If ever I swear off the larger part of contemporary poetry, figuring I’d be better served to read Macbeth for the twelfth time before laboring through another droll, uninspired, ironic, self-reflexive volume, I remind myself of a single thing: in 1975, Seamus Heaney’s North was brand new.
Because nearly all of the poems in North announce themselves with an intent to mean beyond the local (read: temporal), and are composed with such unerring virtuosity (check the pitch, balance, and, more importantly, the purport of “Sunlight,” for example), it’s strange to think of their potential ‘newness,’ ever. Instead, they act as immediate proof of Eliot’s position in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—that, if the verse is true and numinous enough, the seas part both behind and before it—it has known Macbeth, and moves forward with the man in happy tow.
Therefore I ask myself, being so breathless in the presence of this text: what have I learned from loving North?
Most immediately, that all bets are off when dealing with a rare poetic intelligence. I winced at the repetition of ‘gleam’ and ‘black glacier’ across several of the poems in the book’s first section, only to end up wondering if the repetitive trope evinced more than just a navvy vocabulary. If the transposition of the latter phrase moves from, in “Funeral Rites”—
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away [.]
to the eerie majesty of “Bog Queen”‘s
My sash was a black glacier
wrinkling, dyed weaves
and phoenician stitchwork
retted on my breasts’
soft moraines [.]
not only has my experience of the phrase expanded, but, in that expansion, become more boldly felt. Because Heaney has not given us easy declensions within which to fathom his ‘progress’—’black glacier’ as a funeral train or a risen woman’s furnishings both truck in ‘deep’ imagistic meanings—we’re left, as readers, to return to the poems individually, and place the image in the context of the pieces and the context of the volume; I’m given no luxury to abandon this floe because I’ve passed the poem that contains it.
Shortly, North also helps us see the difference between ‘local,’ I think, and ‘temporal.’ In “Bone Dreams” and (again) “Sunlight,” the workaday present participates in the cosmic by virtue of its stake in the True:
Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails
and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks [.]
—the ‘temporal,’ on the other hand, names a place and identifying objects (a rotary phone, a boombox) to earn itself a bogus stake in ‘Our Moment,’ as David Orr states. Again: the temporal seeks audience by virtue of its assertive ‘presence,’ while the local, like a Breughel piece, resonates without Now’s flimsy eddy.
Are there some questionable moments in the text? I think so; in the second half of North especially, Heaney’s overtly political pieces are prone to looser phraseology, and less diligence of image—one thinks of ‘[m]y poor little scapegoat,’ for example. That said, to go on listing the plaudits of this volume is not a difficult matter. More important for us as lovers of poetry is to recall that these moments of ecstasy and profundity, in the presence of actual art, are why we return to the well of verse. Small-time placement in contests, a nod across the gallery at some cocktail party by—what was his name?—these concerns are reduced to ash in the face of “Bog Queen” or “The Seed Cutters” or “The Grauballe Man.” The largeness of North is its special tonic; it nearly makes me believe I’ve got a sister or two in this contemporary mess I so lovingly deride.