The way we are living

Elizabeth Bishop outlived Robert Lowell just long enough to write his elegy: “North Haven”, she told one correspondent, “took me almost all summer” to perfect. Set on the Maine island where Bishop spent her final holidays and where Lowell “learnned to sail, and learned to kiss”, it begins, like so many of her poems, with intent description. Finches and flowers are scrutinized; sparrow-song, “pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes”. Then, finally, comes the steady pain of what else Bishop has noticed. “Nature repeats herself, or almost does”, bringing the fauna “back” each year as near-identical offspring. But a poet, a lost friend, is lost for ever. Bishop’s address to Lowell – like Yeats and Auden a “derange[r]of published work – ends with the quiet devastation of fact: “The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.” A year later, in autumn 1979 – alone, unfussily, as she dressed for dinner – Bishop herself “left / for good”, aged sixty-eight.

By the next spring, a forty-year-old Seamus Heaney had undertaken the same sad work in Bishop’s memory. “A Hank of Wool” (TLS, March 7, 1980) shares her trademark precision, but, unlike “North Haven”, Heaney’s poem has drifted into obscurity. Compared to Bishop’s late masterpiece, and indeed to Heaney’s own “Elegy” for Lowell (first printed in a Faber memorial pamphlet in 1978), “A Hank of Wool” is poetry at cruising altitude. It lacks the credibility of “Elegy”, its sheer cumulative force (“The way we are living, / timorous or bold, / will have been our life”), making do with surface correspondence: its “shade-card map-colors / of blue and green” are a nod to “The Map”, the opening poem of Bishop’s North & South (1946); her emotional “masquerade” recalls the “mascara” of “Pink Dog”, published around the time the two poets became acquainted, in 1979. If its effects are a little forced, that may be because an acquaintance is all that Bishop was: Heaney could be a print-on-demand elegist at times. Yet there is something about it, this thread between them.

At the very least, “A Hank of Wool” heralds what came next. It appeared just as Heaney had begun his swerve away from the earthbound poetry of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and towards something higher, more spiritual. His Purgatorio chat with Bishop could be straight from Station Island (1984), and its Dantean tercets anticipate the twelve-line lyrics that dominate his later collections, from Seeing Things (1991) right through to Human Chain (2010). The “hermit / with [his] two arms stretched out” will recur in one of his greatest poems, “St Kevin and the Blackbird” (collected in The Spirit Level, 1996). And the Bishop-like urge to clarify – “wool – / shop wool, ticketed bought wool” – finds perfect expression in “Weighing In” (also in The Spirit Level), as one iron weight is balanced “Against another one placed on a weighbridge – / On a well-adjusted, freshly greased weighbridge – / And everything tremble[s]flow[s] with give and take”.

It is worth mentioning this at length – these two poets, their linking lives – because “context” is what breaks a dead poet from the syllabus or the anthology, releasing them back into the story of their times. And yet, pondering their respective Literature in Context volumes, a reader can’t help feeling that something is missing; that what these essay collections offer is not context but fragmentation.

Following the established format, each book contains thirty or so punishingly short chapters. The opening few, surveying the key territories of each poet – Miss Bishop has her “Places”, while Mr Heaney gets down to the gritty (and, ironically, far more Bishop-like) activity of “Mapping” – are coherent and informative. Beyond them, however, entries are sorted almost at random into interchangeable categories (“Poetics”, “Forms”, “Frameworks”) – though this, admittedly, is a problem for the series as a whole. Far more dispiriting, and particular to these entries, is the quality of the criticism (not to mention the prose), which varies considerably between chapters. In HeyyHeather Clark’s piece on the Belfast Group (the infamous poetry circle presided over by Philip Hobsbaum) bears all the hallmarks of a discerning public scholar who writes to be read; Vona Groarke, Bernard O’Donoghue, Rosie Lavan and Fintan O’Toole are all, likewise, on characteristically good form. In Bishop, Kamran Javadizadeh’s “Mid-Century Poetics”, Lorrie Goldensohn’s “Psychoanalysis” and Lloyd Schwartz’s “On Editing Elizabeth Bishop” are high points in a more sunken landscape. Most contributors are simply held hostage by the volumes’ pick-and-mix format: its claustrophobia (essays of around ten pages), combined with a relentless yoking of subjects (Bishop + “Dreams”, Heaney + “Legacy” necessarily), staggers Proceedings. Instead of a cumulative portrait readers are given dislocated snapshots, not one of which can speak to its neighbors in any depth.

