Resistance and “Sweet Traction”: Heaney as a Poet of the Underground

As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar

Read “District and Circle” here at The Times Online

Seamus Heaney has become so institutionalized that it is virtually impossible for him ever to reclaim outsider status. Yet equivocations at the borderline have always crossed into his best work. Consider: his subsistence as a poet, teacher, and intellectual during the Troubles in Northern Ireland; his acutely felt obligation to speak for both sides while retaining his artistic integrity; his lingering shame at having had to dissemble, from fear, at countless roadblocks (social and linguistic no less than physical) in British-owned Ulster; his pioneering invocation of vocation as abundant source material-though he has acknowledged his debts to Frost and Kavanagh in this respect-all of those conflicts have fed his verse. Especially in his first two decades as a published poet (roughly 1967-1987, the period covered by hisSelected Poems), Heaney was a sly watcher of frontiers, quick to register flashes on the horizon and to enlist that dueling in the rivalry between vowel and consonant, between iamb and spondee.[private]

Nowhere are the borders of his disputes more clearly demarcated than in his essays. Heaney’s prose and poems approach the same interrelationship as T.S. Eliot’s. Nor is this commerce of critical and creative faculties limited to the two poets. Yet Heaney, if not as imperious as the modernist-cum-monarchist, is equally aware of the imperial power of figurative language. The very titles of his prose books-The Government of the Tongue (1988), The Redress of Poetry(1995), and even, when read punningly, the 1980 Preoccupations (my emphasis)-highlight a moral concern with the spoils of that empire: the parceling of subjective turf by poetic conquest.

“District and Circle,” the title poem of a forthcoming collection by Heaney, appeared a few months ago in the Times Literary Supplement. The phrase, while referring specifically to a train line in the London Underground, signals the territorial consciousness that figures as a subject of the poem. The Underground is a tempting metaphor by which to consider Heaney’s persona more generally. “District and Circle” shows him, at 66, planting his flag firmly as a poet ofresistance-not so much as a cultural or political response as a marker of the dialectic between action and inertia.

In an essay contrasting the late poems of Yeats and Larkin, Heaney writes admiringly of the Dec. 23, 1977 appearance of Larkin’s “Aubade” in the TLS. The publication of “District and Circle,” in the same journal nearly 29 years later to the day, invites some whimsical comparisons: 1) each poem crystallizes its author’s stance toward the external world, as reflected by his previous work; 2) each arrives late in the poet’s career (Larkin was 10 years younger than Heaney is now when “Aubade” appeared, yet it marked his last great published lyric); and 3) each poem is five stanzas of iambic pentameter-Larkin’s in 10-line rhyming stanzas, Heaney’s in blank verse approximating sonnets. Finally, while Heaney’s essay saluted “Aubade” for technical merit, he strenuously objected to the poem’s last few lines:

One side will have to go.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring

In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring

Intricate rented world begins to rouse.

The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

Work has to be done.

Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Says Heaney: “The poem does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all the odds. For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, ‘Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called ‘the spiritual intellect’s great work.'” Closing the essay, he censures Larkin’s line, “death is no different whined at than withstood,” as an “attractively debilitating and defeatist proposition.”

Heaney’s parting strike at an avowed hero of his is an appropriate preface to a stanza-by-stanza reading of “District and Circle.” In contrast to Larkin’s alleged failure to “hold up the lyre” of Orpheus amid musings on death, one half expects Heaney to sing defiantly while riding a tube train. Yet from the poem’s start, he is beset with scruples, gnawings of doubt, and questions of propriety.

Tunes from a tin whistle underground

Curled up a corridor I’d be walking down

To where I knew I was always going to find

My watcher on the tiles, cap by his side,

His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me

In an unaccusing look I’d not avoid,

Or not just yet, since both were out to see

For ourselves.

As the music larked and capered

I’d trigger and untrigger a hot coin

Held at the ready, but now my gaze was lowered

For was our traffic not in recognition?

Accorded passage, I would re-pocket and nod,

And he, still eyeing me, would also nod.

