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North

This is part of an essay I originally wrote back in 2011 in my first year of University. I decided to post it today because of his fairly untimely demise. I found Heaney’s work in North slightly drab to have to analyse in an academic manner, but his fluency with words was undeniable. 

I am going to attempt to do some work excavating the meaning and essence of the collected poems in ‘North’ by Seamus Heaney, first published in 1975. The poems in North explore a number of intriguing and mysterious themes such as the national and cultural past of his homeland, life, death, sex, gender, and land and blood myths, bringing about a unique vision of Ireland’s rich and bloody history. Bearing in mind the socio-political context at the time of writing, North has shown to have had a profound impact on how the troubles and violence in Ireland are observed. One way he does this is to highlight the complex relationship between the past and present, directly and indirectly. In light of his art, Heaney has been described by Malcolm Bradbury as “the poet of poets” and makes up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK whilst being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

In order to read the poems in their proper context, one must firstly get an overview of the history of Ireland up to 1975 to clarify and understand the complex relationship between past and present, knowledge of Heaney’s own background also being crucial as to appreciate the engagement between identity of the self and the political landscape of the time, growing up as a young boy. The earliest historical references found in North concern the Iron Age where Heaney adopts an almost Anglo-Saxon prose to describe the brutality of Viking invasion, predominantly featured in Part I in poems such as ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Bog Queen’. After a long period of unrest and political turbulence concerning control of the land, the Act of Union was signed in 1800 to legally bind Britain to Ireland. The first real instances of national Republicanism followed the Great Hunger of 1845-49 leading to the creation of Sinn Fein in 1905, who ‘campaigned for an independent, united Ireland’ (BBC; 2001).

After the original IRA was formed in 1919, the era we widely denote as ‘The Troubles’  began, characterised by violence against civil rights protesters and culminating in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972.  Heaney engages in a clear manner with the contemporary struggle for independence, marred by barbarism and religious fanaticism (giving the impression he is almost bemused by it) to create an analogy with the Ancient world of sacrifice and religion .

Born into a Catholic family on a farm in Northern Ireland just before WWII, Heaney’s geographical and archaeological approach to poetry is somewhat unsurprising. His father a farmer and his mother having links to the industrial revolution, rural and religious tension manifests itself in the earthy subject matter which he approaches. This is featured particularly in his early work like ‘Digging’ where he draws a comparison between his father’s farming work and his own literary achievements.  Poems such as ‘Punishment’ and ‘Bog Queen’ were almost undoubtedly inspired by the discoveries of Scandinavian and Irish bog bodies in the early 1950’s; – ‘on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn, fermenting underground’. This sentence to me depicts a unique sense of a bizarre organic restless soul who is trapped under the ground, the brooding body of the past, a vision which is encouraged by the spooky brutality of Heaney’s words.

In North, my view is that Heaney is making a stand by immortalising his words to be read not so much as a moral guideline but as an observational document to highlight the need for examination and pushing through the boundaries of history to understand our selves, writing that “the bog is a dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity”. It is a coherent explanation of Heaney’s use of contrast between past and present. Other poems with historical references contained in subject matter are featured throughout North, half-known just from looking at the titles: ‘Act of Union’ – which compares the signing away of the Country with the violation of a female; this humanistic approach is also found in ‘Strange Fruit’, which immediately recalls the 1939 poem with the same title regarding the lynching’s of black people in the US. The violent theme of death is again featured in both poems, even with a similar turn of phrase again from Heaney: ‘Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.’ and ‘Here is your fruit, for the crows to pluck’ . Both poems seem to deal broadly with civil rights and the Callous and imprudent disposal of human lives, the corrosive effect his has on society.

Heaney addresses his own personal relationship with the past predominantly in part II of North. In a stark change of tone, Heaney brings the text into a more modern era with a direct use of the English language to approach more personal and contemporary topics. As a wider reference to the Troubles in Ireland, we can point to ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’, which is perhaps a reflection of an Orange Order parade, the largest old protestant organisation (BBC; 2001) in Northern Ireland. The drums in the poem resonate as ancient Nationalist carnival, yet pervading undertones of darkness and violence; ‘It is the drums preside, like giant tumours… the goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood. The air is pounding like a stethoscope’ – showing an internal religious conflict, a constant problem. Heaney is also citing Irish poet W.B. Keats with his references to the ‘Orangemen’ recalling Yeats’ own memories of that period, whose work is shadowed to some extent by Heaney’s. Continuing on the theme of the passing of time in ‘Fosterage: For Michael Mclaverty’, Heaney writes his formative years by referencing his former teacher and perhaps how he feels fostered by this Father figure, who Heaney could relate to unlike his farmer father. He is acknowledging the effect his own past has had on shaping the person he has become, perhaps best described in the line ‘he discerned the lineaments of patience everywhere and fostered me and sent me out, with words imposing on my tongue like obels’.

