Hinting i.m. Seamus Heaney 1939-2013
What is a great poem? Is your great poem not his, hers, theirs – or mine. What can we agree on? To have a conversation might be a start: with the recent death of Seamus Heaney, with people going back to him and like me, buying a book such as Human Chain, what was it about him, on re-reading, that made him – well, so great, if indeed he was and still, with his poetry now surviving him, still is?
Perhaps a poem like The Butts can give some clues; it really is all about clues, hints that are slowly dropped on a first reading as someone – probably a small boy, like the young Seamus – sneaks into a wardrobe hung with a man’s suits and goes through their pockets, after, we might think, for cigarette ends, the butts of the title (which by the way, get no mention inside the poem itself). Entering a poem, Heaney seems to suggest, is like that boy exploring for hidden and “forbidden handfuls”.
We meet the suits long before we meet their wearer, and it is all done through the feeling hands of the felon: the way they hang, their odors, the suggestions of sweat and smoke that came at you “in a stirred-up brew/when you reached in…”. And the way they swing when moved aside is “like waterweed disturbed”, giving the first hint that this man may be a fisherman, or even the boy thief goes fishing too.
The next key word evoking the nature of the search and its setting is “delved”, the soil dug as it always has been in Heaney’s peasant world, in an echo of the chant that rose up in the Peasant Revolt of Wat Tyler in 1381: “When Adam delved and Eve span/Where then was the Gentleman?”.
But when the hand reaches deep into the darkness, “out of the cold-smooth pocket lining” come only “chaff cocoons”, an “empty-handedness” that gives up nothing more than the remains of harvests long done, the fine shreds of old hay lodged inside the working farmer’s jacket. No tobacco, no drug, nothing illicit, just the itchy evidence of a labouring life.
The poem could have finished there, in the truth and the disappointment, but Heaney’s craft and his portrait of a man we never see, are not done yet. These chaff cocoons have “A paperiness not known again/Until the last days came” – the final days we must guess, of the man who wore the suit so long ago burgled by the boy, a boy now a man who is helping to lift and sponge him down, the hairs of his armpits brushing the hands of the lifters.
It’s not a work he likes, but it must be done, this seeing death and decline up very close and personal, dealing with the body that once gave shape to those suits we saw in the poem’s opening, “broad/And short/And slightly bandy-sleeved”. Never is a name mentioned, no physical detail but the old man’s “lightness” as he is sponged and dabbed. In the process of the poem, in the accumulation of hints, a boy has grown to a man and discovered that life is not just about stolen moments but the duties commanded by compassion alone.
In this I think the poem’s greatness lies: indirection, understatement, oblique referents, the summoning of a world and of lives like ours in a mere thirty-three lines. We can find ourselves in this space: in the fruit we stole, the raid on the purse, the delight in transgression, right through to the day when having left all that behind, we find ourselves trying to care for our elders, who have become like the child we were, dependent on the strength of adults.
If a single poem can take us out of ourselves and into another’s world, returning us somehow more familiar with that self who opened the book, more “empty-handed” and yet “having, for all that,/To keep working” – then for me, that poem is a great one.