The Orphic figure here, if there is one, is the busker piping in the corridor. Heaney’s encounter with the musician is tinged with mild vanity and self-centeredness. “I knew I was always going to find / my watcher on the tiles.” The perspective is not devoid of guilt. (The double negative contained in “the unaccusing look I’d not avoid” projects defensiveness, undermining the adjective.) Indeed, a tense watching is imagined on both sides, the musician’s “fingers perked” even as the poet’s “trigger and untrigger a hot coin.” It is unclear to a fault whether the coin is intended for the turnstile or the busker’s cap. Also unclear is why the poet’s gaze should be “lowered” as a sign of recognition. In any event, the paying of the coin amounts to a transaction with Charon for a ferry across the Lethe. The overall impression is of two fellow craftsmen unwilling to concede more than a furtive “recognition” of each other. A mutual fascination exists-“both were out to see for ourselves”-but it remains ungratified, stifled by a stiff nod from both parties. The stanza’s main flaw is the redundant “two eyes.” Yet the term underscores the dual nature of the experience, shared by poet and busker. Heaney resumes with those “eyes,” his own now, in the next stanza.

Posted, eyes front, along the dreaming ramparts

Of escalators ascending and descending

To a monotonous slight rocking in the works,

We were moved along, upstanding,

Elsewhere, underneath, an engine powered,

Rumbled, quickened, evened, quieted.

The white tiles gleamed. In passages that flowed

With draughts from cooler tunnels, I missed the light

Of all-overing, long since mysterious day,

Parks at lunchtime where the sunners lay

On body-heated mown grass regardless,

A resurrection scene minutes before

The resurrection, habitués

Of their garden of delights, of staggered summer.

The poet of Seeing Things (1991) is emphasizing selective vision. “Posted” like a sentry, assuming an accustomed role, Heaney the poet is borne along by the machine, literally a down escalator-all the while sensitive to “a monotonous slight rocking in the works.” One can see/hear/feel the beginnings of resistance as a theme of the poem. Heaney, one of many passive passengers, is “moved along, upstanding.” The adjective doubles as a synonym for respectability-a trait that is complicated by the stanza’s last lines. For all his “upstanding”-ness-and if one reads the poem autobiographically, the post-Nobel Heaney springs to mind, a figure vindicated by Helen Vendler and by frequent shuttles from Oxford to Harvard-for all that approbation, Heaney carries to the Underground his memories of “gardens of delights, of staggered summer.” In his ascent (or descent), Heaney concedes, he “missed the light / of all-overing long-since mysterious day,” having exchanged that experience for the necessary commute.

Another level down, the platform thronged.

I re-entered the safety of numbers.

A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung

Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers

Jostling and purling underneath the vault,

On their marks to be first through the doors,

Street-loud, then succumbing to herd-quiet . . .

Had I betrayed or not, myself or him?

Always new to me, always familiar,

This unrepentant, now repentant turn

As I stood waiting, glad of a first tremor,

Then caught up in the now or never whelm

Of one and all the full length of the train.

This stanza, more than the previous ones, conveys a Dantesque sensibility, beginning with the “Another level down . . . .” and recurring with the “human chain, the pushy newcomers / Jostling and purling underneath the vault.” That “jostling and purling,” with its trochee in the first position, evokes simultaneously the glut of people (the “crowd half straggle-ravelled and half-strung”) and the dark flowing of Lethe. The throng’s conversion from “street-loud” to “herd-quiet” revives a wave of guilt in the poet: “Had I betrayed or not, myself or him?”-Heaney is still harping about that street musician-

Always new to me, always familiar,

This unrepentant, now repentant turn

As I stood waiting, glad of a first tremor,

Then caught up in the now or never whelm

Of one and all the full length of the train.

What, precisely, does the poet feel guilty about? For not communicating more freely with the piper? If one continues seeing the speaker as the “upstanding,” belaureled Heaney, then the stanza’s second line offers a clue. “I re-entered the safety of numbers.” The line suggests a wish to be embraced by anonymity, but that “safety” is not found in people alone. Rather, it resides in “numbers” as a term for metrical verse. (The anapestic beat of the line isolates it for special consideration.) Understood in this light, the subsequent stanzas are much more interesting than they otherwise might be.

Stepping on to it across the gap,

On to the carriage metal, I reached to grab

The stubbly black root-wort and take my stand.

