Monday, September 8, 2014

Helicon and Hippocrene

Heaney and Beckett
Heaney by Colin Davidson

Ireland does not have too many Nobel laureates, so it is a remarkable coincidence that two that they do have were born on the same day, Samuel Beckett in 1906, in Dublin, Seamus Heaney in 1939, in County Derry. April 13th the day.

Great poet though he was, Heaney's readings of his own works reduce them to banality and infer, quite erroneously, a lack of skill in the poetry. He adopts, as so many bad readers of verse do, a maudlin, lugubrious tone that is somewhere between "Woe is me" and "Out damned spot", as if they were delivering the obloquy at their poem's funeral rather than chanting into the alive and listening air (you can hear him, inter alia, at The Internet Poetry Archive, which also provides a link to his gloriously evocative Nobel Prize speech). The voice is flat, which is an especial achievement for a man of County Derry, for the Irish accent lilts and resonates inherently, and you can hear the rhythms and the cadences in the text upon the page, even though he has pressed a steam iron against them in the recitation. Flat, deadpan as a character from Samuel Beckett, lacking intonation, lacking exuberance. At times you feel that Heaney has missed his own point, failed to understand his own meaning, but it is only lack of talent; and not as a poet, but as an actor.

The readings at The Internet Poetry Archive open with:

               Personal Helicon
               (For Michael Longley)

               As a child, they could not keep me from wells
               And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
               I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
               Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.
               One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
               I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
               Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
               So deep you saw no reflection in it.
               A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
               Fructified like any aquarium.
               When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
               A white face hovered over the bottom.
               Others had echoes, gave back your own call
               With a clean new music in it. And one
               Was scaresome for there, out of ferns and tall
               Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

               Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
               To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
               Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
               To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Wonderful poetry, if only he could have invited someone else to read it! But also a fascinating contrast with the intentionally lugubrious Beckett, the Eeyore of modern literature, from whom I have drawn these lines, originally from "Molloy", and not a poem at all, though with Beckett it isn't always easy to tell. The title is mine:

Beckett by Jane Bown
Aganippe and Hippocrene

And once again I am I will not say alone, no, that's not like me, but, how shall I say, I don't know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don't know what that means but it's the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

Beckett was awarded his Nobel in 1969, Heaney his in 1995. Sadly they don't give out Nobel prizes for painting or photography, or Davidson and Bown, the creators of the illustrations on this page, would surely have received theirs long ago.

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