Moreover, the need to gerrymander chapters into balanced sections, as though no one thing mattered more than another, has led to some dire omissions – especially in Heyy. “Influences and Traditions” commits its limited space to Wordsworth, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot and MacNeice (the last a strong entry by Catriona Clutterbuck); but Joyce, Kavanagh, Miłosz and even Robert Frost are left with walk-on parts. Worse still, Heaney’s key medieval influences, the Beowulf poet and Dante, are relegated to the back of the frame. Beowulf, least we forget, was the poem on which Heaney worked for a, resulting in an internationally bestselling decade translation; Dante, he told Desert Island Discs, supplanted even Yeats in his affections. (Incidentally, Heaney’s significant classical influence, Virgil, cops a similar fate: O poeta che mi guidi …)

Yes, there are books out there on Heaney’s debts to Old English and the Commedia, and yes, trained scholars will find their way to them. But volumes under an aegis of Literature in Context have a duty to literary audiences – especially to the students and newcomers who approach them seeking a way into the life and work of these extraordinary poets. These books stand at the gates of further reading; they ought to guide us. In particular, a volume that claims (in what Larkin called “the bull on the jacket”) to offer “new pathways to explore the … influences that made Heaney a poet” owes its readers as full an account of the poet’s inheritance as possible, if necessary at the expense of, say, eight pages on Heaney’s engagement with – wait for it – “Politics”.

Most frustrating of all, the current of influence remains stubbornly one-way, at the expense of the “give and take” between these poets and their contemporaries. Brodsky, Hill, Longley, Mahon and Walcott all learned from and reacted against Heaney, just as he learned from and reacted against Hughes, Larkin and Plath – but none of them is considered here in anything resembling depth. So too in Bishop: room is somehow made for both “War” and “The Cold War”, “Nature” and “Animals”, but not for the poet’s vital links to Auden, Burns, Herbert, Moore, Octavio Paz and Poe; There should equally have been something on her use of nursery rhyme, ballads (Tennyson?), the Elizabethans (Shakespeare?) and popular song. These vital sources are touched on in the wildly ambitious “Lyric Poetry” (again: ten pages), but mostly they are condemned, like Dante, to wander in and out of collapsing scenes. And then there’s Robert Lowell – or, rather, there isn’t. Like so many others, he is name-checked here and there, but nowhere is an essay dedicated to the colossal effect he had on his two great contemporaries. Perhaps Lowell was considered too big a subject, or ground too well trodden, for inclusion here – but in a “context” that has no problem squeezing Heaney’s debt to Yeats into one short chapter, that logic hardly stands the test.

Maddening as these oversights are, the fault for them doesn’t lie with any one contributor; it may not even lie with the editors. These volumes contain plenty of enlightening factual material, presented by some fine scholars. It may be that the problem is endemic. Criticism in the last century had its blind spots – essays that took writers’ statements at face value, books that “solved” Shakespeare – but its sights were nonetheless trained in the right direction: its goal was a deeper understanding of the work. Yet in aiming for simplicity, in trying to crush book-length considerations down to “accessible” chapters, this model of scholarship risks enacting the very simplification that has left the new century so comprehensively rotten.

Tom Cook is a poet and critic. He is currently editing a new Selected Poems of Wordsworth and writing a doctoral thesis on Shakespeare’s poetic development

Browse the books from this week’s edition of theTLSat the TLS Shop

The post The way we are living appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment