustering --
The phrase is Cruise O'Brien's via that great
Backlash, Burke -- while I sit here with a pestering
Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait

To lure the tribal shoals to epigram
And order. I believe any of us
Could draw the line through bigotry and sham
Given the right line, aere perennius.
Having got there, Malcolm feels a frisson of self-satisfaction. Then he tries an exegesis of a particularly convolved text.

He finds the key in those last two lines. The poem starts with the journalists coming to town
... in search of "views
On the Irish thing".
They obviously need their (political and editorial) masters to determine the "line". Equally, those students, wrestling with this poem now it is set for "English" public examinations, will need the "line". Once that is established, reputations can be (and were) and will be made. Grades will be scored. How many, though, appreciate the irony of aere perennius?

It is borrowed from Ode XXX in Book Three of Horace's Odes:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Or, approximately, in English:
I have completed a monument more lasting than brass,
Higher than a royal pile of Pyramids,
That rain's tooth and North Wind
Cannot destroy, nor numberless
Years and fleeing time.
Whose boast here? The cocky journalists? Or, by inference, Heaney himself (by the 1970s, one of the few who might decode the Horatian tag)? And Heaney, at least, would be aware of Horace's occasional self-mockery.

This, however, has only started the excavation of literary reference. The "little platoons" (originally in the singular) is ultimately from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally despise their own order. One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
In short, we learn first to love our family, our community, and only then a wider society. Malcolm pauses to muse on the ambiguities of Heaney's use and implications here.

There is more, though, in Heaney's comment. He specifically points to Conor Cruise O'Brien, who edited the 1968 Penguin edition of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and later returned to write the extraordinary "thematic biography of Edmund Burke", The Great Melody. It is relevant to this poem that Burke's beginning was in a "mixed" marriage (his mother, Mary Nagle, was Catholic: in 1729, at the worst impact of the Penal Laws, this was not a good start in life). Moreover, RB McDowell , the Great "JD" to all Trinity people, described Burke's father as "a Catholic who had conformed to the Established Church". O'Brien, at some length in the Introduction to Great Melody, sees the parallels with is own background.

Inevitably, too, we might hear in Heaney's hind tit more than an echo of Joyce:
Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.
Malcolm, though, notes the epigraph to the first chapter of The Great Melody, quoting a letter from sixteen-year-old Burke:
... we live in a world where every one is on the Catch, and the only way to be Safe is to be Silent. Silent in any affair of consequence, and I think it would not be a bad rule for every man to keep within himself what he thinks of others, of himself and of his own Affairs.
Therein, for certain, is the genesis of this poem.

Poets are notorious for meddling with their own work. Yeats did it, but he was as nothing compared to (say) Auden. Heaney was not happy, obviously, with that second section: so it went missing in later collections. Only the numbering of the sections tells us to look for it.

In cutting it he was avoiding a nexus of references, many of which would be lost on the casual reader. He was also being "safe" (in Burke's terms); and abiding by the spirit of his own title. Blake Morrison's reference is apt: it is from Exposure, with Heaney migrated to southern security in Wicklow, in December, in the dark and rain:
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,

Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows...

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?

In Connacht Gaelic, "How are you?"; but a strict translation might be: "Which way are you?"
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I'm saying nothing said...

Why not Ulster Irish you heathen :)

To be honest it's too long since the brothers taught me it and actually if you meet a native speaker in Donegal the wish the Virgin's blessings on you as a greeting anyway.

I'm not sure that he really has sought to hide it - but if he did it was for the best of reasons. The poem mocks, bitterly, the hypocrisy of those of us from the North who cannot tell the truth and the truth is that he feels that maybe the murderers on the green side are his little platoon.

To change your mind on that isn't so bad: believe in moracles and cures and healing wells.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

Cad é mar atá tú?

Any way, you may be saying nothing, but you're implying a lot ...

The morning after, I'm less than happy with this posting, and may well do an Auden and come back to mess with it (or even a Heaney, and delete it completely).

What seems to my more mature reflection to be significant, and should be given due credit, is Heaney's essay (reasonably contemporary with this poem), "Feeling into Words". That asserts the need to balance humane reason (Heaney's greatest virtue) and the religious intensity of the violence (one can sense his shudder of repulsion at those two abstract nouns).

In that second section he seems to succomb to the second ... but only briefly: hence the deletion of these lines.

Anonymous said...

Ah, good man yourself.

Actually, I reread the second bit again myself and I am not so sure about exactly what he is saying. He's pretty bitter in the first part anyway about being "beseiged within the seige" though it all reflects the nationalist (even moderate and middle class nationalist) feeling that, yes, them uns were getting some of it back just for once.

Of course, that naivity looks pretty morally bankrupt nearly forty years on, but it was real enough at the time and a product of internalised rage.

Thankfully that is all behind us.

irk said...

Séamus gan fada is pronounced Sham-us, appropriately enough.

His greatest ever masterpiece IMO is his introduction to his re-translation of Beowulf.

A masterpiece of dishonesty.

He must know though that the black bogwater that formed him still holds Banba's genius, far from Oxford's groaning tables.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought the introduction to Beowulf was fantastic. But then again I live in the real world where we've ahd enough blood sacrifices to last us several lifetimes.

The politics of that introduction now set the direction for the island. As even Gerry and Marty have acknowledged.

Malcolm Redfellow said...

I am profoundly flattered by the attention granted by the responses above.

I am back with Beowulf, even as I respond. Thanks for the stimulus (I was about to type "prod" there, but -- somehow -- it didn't seem appropriate).

I had been about to have a go at re-appraising my take on Macneice, after the Irish Times implied his centenary year had been under-stressed. This topic may take preference, though.

What I found notable in the introduction was that, to some considerable extent, Heaney seems to review his own oeuvre and achievement. On the one hand he starts by looking back, and quoting himself:
And now this is ‘an inheritance’ -
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward
Again and again and again.

Yet he can also reflect on the modernity, the contemporary impact of [by implication, his own] poetry:
The Geat woman who cries out in dread as the flames consume the body of her dead lord could come straight from a late-twentieth-century news report, from Rwanda or Kosovo.

I note, too, the resonance with what he was saying at the Nobel Prize award, that poetry, for him, provides:
an order where we can at last grow up to what we stored up as we grew.

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