The final poem in North, ‘Exposure’ leaves Heaney and the reading pondering the possibilities of the future; ‘Escaped from the massacre, taking protective covering, from bole and bark, feeling every wind that blows’,  mans vulnerability is exposed and explored in the book and we know it is closing time. It is clear we need to learn from our past, no matter how bloody or unpleasant it appears. Truth and learning is key. Perhaps Heaney is unsympathetic to the idea of mythologizing violence of the past simply because he see’s parallels of it with the modern day and vehemently rejects the idea of the contemporary troubles being distorted, mythologised or trivialised in the future, a message heavily implied and reiterated throughout the relationships between past and present explored by Heaney in North. Give this book to young poets as a piece of archaeology itself, one which set the framework for a large amount of modern day Irish political writing.

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If you find yourself in Amsterdam at some point before April and need a break from the freezing wind or gliding bicycles, be sure to visit the Stedelijk museum. A three minute walk from the much celebrated Rijksmuseum, De Stedelijk is the curious setting which houses the late American artist Mike Kelley’s retrospective exhibition. Contained within the price of a general museum admissions ticket (around 7 Euros) is access to several rooms and galleries, pertaining Kelley’s life lived through art.

Mike Kelley’s exhibition presents an audio and visual experience accessible to many with his unique and bizarre take on America and its values, culture, ideology, ‘constructions in all their messy contradictions’ and crude representations of pop. Nothing is covered up from Kelley’s inspective eye, his dark and drastic sense of humour. An artist who freely interplayed with a vast manner of forms, the legacy of Kelley on show here features both the age-old practice of nude drawing and modern sculpture and light projection, as well as television constructions broadcasting a loop of unsettling YouTube clips – itself interspersed with minimalist dots and clinical beeps. It seems Kelley was a master of portraying 20th Century popular culture in art. Who else would burst the mythic bubble surrounding the question of supressed memory in his work (‘People tend to think about these works in a very generic way as, somehow, being about childhood. That was not my intent’[1]) but Kelley himself? Critics have made comparisons to the 1960’s avant-garde, but if Mike Kelley was the Frank Zappa of the art world, then their similarities end where deep emotion and personal anguish within it are concerned; for the serious decorum of authenticity, that of the oblique creator – is present throughout the show.

Sadly, following a bout of depression, Kelley committed suicide in January 2012 at the particular age of 57. This has enhanced his status as a troubled figure (as it undoubtedly will), but the work Kelley left us was always slightly alarming and at least interesting (I didn’t know about the nature of his tragic demise at the time of visiting). Whilst security will have to hear the sounds of feminine shrieks and indefinable circular clangs on a daily basis for the next couple of months, it is slightly irking to know that this distinctive collection will never be added to, enhanced or shown in a new capacity. When cruising around the gallery in De Stedelijk, I noticed some of the pieces on parade consisted solely of words on a page, affirming any suspicion that writing can be a form of art too. Where, though, is the line drawn -so to speak – between literature, or simply empty words, and art itself?

Words and the practice of using them can only ever be conservative in that one is restricted by the ‘box’ of the words meaning and the limitations of actual speech. Art by its nature rejects this limitation so where words fail, art can often suffice – permeating those depths of the soul that letters can never reach. But I’m convinced these magisteria can and do overlap, as I’m sure is Kelley; the written piece may not simply be just a craft. Who, that takes an interest in the practice, has failed to be affected by a high calibre essay or a timeless work of fiction in the same way that they are by music or painting? Kelley himself trod the fine line between the two positions, and between the role of spectator and partaker.

As I was backtracking through Kelley’s life in words I came upon an interesting quote in an interview from the Guardian page about critics: “Artist and critic are dependent on each other but have fundamentally different social positions and world views. As the story goes, the artist is uneducated but has a kind of innate gift for visual expression, which the educated and socialised critic must decode for the general population.”[2]

Kelley himself attained the unique position of being both artist and critic, releasing a book of art criticism called ‘Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism’ with John Welchman in 2003. What’s more, he could remove himself further from the positions to gain perspective on the whole ordeal itself (hence the above quote); Kelley undermines his own words through his actions. Historically, the two positions are not a separate as is made out. The poet and writer John Betjeman divided his life’s work into both occupations: a profound lover of the English countryside and Anglican churches, you would never be sure if he was to write a verse of accolade for the country in its days of old, or a structured critique, albeit full of adoration. It also portrays a strange effect to the observer.

In his general idiolect Betjeman sort of spoke in the manner of the poet, an odd halfway position between general conversation and metaphorical interjection; videos of him speaking show him gazing up in slow candour, almost as though he were picking the words from some noble encyclopaedia in the sky. In an interview conducted by Betjeman on Down Cemetery Road[3] (1964), Philip Larkin makes the confession that “really one agrees with them that what one writes is based so much on the kind of person one is”. Larkin too was a critic, particularly of early jazz records and modernist literature and his polemical prose is collected in the fine publication ‘Required Writing’, though he asserts that he didn’t very much enjoy this hack job.