From planted ball of heel to heel of hand

A sweet traction and heavy down-slump stayed me.

I was on my way, well girded yet on edge,

Spot-rooted, buoyed, aloof,

Listening to the dwindling noises off,

My back to the unclosed door, the platform empty.

And wished it could have lasted,

The long between-times pause before the budge

And glaze-over, when any forwardness

Was unwelcome, and bodies readjusted

Blind-sided to themselves and other bodies.

In a not strictly correlative way, the tube train has been represented as a vehicle for Heaney’s poetic journeyings. The image of him “waiting, glad of a first tremor,” may be taken as shorthand for inspiration or the impetus to write. If one adopts this interpretation, then Heaney’s posture on board the train itself must be akin to his sensation before launching into composition. “I was on my way, well girded yet on edge, / Spot-rooted, buoyed, aloof.” The description yields comparison with several of Heaney’s favorite forebears, all at once: the trinity of adjectives is a Lowellian technique; the coinage of “spot-rooted” is, while typical Heaney, also pure Hopkins; and the “aloof” regard is Wordsworthian. “A sweet traction and heavy down-slump stayed me” is a one-line ars poetica, when read in the context of Heaney’s many previous poems about the sensual, tactile pleasures of poetry and poetry making.

But what is most significant in the stanza is that Heaney should derive such satisfaction from the “on edge” feeling just before the train moves. The doors have not shut yet, and he is savoring the “between-time pause before the budge / And glaze-over.” The poet, who, a moment earlier, had regretted the stoicism shown to a fellow artist, now wishes “it could have lasted,” the interval during which “any forwardness / Was unwelcome.” This impulse is a reversion to the womb, a wish for absolution of personal responsibilities, even physical attachment, with “bodies readjusted / Blind-sided to themselves and other bodies.”

At this point, Heaney comes the closest to Larkin’s “Aubade,” in sentiment, as he is constitutionally able. Here is where he makes the break. Instead of dwelling on the futility of the necessary realignment he must make to partake of the ride, his face performs the “glaze-over” required to maintain standing in an awkward position while others crowd around him and he clutches a strap for support. That glaze-over is about to be dignified by ancestral memory, by tradition.

So deeper into it, crowd-swept, strap-hanging,

My lofted arm-a-swivel like a flail,

My father’s glazed face in my own waning

And craning . . .

Again the growl

Of shutting doors, the jolt and one-off treble

Of iron on iron, then a long centrifugal

Haulage of speed through every dragging socket.

And so by night and by day to be transported

Through galleried earth with them, the only relict

Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward,

Reflecting in a window mirror-backed

By blasted weeping rock-walls.


The last eight or nine lines of the poem show Heaney identifying himself, once and for all, with the propulsion and his fellow passengers-even while preserving a self-aware glimpse of himself amid the crush. The key phrase is “hurtled forward,” and it is left to the reader to decide how far to push the characterization as belonging to composition, and whether the “haulage of speed through every dragging socket” refers to a poetics. What is certain, however, is the stanza’s nod to Dante, especially the spot-on visual description of “blasted weeping rock-walls,” as any subway rider can attest. With the last word, indented for emphasis, Heaney has his cake and eats it, too, by merging a masculine and feminine line ending into a so-called “cretic” substitution. The gesture mirrors the ambiguity of his self-knowledge-that he is always one of the crowd and aloof from it at the same time, just as throughout his career he has immersed himself in the formal tradition of metrical verse-writing while carrying around his uniquely personal and cultural heritage. “Flicker-lit” effectively locates the transience of his endeavor, his particular “spot-rooted”-ness, even as the poem’s title does, by mapping a precise subterranean route.

Not quite “Aubade,” then, “District and Circle” is no less fluent in its explicit stating of concerns that have occupied the poet since he first earned underground passage. The poet of “Digging” and “The Tollund Man” has always shown a penchant for archeology, and here he depicts himself as burrowing into consciousness deeper, always deeper, while toting his share of the irony he once diagnosed in Larkin’s condition, in a memorable poem on the marriage of routine and transcendence: “A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.”[/private]

About Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar, a poet, writer and editor in Washington, D.C., is a board member of the American Poetry & Literacy Project. His essays and reviews have appeared in Verse, The American Scholar, New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.
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