I am reading Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations, a paperback first published in 1985. Some of it was later reproduced in Finders Keepers in 2002, particularly the essays Mossbawn and the very timely Belfast, which recalls what it was like to live there at the height of the Troubles (how can we think of those days returning?), but some of the writing on Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins was new to me. I find that I don’t agree as much with Heaney as I thought I did, but he made me look again at the source of my poetry, and it has helped me clarify a few of the ideas swirling round in the back of my head. It has been a grounding experience, in more ways than one.
Reading this kind of thing is a very different experience now that I have written enough poetry to have an informed opinion about the writing process. I am struck by how Heaney divides poets and poems into separate and opposing camps – poets of thought and poets of sensation, poems which seem to arrive as naturally as giving birth, and those which are forged and designed, poems which seduce and invite surrender, those which impose and convince. There is a masculine-feminine dichotomy going on in these essays, without value judgements or preferences, but clearly defined – feminine is going within, becoming inspired, responding passively to the vision granted, masculine is being captivated from without, shaping and designing.
In the ‘feminine’ style, we aren’t talking simply about the innately gifted genius who produces without effort – it’s work, alright, but the Rilkean work on your life to get your ego out of the way and let the poem happen. And it isn’t simply about mastery in the ‘masculine’ – the effort is to liberate rather than dominate. But try as I might, I don’t get this. It doesn’t reflect my writing experience at all. The preoccupation of some writers with analysing the disparate ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sides of their work and personality seems to me to be a very male thing. A woman, who frankly, has to take any writing life she can get, is more likely to think about being her ‘self’ – whatever that may be.
Breaking Through GravelFrom the sequence Eurydice Rising, published in Wherever We Live Now
My Muses have nine children.
They go mad, lose their jobs,
live on rolled oats and vegetables.
That’s how they write. In three languages,
in trains, in kitchens, in libraries,
on the back seat of the bus. They write
about sex and history and fairy tales,
the shape of a sonnet, splitting the atom,
where the rent is coming from. Their lives
are made of food, and soap, and meetings with strangers,
the family china, slammed doors, a child’s stamped foot,
the hurt silence, the stolen kiss,
the need to write.
The art of women is not a quest, like the whale,
but salvage from a storm of perplexity.
It is unlicensed, defiant, pervasive
and inevitable as starlight,
or the trajectory of the lily of the valley
disregarding gravel, and breaking the tarmac
with unapologetic, overwhelming joy.
Going ‘within’ does not seem to give me ‘vision’ or a hidden life. It is more like a gathering of strength which helps me pay attention to the world, rather than battering off the walls like a demented bluebottle, less like revealing secrets than being plugged into the mains. Considering the world ‘without’ is not to be inspired by something I must shape and master, but entering a conversation with what’s around me. Shaping a poem is more like a housewifely cherishing than forging steel. Writing, for me, is a more mutual and integrated, less polarised process than either style Heaney talks about, but this does not mean it is necessarily less strong or subtle, or on a smaller scale. It depends not on being seduced by or mastering my inspiration, but on being grounded.