The grindings and peelings
I've been recently trying to write about fish and so turned to Ted Hughes. But after reading his magnificent Pike, I felt chastened and a bit crestfallen. The Pike-ly-ness of the creature is so well captured that Hughes has mastered and conquered his subject and I cannot begin to approach it except in a sort of dilute imitation - the Pike is his -
...three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
Reading Hughes I sometimes come away dazed, as if I've been hit round the chops, and my mind has been blown open.
Other times, my experience of reading him can make me feel I have witnessed some mythological tussle: great beasts fighting in the sky. This is all good and alive. His poetry at its best evokes awe.
But I wanted to write about reading Heaney, another poetic behemoth. After reading his poems, I feel I have walked over fields or bog or moorland and the place itself has stuck to my soles (soul?) and I can feel its claggy weight long after I am back in the sterile world of the office or shopping mall.
His poems are beautifully joisted and sprung- well-made and complete-of-themselves. I sometimes think of a wooden box that gleams of sandal-wood and holds compartments and chambers like a little cathedral and is inlaid with ore - yet, there is never any hint or glib nor slickness in Heaney's poetry - nothing of the showy or cheap laugh, in short: no neediness for approval.
In this sense, his work comes close to truth, as close as words can get, aware of themselves.
Another feature is the traction of Heaney's poetry; rich with verbs and nouns and people - sometimes clotted - and through every line his running aural music. And then, those vertiginous opening ups (which bring to mind Alice Munro) - great luminous caves. Here is a poem by Seamus Heaney which I think shows his generosity:
Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication
There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall
of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove
sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.
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.
And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Heaney has left us his gifts, rooted in shared experience, the grindings and peelings of lived experience.
Read one of his poems aloud to yourself and they live on your tongue and leave you slightly altered in the world.
I haven't given up on my pike but I think it will take many years to catch it - and let it go.