Is this split of roles, this cognitive dissonance at all praise worthy? It is certain that one is not required to be detached from the world of creativity to be able to assess it themselves. It can produce some odd or even negative results; apparently Martin Amis’ ‘Koba The Dread’ which deals with Stalinism fails boorishly where the writer neglects his familiar output of fiction. If the writer is painting with words then Kelley’s own words must be wrong.  The counter-examples show that even if the results are disingenuous or quirky (or brilliant), the two worlds do collide and often produce a lovely light in return.

It is fair to say that spectators and speculators on Philip Larkin, from Anthony Thwaite to Christopher Hitchens, reveal in their prose the idea that Hull says more about Larkin than the other way round. This might be only partially true. For studying Hull and its literary tradition, we can try to understand how this popularly neglected, post-industrial northern Town provides a fertile establishment for some of our countries great writers.

The old King’s Town of Hull produced its earliest significant literary father Andrew Marvell in the early 1600’s. Marvell was a republican hero as well as poet and was elected into Parliament from Hull in 1659 as kind of a predecessor to the much celebrated William Wilberforce. The obscure Marvell relished in the tradition of metaphysical poetry of the love kind, developing his craft at the intellectual haven of Trinity College in Cambridge, alma mater of Newton, Russell and more recently, Stephen Hawking. He happily served Hull from the houses of Westminster for the rest of his life and created a significant legacy to those studying such periods in English poetry.

Most, if not all of the popular writers descending from Hull are not part of any scene or movement. I sometimes realise with mild annoyance that we are so decidedly out of the popular music circuit in England, apart from a brief spell in the 90’s with the Adelphi Club, and would probably be unfashionable to be so for the reasons illustrated below. None of Hull’s poets really form any meaningful collective – Motion was just starting to divulge his poetry toward the end of Larkin’s career and indeed, life – and have tended to reside at the University, a place which attracted Professor David Wheatley.

In spite of declining to host such musical endeavours, one of the wittiest and lyrically provocative songwriters in pop music, Paul Heaton also made Hull his adopted home as commander of The Housemartins and The Beautiful South. As a modern champion of left-wing causes in a Town one feels would be unwilling to propagate him otherwise, Heaton encapsulates the idea that the mundane can be beautiful and must be celebrated with a pinch of irony. Hull, it seemed, was the perfect catalyst for this spirit.

Hull certainly feels decorated by the baby boomers with its long concrete 60’s department stores, interspersed with Victorian structures like the Train Station Hotel and old theatre.  Fashion, fame and glamour somehow clash with this, being perched on the rugged coastline reaching out toward Scandinavia. Working class-ness and the blunt demeanour of the people supply ample opportunity for one learning the craft of kitchen sink realism, demonstrated through the writers I have included.  The attraction seems plausible; what else by way of art and reflection can be done but observing, writing, residing in the cocoon? Larkin sums up this unlikely breeding ground in a letter to Robert Conquest; ‘Hull is like a back drop for a ballet about industrialism crushing the natural goodness of man, a good, swingeing, left-wing ballet’. [1]

Pursuing the location further, Hull is unique because it is awkwardly positioned and so, if you come here, you come for a reason. Cold, rugged, halfway to Scotland from London, numbingly unexciting, it maintains its satisfying quirks: the cream telephone boxes, its artistic flare, approachable via the immense suspension bridge, a good University.  There couldn’t be more of a subtle place for a writer to be, particularly one desiring to be induced by their surroundings.  Interestingly, Hull is where many such writers chose to live rather than originate here, like Larkin, Roger McGough and Andrew Motion. Larkin, unlike the others, never became emancipated from the place and eventually immortalised Pearson Park in high windows in 1967.

To make sense of this, one must conclude that writers require the blank setting to fill their imagination, with deprivation of high luxuries being a familiar virtue, in particular for those inclined toward poetry. It was of course the deep isolation of the trench which lead poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to record the tragedy they witnessed forever on paper.  Terry Eagleton says ‘The Hull setting was symbolically apt for Larkin: as the 20th Century unfolded its wars and revolutions, he cowered behind the book stacks in this remote provincial outpost’[1]. Whilst I think perhaps that last description is a little unfair, Larkin truly did create a fragile nest and often complained about Hull and the political state of his beloved England in his letters to, among others (like lifelong friend Kingsley Amis), his fellow librarians. In contrast, contemporary George Orwell actively engaged in politics, writing extensively on the Soviet revolution and WWII, whilst fighting for the Imperial Police in India in his earlier days. One cannot imagine such a ‘street fighter’ would choose Hull as an apt setting for his life’s work.

There is therefore hope that the literary tradition of Hull will continue, so that the same attractions that are highlighted bring a few more significant novelists, poets, essayists and intellectuals here. The ‘Larkin 25’ celebrations a couple of years ago officially acknowledged the importance of Hull for modern literature, but to me sent out a more profound message: there’s inspiration in this soil yet.


[1] Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, Christopher Hitchens, first published in 2000 by Verso.


[1] Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940 – 1985, edited by Anthony Thwaite, first published in 1992 by Faber & Faber Ltd.